iPods might have gone the way of the dodo but there’s still a dedicated market for DAPs. Digital Audio Players, as the name suggests are music players optimized for higher quality playback and an emphasis on accurate reproduction, ability to drive higher impedance headphones. The Cayin N3 has emerged as one of the lowest cost entrants into the world of high quality DAPs. Priced at Rs. 11,990, the N3 brings all the regular features you’d expect in addition to some that you wouldn’t. Let’s find out more.
The Cayin N3 is a deceptively small device that packs a surprisingly large punch. We’ve had the opportunity to try out several DAPs over the years and most of them, especially those from Astell & Kern tend to be on the larger side. The N3 is the polar opposite, little larger than a pack of cards, it easily slips into the skinniest of pockets. The unit measures 10 x 5.4 x 1.3cm and weighs under 100 gram despite sporting an aluminum chassis for added ruggedness. There’s a bunch of accessories provided in the package include a silicon case, spare screen protector, and USB cable for charging.
The front of the unit sports a 2.4 inch screen with a resolution of 400 x 300 pixels. The IPS display is bright enough for outdoor use and the small size is never really a cause for concern because of the nature of the device. Four capacitive buttons below the screen allow you to navigate around the interface. We found these to be somewhat finicky. The lower two buttons correspond to forward and back while the ones above it are multi-function keys. These change function depending on where you are in the interface at the moment.
The left-hand side of the player has a power button while below it is the volume rocker. Meanwhile on the right is where you’ll find playback controls. The single open microSD card slot can also be seen here. Since there is no storage onboard, you’ll need to install a microSD card here to get things running.
Finally, at the back of the Cayin N3 you get a pleather back panel that feels great in the hand. It makes the player easy to grip and adds a bit of visual flair to an otherwise ordinary looking product. The bottom edge sports the 3.5mm audio jack and USB Type C port that is used for charging, data transfer as well as to facilitate the USB DAC mode.
Aesthetics take second place in a product like the Cayin N3 which is designed specifically for anyone who wants a superior sonic experience. The DAP supports a whole range of formats including DSD.
Let’s start off with the internals. The N3 uses the AK4490 chipset that allows it to decode music up to DSD128 and PCM. Support for DSD and PCM goes up to 384Khz / 32Bit. The AK4490 DAC chip is paired with an OPA1652 amp which is responsible for filtering as well as line level output. The OPA1622 chip serves as the headphone amp. There’s Bluetooth 4.0 support onboard in addition to AptX which can work in both receiver and transmitter mode. We’ll be talking about this shortly.
The basic operation of the Cayin N3 is fairly standard and you can sort your music by the usual Artist/Album/Genre fields to name some in addition to folder based browsing. The other way to use the Cayin N3 would be to connect it via USB to your computer. This lets you put the player in USB DAC mode and lets you bypass the built-in and generally not so good DAC section in your computer/phone and to use the DAC on the N3 over a digital section.
In our testing, this worked reliably well and there was a marked improvement in audio quality compared to our smartphone. The more interesting implementation is the presence of Bluetooth AptX support. This allows you to connect your phone to the Cayin N3 over Bluetooth thereby making it a wireless solution. This will allow you to use the DAC and AMP section on the N3 while using your phone for streaming from sources like Spotify or Tidal which are not directly supported on the N3. Set up is easy and just as straightforward as pairing a Bluetooth headset with your phone.
So how does it sound? We tested out a whole range of audio tracks on the player, from Maryem Saleh’s sultry Nouh Al Hamam to Einaudi’s neo-classical orchestrations. The player did a good job of reproducing the music with a slight v-shaped bias. Treble and bass both sat mildly forward in the soundstage. The soundstage is sufficiently wide and detailed. It can be hard to define the sonic signature of the Cayin N3. Closer to neutral, you can’t get away from the fact that there is a hint of musicality here.
As we said earlier, bass is slightly elevated, fast and tight. It is larger in terms of volume but doesn’t go particularly deep. But we can’t complain since the quality on offer is very good. The mids are well detailed and precise. Like the bass, there is a slight treble extension. The highs sit out mildly and sound sharp which adds a certain clarity to the music without being fatiguing. There are a number of digital filters onboard that let you slightly tweak the sound.
For its price, the Cayin N3 is handily one of the best players we’ve come across and it would handily pair with even mid-fi audio gear. The N3 can easily handle headphones with impedance ranging from 16 to 200 ohms. That said, don’t expect wonders here with entry-level headphones. As it goes, headphones make the biggest difference in your audio chain. Pair the Cayin N3 with a quality headset and you’d be making a fantastic start in the never-ending journey of HiFi audio.