Review: Cayin N3 – The Master

Cayin N3

N3 Sound

If you expect the N3 to sound like the little brother of the N5, N6 or i5 than you couldn’t be more wrong as it sounds extremely good for its price and it’s “position” in Cayin’s line-up. As mentioned before this little gem uses the same DAC chipset as the i5 and that was an excellent choice.

The Cayin N3 has good body overall (but not exaggerated) and it sounds very detailed with great separation. Sound is detailed and the wide and depth is really good. The sound stage the N3 gives you is good as well and everything sounds airy and energetic, yet correct and musical. The N3 also is very clean and clear sounding with a signature that is close to neutral. The bass might be elevated a little bit but not too much. As with all Cayin DAPs the musicality factor is very important and when you listen to the N3, you’ll be tapping your foot in no time

Another thing I like about the Cayin N3 is how quiet it is. It, with my most sensitive monitors, is even more quiet than the N5 and i5 and a whole bunch of other DAPs in my collection. No, it still isn’t perfectly silent like say an AK70 but it’s close and the noise levels do not bother me at all while music is playing, something that wasn’t always the case with the other Cayin audio players.

Like I said, the bass might be a little bigger in volume but not that much (like the AP 60 in example). Bass is tight, fast and clean with good detail. The N3 goes low but you don’t get the really deep bass rumble that much. Bass doesn’t run in to the mids which is very good and the only comment I can make about the bass is how it could be a little more layered. I’m repeating myself, but at this price level, bass actually is very good.

The mids are spacious and detailed with voices that perfectly fit in, even though thery’re just a tiny bit more upfront but not overly so. The mids are natural and musical while keeping the same “body” and detail level of the bass. Mids again are clean and precise and the result is an airy, easy to listen to, musical presentation that has it all. The mids are very engaging and bass and mids flow perfectly together. I find the N3’s treble to be energetic and lively and while it isn’t the furthest extended, I really like it a lot. Treble is spacious and detailed with a bit of sharpness I can appreciate. It at the same time is dynamic, musical, energetic yet musical and treble fits perfectly with how the bass and mids sound.

The result is a coherent sounding DAP that sounds detailed, energetic and clear. I didn’t expect the Cayin N3 to sound this wonderful but it – looking at sound – positively surprised me in all possible ways. In short: Oh I like it a lot.

Comparisons

The Hidisz AP60 might be the the Cayin N3’s biggest competitor and a lot of people have been asking to compare both. The Hidizs DAP is even smaller size wise and while it also has that light plastic feel, I do prefer its finish over that of the N3. I think Hidizs calls this the car paint finish and I have to admit the blue color I chose actually looks stunning. Firmware wise both players are using Hiby so the menu structure is very comparable. Button-wise the AP60 also uses front panel touch sensitive buttons but it is missing the next previous and play/pause buttons the N3 has on the side. Sure you can set the volume buttons on the left to switch tracks when the screen is locked but that means you still have to unlock the player to change the sound level, something that I find to be rather annoying when using the AP60 in shuffle mode. The Hidizs goes for only $87.99. Sound wise the AP60 has bigger body with a bass that has more impact. It’s a warmer and smoother sounding player but that’s not necessarily something bad. In fact I love using it with dance music and les bass heavy inears such as the Etymotic ER4-series. The AP60 simply is less neutral sounding and it isn’t as spacious as the really good N3. Both are good players, but technically I personally find the N3 to score best.

The Fiio X1.2 is another entry level high resolution DAP but it is heavier and feels more solid than the Cayin N3. Usability wise Fiio opted for the scroll wheel which almost no one seems to like anymore. The N3, even though it isn’t the perfect DAP to play with, is a whole lot more user friendly than the Fiio with. Power wise the N3 has the X1.2 beat but with normal inears you won’t notice that too much. The N3 is the more modern one of both offering better BlueTooth and connectivity options. Sound wise the Fiio is a little more noisy compared to the very silent N3. I quite like the X1.2’s sound signature and they’re not miles apart but the X1.2 to me has less detail and depth. The N3 is more spacious where the N3 sounds more concentrated. I prefer the N3’s bass and mids over those of the 99$ Fiio X1.2 but in all fairness the Fiio certainly isn’t bad at all. It’s more like the Hidisz AP60 but with a cleaner and closer to neutral presentation.

The first things that strike me when switching to the Cayin N5 we reviewed exactly one year ago, are that treble is a lot softer, the pace is slower and that the sound is warmer and less energetic. Especially the missing energy and very soft treble, impact the N5’s bigger and warmer sound. The N5’s build quality however is a lot better as the materials used are of a whole other level. Power-wise the N5 of course also leaves the N3 behind and it as a result is easier to use with full sized headphones. The N5 does offer a 2.5mm balanced output but the N5 overall sounds more noisy with sensitive IEMs. The N3 offers BT 4.0 apt-X and has a USB-C port and it is a more modern DAP, the N5 player is getting old and it is starting to show.

Compared to the Cayin i5 – which we all liked – the little N3 is quite far apart for what build quality, connectivity and usability are concerned. The i5 is running Android and as a result is customizable. It can work with 3rd party apps where the N3 is limited to the Hiby player. The i5 was already using the USB-C connection and we see it re-implemented in the N3 with all its advantages such as fast charging/data transfer/USB OTG/etc. Sound wise the N3 is actually pretty close to the I5 and that’s logic (as it uses the same DAC chip) yet amazing. The i5 does sound more powerful and in control but they both display the same energy, detail, spaciousness and dynamics. The i5 has an easier job driving full sized headphones but as a result it also is more noisy than the N3 when using sensitive IEMs. Finding out that the N3 sound wise is so close to the much more expensive i5, puts a smile on my face.

Synergy

I especially have been enjoying the N3 as a USB-DAC with my DELL Laptop. The AK4490EN is an excellent chip and the N3 has more than enough power on low gain to drive the SoundWarrior SW-HP20 I’ve been using at the office. Installing the Cayin driver is easy and with Roon and the Asio driver you get a bit perfect sound as described in the previous section. I haven’t tried using the N3 as DAC for my phone or any other DAP but I have used the USB to coax cable to hook it up to the Mojo to.

Everyone keeps asking me three questions when they see this picture:

  1. where did you get this cable? Well, I got this was a gift but it was bought from Taobao where it -as far as I know – isn’t available anymore. It can however be bought from MusicTeck in the USA.
  2. Why are you using USB-C to coax and not micro USB? The reason simply is that I prefer the coaxial input of the Mojo (and Hugo) as I find it to have bigger body and a more analog presentation. Another cable I used was the official USB-C to RCA coax cable from Cayin itself. Connecting the N3 to my Violectric V850 was a piece of cake.
  3. Why are you using the Mojo as a DAC with the N3? Who on earth is going to use his N3 like that? The N3 is a lot cheaper and yes not everyone who has an N3 can afford a Mojo but at the same time a lot of Mojo owners are just looking for a nice, small and well performing transport. And that’s exactly where the N3 comes in: you’ll have a great sounding desktop quality setup for on the go with a little footprint.

The Cayin N3 of course offers a Line-Out function to an external amplifier but I have to admit I haven’t extensively tested this as I simply didn’t feel the need for a portable amp. The N3 has more than enough power to drive all my (C)IEMs and portable/easy to drive headphones but if you do feel the need for an external amplifier I suggest getting a really good one like the Cypher Labs Picollo or the ALO Rx.

Earphone synergy wise, I’ve tried all kinds of IEMs with the N3, from the $5 KZ ATR to the +$4000 Obravo EAMT-1A and I can’t really say I prefer one over the other with this DAP. From bass heavier gear like the Westone W60 to the musical Radius W n°4 and the flat and neutral Etymotic ER4-series, they all simply sound good.

Conclusion

The N3 sounds great and it really is a killer DAP for an excellent price. Sure it might not be the world’s sexiest looking little DAP but it sound wise surely outperforms its $149 price level. Looking at its navigation, the N3, with the Hiby player software, is more “back to basics” but connectivity- and sound wise this little DAP really rocks. The Cayin N3 for sure is the recommended buy in the sub $150USD category.

Full Specs

Firmware1.1 features the following updates of which n°5 and 6 to me are the most important ones:

  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
Phones OutPower rating130mW+130mW (@32Ω)
Frequency

Response

20Hz-20kHz (±0.2dB,Fs=192kHz)

5Hz-50kHz (±0.2dB,Fs=192kHz)

THD+N0.03%(1kHz,Fs=44.1kHz; (20Hz-20kHz,A-Weighted)
Dynamic Range108dB, (20Hz-20kHz,A-Weighted)
SNR108dB, (20Hz-20kHz,A-Weighted)
Output Impedance≤1Ω
Line OutOutput Level1.0V (@10kΩ)
Frequency

Response

20Hz-20kHz (±0.2dB,Fs=192kHz)

5Hz-50kHz (±2dB,Fs=192kHz)

THD+N0.03%(1kHz,Fs=44.1kHz; (20Hz-20kHz,A-Weighted)
Dynamic Range108dB (20Hz-20kHz,A-Weighted)
SNR108dB (20Hz-20kHz,A-Weighted)
Coaxial OutOutput Level0.5Vp-p(@75Ω)
Output impedance75Ω
USB DACUSB ModeAsynchronized USB Audio 2.0 Class
DSDUp to DSD128 (Native, DoP, D2P)
PCMUp to 24Bit/192kHz
WindowsSupport (Driver required)
MAC OSxSupport
iOSNot Support
AndroidNot Support
BatteryCapacity2500mAh 3.8V Lithium ion polymer
Duration~12HRS
Charging time~2HRS (with 1.5-2A Charger, not provided)
Charging

Current

≤1500mA when charge with 2A Charger,

≤500mA when charge with computer USB port

Recommended Headphone

Impedance Range

16~200Ω
Gain Control3 stages: L, M, H
DSD output modeDoP and D2P
PCM outputS/PDIF upto 24Bit/192kH, USB Audio Out same as native playback (upto 32Bit/384kHz)
DoP output:S/PDIF support DSD64, USB Audio Out support DSD64 and DSD128
Dimension100*54*13(mm)
Net Weight~100g

 

Music Format Supported

 

FormatConditionSupportFromToBit Rate
DSFYes2.8MHz11.2MHz1 bit
DFFYes2.8MHz11.2MHz1 bit (DST not supported)
SACD-ISOYes2.8MHz11.2MHz1 bit (DST not supported)
WAVYes8kHz384kHz16-, 20-, 24- and 32-bit
AIFFYes8kHz384kHz16-, 20-, 24- and 32-bit
FLACYes8kHz192kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
ALACYes8kHz192kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
APEFastYes8kHz192kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
NormalYes8kHz192kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
HighYes8kHz192kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
Extra HighYes8kHz96kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
InsaneNo
WMA LosslessYes8kHz96kHz16-, 20-, and 24-bit
WMAYes8kHz96kHz16-, 24- and 32-bit
MP2Yes8kHz48kHz16-bit
MP3Yes8kHz48kHz16-bit
AACYes8kHz48kHz16-bit
OGGYes8kHz48kHz16-bit

(All music format does not support 64kHz sampling frequency)

 

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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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