My primary breakdown of the N8’s signature is based off the 3.5mm Tube Output, as that’s where the magic dwells in earnest.
Of course, you can expect all the detail and resolution required of a TOTL contender. It’s out of this world. But honestly, I’ve spent so much time with great gear these last few years I just consider that a given once you reach a certain price point. What separates this player from others I’ve reviewed is the way in which it presents all this detail and resolution.
The N8 is warm and robust, but in a mature way, not a basshead way. It is neutral done right. Balanced, and oh so natural. There’s a hearty helping of lush euphony. Refinement and smoothness meet or surpass anything I’ve heard before. There’s no mistaking the N8 for anything but a top-tier device. I don’t pretend to understand how these components differ from the cheaper stuff, but the result is audible. Within the first minute of listening, I knew Cayin had made the best-sounding DAP I’ve ever heard. And that was before I even learned how to activate the Nutubes.
Tremendous note weight and body defines the profile. Low-end warmth, rumble, and attack emerge with power and eloquence. Clear, immaculate voicing provides supreme articulation and transparency. The singer takes center stage, standing large and forward, never feeling dwarfed by the venue. Treble is silky smooth, with a calm, warm flavor. Fear not coldness or stridency. These highs are buttery!
One of the things I love most about the N8 is how vibrant it is, without coming off shouty, bright, or artificial. The dynamism is achieved, not from tweaked frequencies, but proper extension, and deep, deep blackness of background. This creates a grand sense of depth, where the notes can erupt out of nowhere, and vanish into nothingness. Super clean rendering is derived from this, and utmost finesse.
Cayin’s N8 creates a wide, deep, and spectacular soundscape. They have expanded my expectation for a mobile device. Its skill at conveying the three-dimensional quality of the performer and instruments is staggering. Then there’s the relationship between elements, and how they are spaced on the 3D plane. I’ve never experienced better.
3.5mm Single-Ended Solid State: You don’t lose much turning off the Nutubes. Everything is mostly the same. Soundstage, to my ears, is identical. What you get in Solid State is a vague sense of dryness. When you turn the tubes back on, the music just sounds… wetter. More vibrant and lifelike. It doesn’t really seem like a matter of warmth vs brightness. It’s more about echoes and harmonics. Solid State definitely comes off less fun and more business-like.
4.4mm Balanced Solid State: Choosing between this and Nutube is difficult. Unlike Single-Ended SS, in Balanced, you do get quite a bit more vibrancy and clarity. Yet I was surprised to find the soundstage the same here as well. I really expected an increase. But my tests, as imperfect as they are, showed no increase from Balanced. If anything, Nutube was a bit wider. Though I wouldn’t swear to that. For the most part, the dimensions sounded just about identical. The main difference, once again, is in things like lushness, wetness, and harmonics, which Nutube has more of. Balanced sounds more transparent and clean, but also a little thinner and soulless. But only in comparison to those vacuum tubes, which adds mad soul! Still, I could easily see some folk choosing the 4.4mm output. It’s breathtaking in its own right.
If all this sounds right up your alley, but the price tag turns your bowels to water, do consider the iBasso DX200 ($899, Review HERE) with the AMP8 High Current module as an alternative. Indeed, it’s not far off. In fact, the soundstage is wider on the DX208. Cayin, however, has the lusher, more organic tone. Vocals are rounder. The background is blacker. But again, there’s a massive price difference, and what you gain in sonic refinement is minimal at best. Alas, this is the eternal story with high-end audio. Diminishing Returns is the cruel deity of our people.
Another alternative, but for those who seek a slightly drier, more analytical presentation, is the Astell&Kern SE100 A&futura ($1,699, Review HERE). The signature is less robust, less bodied, though some could say cleaner. At least in a superficial way. In truth, I’ve never considered the SE100 dry or thin sounding. Only in comparison to something like the N8 does one learn how wet and full and analogue a DAP can get. But again, huge price difference, and just maybe more in line with your personal tastes.
You may ask, why no comparison to other $3K DAPs? Surely the TOTL AK or Sony would be a fairer point of reference. Sorry. These were the closest competitors I had on-hand.