Disclaimer: Cayin graciously provided the C5 amplifier for the purposes of this review. The C5 goes for about 170$, and doubles as a charger for other portable equipment.
Cayin of course are a well-known name in the world of desktop and home audio. They make valve and solid state amps that pack a punch for most loudspeaker systems out there. They are handsomely designed, and well-made.
The C5 isn’t quite as high profile as their other products. But if you’ve been living anywhere but under a rock, you’ll have heard of it. And I promise you this: it deserves a good, long look; if not a buy.
Let’s get physical
After breaking the Cayin C5 out of its economical (and crumpled) cardboard insert, I sort of scoffed at the plastic brace that masks its face. Stress discoloration mars it, crunchy residue strides it; worse yet: cappy crunch looks, and feels, like a cheap substitute. Did Cayin’s designers have glass in mind? Or higher quality polyurethane? Did the management pull up their boots and say no? Too much unnecessary expenditure? If so, they screwed up. The C5 looks pretty good. But that cap does not. Nor does it feel good.
I suppose it has its uses: it does seem to guard the volume pot and in/out ports. The latter it sturdies against lateral shifts, and the former it keeps from turning ON and OFF of its own volition. I get that. But it doesn’t belong in what otherwise seems like a classy 170$ amp. Evidently, are revision corrects some of these flaws. I may never know.
And that is life when designing to a price point rather than an ideal. The C5 is a nice-looking device. A mate of mine even called it classy. He was sort of onto something. Maybe his C5 is the second version.
What Cayin nailed is the volume pot, which doubles as an ON/OFF switch. The amp’s internal circuitry makes a reassuring ‘click!’ after receiving power. Better still, there’s not a hint of ON/OFF pop through your earphones. Both clockwise and anticlockwise twists are smooth, and the pot never wobbles on its axis. It is so well engineered, that I’m thinking of calling the Germans and seeing if they need some pointers. There’s even a scale, numbered from OFF to 9, which makes it a breeze to set safe volume limits. And while it’s hidden by that ugly cap (and itself isn’t that nice looking) it is very, very well thought through.
Translucent bass and gain switches line the right flank. They do not light up, though they look like they should. And they are made of the same icky plastic seen in the cap. The rear of the C5 sports two ports: one for charging the C5, and one for charging other devices. Battery life is pretty par for the course, but could be much better. I get between 7 and 10 hours using a variety of earphones and headphones. I’ve only used it a few times to charge other devices. The main reason is I haven’t invested in a micro USB to USB A or lightning adapter. For me, it would be wasteful to do so. The only device I’ve even bothered to charge is the awesome Vinnie Rossi-modified RWAK100, which gets perfect battery life anyway. Had the out-port been USB A, I’d probably use it all the time to keep my iPhone topped up.
Let’s talk metal: the C5’s champaign chassis is as rare as it is handsome. The dark accents and canted chamfers remind me of the corridors of the Enterprise, NCC 1701-D. Case typography with a matching colour scheme is a plus. And marring it all are the plastic front and rear caps. But I think I’ve said enough about composite. I should stop. Just one more: shoe-horning it into a nice case? Chintzy.
As Headfi’s hiss-king I’ve got to say this: the C5 shows itself pretty well. It outputs a noticeable level of background noise, which measures several times louder than the Vorzüge PURE II and Portaphile Micro. But, that noise is just about half of what the iRiver AK100 spits out, or about a third again more noise than the AK240. As far as amps go, it fits in the top 10%. Really sensitive earphones such as the Ultrasone IQ will pick out this noise. When playing music, most of the noise simply fades away. But until you’ve heard a Mezzo Hifi MSAK100, you’ll not understand the depth, detail, and sense of space a truly noiseless output can afford.
Hiss aside, the C5 performs like a champ. It is powerful, splits sound into a very wide stereo signal, and boasts very low levels of harmonic distortion. What it does wrong is two-prong:
1. L/R balance at low volumes with highly sensitive earphones is poor
2. Bass gain levels are too high, again affecting L/R balance, and sound pressure
Those aside, the C5 is a performer by any definition and receives my full recommendation for its sound quality. Now, onto the quality of that sound.
Sound and more after the jump: