The Improbable Mid-Fi Achievement – A Review of the Cayin i5

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The Cayin i5 sounds amazing. It seems like it was tuned specifically for my savage disposition. Warm and smooth are the dominant traits. It presents organic, natural music, not music stripped down to raw details and shot into your ear-holes like shrapnel. It all sounds full and rich, with supreme dynamics.

At the low-end, the i5 packs a wild beast in bass power. It’s strong, and slams hard. It’s the most bass-heavy DAP I own. Hefty mid-bass gives the i5 its warm tone, and helps to fill out the body of the arrangement. Sub-bass extension, texture, and control may not be the best I’ve heard, but I can say, while listening to a good song, I just don’t care. The lows are so fun to get swept up in.

If you want lush vocals, the i5 will make your knees wobble. Colored, warm, and thick, is how I describe the mids. It produces a fabulous degree of smoothness, while also being fairly clear. This DAP is not overly concerned with high levels of resolution and detail. It has all that, but it doesn’t flaunt it. The i5 basks in the analogue sound, staying far away from the sterility found in more neutral DACs like the FiiO X7.

Where Cayin struggles is treble. It is rolled off some. Later firmware brings out a bit more definition in the upper mids and lower treble, making this DAP more compatible with very warm headphones. But it’s still lacking the same treble energy of other devices, like the Opus#1.

Soundstage on the i5 is quite good. Is it the best in its class? No. Yet it’s wide and deep enough to feel good and spacious, with better than decent imaging and separation. When you have a very warm DAP, these aspects tend to suffer some, but Cayin compensates well. The i5 creates for you a delightful spectacle.

The i5’s rendering is more refined than Cayin’s old N5. I felt the 1st Generation FiiO X5 Classic was ever so slightly silkier than the N5, and now the i5 easily beats the Classic. That’s what I call an improvement in fives.

Just a few weeks ago I spent around 14 days with FiiO’s newest gadget, the X5 3rd Generation (X5-3). Like the i5, it leans far into the warm range of profiles. It too is very smooth-sounding because of this. Yet the i5 possesses infinitely superior dynamism, and the X5-3 comes off lethargic and boring in comparison. It’s soundstage is also noticeably smaller, causing the whole presentation to sound muddled.

My favorite music player in the sub $800 range is the Opus#1. While the i5 has more features, the Opus focuses on what I consider most important: 2X microSD slots… Balanced output. It also happens to sound a little nicer in my opinion. Clarity, resolution, and detailing are a notch above. Opus aims for neutral, giving you an uncolored view of the audio. All while pushing some of the best dynamics and musicality you’ll find anywhere. The i5 has a heavier low-end, but Opus does bass like a professional, and, let me assure you, does not have a light touch. In single-ended, the i5 has the wider soundstage, while Opus is deeper. Although, when you play from the balanced output, Opus#1 outstretches the i5 by a hair. On either single-ended or balanced, Opus lays out a sharper, more accurate picture, with better imaging and separation, and air between elements.

I’m selling my Astell&Kern AK120II, as it’s no longer the king stallion of my stables. Since it’s not sold yet I feel I must pit Cayin against it. And Goddamn! The i5 does an admirable job. Far better than I expected.

Limiting the AK to single-ended output, and using an A/B Switcher, the i5 is heard to be a little grainier/messier. The Astell&Kern is more refined, with better coherency. Treble seemed less rolled off. It sounds just a touch more natural, the stage a touch wider. I felt a greater sense of immersion with the AK.

Biased? Maybe. But I’d like to emphasize just how little the differences actually were. Switching between the two with split-second speed, it was often difficult to say how they differed. It took extended listening and mighty focus to mark the changes. The Cayin i5 surprised the hell out of me.

When I switched cables and used the AK120ii’s BALANCED output, the differences became much greater. The N5 had balanced, and I expected the i5 to fix the noise issue the older sibling suffered from. Apparently Cayin could not, opting instead to remove balanced output entirely. So the AK has an unfair advantage that, when utilized, brings the potential a good pace ahead of anything the i5 is capable of.

Of course, the price difference being what it is, that ought to surprise no one.

If the AK is an unfair match, then you can imagine how the i5 does against the DAP which replaced it. I won’t waste your time expounding on all the ways the Opus#2 beats the i5. Especially considering when you get down to it, the difference is not all that great. We’re talking a matter of degrees. At this price point, you pay profound sums for the smallest increment of extra performance. One must suffer mental illness to ignore the diminishment of your returns, or accept it as part and parcel of the hobby.

But enough of comparisons, yes? The simple listening of the i5 is such a pleasurable experience. I loved it off every one of my portable phones.

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About Author

Pinky is an artsy twat. Illustration, graphic design, writing. Yet music escapes him, and always has. He builds his own cables, and likes to explore the craftsmanship of others. He's a stabby one, also. At the first hint of annoyance, out comes the blade. I say he's compensating for something... in a big bad way. If we all try really hard as a collective, maybe we can have him put down.

4 Comments

  1. Swaroop on

    Great review. Precise and to the point. I’m seeking some guidance in buying my first dap. I like my sound balanced with a slight emphasis on the lower end. Looking for a musical experience rather than an analytical one. Planning to use it with my im02s and 1more triple driver. As you know, the former is very picky when it comes to source.
    Looking for something at around 200$. Not seeking any fancy features. Good sound output, decent battery life and functional interface are adequate; anything above would be a bonus.
    Thanks in advance.

    • Pinky Powers on

      At that price, my first stop would be the Cowon Plenue D. I may change my mind once I get my hands on the Cayin N3, but right now, the Plenue D is the most attractive player at $200.

      • Swaroop on

        I’m also awaiting more information about cayin n3; looks like a great package. Would you be able to tell if the cowon plenue d pairs well with the im02?

        • Pinky Powers on

          I’d wager it’ll pair quite nicely.

          If you can buy from Amazon, their return policy is great, just in case it doesn’t work well for you.

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