The N3 uses a system on a chip or SOC platform for its Hiby Music custom software delivery (Ingenics XBurst1). For those using the N5 or N6 the architecture is actually very similar and follows much the same UI functionality. In fact, this SOC platform is widely used on entry level DAP models in one form or another due to its matured stability and excellent speed.

It is not app or WiFi capable, it is not as advanced as the touch-based i5 Android platform but it is not as power or memory hungry as the i5 either. This is a pure DAP platform through with additional BT functionality via its BlueCore CSR8811 module.

Credits: Cayin 2017


Boot Times

Boot up time is still a bit on the slower side at 15 seconds compared to the N5 and N6 which booted in around 9-10 seconds. It is much faster than some of the new Android based DAPs. For instance, it is around 10 seconds faster to boot than the i5 and 30 seconds faster than the FiiO X5 3rd Gen.

Power down time is much the same levels as the N5 and N6 at 2-4 seconds max compared to the slower Android platforms which can take a few seconds longer.


Scanning times was equally impressive though again not quite as fast as the i5. 2400 16BIT Flac tracks loaded onto a 64Gb Sansdisk microSD card took approximately 63 seconds to be scanned and entered into the Music Category database.

By comparison, the i5 took around 20-25 seconds though the FiiO X1 Gen 2 took a whopping 10 minutes for a similar process. Once updated, navigating the library was reasonably snappy with no noticeable lag between browsing, selecting and playback starting


There are 3 groups of software features on the N3. Those that deal with media management, features for settings and those that deal with connectivity. If you have owned or used the N5 or N6 you should be familiar with the media management and settings tools. However, the connectivity features are relatively new in this OS platform due to the additional functionality of the USB-C output as well as the new BT aptX capable 4.0 module.

Media Management

This begins with a fairly familiar home screen on the N3 offering you 4 specific media management settings as well as one general setting option where some media management settings can be tweaked. The home page itself is a linear navigation system from left to right or right to left operated by the capacitive buttons below the screen. Again, previous Cayin DAP owners will understand intuitively what each will mean but for first-time users, you have Music Library, Music Category, Playing Now and Music Settings as your 4 main areas of media control.

Music Library & Music Category

Both essentially do the same thing and that is to allow you to browse your music files and select the desired track you wish to play. They differ though in terms of how the media is filed and presented. The Music Category is your classic tag driven media management tool and will show up once you have opted to update your music Library. The weird thing I have always found about this OS is that the updating or scanning option is not in the Category menu but in the Library menu where the tag driven database is not accessible.

Category Titles

Once your database is built (remember 63 seconds for 2400 FLAC tracks) you can opt to drill down into your media via a scrolling list of subtitles that appear the moment you select Music category. These include: songs, my favorite, recently played songs, album, artist, genre, and playlist.

Genre Drill Down

The drill down organizational mapping of the Music Category is something which I have long been a bit of a critic since the same traits are inherent in most every version and that is the genre category’s lack of organization. It is not new in this OS and I am not 100% sure this will ever change but if you have tons of song under one genre you won’t see any artist>album>song organization for faster track selection. Rather you simply get one huge long list of songs by title with no indication of which artist or album it belongs to. Thankfully there is a better drill down organization in the artist and album category.

Music Library

The Music Library is your basic file explorer took for memory cards and OTG flash disk or external power Hard drive sources. This is going to be incredibly useful if you are OCD on file naming convention and folder management or entirely useless if you rely 100% on tag management. It does, however, avoid the need to update your library since it is a live display of what’s on your memory cards.


There are two main settings controls on the N3. The Music Setting category and the System setting category. Both can be accessed via the home menu screen from boot up but some aspects of the Music Setting category can be called “on the fly” from the playback screen menu.

‘On the Fly’ Settings

During playback, you can press the top right capacitive button to bring up a short list of actionable items on the left side of the screen. Options include gain control, track deletion, headphone or line out control, playlist tweaking and adding to your favorites.

It is not a new feature and has been deployed before on the N5 and N6 but my one comment is that it stays on the screen for a very short period of time meaning any hesitation and you have to call it back up again. A future firmware update should change this to a “button to call up the list” and the return button to terminate the list when finished.

Music Settings

Accessible from the home page, the music settings category controls the majority of the tonal tweaks you can apply to your tracks during playback. These include options such as gain for lossy and lossless tracks, a customizable 10-band EQ, the DAC digital filters, output to headphone or line out, SPDIF for DoP or D2P, gapless and volume controls as well as lyrics on or off.

Three Levels Of Gain

One new feature to note in the gain control is the 3-level gain feature which goes beyond the usual high and low options I have seen in previous iterations of this OS. Now you have a medium gain setting as well as a high and low gain setting giving you a bit more control on voltage output in the N3. This will be particularly useful for the wide range of IEMs in the market today from super-efficient Andromeda’s to 300-ohm earbuds from VE.

System Settings

These are generally the core settings of the N3 itself and covers most operational features such as language, themes, LCD brightness, capacitive haptic feedback and power related options such as idle shutdown and scheduled power off. You can also elect to upgrade the firmware from this the system settings and check the existing firmware and BT address from within the system settings. For those wishing to use the N3 as a DAC, you can also control that feature from within this category.


There are two main options for connectivity via this OS and that is wired (OTG and USB-DAC) and wireless (BT 4.0 aptX).



Wired, including OTG is heavily integrated already into the N3 OS and will automatically show up as a searchable drive under the Music Library/OTG option the moment you plug in your flash drive or HDD. Any OTG cable will work so long as it is terminated with USB-C or you have a USB-C converter tool. These are cheap and easy to acquire costing less than $5 in most outlets.

Duplex Bluetooth

What I love about the N3 BT connectivity is the duplex service and the capability of delivering aptX 4.0 level BT signal. This was a classification level that for some odd reason was left out of the mid-fi i5 and something which is not offered on competing DAPs such as the FiiO X1 2nd gen.

Wireless DAC/Amp

Also, not only can you connect to the N3 via a BT headphone or earphone you can also connect to another source via BT and transmit audio to the N3 from that source. Hence the concept of duplex or going each way.

On the software side setting it up to transmit BT aptX 4.0 is pretty simple. You can access the Bluetooth module via the home page BT option and setup whether to transmit via aptX or not on the same screen once pairing is complete. The only frustrating aspect of this process is the need to reboot once you have paired and selected the aptX service.


Once paired with the N3 your mobile phone (ZTE Axon 7) will show the N3 as a BT connected headphone whilst the N3 itself will show a blank screen with the BT logo. From there simply open up your music app on your remote source such as your mobile phone and press play. All being well the N3 should play your source file.

As a little bonus, the N3 hardware buttons will control source playback. So by pressing play/pause back or forward on your N3 right sided hardware buttons gets the required response on your source platform (e.g. smartphone). Kind of like a remote control, pretty cool!

Editorial Notes On Firmware

For this review the N3 firmware was V1.0, there will be a new Firmware out April 7th 2017 (V1.1) and will include the following:

1. Add new ReplayGain function to normalize the output level of different recording, making sure the volume output will maintain at minimum difference.

2. Add two set of UI themes, users can now select their preferred theme from System setup menu

3. Support multi-channel WAV format

4. Allow user to terminate Bluetooth scanning by the Return key.

5. Set volume to maximum and disable volume control when N3 DSD output was set to DoP mode, and N3 is in digital output operation (S/PDIF and USB Audio). When the player falls back to other operation mode (PO/LO), system will reset volume back to previous setting and enable volume control again.

6. Enhance file selection mechanism of shuffling playback mode


Page 3: Sound Impressions & Comparisons

1 2 3

About The Author


Founder & Owner of 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.

Related Posts

  • 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


  • 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


  • Indrajit Mishra

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

    • headfonics

      More musical, more aggressive.

      • Indrajit Mishra

        I have a Cayin N3 that i want to use as usb dac on windows 10. Due to the unsigned nature of the drivers, N3 is not recognized as a DAC on windows 10. Is there any other signed usb dac driver for N3 that the window 10 allows?

        • headfonics

          Use the following steps to disable driver signature enforcement.
          Click the Start menu and select Settings.
          Click Update and Security.
          Click on Recovery.
          Click Restart now under Advanced Startup.
          Click Troubleshoot.
          Click Advanced options.
          Click Startup Settings.
          Click on Restart.

          • Indrajit Mishra

            Thanks, i have already disabled the enforcement and in that scenario the Cayin N3 runs as a dac on windows in (test mode). But are there any other drivers for n3 and windows 10?

          • headfonics

            The creators edition has the standard 2.0 baked in you could try that.

          • Indrajit Mishra

            ok thanks

          • Indrajit Mishra

            How does the Cayin N3 compare with Astell and Kern JR sonically ?

          • headfonics

            If you have heard the i5 you will have heard the N3. A lot more gusto and aggression.

          • Indrajit Mishra

            Thanks but i didn’t understand, i wanted to know how N3 competes against AK-Jr sonically

          • headfonics

            I said with a lot more gusto and aggression meaning the N3 is more impactful.

  • calvin

    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,

    • 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? 🙂

      • pyktures

        about support. does cayin still support the n3?

        • headfonics

          Of course 🙂

  • Lantenac

    Would recommend Cayin n3 or Shanling M2s ? I cannot decide… they are almost the same…

    • Nam Hùng

      N3 sound better(little difference, noticeable).
      M2s looks beautiful, better UI, scrolling fun.
      I bought n3 at the end :D.

  • Indrajit Mishra

    I have a Cayin N3 that i want to use as usb dac on windows 10. Due to the unsigned nature of the drivers, N3 is not recognized as a DAC on windows 10. Is there any other signed usb dac driver for N3 that the window 10 permits?

  • mike.mountaineer

    Hi, I’m thinking about of buying Cayin N3 or FiiO X5iii. If I can buy the X5iii at same price for N3. what would you recommend?

    • headfonics

      X5iii, if you can get the same price then it’s a bargain or the N3 is over priced.

      • mike.mountaineer

        Thank you very much!

  • sknaight

    xduoo x10 or cayin n3?

    sound quality

    • headfonics


  • Mjt

    How does this stack up against sony nw a30 series?

    • headfonics

      There is a dedicated comparison to the NW-A35 on page 3.

  • Vicman

    Can this compete with the fiio x3 sound wise? Which one is warmer and thicker sounding? Thanks

    • headfonics

      The N3 is more musical and possibly warmer in the bass response.

  • Skysurfer

    Hi, very good review and it makes me try to get the N3. I come from a COWON D2 (from 2008-2011 when I lost it), and then COWON J3 (from 2011-2016 when the jack started to fail). I loved both for their sound signature, gapless playback and JetAudio equalizer. Woud the Cayin N3 be better?

    • headfonics

      I haven’t had a Cowon in years, well the old ones you mention of but I do have an old X7. I think the noise floor on them might be a touch too high for today’s modern highly efficient IEMs and of course they lack features like DSD playback, bi-directional BT etc. I think for the price it is an upgrade.

      • Skysurfer

        Those new features are worth the change. On the other hand, the N3 has gapless playback and a good Equalizer?

  • applecom1de

    Hi, I see that you compared the N2 to the AP60 rather than to the AP100. Since I am deciding between a new N2 or a mint condition AP100 which would roughly be the same price – May I ask how these two would compete? Especially soundstage-wise, separation, detail?

  • Brock King

    The cayin n3 has better sound than the lg v20?

    Cuál tiene mejor sonido cayin n3 o lg v20

    • headfonics

      The chipsets differ with ES to the LG and AK to the N3 so your preferences may vary, however, the N3 amp is stronger than the V20’s own module.

  • Brock King

    Thanks for the answer definitely the cayin n3 has better sound than the lg v20

  • pyktures

    compared with Plenue D?

    • headfonics

      Not sure, never tried the Plenue D.