This week we reviewed the Cayin N8 digital audio player, the first model to incorporate a Korg flat vacuum tube paired with the amazing Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ DAC. A world first.
Cayin N8: the brand
If you’re not familiar with Cayin, you should know that the Chinese manufacturer has extensive experience with hi-fi electronics. For 25 years, Cayin has stood out due to their high-quality amps, CD players and tube DACs. More importantly, Cayin has sound restitution down to a science, and each of their products have a lively and harmonious sound signature. Here, the tube doesn’t seem to be just a marketing ploy to appeal to nostalgic audiophiles.
Cayin N8: tube or transistors
The Cayin N8 DAP is the crown jewel of the manufacturer’s range of audiophile DAPs. It is fitted with an Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ DAC, the Japanese company’s best digital-to-analog converter. This flagship DAC can handle PCM signals up to 768 kHz and DSD signals up to 22.4 MHz, offers a signal-to-noise ratio close to 130 dB and includes a plethora of digital filters for a more refined conversion
The headphone output (balanced/unbalanced) and line output stages are handled by transistors or by the Korg flat vacuum tube, depending on what the user chooses.
Cayin N8: features
The Cayin N8 DAP has an LCD touchscreen, 128 GB of internal memory which can be extended with a microSD card (+ 512 GB max). The DAP can handle DSF, DIFF (DSD), SACD-ISO, AIFF, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, APE, WMA (+ lossless), MP3, OGG and AAC audio files. The USB-C port is used to transfer files (OTG with a USB flash drive), but also allows the Cayin N8 to be used as an external USB DAC and can transmit digital audio streams to an external USB DAC (the user can choose to transfer DSD in native or DoP).
There are two headphone outputs: a classic unbalanced 3.5 mm mini-jack (can be converted to a 2.1 V line output or an S/PDIF digital output), and a balanced 4.4 mm Pentaconn (can be converted to a 4.4 V line output). The maximum output power for headphones is rated from 200 mW into 300 Ohms, to 700 mW into 32 Ohms, with the possibility to adjust the gain. The Cayin N8 can clearly power anything.
There is a mini HDMI connector for transmitting I2S digital audio signals to an external DAC with an HDMI I2S input.
Lastly, it’s possible to transmit data wirelessly from a smartphone or to compatible headphones via aptX and LDAC Bluetooth.
Cayin N8: interface
This DAP runs a modified version of the HiBy OS, called Cayin OS. The touchscreen isn’t the most responsive, but everything is fine once you get the hang of carefully swiping your finger to reveal the upper menu and not clicking too quickly. The entire interface is dedicated to audio file playback, as well as playback settings and the different outputs (gain, line, digital format, etc.). There is also a graphic equalizer, with 10 bands ranging from 31 Hz to 20 kHz. You can choose the slope for the AK4497 DAC’s digital low-pass filter: sharp or low.
Good to know: The Cayin N8 can be controlled via Bluetooth if the HiBy control app is installed on your smartphone.
Cayin N8: test conditions
We tested the Cayin N8, with its 2.0 firmware, exclusively with the unbalanced headphone output, with FLAC and DSD files, and also in USB DAC mode. Note that the Korg Nutube 6P1 vacuum tube can only be used with the unbalanced 3.5 mm output. Concerning in-ear headphones and headphones, we used the Sennheiser IE 800s, the Noble Audio Sages, the Earsonics ES5s, the Sennheiser HD-800S and the Focal Clear. We didn’t assess the battery life, however the DAP features a 7200 maH battery (Quickcharge 2.0 compatible). The N8 heats up a lot in tube mode, which is normal.
Cayin N8: listening impressions
It had been a long time since we’d heard such restitution with headphones. In fact, no other digital audio player we’ve tested comes close to the Cayin N8. This DAP boxes in the same category as prestigious devices such as the McIntosh MHA100 or the Antelope Zodiac Platinum DSD with its external power source.
As soon as we hear the first notes, we forgive the N8 for its considerable weight, for heating up excessively and for not being powered by the Snapdragon 845 SoC.
Differences between transistor and tube modes
The tube mode applies amazing gain to the timbres and allows guitars to truly unleash their sound. To be convinced, all you have to do is listen to ZZ Top’s La Grange. It’s a pure delight. From the impact of the drumsticks during the intro to the guitar riffs, the listener knows that they’re in for a treat. Moreover, we happily turn the volume up really high without worrying about the consequences for our hearing.
The transistor mode is more measured and precise, but most of the time we listened to music with the tube mode… there’s just no comparison.
The Cayin expertly fills the soundstage, which seems to be infused with air. The instruments and sound layers are never muddled, everything is smooth and natural: a real feat. Take Jimmy Hendrix’s famous Hey Joe for example, which isn’t the softest sound take out there. Right from the intro, the female backing vocals are perfectly placed on the sides and rise in a crescendo, without ever being overpowered by the guitar, the drums or the vocals. Then, the secondary riffs from the electric guitar appear, to the right. The balance is truly superb.
Yes’ hit song Owner of a Lonely Heart, often harshly rendered, reveals hidden mixing treasures: harp strings being plucked, fingers snapping, reverb in the backing vocals, it’s all happening at once, but it remains coherent. And when the song goes wild, so does the listener. Another rock classic, Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen, offers the listener a ferocious bass guitar and an extremely heavy kick drum. The snare drum is full-bodied and doesn’t pierce your eardrums. The key frequencies are magnified and everything sounds perfect and natural.
In a different genre, Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five, that we’ve probably listened to a hundred times, lets us hear the saxophone player’s breath for the first time. The double bass is heavy and fast, the percussions are buoyant and massive, but never eclipse the piano and its physical presence.
Cayin N8: compared to…
Sony NW-WM1Z: the Sony has a better interface. But when it comes to sound, it’s colder, less engaging and less powerful.
Astell&Kern A&ultima SP1000: the A&K SP1000 has a double Asahi Kasei DAC, but no tube. Undeniably an excellent DAP, with irreprochable ergonomics. But its sound is not quite as good as the Cayin N8’s.
Cayin N8: conclusion
The tactile interface isn’t as efficient as one you’d find on a good smartphone, but the Cayin N8’s sound is exceptional in transistor mode and even better in tube mode. The N8 will do wonders with with any earbuds or headphones. It’s worth its weight in gold.
What we liked:
- The warmth of the tube
- The dynamic richness
- The timbres’ precision
- The power output
- The tone settings
- The Bluetooth duplex for Bluetooth DAC mode and smartphone control
- That it keeps your hands warm when it’s cold
What we would have liked:
- A more responsive touchscreen
- It to be lighter