An interesting move for Cayin was that of one to Sabre DAC chips. In every Cayin DAP I have heard, they have opted for AKM and had huge success, so I am sure there was some good reason for the switch to ESS. I am personally never a huge Sabre fan, with the treble always being a little “quirky” and the sound always having a recognizable timbre. However, I do remember talking with the owner of a small DAC company (who will remain un-named) who said that if you get hold of certain information you can tweak the chips circuitry to remove this tinny tonality and thats why you do get some Sabre products sounding better than others, hopefully this will fall into that camp.
So we start with the ESS9018K2M chip, that is the two channel mobile version of their previous flagship chip the 9018, I have heard it before in the Yulong DA8II and RHA DACAMP among others. We then have a OPA1652 as an IV converter per channel and things then branch off. Both channels filter towards yet another OPA1652 which then goes towards the 3.5mm jack as a line out as well as a OPA1622 op amp that shares the same output jack but is for your headphones. We then have yet another two OPA1622s which each drive a channel for the balanced output.
So as I have already mentioned, this lets us get 130mW out of the single ended output and 250mW from the balanced, along with 0.4 and 0.6 ohms of output impedance respectively. Along with three active oscillators we also achieve very low jitter. The numbers are good, the circuitry is smart but how does it sound?
Lets Find Out….
I have found the sound of this very safe and pleasing, something I don’t often associate with a Sabre DAP in the slightest. I say safe because it doesn’t have any stand out assets. Nothing is excessively strong or forced in its presentation and it remains balanced from top to bottom, well beyond perhaps a blossom of warmth throughout the bass and lower midrange that just contributes to a well bodied sound. It is that well bodied sound that partly makes this sound so pleasing. There is great depth to its ways and it is generally quite soft. While its soft nature may not make it the upmost accurate and chiseled DAP, it certainly prevents it becoming overly clinical and seemingly keeps your pleasure in its list of priorities. I ended up really enjoying this DAP because it always ended up being an easy listen, even with my more critical earphones such as the InEar ProPhile 8 it brought out their fun side, covering me with smooth easy details and rich vocals.
Changing off the actually tonality for a second and it is important to mention with these sort of devices how you are using it, especially when they have a balanced output. Having a wide array of cables in my arsenal and with most of my favorite earphones being able to utilize them, I have ben able to listen to these in balanced mode. I think you have to handy benefits for balanced use. the first would be more power if you was wanting to use headphones with this. The extra power really helped bring out a little more with my HD800s but as I have often said regarding any DAP with my HD800s, I am not jumping to use it with them again, they just strive with a more powerful desktop solution. The second is that it just sounds better. It is not a different signature of a revolutionary improvement but think do sound a little more spread out and detail retrieval seems improved! Regardless of if your headphones/IEMs have removable cables and your buy the N5ii, you would be constantly limiting yourself buy not buying a balanced cable… you don’t even have to buy a super pricy one.
One reason that I normally really appreciate balanced operation for but didn’t find as necessary here was for silence. Often I found if a DAP is quite noisy you will get a blacker background when switching to the balanced output but this is so quiet when used in single ended this was not on my list of notable changes when going to balanced. They potentially have achieved this by offering up 3 levels of gain, similar to on the N3! Just to make sure you not misinterpreting the reasoning for this paragraph but this is a huge nod to how quiet this DAP is and I know something Cayin have really focussed on since some of their earlier DAPs being a little noisier.
This does bring me to my next point of that I do prefer this with earphones to more power hungry full sized cans. You probably got the hint to that earlier when I mentioned the HD800s but this goes beyond just them. The N5ii feels at home with earphones, bringing out their dynamism with playing every on a blank canvas. I just feel we get more of a strain with cans even when balanced and providing that extra bit of power. To be completely honest that is not even a negative factor for me. All I care abut is that my DAPs sound good with portable earphones. A streamlined little player like this is made fo commuting and I want to use it with earphones that offer a similar compact design. If this wasn’t the case I would be annoyed but to me a DAP should excel with earphones and if it can headphone as well, that is just an added bonus!
This is probably the least bassy Cayin DAP we have reviewed, all contributing to a more linear and natural sound. The N5 had a bold bass but lacked some extension while the i5 kept the quantity and added some thunder down low. As someone who prefers neutrality over bass I enjoyed this more level headed affair and found it to pair a lot nicer with my more expensive CIEMs, allowing them to not end up sounding too fun and staying to their more accurate roots. I have mentioned a bit of warmth but this seems to be more about creating a body and ambiance to this earphone in opposed to having an exaggerated decay.
You get a fairly relaxed midrange that makes great use of the quiet background that this has, really giving an individual spotlight to each component and instrument that ends up sitting in the midrange. The lack of restriction is even more obvious in balanced but in single ended you still won’t be disappointed. Paired with a buttery smoothness I find the midrange to be quite stunning and am so happy to report that there is no upper midrange spike that can cause fatigue like so many Sabre’s before it. In fact I can say the same about the treble, which somehow stays smooth and doesn’t even lose to much of that impressive midrange body. Like the midrange and its use of space to improve imaging, the treble has great extension to provide air which aids the soundstage. These end up being some of the best initial factors you may notice with the Cayin, how big and accurate the soundscape is.
Cayin Are the Brand to Own
Right now this is where I would direct you should you want a fair priced DAP. I have tried quite a few of the others and will have reviews of them going forward but for such a polished and complete package Cayin just hit the nail on the head. I love the software, its functional and comes without bugs, beyond that it is easy to get used to. On top of that the functionality is just soooo vast! The design is perhaps not the most original but still looks pleasing to the eye and suits its purpose as a portable device. Finally, it sounds nice. It isn’t going to break the market or make me start comparing it to the much higher end devices but at this price it is a signature that works with pretty much everything I plugged in to it. This may be due to a lack of any direct colouration. Even more so it delivers the goods with a chipset that has taken its fair share of abuse over the years. Cheers Cayin for providing the world with a quality DAP that they can really sink their teeth into without breaking the bank!