As I mentioned on the last page, my favorite module is the T01, utilizing dual PCM1792A DAC chips. But for a good long while, I listened to only the A01, with its AK4497EQ chip, and I still considered it the best player I’d heard, with perhaps the N8 as an exception.
The two modules sound different, but there are more similarities. The reason, I theorize, is the amp stage is nearly identical, which is a large part of how f**king great this player sounds.
The Cayin N6ii delivers a ton of power, regardless of which module you chose. Bold, strong, and authoritative notes lay the foundation. Speed and dynamism help to maintain high degrees of transparency. Liquid smoothness permeates the audioscape. And its stable, coherent image feels grounded and mature. There is utter blackness in the background, making the music all the more vibrant. Cayin’s N6ii does all this with an effortlessness which feels perfectly natural. The N6ii just sounds right.
The A01 possesses the warmer tone, with thicker, denser tuning. There’s a little less treble and air, and more low-end presence. Vocals seem a hair smaller. Soundstage is where it gets weird. Traditionally, balanced audio will aid in things like soundstage and imaging. But the A01’s AK4497EQ DAC sounds significantly smaller from the 4.4mm balanced port. When you use the 3.5mm, the soundstage opens right up. Other than power output, not much else changes from single-ended to balanced. But that soundstage is very noticeable.
The T01 has the more reference tone, with a clearer, flatter profile. There’s lots more air and everything feels open and big. Now, don’t take that to mean the T01 sounds bright. I’ve heard that accusation leveraged against it, and when pressed, it’s revealed the individual was using brighter monitors to begin with. Unlike the A01, the T01 won’t darken your monitors. It will reveal them for what they are. So buy wisely. Also, unlike some neutral DAPs, the T01 never sounds thin or brittle, or anything approaching cold. In fact it is smooth, subtly warm, and incredibly organic.
While writing this review, the E01 module released. So here my impressions of it:
The E01 is a SABRE chip, the ESS ES9038PRO. What makes this module even more special, however, is that you can switch between Class A and Class AB amplification with a drop-down menu in the UI. Another thing which separates E01 from the others is that it does not have balanced output. It possesses only one port, and that’s a standard 3.5mm TRS. You get more power and dynamic range from the Class AB setting, but you’ll miss out on the buttery smooth, villainously lush audio of Class A. There is more energy, punch, and vividness in AB, but the sheer musicality of A is difficult to scorn. My impression is E01, regardless of which setting you choose, is the warmest and bassiest of the three modules.
I will use two iBasso DAPs for my comparison segment, as they are the best alternatives I have on hand at the moment. It’s been too long since I tested the N8 to give a reliable point of contrast, which is a damn shame, as that would have been a very interesting battle. But… Pinky works with that he has.
The iBasso DX220 ($899, Review HERE) is a competitive option right out of the box, being both cheaper than Cayin’s N6ii, and damn near as good. But where it really shows its quality is when you install AMP8 or AMP9. AMP8 is the fully balanced high-current module, which delivers a stronger, bolder, more dynamic sound. It’s very close in tone and character to Cayin’s A01. Whereas AMP9, with the KORG NuTubes, is warmer, less powerful, with a softer, smoother nature. It’s remarkably similar to the E01 module Cayin just released. Using a line splitter and A/B switching between them, I could hear practically no difference between AMP9 and E01 with Class A amplification selected. There is a greater difference with Class AB, which is sharper and more defined. While AMP8 is not terribly far off from the T01 module, Cayin does distance itself from the competition with this option. iBasso doesn’t have anything that quite matches it.
Also, the DX220 stands very strong indeed in areas not related to sound. The UI, build quality, and screen are in every way Cayin’s equal. However, the N6ii does come out ahead in battery life and power management. You get much longer listening times from Cayin, and the battery doesn’t drain nearly as much when not in use. For some reason, the DX220 loves to leak charge even if it’s turned off. The N6ii does not.
Now, if you want an amazing performer that won’t cost you anywhere near a thousand dollars, what I’ve been recommending to everyone who asks is the iBasso DX160 ($400). It’s a true powerhouse that sounds absolutely incredible. The DX160 has a liquidy smooth, crystalline presentation that lacks nothing in dynamics or resolution. Sure, it’s not as warm or refined as the N6ii or the DX220, but I have a hard time giving a shit when listening to it. The DX160 just sounds so good. It also looks gorgeous and is eminently pocketable. iBasso solved their slow charge leak, and somehow managed to achieve altogether greater battery life. I call it the miracle DAP. I don’t really, but maybe I should.