The N3 By Cayin
Tonality8.7
Build & Functionality8
Software8
Matchability8.8
Value For Money9.5
8.6Our Score

The N3 is officially the fourth release in the Cayin DAP lineup and priced at $149. It is also the cheapest making Cayin’s entry level DAP and a direct competitor against the likes of the FiiO X1 gen 1 or 2 or the Shanling M1. Perhaps even (at a stretch) the Hidizs AP60, which also came out onto the market though price much lower at $80 and packing fewer features.

Coming fresh from declaring the i5 the king of mid-fi DAPs in 2016 I was actually quite surprised Cayin had another one lined up so quickly but given the price disparity between the two I am pretty sure that neither will cannibalize sales from each other.

That being said the N3 is probably one of the most feature rich DAPs at this price point and whether you acquired it through local retail channels or waiting for the rather higher profile Massdrop version in April 2017 I actually think the oft-used meme “Bang for Buck” really does apply to the N3.

What Is The Pitch?

Price

Cayin are pitching the N3 on several levels and truth be told some of these features are very interesting indeed, at least on paper. The price point is just right for first-time upgraders or those who might, shall we say, have a slightly level of dissatisfaction on cheaper DAPs. Cayin even throws in a color variation with cyan and black just to give it a more modern appeal.

Decoding Capability

Second, the N3 packs the AK4490EN DAC chip, which is the recently released mobile version of their excellent AK4490 chip used in the mid-range i5 DAP. It is also the exact same chip in my ZTE Axon 7 mobile phone so it should pack a musical punch offering 32BIT/384Hz implementation including up to DSD256 decoding. That covers the bases for most audiophile decoding needs.

Interfacing

Third, the N3 can double up not just as a USB-DAC, which even at this price is no longer something unique, but also output an SPDIF signal to a receiver of your choice. Their clever use of the USB-C connections means the N3 can become the source itself and offer an alternative to a wider range of non-USB receivers out there in the market today as well as USB DACs. For audiophiles looking for a small source/transport and packing anything from a Mojo up to a dedicated receiver desktop with coaxial input – look out, you are being pitched to by Cayin.

Memory

Memory is also a big pitch on the N3. If you want a source with plenty of memory for those DSD files then N3 can handle up to 256Gb in memory plus on a single microSD. It can also offer OTG capability via USB-C for even bigger memory sticks and power-efficient hard drives.

Wireless

The final feature and one that I think adds substantial value to the N3 pitch is the wireless capabilities. No, it does not have WiFi, at this price point you would need to be working on Android to get anything out of WiFi and that’s a price level up and already covered by the i5. The wireless pitch of the N3 is BT 4.0 aptX which ironically was not on the i5. The N3 rocks a duplex BT 4.0 aptX service, which for phone, desktop zeppelins, and car stereo BT receivers, offers the most competitive BT audio signal in the market today.

Build

Materials & Design

The Cayin N3 is quite understated in design flair and certainly nothing quite as flashy as the i5 or as memorable as the N6. However, it is quite a bit smaller in size and far more pocketable than the two higher end units measuring in at just 10 x 5.4 x 1.3 cm and weighing in at just 100g making it half the weight of the i5. The term “pocketable” in terms of form factor literally applies to the N3.

Though understated in aesthetics the N3 really doesn’t skimp too much on the materials. It feels light but sturdy with a solid aluminum chassis and a soft, anti-slip pleather back which has a nice touch to it and adds to the “grip-ability” of the N3 in your hand. Both color schemes, black, and cyan come in a sandblasted finish.

Side Panels

On the left and right panels, you have physical controls and the open memory card slot with the inputs and outputs housed on the bottom panel of the N3. There are no functionality or hardware controls on the flush top panel.

Front Panel

The top is dominated by a capacitive touch control button array directly under the screen with a physical central button mostly for confirming and playback functionality. None of the buttons are back-lit sadly but the haptic feedback when you press one of them does help for confirmatory basis when operating in low light conditions. Below the capacitive buttons there is about an inch long of nothingness to rest your thumb on I guess.

Screen

The N3 uses a 2.4″ TFT 400 x 300 IPS screen which is not bad actually at this price point. Despite the size of the screen the OS never felt cramped either with the text being crisp and clear and with some good saturation in the color reproduction. It is also a class higher than the 2 inch TFT 320 x 240 LCD screen of the FiiO X1 2nd gen which is lower in resolution on paper and looks pixelated in comparison.

The viewing angle is excellent with this screen. You can dip it to almost horizontal at eye level and still read what is going on the screen. You can also adjust the backlight of the screen to conserve battery life in the settings menu. You get plenty of pop and brightness at full power, but my preference is around 50% to shorten the drain but still leave it fairly legible.

Hardware Controls

Types

There are two sets of hardware controls for the Cayin N3 – the top capacitive buttons and the side physical traditional buttons. Both overlap on playback control but the side buttons to not interface or control the OS navigation and selection.

Capacitive Controls

Whilst it is not a touchscreen based system it does pay homage to its costlier cousins with a set of capacitive buttons just below the screen, either side of a more traditional circular hardware confirm button. You can elect to turn the haptic feedback response of these buttons on or off from the settings menu should you find them distracting.

Bottom

The bottom two buttons have dual functionality with forward and back during playback and up and down/left or right actions during menu navigation.

Top Left

The top left button has a few functions to it and it is not intuitive unless you read the manual or play about with it. The first function is during playback. By pressing it you can bring up “On the go” options such as gain control, playlist control, line out and delete the track. A second option is a confirmatory action in the Music category which immediately opens up one of the categories to view the list of songs available.

Top Right

The top right button acts as a return button to allow you to navigate out of the screen you are in to a higher or previous level in the OS. It can also allow you to come out of the playback screen and browse your music selection without interruption to the current track you are listening to.

Left & Right Panel

These are the more traditional types of pressure based switches with the left housing the power/LCD screen on and off button and a volume rocker just below and on the right side your traditional playback buttons, play/pause, back and forward. These are designed specifically to allow you a measure of playback and power/volume control without having to look or interact with the front-facing capacitive buttons.

Inputs & Outputs

I/O is 100% on the bottom panel with just two interfaces, the headphone/line out analog jack and Cayin’s specifically engineered USB-C interface. I say specifically engineered because they have been able to work an SPDIF/OTG and USB-DAC interface into the one port and not even my USB-C interface on my mobile phone has that much functionality packed into it. It does make me wonder what more can be done with a single USB-C port beyond that but kudos to Cayin for stuffing that much already into a $149 DAP.

Cables, therefore, will play a bigger role with the N3. The bundled USB-C cable can be used as charging, data, and digital connection from your PC/MAC to N3 (N3 as USB DAC). You can also buy an aftermarket SPDIF short cable for using the N3 as a transport with the Mojo in a tidy little package. You can also buy Cayin’s own CS-30TCR USB-C To Coaxial Cable which is a bit longer for easier desktop interfacing as a source with SPDIF capable receivers and DAC’s such as Cayin’s own iDAC-6 desktop module.

Memory Capacity

The N3 is competitive for memory capacity and in line with both Hidizs and FiiO for their entry level memory capacity at 256GB via a single microSD as well as OTG capabilities for flash drives and powered hard drives.

Also, indirectly you can acquire “additional memory space by proxy” using the BT Duplex service. In effect, the N3 becomes a wireless DAC/Amp with potential access to just under 5Tb of space (2TB OTG N3, 2TB OTG phone, 2 x 256GB memory cards in N3 and Phone and an average of 128GB space onboard a smartphone). That is a huge reservoir of space the N3 can tap into for audio tracks.

Something to point out at this stage though is the speed of access to memory on the N3. It is actually on par with the AP60 at around 63 seconds for 2400 16BIT FLAC tracks in scanning and absolutely flattens the ponderous X1 Gen 2 Linux OS and processor memory access speeds. I think for the equivalent number of FLAC tracks you are talking around 10 minutes on the X1 2nd Gen.

Battery Life

Rating

The Cayin N3 2500mAh li-poly battery is rated at a very competitive 12 hours continuous playback and up to 200 hours standby under optimal conditions using CD quality files. Compared to the higher end models in Cayin’s range the N3 has the longest battery life.

As a point of comparison, FiiO’s Linux driven X1 2nd Gen is rated also at 12 hours on an 1800mAh 3.7v Li-Polymer Lithium battery and the Hidizs AP60 can churn out 10-12 hours on its tiny 1000mAh Lithium polymer battery though to nowhere near the level of functionality as the N3. All 3 pale into comparison with the Sony NW-35’s class leading 30 hours using FLAC. Also 8.3 days continuous standby is pretty good but it is missing FiiO’s ‘Deep Sleep’ feature which can achieve almost double standby time at near 15 days.

Charging Time

Charging time is a fairly speedy 2 hours on 1.5/2A charger or by using the supplied USB data/charging cable and Cayin do recommend at least a few cycles before the battery indicator is accurately reflecting the current charge levels on the main screen.

Usage Scenarios

12 hours is an optimal estimation by Cayin meaning CD quality files being played continuously with the LCD screen turn off throughout. It is highly likely the first cycle will also be a lot shorter as it is shipped partially charged. Button mashing, high LCD screen brightness settings and liberal use of the BT function or DSD files will drop the battery time by a few hours. My own real world numbers set closer to 10 hours but I do like a bright screen as the stock theme is quite dark both in font and background colors.

Functionality

DAC

AK4990EN

The N3 uses the latest iteration of the AKM 4990 family, the AK4990EN DAC chip. This is a 32BIT 2 channel low power consumption DAC chip specifically targeting mobile application with hi-resolution audio needs. It is also smaller with a more efficient design than the AK4490EQ chip.

Codecs & Features

The great thing about this new chip is that it retains quite a lot of features of the AK4990EQ but in a vastly reduced size and thus allowing the Cayin to shrink their DAP design to that of the N3. Decoding rates are a truly excellent 32BIT/384K (Wav and AIFF) in PCM format with DSD native decoding up to DSD256 with a very wide range of codec support including DSF, DIFF, SACD-ISO, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, APE, WMA, MP3, and OGG. Note though that FLAC decoding is a max 24BIT/192K and DSD256 files will be natively decoded on the N3 but the max output is DSD128 on DoP.

Digital Filters

The N3 AK4490EN chip also retains the five different 32-bit digital filter types, including short delay sharp roll-off and short delay slow roll-off filters, sharp roll-off filter, slow roll-off filter to preserve the phase difference and a new even slower roll-off filter. All are accessible in the settings menu on the N3.

Credits: Cayin 2017

Processor

The N3 uses an Ingenic X1000 SOC with an HBC2500A HiBy Music digital audio processor. This is a custom FPGA from HiBy Music (one of Cayin’s major backers) designed to handle the bitstream and reduce jitter before the signal enters the AK4990EN chip for decoding.

The X1000 SOC chip used in the N3 is from the same family of SOC chips used by Cayin in their  N5 and N6 models (JZ4760B) though the clocking speed is much higher at 1Ghz compared to the older JZ4760B which had a max 600Mhz clock speed. In short, the X1000 XBurst1 is a good deal faster and more powerful.

Amping

The N3 deploys an entirely Texas Instruments solution for its amping requirements, including the low pass filter and line amp (OPA1652) as well as the amp stage itself (OPA1622). Rated power output of the N3 is 130 mW + 130 mW at 32 ohm which is pretty respectable and only slightly down on the i5 which delivers 190mW+190mw (@32Ω) from its TI design that also deploys a dual BUF634 buffer.

Note the i5 also uses an OPA1652 so take note, SNR and dynamic range performance of the N3 and i5 are the exact same at 108dB though distortion figures on the N3 are not quite to the same level at 0.03% compared to the i5’s THD+N much lower 0.006% for the headphone jack output.

Accessories & Packaging

For its retail price point of $149 the N3 accessories and packaging is professional and covers most of the bases though you would hardly term it luxurious. Inside you get:

  • 1 x silicone case
  • 1 x 1m data/USB USB-C to USB-A cable
  • 2 x screen protectors (one is pre-applied)
  • 1 x warranty card and user manual

The silicone case will come in multiple colors so if you ordered black you will get a black silicone case and cyan color for the cyan colored DAP. There will be the option though to order silicone cases beyond those 2 colors with yellow, lime and red in the pipeline. Having used the silicone case for a while it is pretty durable yet flexible enough to work with the buttons underneath though the additional thickness just below the capacitive buttons can sometimes get in the way of smooth button operation but not a deal breaker.

Page 2: The N3 Software

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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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  • Kristian Lindecrantz

    How would you compare this to the Axon 7? I know this is a dedicated music player whilst the Axon is a phone 😉 However I own the Axon and wonder what benefits I could expect.
    Great read as always!

    • headfonics

      I actually have the Axon 7 also and yup its the exact same AK4490EN chip inside. It is also a smooth musical performer as you know just the amp is not as strong in the Axon 7 as the N3 and the volume control on the jack out is quite limited with its rather large dB jumps per step. The key difference between the 2 for me is the dynamic range of the N3 – there is more pop and snap in the N3 presentation whereas the Axon 7 is a little more compressed sounding. If you want to use the Axon 7 as a pure transport that might even things up a bit.

      • abbazaba976

        Thank you for this! I LOVE the sound out of the Axon, but the volume jumps are too much for me. Also, they seemed to have mapped the I/V transform in the most non-linear place. Ugh. I purchased the N3, but was going to have it sent back when I heard it was the Axon chip. Now, I am looking forward to it. It’s the little things some times.

        • headfonics

          Excellent, hope it works out for you.

  • Swaroop Anil

    Can you please throw some light on how this pairs with the im02. I’m looking at this as my first dap.
    Thanks in advance.

    • headfonics

      Been a long time since I hear the IM02 but the pairing should be excellent given the IM02’s tight bass and sparkling highs matched with the warm to neutral N3 and its dynamic low end and natural highs.

  • ductrung3993

    Is this a good pairing with IE800?

    • headfonics

      It should have no issues driving it with a low noise floor. If you are after a musical signature then it should be just fine.

      • ductrung3993

        what about Spiral Ear SE5 ultimate?

        • headfonics

          Sorry we do not have it to comment on thanks.

  • Matthew Sykes

    Any chance you’ve done a comparison with the X5ii. Great write up, and thanks!

    • headfonics

      If its tonal quality then it’s already done – just read the X5iii review where I compare it to the i5 for sound quality because the N3 is almost the exact same tonally as the i5. I think it doesn’t make sense to compare other features since the X5iii is double the price etc.

      • Matthew Sykes

        That was xii (2nd generation), but I will read your review of the x3

        FWIW, I have not found a feature set (per documentation) on the X5ii over that of the N3. Actually, with bluetooth, the N3 has more. But yes, I am curious of your take on tonal qualities, and moreso, reliability of the Fiio product.

        • headfonics

          My apologies – X5ii is more neutral than the N3 for sure.

          • Matthew Sykes

            Understood! And thanks.

            Can you comment on the x5ii’s reliability. I guess my concern is based around quite a few reports of the unreliability of the feature set. For example, one youtube reviewer claims the coax out function produces nothing, even though he has made the necessary setting change and is using the provided 4-band adapter.

            More prevalent are reports of the device running hot to the touch and batteries dying in a very short time (< year).

            I am very close to picking up the N3, but the architecture in the x5ii is awfully attractive. I have seen the x5ii sub $200 from authorized resellers, recently.

            Your input is greatly appreciate, and I hope I've not overstayed my welcome 🙂

          • headfonics

            Both share similar architecture and same OS so these reports are at best anecdotal. I would pick the N3, if anything remember the X5ii is last gen with a slower processor chip, and also FiiO are unlikely to be adding much in the way of new features or tweaks as they focus on their latest gen.

          • Matthew Sykes

            Excellent. Thanks, Marcus. Great advice.

          • headfonics

            My pleasure, hope you get the right one for you 🙂

  • Mateo Ocaña Guevara

    Its a good pairing with oppo pm3??

    • headfonics

      It should be fine though you will have to change up the low gain to medium/high gain

  • Sulbh Chopra

    How does it compares with smartphones like lg v10 and zte axon 7?

    • headfonics

      Stronger amp than either, better dynamics with harder to drive gear. Tonally the Axon 7 is quite close as I own one also but just a touch softer because of its weaker amp.

      • Sulbh Chopra

        Thanks, do you think N3 is worth buying even if you have these smartphones?

        • headfonics

          Voltage is not the same as output power – volume is one thing, being driven properly is another thing. In this case the N3 has more output power than the 7. However if you have an Axon 7 why not just buy a Mojo or portable OTG amp and stack it?

          • Sulbh Chopra

            Mojo is way out of budget and amp with phone is too clumsy.

  • Kris Han

    whether good if in combination with M50 x ath?
    this time I just use a note 4.
    how it compares to the sound. whether it is better?

  • Umbu

    Any chances of comparing it to Fiio E17K? Really want to know if there’s any improvement sq wise.
    Anyway thanks for the great review, really make me wanna grab one at a local store!

    • headfonics

      Well this is presuming you are using the E17k in a stack since it is not a DAP? E17k codec capability is lower, the sound floor on both are good but the N3 has more options. Tonally the N3 is more musical sounding and a bit warmer. Also let’s not forget it does not need to be stacked and can take up to 256GB memory cards.

  • DDOG

    Does it have any built in memory in to it? Or does it just purely run off SD-CARD memory?

    • headfonics

      No onboard memory.

  • Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

    Cayin n3 + fiio A5 could rival the Cayin i5 and Fiio X5iii?

    • headfonics

      I think the N3 on its own is good enough as it is. Adding an A5 will certainly offer more power for hungry headphones but the N3 is better without for IEMs.

  • Dennis Ang

    Hi, is it advisable to have a DAP like N3 if using a BT Headphone (Bose QC35 / Sony MDR 1000x, etc)? Or better to use a wired headphone? Sound quality wise. Thanks.

    • headfonics

      Wired will always better than wireless for audio, however, aptX is available on the N3 so if your Bt cans can receive an aptX signal then you get the best signal out there.

      • Dennis Ang

        Thanks for the fast response. One more question please. If using a BT headphone, will the equalizer still work on Cayin N3 or does it have any effect on the sound sent to the BT headphone?

        • headfonics

          It is likely but I cannot confirm, at least not yet as there are no BT headphones in the office right now.

  • Jef

    Hi, i want to ask if the N3 can act as a Bluetooth receiver from a PC/Phone source and then connected to an external dac to preamp – amp – speakers? Thanks

    • headfonics

      If you mean connect via USB-C to external DAC (wired) and receive BT signal from the source I believe this is possible.

  • Nizam F

    Hello, How is the N3 compare to Shanling M2S. Looking for my first DAP.
    And how does the N3 pairing with Beyer C1Pro?
    Thanks and great review 🙂

    • headfonics

      Good question and something we will be able to answer shortly when we do the M2 review 🙂

      We do not have a C1PRO to be able to give you any insight sorry.

      • Nam Hùng

        Cant wait XD

  • Indrajit Mishra

    Hi, i have a question. Can you tell which is sonically better – (Fiio x1+Q1) or lone Cayin N3 ? I have an audio technica m50 x, thanks

    • headfonics

      I prefer the Cayin N3 on a personal level.

      • Indrajit Mishra

        thanks

  • Harry Sihombing

    How does the N3 sounds compared to the Fiio E18 kunlun (used as DAC combo with phone) ? which one has the better soundstage?

    • headfonics

      I think the E18 has an excellent soundstage but the better resolution goes with the N3 as well as efficiency.

      • Harry Sihombing

        Just received my N3 a few days ago, and your impressions are spot on. the E18 have a bigger perceived soundstage and more V shaped sound, while the N3 is better in resolution and better forward mid. right now I’m enjoying connecting the line output of the N3 to the E18 for more or less the best of both worlds. thanks!

        • headfonics

          Awesome enjoy!

  • Matus Kalisky

    Great review, thanks. I got the N3 yesterday. It is my first DAP which I got to use it iwth my Custom Art Music two CIEMs and they work together wery well (I can hear no hiss, though I am not expert on the topic.). I would wish for a more solid build quality, but at this price I find it perfectly fine. I am still playing around with the settings to get the most ouf of it, but it plays fantastically straight out of the box (and it arrived 92% charged, so I could start right away). So much better than my Samsung Galaxy S4 (which appears to have some issue as it hisses incredibly). I

    • headfonics

      Yes, the new low gain setting on the N3 is excellent for noise control.

  • Armazéns Lopes

    Hi guys,

    Im an absolute newbie and my sole interest is musical pleasure so i would like to ask where can i understand the difference between this N3 by CAYIN and an iPod classic (for example) in terms of sound quality?

    • headfonics

      The N3 plays lossless high-quality audio files such as FLAC and DSD, even via BT. The iPod classic cannot.

      • Armazéns Lopes

        What about simply playing the same MP3 file in both devices, N3 and iPod Classic, will there be a difference in sound quality?

        • headfonics

          IN short yes, N3 should have better dynamics and a lower noise floor.

          • Armazéns Lopes

            Thanks!!!!!!!

  • Indrajit Mishra

    How does N3 compare with Fiio x5(2nd gen) sonically?

    • headfonics

      More musical, more aggressive.

  • calvin

    hi,
    Im really impressed with the detailed review and responsive feedback on comments.
    Im a newbie on DAP and would like to try playing it around.
    To be N3 is sound like a mp3 player (ie. ipod), and all i need is just to plug in a headphone. Am i right ?
    If yes please kindly suggest what kind of headphone is best suit with it.

    Thanks alot

    • headfonics

      The N3 is a player than playback all sort of file formats including mp3 so yes all you have to do is plug in earphones or headphones. A portable headphone with decent clarity and not too high of an impedance will play best. Earphones or IEMs would be my preferred option because of the stellar noise performance, i.e. quite low.

  • Mirko

    Great review! So I am buying my first DAP. I am newbie… I was ready to give out max 200-300$, but after reading this, I see Cayin really rocks for much less money. Is there ANY reason to buy Fiio x5 II for example instead of Cayin? Or for this matter any DAP that has this features for 200-300$? What do you think?
    I want to buy headphones Marshall monitor which also have apt-x. Hope they would sound good with Cayin?
    Please tell what you think,
    THANKS!

    • headfonics

      They stopped making and supporting the X5ii so it is a dead end. It’s more neutral sounding and not as dynamic in the low end as the N3. N3 has that awesome 3 step gain, bi-directional Bt AptX, and USB OTG. What’s not to like? 🙂