In today’s review, we look at the Cayin C5, which is a very powerful but compact portable amplifier designed primarily for headphone usage. It is priced at $170.
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Cayin C5 Portable Amplifier Review
The Cayin C5 is a powerful enough amp to satisfactorily drive most of the last generation of popular planar cans but at the same time exhibit the dexterity required to allow the CIEM and earphone audiophiles to join in also. After all, it is a portable headphone amplifier, right?
Cayin has 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 Cayin 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 E17k that comes 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 Cayin C5 match up the visual promise.
Cayin C5 Design
Well, I did say visual promise because the pictures actually do not prepare you for the Cayin 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 than 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 with 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, and 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.
The Cayin C5’s diameter is 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.
It is also about 5% longer than the E18 but again marginally thinner in width by 3mm. Cayin seems 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 DAPs such as Astell & Kern’s AK range.
However, unlike the E18 and the smaller D42 from iBasso, the Cayin C5 is strictly a headphone amplifier for audio and does not have a DAC component for USB audio from cell phones.
Therefore the Cayin C5 works in much the same way as a 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 Cayin C5 playback quality will be dependent on the source’s DAC capabilities (and their amping section).
It also means the front of the Cayin 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 low settings.
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.
As well as being a traditional portable headphone amplifier, and much like the E18, theCayin C5 also doubles up as a power bank for fading source batteries when on the go.
Cayin has helpfully supplied each unit with a micro-to-micro USB short cable to allow most devices with a 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 bank 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.
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 from getting a sure connection and some bubbling in the finish on the corners.
Since receiving this unit, Cayin has 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.
The Cayin C5 tonality is a real treat with a superbly smooth and clean tonality right throughout the range. There is nothing sharp, peaky, or too lively in the treble which comes across as slightly recessed compared to the mids and low-end response.
The C5 sounds more forward, more dynamic, and has a deeper and more spacious soundstage than either the FiiO E12 or E18 can muster. The levels of separation combined with the smooth tonality make both of the FiiO amps seem somewhat muted and congested.
It seems slightly unfair given the marginal price difference however the C5 is definitely the real McCoy when it comes to giving a big yet accurate presentation. The clarity in the instrument separation makes the C5 ideal for soundtracks, arena rock, vocals, and anything else that requires an immersive 3D-like soundstage.
The Cayin C5 also has a really nice coherent low-end response that airs to the musical and natural side rather than the cold monitor side but I would stop short of stating that it slams hard. There are other amps out there that have a heavier or more weighted bass signature out of the box.
Those looking for a more pronounced bass response can find something akin to that with the bass boost switch to the side of the C5 which offers a bit more weight and depth though nothing as dramatic as the Vorzuge DuoAmp‘s all-conquering bass switch. I found myself going back and forth between both switch settings and maybe it’s just me but I prefer the more balanced and coherent non-bass boost signature.
The Cayin C5 tonality also feels much more refined and cleaner than the overly warm and slightly muddier E12 or the cooler E18. Both of these amps serve the budget market well with power and functionality but they do not feel as natural and smooth as the C5.
It’s actually quite refreshing sometimes to take a step back from the current DAC bypass craze with OTG and iGadget bypass devices such as the E18 and hear a traditional smooth analog sound like the C5. It has an old-school charm about it in many ways.
This is where the Cayin C5 strikes out in front of the E18 by a considerable distance and sits almost neck and neck on paper with the FiiO E12 at 800MW into 32ohms compared to the E12 880MW into 32 ohms.
That kind of portable power should put the C5 within spitting distance of some of the latest generation planar cans in the market today much like how E12 was touted by FiiO.
MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs
DX90-C5/E12 -stock headphone cables
Paired with the Alpha Dogs and the DX90, the C5 in high gain mode confidently hit its stride around levels 5-6 on the C5 pot and 205 on the DX90 digital volume control before getting too loud. The Dogs are not renowned at being that efficient, taxing my HM-901 to around 8 out of 10 in the volume control but the C5 has a lot more in reserve.
The E12 with the same setup on high gain mode on the other hand was just a touch higher at around 7 on the dial. Noticeably the imaging and staging of the C5 are much more expansive and slightly more forward than the E12 which sounds noticeably warmer but less musical and engaging than the free-flowing C5 performance.
DX90-C5/E12 – Wywires Red Line headphone cables
Things get even more impressive in terms of power matching with the LCD-X which is a bit easier to drive overall than the Alpha Dogs. The C5 dropped to a very healthy 4 on the pot for the LCD-X (wired with Wywires Redline) and managed to sound impressively detailed, rich, spacious, and precise.
This is just how I like the LCD-X. It is not the last word in resolution, the LCD-X has the capacity to scale higher and sound richer but this is very impressive indeed from a small sub $200 amp.
In comparison, the E12 also dropped down a few notches to around halfway on the pot and again had to perform just that little bit harder on high gain mode than the C5. The staging also shrunk a little and felt more congested than the C5 with the LCD-X.
DX90-C5/E12 – stock 3.5mm portable short cable, original leather pads
Moving to the very far end of the efficiency scale from the Alpha Dogs with the Oppo PM-1 matched once again with the DX90 and C5 and boy was this a match made in heaven. The clean but smooth tones of the C5 combined with the dynamic edge of the DX90 made the PM-1 positively sing. This was an intensely musical experience.
On one hand, you have that rich low to the middle response of the PM-1 and on the other that wide and spacious staging of the C5. Both blend together absolutely perfectly to give an ideal consumer sound that audiophiles will definitely dig – a weighty bottom, a rich and smooth midsection, and a slightly recessed but very smooth treble response.
The E12 by contrast came out quite favorably also with a nice hefty but controlled bass response but again the same tonal difference shone through, perhaps even more so, with the Oppo PM-1; a more restrictive upper midsection and a smaller soundstage with less accurate imaging.
At every turn, the C5 feels fuller, more dynamic, and more forward than the similarly powered E12. The volume pot on the C5 also dropped even further to 4 using high gain and you can get a satisfactory level on low gain even at 8 given how easy the PM-1 is to drive.
By contrast, the E12 was again around 5 or one notch higher using high gain mode. I can only conclude the C5 has a bit more gain in the high setting than the E12.
IEM’s AK120 – Cayin C5
With such a capable performing amp with headphones, I switched to IEM performance just to get a measure of its control and adaptability with more sensitive setups.
I am glad to say with the UE 900s, the Heir Audio 8.0, and Dita’s The Answer (The Truth Edition), all three exhibited no noticeable signs of distracting background hiss.
All 3 IEMs are also rated between 16 and 35ohms but the 8.0 does prefer a bit of amping to get the best out of it. Of those three my preference for matching went with the 8.0 whose naturally engaging and wide soundstage matched the C5 perfectly. The Dita and the UE900e both sounded less engaging and slightly darker and with slightly less clarity than the 8.0 overall.
The competition in the sub $200 is largely dominated by the quality finishing and well-featured FiiO amps for the last few years with sporadic but quality distractions from respected amp makers such as JDS Labs and Ibasso.
Up until recently when someone asked me what amp to buy in the budget range chances are I would recommend something from FiiO and whilst amps such as the E11k at $60 still take my vote as best performing under $100 nothing right now from FiiO or Ibasso can match the performance and likeability of the Cayin C5.
This is a powerful enough amp to satisfactorily drive most of the last generation of popular planar cans but at the same time exhibit the dexterity required to allow the CIEM and earphone audiophiles to join in also. After all, it is a portable headphone amplifier, right?
The Cayin C5 has the looks, revision 2 now out on the market has the build quality and accessories to back it up at no change in the price. I am really excited to see people try it out in this year’s hi-fi show with whatever headphones or earphones they bring with them.
No longer will portable media fanatics be stuck as the back of the Cayin showroom audience twiddling their thumbs hoping someday something will come their way they can actually try out. The Cayin C5 represents a solid and confident start in the portable amplification market and should be marked down as a hit.