We’ll split up this part in two chapters: Cayin and non-Cayin (Fiio & Astell&Kern). The direct comparisons were done using the Westone ES80 CIEM which is very revealing
Cayin N3: Cayin’s entry DAP is great but it is very basic built DAP that hardware and usability wise is completely different from the N5ii. The N3 is a great source for the Mojo and its own sound signature is very clear and clean, with somewhat lighter body. While they both work with different chip-sets, I do find the Cayin touch to be present. The big differences for me between both DAPs can be found in the detail level, extension and the layering. The N3’s vocals sound more forward and they’re more natural sounding on the N5ii. The musical delivery from the N5ii is more natural and effortless yet bigger, where the N3 has something more aggressive and thinner to its sound reproduction. The N3 still is a great DAP for its price and while it sounds cleaner, the N5ii simply has a higher quality rendering with more detail, deeper bass, better layering, etc.
Cayin N5: What a long way the new N5ii has come. From an old non-touch OS to an elaborated Android implementation. I always disliked “working” the old N5 and I still do today. Sound wise the first thing you will notice is how silent the new N5ii compared to the original. The new N5ii has a smoother and more natural signature compared to the original where the mids where thinner and the voices were more upfront. The N5 always had this sharpness in its sound and that’s completely gone in this revision. The N5ii has more timbre, better layering and is further extended. It just sounds more natural and balanced.
Cayin i5: The i5 user interface looks a lot like that of the N5ii but that last one has some more option. Versatility and user wise these DAPs are very much alike but the new N5ii is the easiest to use. Its jacket fits better, the volume dial is smoother and the smaller and lighter N5ii just is easier to work in your hand. The screen on the i5 is somewhat nicer though as the N5ii’s screen has a more blue color. Sound wise I find the i5 to have a noisier background but the i5 still sounds really good. To me the N5ii and i5 are very close to each other and the biggest different is in the mids (layering) and the vocals. The voices are a tad softer from the N5ii where they have a sharper edge from the i5, making them sound more forward. In general I also find the N5ii is the better balanced one, where the i5 has the tendency to put the upper mids and treble more upfront. But these are very close to each other, there’s no night and day difference.
Fiio X5iii ($399): I love the Fiio’s form factor but both DAPs are a pleasure to work with. You can see here as well that the screen of the N5ii has a more blue-ish presentation. The X5iii has the noisier background but that won’t surprise anyone anymore. I especially find the extension (depth and with) of the N5ii to be better and to me the bass and treble section has the best range on the N5ii. I also feel the Cayin has the edge over the X5iii for what detail retrieval is concerned and the delivery of the N5ii is even more natural than that of the X5iii.
Fiio X7ii ($649): The X7.2 with the AM3A module to me still is the best sounding Fiio DAP up to date, it’s also Fiio’s TOTL DAP. The Cayin N5ii is roughly half the price and you basically can do everything the X7.2 can, if not more. They’re both easy to work with, feel good in the hand and are nicely built. The Fiio again has the better screen, there’s no doubt about that. The X7.2 is the most silent Fiio DAP, even from the balanced output. Sound-wise the X7.2 for me still is a level up from the N5ii but the Cayin isn’t far behind. The X7.2 has that typical audiophile tuning many of you call reference: neutral, detailed, extended, very clear and clean, fast and tight. The overall sound of the X7.2 has less body compared to the N5ii, and you get better depth (and width) with great layering. The Cayin’s bass is a bit bigger and you’ll also get thicker mids. While both sound very clean, the Fiio scores best on clarity. Technically, the Fiio X7.2 is the best of both DAPs but I can see many preferring the meatier presentation of the N5ii. At the same time the X7.2 lets you change the sound by installing a different amplification module. (The AM modules are available at an extra cost).
Astell&Kern AK70 ($499): Both of these DAPs look and feel absolutely great and they’re a pleasure to work with. The N5ii is fully customizable while the AK of course isn’t. In that regard the N5ii has the edge over the AK70 but that last one does have AK connect and it’s a lot smaller. Both units flawlessly connect to my NAS drives over DLNA but the AK lets me control it from my phone, making it a lot easier to use. Software- wise between these two it really depends on what you’re looking for, but they both have characteristics going for them. Sound wise the AK70’s presentation is more spacious and airy but it sounds somewhat darker than the N5ii with less tight, slower and more mid bass. Voices on the N5ii sound a bit sharper and more forward compared to the more relaxed AK70. Treble is softer to the ears on the AK. Both of these DAPs are very close to each other and here – compared to the Fiio X7.2 – it depends more on your personal preference than it does on pure quality.
Astell&Kern AK70ii ($699): I’m fully aware that everyone wants to compare the Cayin N5ii to the 2nd revision of the AK70. The AK70 won our DAP of the year award last year but unfortunately Astell&Kern didn’t manage to get us a sample in time for this review. So as soon as it arrives and has been burned in, I’ll be adding some comparisons to AK’s latest in this spot.
I’ve loved the Cayin N5ii right from the beginning. It has a beautiful design, top build quality, customizable interface, extreme versatility and it’s easy to use. If that isn’t enough for you than its sound signature will win you right over.
With the N5ii, Cayin has managed to deliver a $369USD DAP that looks, feels and performs like a high-end DAP double or more its price. Yes, a few things still need to be sorted out with the next firmware updates, but once that’s done the Cayin N5ii simply is a killer DAP in this price segment that kind of makes it difficult for the competition to live up to it.
The Cayin N5ii immediately goes in our Recommended/Buyer Guide as it’s a great piece of gear. For the $369USD price it’s going for, I can’t think of any other DAP that performs better in the price bracket and even quite a bit up. “Award material?” I hear you whisper? Yes, possibly, but we’re not there yet.
Double thumbs up to Cayin and Andy though, extremely well done.
Full specs can be found on the last page of this article