For the last few years I have been a regular attendee of our national Hi-Fi show held every November in the business district in one plush hotel or another. Quite apart from jostling for space as the President of the country no less flirts from room to room with an ensemble of like minded audiophile nuts you would also be hard pressed to enter a few of the showroom areas without noticing the achingly beautiful Cayin layouts from one or two well known local distributors.

Multi-tube integrated amps such as the striking CS 100A, the smaller MA-80 and the smooth retro wood finish of the MT-34L always draw in the vinyl and hi-fi fanatics looking for that finishing touch to their well thought out desktop system. That was 30 minutes of well spent visual admiration but as a portable media user I felt, well, left out of the party just more than a little. Sure I could grab their HA-2 tube amp and be content but I did go home a few times wishing Cayin actually paid a little more attention to that silent onlooker at the back with a pair of customs IEM’s dangling from their neck. We may have small setups but we can spend big also right? Well possibly ahem.

Well thankfully that wishful thinking won’t happen at this year’s Hi-fi show as Cayin have come up with their first dedicated headphone amplifier, the C5, and just to make it even more tempting they made the whole thing deliciously retro and portable sized. Retailing in and around $170, the C5 is priced at what I like to call the ‘upper budget class’ and would be seen as a competitor in that instance to the likes of the lower end Ibasso amps such as the D42, the FiiO upper end with the E12 and the similarly styled and priced E18 as well as the very popular JDS Labs C5 to name but a few. There are other amps such as the E11k that come in at almost a third of the price and size I might add but for my money $170 is already very competitive indeed if the sound and technical aspects of the C5 match up the visual promise.

Build Impressions

Well I did say visual promise because the pictures actually do not prepare you for the C5 in real life. I was half expecting some sort of E18 derivative and whilst the lines are similar the whole presentation is a lot more eye catching then some of the competitors’ units currently in the market. Back in the day champagne gold was one of the top choices for audio hi-fi and both my old Marantz CDP and integrated Denon receiver had that same retro color styling. So holding the Cayin C5 in my hand with its similar champagne gold scheme and smoke tinted plastic finish presented me a lot of fond memories. Only a company steeped in hi-fi would think of champagne gold and placed side by side with amps from FiiO, Just Audio, ALO it just looks far more appealing. That is of course personal preference and you might prefer the cold allure of silver or black instead but it has been a very long time since I said wow during a portable amp unboxing session.

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Size

The C5 measures somewhat larger than the average portable headphone amplifier coming in at 136×63×15mm which is 10% larger than the E12 in length but marginally thinner in width and the same in height. Its also about 5% longer than the E18 but again marginally thinner in width by 3mm. Cayin seem to have designed the dimensions of the C5 to mirror that of a cell phone rather than the more traditional matchbox proportions of other amps that look to match more with snub nosed high end DAP’s such as Astell & Kern’s AK range. However, unlike the E18 and the smaller D42 from IBasso the C5 is strictly a headphone amplifier for audio and does not have a DAC component for USB audio from cell phones.

Features

Therefore the C5 works in much the same way as traditional portable headphone amp utilizing an analog IC connection from either a headphone jack of your source of choice or in the case of older apple units a 30 pin to analog out. Whilst this means you can pretty much connect it to any source with such a jack it does invariably mean the C5 playback quality will be dependent on the sources DAC capabilities (and their amping section). It also means the front of the C5, outside of the design touches, is the same as most traditional headphone amps with a line in, a headphone jack out and an ALPS volume potentiometer. Both jacks and the pot are protected by a smoke tinged plastic cover which is a nice finishing touch designed primarily to protect the pot from inadvertent movement during daily use. On the right hand side looking down the C5 also supports two switches; one for gain and one for bass with high and lo settings.

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Accessories

The Cayin C5 comes with 2 bright blue colored rubber bands for stacking; a single short micro to micro USB cable for the power bank feature and a short right angle, gold plated 3.5mm terminated IC for connecting to the source of your choice. I can’t say I am a fan of the blue bands; the color scheme seems very much at odds with the retro champagne gold of the C5 amp. Perhaps translucent brown straps would be a much better match. I would also have liked to have seen a single longer USB cable for charging purposes included also.

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Power bank

As well as being a traditional portable headphone amplifier, and much like the E18, the C5 also doubles up as a power bank for fading source batteries when on the go. Cayin have helpfully supplied each unit with a micro to micro USB short cable to allow most devices with similar unit (and those with adaptors) to easily connect and charge in the normal manner as regular power banks. The battery capacity is a rather modest 1000mAH/11.1v so whilst I do not have real time results similar power banks devices give you around 4- 5 hours on the go power from a full charge. Ultimately it depends on your own battery capacity also in terms of added power the C5 can offer. As a dedicated headphone amplifier the C5 offers a more respectable 10-12 hour playback time on a full charge and takes around 3-4 hours to charge to full capacity again.

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Caveat

A small caveat though the unit I have would be considered revision 1 and as such there were some issues regarding the quality of the plastic cover including some uneven finishes around the jack ports preventing some headphones getting a sure connection and some bubbling in the finish on the corners. Since receiving this unit, Cayin have done a revision to the C5 which includes a revised plastic cover largely eradicating these issues. The revised unit also now includes a pouch for carrying the C5 which the rev 1 or review unit sadly does not have.

Click here for sound impressions…

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About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

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  • Massdrop has featured the C5 recently in their U.S. drops, at a reduced price. I’ve been tempted, but my closet is full and I’m having trouble closing the door. It’s good to see more items like this being widely distributed.

    • headfonics

      Get it Dale and then sell the ones that are clearly inferior 🙂

  • Markus

    wow, great review. This little amp really seems to be one of the best choices under 200$. I know considering the price difference this seems to be a little unfair, but would you make a small comparison with the high regarded vorzamp duo? I’m not sure if I should pull the trigger now for the Cayin or if I should save some more money to get one of the vorzamp amps.

    • headfonics

      I think both have their strengths and weaknesses to be honest. The C5 is cheaper, does the powerbank thing and has more power. The Duo though is very compact, got a nice switch up with the bass and treble and produces a rich lush warm sound that works very well with a lot of my IEMs. The C5 is perhaps a bit more neutral and almost analog in tonality, old school but it excels on soundstage and imaging.

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  • Anders Fleines

    Would it work with iPhone 6 plus/macbook air and Hifiman HE-500?

    • headfonics

      These should be pretty ok actually since the HE-500 is one of the easier planars to drive from the older Hifiman range. However I still recommend you get a desktop amp to get the most out of them.

      Also the C5 is an amp only so you are using Apple tech DAC designs – perhaps a FiiO E07k DAC/AMP out to the C5 would be a healthier transportable or even portable setup to get the most out of it.

      • Anders Fleines

        Thanks you mean iPhone to Fiio E07K to C5 to the HE-500? I was hoping not to bring to many items with me but with best possible sound! I just bought the HE-500 after reading some great reviews but I’m not sure if the iPhone can drive it alone and then i read your review on the C5 so i was hoping that could fit pretty good 🙂 Would it be better to drop the iPhone and use like a ibasso dx50 or something for driving the HE-500 directly?

        • headfonics

          Honestly the C5 amp is really good and plenty of power – the best dap only experience is the hm-901 for the planars in my experience so starting out with a C5 will give you a very nice tonality actually. I was thinking e7 etc in case you didnt like the apple dac.

          • Anders Fleines

            Great ill try with just the C5 and see how it goes the Hm-901 would cost me another $1000 so thats gonna have to be plan B 🙂 thanks again

          • headfonics

            That is why I use the C5 🙂

          • Anders Fleines

            🙂

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  • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

    As compared with jds c5???

    • headfonics

      This is from aural memory but the JDS is clean, with a hint of brightness and more transparent, the Cayin is power, soundstage and a more analog sound with great imaging.

      • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

        So, what do you prefer?

        • headfonics

          I believe the JDS might have the detail edge but only as it is more neutral and transparent but the Cayin is more musical and suitable for headphones. I cant say which one is better as I dont have a JDS beside me right now but I see benefits to both – your preference depends on your setup

          • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

            I appreciate your comments! I plan to use one of these amps with fiio x1 , momentum on ear and I’m buying a open back headphone. A Fidelio x2 or Ath ad1000x . I still have not decided …

          • headfonics

            For the X1 I would go with the JDS

          • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

            Thanks for the recommendation !

  • Bob Travoy

    I found this review to be very accurate. I initially bought the C5 because of the nostalgic look along with several positive reviews like this one. After owning it for a month I can say that I’m very happy with the sound performance and unique style; it never gets old. I typically pair it with my Dunu-2000 earphones and find it to be a fantastic duo. I love that the C5 can double as a back-up battery for my cell phone too.

    I would have bought this sooner but I could only find it from random sellers on ebay/amazon which were always in foreign countries very far away. I was very happy to find it at the only U.S. retailer that I’m aware of, http://www.ampwaveaudio.com. I got my C5 2 days after ordering it. Highly recommended.

    Considering purchasing the Cayin N6 Audio Player but it’s a little more than I’d like to spend. Would love to get an N6 owner’s feedback!

    • headfonics

      Thanks Bob it is a great amp and glad you like it. How is the battery holding up between charges? If you can hold off until May we will have our N6 review out also 🙂

      • Bob Travoy

        Marcus, the battery has been doing pretty well. I can always get a full day out of it. That is usually with giving some of the juice to my phone as well.

        That is great to hear that the review of the N6 is coming out in May! You guys always seem to be a step ahead of other sites. Can’t wait!

        • headfonics

          My pleasure Bob and do please feel free to drop us notes or comments anytime!

  • sulabh

    How well will it pair with ipod video 5.5 gen?

  • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

    Cayin C5 its a good pairing with X3SG?

    • headfonics

      Its not bad actually but I wouldf pick the C5 mainly for more powerful headphones and you want to enjoy that yummy imaging. If you are after a bit more articulation with IEM’s I would pick the fiiO E12a.

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  • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

    How compared with Cloud Nine?

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