Review: Cayin N3 – The Master

Cayin N3

Memory

The Cayin N3 is a high resolution entry level DAP and for only $149 some sacrifices had to be made. The N3 doesn’t come with any internal available memory and it features only one Micro-SD slot. As a result you might not be able to carry your full library with you on just one card but in this range that is all very normal. The N3 does allow connecting an external disk drive by USB to the player, so if you don’t care about carrying around an extra unit, you’ll have all the music you’ll need. I haven’t tested that myself though. Unlike the i5 the N3 doesn’t directly connect to your network storage systems and it doesn’t allow you to install 3rd party software such as Tidal. There is a workaround to this however as you can stream Tidal over BT from your phone but more on that later on in this article.

The N3 basically can be connected by BlueTooth to serve as a DAC/AMP for your other units. Scanning your MicroSD card goes reasonably fast and going through a 200gb card doesn’t takes dozens of minutes like on the DX80 or Fiio X5iii using the Fiio music player.

Battery

Cayin claims around 12 hours of playback and 200h standby on one charge of the 2500mA battery. I have to say I am pleasantly surprised with the Cayin N3’s battery life and I was able to use it for a very long time without charging it again. If you’re in need of juice however the N3 charges within two hours when connected to a 2V charger. Battery life might not be as impressive as some of the competition but those DAPs hardly offer what the Cayin N3 offers. Battery life of course does depend on the use of BlueTooth, Screen Brightness, file types played, etc.

All in all I am happy with the battery life the Cayin N3 offers as it for sure is above my 8h limit by quite the stretch.

Internals

The Cayin i5 is a Linux based DAP with an integrated Hiby player. The N3 uses the following internal structure to deliver you a top quality sound:

As you can see the N5 next to the X1000 CPU, uses the popular AK4490 chip for decoding sound, allowing native DSD up to DSD128 and PCM up to 384kHz/32Bit and as good as all available file types. This is the exact same chip which the Cayin i5 DAP is using and I am very happy to see such a chip being implemented in an entry level DAP. The i5 used the AD712 and OPA1652 (with dual buffer) for filtering and amping the signal but Cayin for the N3 chose to use the OPA1652 for filtering and the Line Amp and the OPA1622 as headphone amp .

The Cayin N3 comes packed with BlueTooth 4.0 apt-X but it doesn’t offer a Wifi connection, as a result the firmware updates will have to be doing manually by copying it to the unit.

Accessories

Being an entry level DAP, the N3 doesn’t come packed with tons of accessories. For $149USD you get:

  • a silicone case,
  • an extra screen protector (one is pre-applied),
  • a USB-C to A charging cable with a cable tie,
  • a warranty card,
  • a user manual,
  • some extra yellow High Res stickers everyone seems to like

If anything I would like to have seen a mini leather case but it’s perfectly acceptable that isn’t there. IT would have been a very nice extra though.

Versatility

The Cayin N3 is a lot more than just a little entry DAP and it can be in so many different ways. This, next to how it sounds, is an important reason why the N3 is such a killer DAP. First of all it is a DAP and like all DAPs nowadays you can hook it up to your pc by using the supplied cable. The N3 will then serve as external storage or as a more than good USB DAC. In windows some drivers need to be installed but all that is very easy.

When you don’t want to use the headphone output you can use the LO on the bottom of the N3 and hook it up to an external amplifier using a standard 3.5mm cable. If you want the Cayin N3 to put out a digital signal you will have to use the USB-C output. When you have the correct cables you can use the N3’s USB-C output to transfer a digital signal by USB to another DAC (such as the Mojo) or you can use a USB-C to coaxial cable. Digital output options are DoP and D2P. A lot of people- myself included – have been using the N3 with the Chord Electronics Mojo and the combo sounds really good. I myself prefer using the coaxial input of the Mojo as I find the sound to be fuller and more analog sounding.

If that still isn’t enough, you can connect the N3 to another device by BT and it will let the N3 serve as a DAC/Amp unit. I’ve been using it like that with my Samsung S6 phone, where I stream Tidal over BT from the phone. Just connect both devices by BT, launch Tidal on your phone and you’ll have all the music you need, straight from the N3. I never use my phone itself for listening to music to, so for me this is a perfect solution. But it gets even better as you can leave your phone in your pocket and use the N3 controls to control your phone. Skipping tracks is no issue.

I could complain and say the Cayin N3 doesn’t have a balanced 2.5mm output but at this price level, no one expects it too, either.

User Interface

Booting up the N3 takes only a few seconds and it very quickly is “good to go” on Firmware 1.0 (FW1.1 available on April 6th). Cayin has a tradition of using Hiby software for the music playback and it is no different with the N3. Once you’re playing a track the screen will show you the listening volume, gain level, filter used, battery level and play type. Of course the N3 displays the album art and lyrics when available. Next to that the screen will show you the position of the track, the track name, file type and bit rate/depth.

The main menu has six options: System Settings / BT / Music settings / No Playing / Library / Music Category. The system settings menu offers the following: Language / Theme / USB mode / Capacative Touch sensing / Backlight time / Brightness / Folder operation / idle shutdown / Schedules power off / Sleep timer / About / reset / System upgrade.

The Music settings are: Gain / DSD gain compensation / EQ / Digital Filter / Play mode / Output selection / S/PDIF / Breakpoint resume / gapless / max volume / Startup volume / Balance / Lyrics / Album Art. The EQ menu will take you to a 10-band EQ menu where you can either choose between a bunch of preconfigured settings or you can set a custom one yourself.

Once you’ve done your settings it is extremely easy to operate the Cayin N3. The menus and options are very clear and even if it’s your first DAP you won’t have any issues using the player. When you’re in the now playing screen you can also push the touch button on th top left of the front panel which will make the quick menu appear.

So far the player hasn’t hung up on me a single time and there are only a couple of things I can complain about. It doesn’t seem to be able to show certain special characters like “é” on the screen and the selection of songs in shuffle mode is not random enough. Unlike with the i5 and a lot of other DAPs, it isn’t possible to read out the full tag of the song you’re playing. If you’re used to working with swiping Android DAPs such as the Fiio X7 or the Cayin i5 you will miss a lot of swiping functions and looking at it like that, the N3 is back to basics like in the good old days. The thing I miss most is a search function but I didn’t expect a DAP in this range to have one either.

When the player is in your pocket it is also very easy to use without looking at it, using the side buttons of the player. Compared to the Hidizs AP60 the Cayin N3 has a lot more buttons, but it is easier to use.

Overall I am very happy with how the Cayin N3 handles. There still are some points where it can be improved like the playlists and library management– check out the Head-Fi thread for all the details – but in general it’s all logic and well implemented.

Click HERE to go the the part on Sound on the 3rd page, or use the jump below 

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

69 Comments

  • Reply April 13, 2017

    Naruga

    As a mojo owner, I was still looking for a small and cheap DAP but still good as a transport. Now I got enlightment from you, Lieven! Thanks alot! Will looking for the usb c – coax cable

    • Reply April 13, 2017

      Lieven

      The AP60 is another great little transport! 🙂

      • Reply April 14, 2017

        NARUGA

        I got it already from my local store. The sound is fantastic and full bodied by itself. Transport from mac and to mojo works well. Bluetooth is also clear and easy to set. Such a nice DAP ????

      • Reply July 4, 2017

        Indrajit

        Hi, how does Cayin N3 compare sonically with Astel and Kern Jr?

        • Reply July 4, 2017

          Lieven

          Much cleaner, more clear, more energetic

          • Reply December 3, 2017

            Indrajit

            Hi, you have mentioned ‘Roon and the Asio’ driver for a cleaner output in the usb/dac set up. Are these available to be installed on windows 10?

  • Reply April 13, 2017

    Juan Luis Quiroz

    The n3 sq can be comparable to x3ii??

  • Reply April 13, 2017

    Rainer

    Maybe the dap I was waiting for:-)
    But I have one question left: when connecting an external dac via USB, is N3 able to control the volume of the dac? I just bought a dragonfly red and I am wondering, wether I might use it with the N3.

    • Reply April 16, 2017

      Lieven

      good question. Most DPAs wouldn’t allow it and set the LO to 100% but on this N3 you can control the output volume

  • Reply April 15, 2017

    Arnaud C

    Hello, i’m looking for a DAP to pair with my hd25 headphones.
    Could the N3 be a good choice ? Berger than N5 ?
    Thank you !

  • Reply April 15, 2017

    Lieven

    I think that would be a great combo. N3 over n5.

    • Reply May 20, 2017

      Arnaud C

      Thank you for your advice 🙂

  • Reply April 15, 2017

    ums

    Have you ever tried to compare it to Fiio E17K? I know it’s just DAC/Amp with no DAP functionality, but I just want to know how N3 fares against E27K SQ wise. Really want to have this baby. Is there any significant improvement over E17K or is it just a sidegrade?
    Thanks ????

  • Reply April 16, 2017

    Lieven

    Well it’s something completely else. They would make for a nice combo but I would just stick to the N3 by itself

  • Reply April 16, 2017

    MetalGeek

    Looking at this to pair with my ThinkSound ON1 and TS02.

  • Reply April 17, 2017

    Phillip

    SO essentially you can listen to pandora and any other streaming music app from another phone on n3 and then send bluetooth to headphones correct?

    • Reply April 17, 2017

      Lieven

      BT connection to phone. Wired headphone connection to N3

  • Reply April 17, 2017

    Phillip

    If you connect a DAC (such as dacmagic usb dac) to N3, will it improve a bluetooth signal at all since not analog?

    • Reply April 17, 2017

      Lieven

      I’m not sure this makes sense

  • Reply April 20, 2017

    Juan Luis Quiroz

    This Cayin N3 can drive a high impedance headphone like Amiron Home??

    • Reply April 20, 2017

      Lieven

      No not optimally

      • Reply April 20, 2017

        Juan Luis Quiroz

        I consulted it because once I heard the dt1990 from a samsung Galaxy j3, and the result was I think pretty decent. So I imagined that while the n3 would not exploit the full potential of the Amiron Home, at least it would be enjoyed

  • Reply April 21, 2017

    coolcrew23

    just wanna ask if you stream Tidal via BT does sound quality degrade? Will stored flac still sound better?

  • Reply April 27, 2017

    Luis

    Does it have gapless playback? I guess it is a must on every and each Hi-Res player.

    • Reply October 29, 2017

      ascorth

      Yes it has gapless

  • Reply June 8, 2017

    Argel mangune

    You said, The N3 is more spacious where the N3 sounds more concentrated. Its confusing.

    • Reply June 12, 2017

      Lieven

      N3 is more spacious than the AP60

  • Reply June 13, 2017

    Matus

    I bought this little DAP based on your review. It is my first one and my main objective was to get the best sonud possible for under $200 with my CIEMs (Music Two from Custom Art, also my first CEIM) and so far I am loving it. The build quality ist just OK (the plastic buttons do not leave the best impression, but they work), but the display works well, the operation is intuitive. I am still playing around with EQ, but already without any eqalization the sound is excellent and I can basically hear no hiss at all. Overall a huge improvement over my aging smartphone. Now I am off to convert my CDs to FLAC 🙂

  • Reply July 8, 2017

    sknaight

    xduoo x10 or cayin n3?

    • Reply July 10, 2017

      Lieven

      I think I’d always go for Cayin

    • Reply September 24, 2017

      Daniel

      Good question, I became a fan of xduoo with the x3 and have been wanting a bit more audio quality for a while now x10 seems like a no brainer, but this one seems sexy too.

      However I do not care for wireless be it bluetooth or wifi and I feel like the missing SD slot is a big thing so my question would be… with a pair of fostex mark IIIs which one would sound better? 🙂

  • Reply July 8, 2017

    Matej

    Hi.

    I would like to ask if the n3 is a good fit with my dt770 32ohm?

    Thank You for the answer.

  • Reply July 11, 2017

    Matej

    Lieven, Thank You for the answer.

    I will would like to ask one more thing. I dont really have a big budget at the moment and saw the the praise the dragonfly-s got. Is there a big difference between the dragonfly black on mobile (my first choice) and the n3. Or the dragonfly red and the N3. Do you recomend to save some money and buy the n3 or there isnt such a big difference versus the Dragonfly black?

    • Reply July 11, 2017

      Lieven

      I think it’s more complicated. the N3 is a DAP so it will offer you a whole lot of things a DragonFly can’t offer you or even do. The N3 is an excellent (if not the best) budget DAP of the last year, while the DFs are excellent USB dingles to use with your laptop or phone (if you insist on doing that).

      I’d think about how I would listen to music most: with your laptop/phone or with a DAP (in example at the office or on the go). And then based on that, I’d make a choice.

      Hope it helps

  • Reply August 19, 2017

    Matej

    Hi Lieven.
    I got the dragonfly black first. It sounded awesome. Unfortunately it didnt work well with my phone. There were glitches often. With my laptop everything was ok. So i returned it and purchased the cayin n3.
    I find a big difference in sound. While the dfb sounded full with a lot of power, the n3 sounds very thin in comparsion. The soundstage is much better and the seperation as well. But im waiting for the sound to kick on (like with the dfb) and it never happens. Also the eq seemingly dont do anything. Do you had simmilar fellings or im just imagining?

    Thank you for your answer

    • Reply August 20, 2017

      dale thorn

      I get those glitches with my phone and DF Red, but if I switch on “Airplane Mode” (i.e. all communications are Off), then it works OK. Apparently DF’s don’t shield or buffer properly against phones.

  • Reply August 19, 2017

    Lieven

    Hi. No you are pretty right. The DF has more body than the clean and clear sounding N3. It’s technically awesome

  • Reply August 19, 2017

    Matej

    I think the soundstage is really awesome. So much space and seperation…
    Is there a way to give it more body (within a small budget) similar to dragonfly?

  • Reply August 19, 2017

    Lieven

    Something like the alo rx or piccolo but the price… Maybe e12 but it’s big

  • Reply August 22, 2017

    JeroenW

    Seems to me that of the two players this one is better suited to classical and opera than the AP60. Both seem an excellent upgrade from my venerable Clip+.
    Thank you for the review!

  • Reply September 6, 2017

    Shit-brain

    The Ciyan N3 is terrible. Slow, sluggish and awful build quality. How much are you being paid to lie?

    • Reply September 7, 2017

      Lieven

      100 gazillion Monopoly money. It were tough negociations

  • Reply October 15, 2017

    Ryan

    Hi, can I pair the N3 with ha2-se via usb out ? so the N3 will be used as a transport only.

    • Reply October 18, 2017

      Lieven

      Really? The HA2-SE is an amplifier, how on earth would it work from the USB out. You’re missing a component then 😉

      • Reply October 18, 2017

        Ryan

        Oppa ha2-se is a dac + amp, I can pair the ha2-se with my phone via usb otg and based on sound quality alone which one do you prefer the n3, x5ii, x5iii ?

        • Reply October 18, 2017

          Lieven

          Wow, I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I saw someone use it. HA2-SE to me is the Auris Tube amp.
          N3 will shine!

          • Reply October 18, 2017

            Ryan

            N3 must be a hell of a DAP, it even can compete with x5iii sonically. Will get mine today.

  • Reply October 18, 2017

    Mateo

    I have the n3 and I love it. If you had to choose between the 99 Classic and Fidelio X2 to pair with the Cayin, which would it be?

    • Reply October 18, 2017

      Lieven

      both really good, I would go for the 99 because of the X2’s size

      • Reply October 18, 2017

        Mateo

        And sonically which one is the best pairing for you?

        • Reply October 18, 2017

          Lieven

          I have no preference, they’re both darker and bassy with a clean clear source (N3)

  • Reply November 21, 2017

    Ron Lynn

    Just came across you review and have to say the N3 sounds just what I’m looking for. This will be my first DAP which I want to use with closed head phones, I’m afraid I tend to have the volume quite high (bit mutton), I was wondering what the volume is like and what reasonable priced head phones you would recommend.
    Thanks.

    • Reply November 23, 2017

      Lieven

      It depends on the head or earphone you’ll pair with it. look for low impedance and high sensitivity

  • Reply November 24, 2017

    Marco

    Hi, do you think that’s a good upgrade for my FiiO X3 2nd gen?
    ty

  • Reply November 27, 2017

    joe blow

    Which is better overall the n3 or fiio x3 mark III. Both are in the same price range more or less.

    • Reply November 27, 2017

      Lieven

      They’re a very different flavor. N3 for clarity and precision. Fiio for musicality and smoothness. Both aren’t the most fun to work with.
      My choice would go to the Cayin as it is more versatile.Check out the Fiio X3iii review for a short comparison

  • Reply November 28, 2017

    Sulabh

    Can you compare it to fiio x5ii?

  • Reply March 5, 2018

    Juan Luis

    Hi Lieven,

    For you, what is the best digital filter to use with the N3?

    Regards.

    • Reply March 5, 2018

      Lieven

      Hi Juan,

      I with most DAPs tend to go for the Short Delay Sharp setting. It’s most pleasing to my ears.
      My advise is to just go with what you like most.

  • Reply June 17, 2018

    Arsen

    Hi,
    may I ask you please, I want to use Cayin N3 as a digital source for my portable DAC via usb otg. The question is: do the digital filters (sharp, slow, etc.) affect digital usb output? In other words does the signal flow to my DAC after DSP and before AK4490EN D/A converter? I just need a clear data transfering to my DAC, only with eq possibility.
    Thank you.

    • Reply June 20, 2018

      Lieven

      That’s a really good question. Unfortunately I haven’t used in in a very long time and out of my head I can’t reply to the question. I’d have to take it out of storage and try

  • Reply September 8, 2018

    John K.

    Thanks for this useful review. At Musicteck.com the Cayin N3 & Shanling M0 are currently just $20 apart ($129 and $109, respectively). Would you have a preference between the N3 and the M0? Both appear to be strong DAPs; I’m a little worried that reviews of the M0 often mention a lean bass. (I’m not a basshead, but I like it to be present and heard.)

    • Reply September 26, 2018

      Juan Luis

      I have the n3 a year ago and recently I was able to hear the m0. Technologically, the m0 is very advanced, is connected by bluetooth / ldac immediately, the interface is simple and very good. It has the necessary power to drive iem’s and high sensitivity headphones. As for the sound, I still prefer the n3, although they are not far away, the n3 has the advantage of resolving more details, a little better dynamics and sounding something more spacious.

  • […] and lately Cayin has been focusing on the portable market as well with successful units such as the N3, N5, N5ii, N5iis, N6, i5 portable players and the C5 portable amplifier. Now Cayin is back with the […]

  • Reply February 5, 2019

    dennis

    Hi. Can I use N3 like external DAC for my android phone ? With a cable otg? How?

  • Reply August 1, 2019

    Masters

    How it compared to hidizs ap80?

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