The N8 is playing at a high level in both sound and price and so it’s only logic to compare it to its direct competitors. They’ve been mentioned many times in this review before and they of course are the good old Astell&Kern SP1000 and the lovely Sony WM1Z.
Why am I saying the AK SP1000 is old? Well first if all it saw the daylight back in May 2017 already, second the SP1000M has been released and third a new version of the SP1000 is rumoured to be shown to the world during the next High End show in Munich. But back to business. The SP1000 is one of – if not the – clearest and clean sounding DAPs on the market with excellent separation, detail retrieval and a good wide sound stage. Generally seen the SP1000 is tuned more neutral, linear and balanced and using the balanced output makes those characteristics even more present. Yes, you lose a bit in pure punch (bass) when going balanced but it’s an incredible DAP which I use for about 90% of my Balanced Armature driven monitors.
The Cayin N8 is different from the SP1000 and not only because of the tube output. The difference compared to the latter is easy and evident. You get a more romantic, smoother, slightly warmer and perhaps somewhat slower sound with more body and presence compared to the standard output of the AK. But what it remarkable is how much more powerful the N8 sounds, and with full sized headphones it’s just so much more in control. The N8’s solid state output also has that fuller body and it has more impact, bit to me it doesn’t sound as clear, detailed and analytic as the AK does. The focus is more on the musicality but don’t get me wrong, it’s still a high technical performance. It just doesn’t dethrone the SP1000 in that regard.
I change outputs on the N8 all the time depending on the ear- or headphone used but I most often go for the balanced and the tube output. For me the balanced output of the N8 is the best technical one however and it actually also is the one with the best mix between musicality and technical performance. The balanced output delivers the perfect blend of the N8’s detail, spaciousness, musicality, precision and sound stage. It’s fuller bodied than the balanced output of the SP1000 and it’s smoother in it’s presentation. Where the SP1000’s balanced output excels in technicalities, cleanness and clarity, the N8’s shows of with its detail, richness, smoothness and musicality. Different flavours but both really good.
The Sony WM1Z in general is known as a smoother, full bodied and warmer sounding DAP and audiophiles love its musicality, richness and layering. The Sony has great bass and mids but it can’t be described as a neutral sounding DAP like the SP1000 can be. The Cayin N8 to me leans more to the Sony than it does to the AK, and then I’m mostly thinking body, impact, bass, smoothness and warmth (tube!).
The WM1Z without doubt is a top level DAP but I don’t very often end up using it when I’m not doing a review. The big exception here is the JHAudio JH13V2 but that’s about it and that’s where the Cayin N8 is different. With its three different and “different enough” sounding outputs it offers so much more possibilities and sound signatures. The N8’s balanced and 3.5 solid state output aren’t as warm and smooth as the WM1Z’s outputs and the tube output actually comes closest to the Sony’s sound. The difference here is that the Sony does it with more precision, a better separation and a wider sound stage. The N8’s tube output probably isn’t the most precise and that shows when you’re comparing it to the top Sony.
The N8 in single ended an balanced mode are close to the Sony looking at its general sound signature but there’s more of the SP1000 in there. It for sure isn’t a Sony or AK clone and that just might make it he ideal DAP, with a multitude of sound signatures, for those who can’t find their ideal sound in the AK or Sony.
Unlike in some other reports, I specifically want to keep this part really short as there are many combinations possible and basically doing a lot of comparisons in a review is easier than describing how a unit really sounds.
Instead I just want to say a few words on two units that really made me go back to the N8 time after time. The first unit is the brand new Pola from the Shozy and AAW cooperation. The Pola is a hybrid monitor where they combine a dynamic driver with an electrostat driver, combining best of booth worlds. I also like the Pola with the Sony WM1Z and the AK SP1000 but it’s on the tube output of the N8 that the Pola becomes really beautiful. The Pola is clean and fast with great bass and a wide, spacious sound stage. The Cayin N8’s tube warmth gives it an extra bit of bass kick, with deep reaching well layered bass. The mids get the warmth and tube smoothness and it makes the Pola a bit sweeter and even more musical to listen to. The same basically goes for the upper mids, vocals and treble where the N8 ads smoothness and romanticizes the sound. It’s just a combo with great synergy, too bad the Pola doesn’t come in a custom shell (yet).
The other unit is a full sized headphone and here it’s the brand new Hifiman HE-1000SE I’m talking about. You maybe wouldn’t expect that but the HE-1000SE has never been as easy to drive as now. That being said, I still prefer it on a full sized desktop setup such as the Dave or Nirvana, but if I have to use a DAP, it for sure is the N8. As you might know the new HE-1000SE comes with a new set of cables and one of them is terminated in a 4.4 balanced way, so it connects perfectly to the N8 without any extra adapters. I prefer the HE-1000SE on medium gain and then I find it to get the most balanced, precis, powerful yet musical sound. The sound stage is wide, the presentation spacious and the detail is everywhere. Admittedly, if you want bigger an fuller bass and mids you still need to go to a desktop amp, but for a DAP this really is an excellent result.
I have really enjoyed my time with the N8 and want to thank Cayin for letting me be one of the first to review it. I am sad to see the N8 go back to Cayin, unfortunately the unit is on loan and it won’t be joining the SP1000, SP1000M and Sony WM1Z as high end DAPs at the HFN HQ.
Has Cayin achieved their goal? Oh yes, the N8 is a high end DAP, there’s no doubt about it. Does it beat the Sony or AK? No but it doesn’t have to either. Sound wise it offers its own approach to high end sound and that puts it on the same level as the other high end DAPs.
No, the N8 might not have application loading but it does offer three different sound signatures of which one is tube flavoured, and that makes the N8 very unique.
The Cayin N8 from now on is a recommended DAP by Headfonia and it goes straight to recommended DAP list. Good job.
If you still haven’t had enough of the Cayin N8 then the only thing left to do is check out its specs in detail. You can do this right here: http://en.cayin.cn/products_info?itemid=115 (just scroll to the end of the page)