The Cayin house sound is well-intact in the N3. Warm and smooth, with a goodly heft to sub freqs. It presents nice clarity and articulation. Fresh out of the box, the Cayin N3 sounded rather dull and boring. But after burn-in (which this unit certainly has had after a full tour) the dynamics have picked up nicely. Still, the overall nature of the N3 is a laid-back, easy listen. It’s a great DAP to relax to.
Treble has a slightly rolled-off, warmer tone. It’s silky and kind of thin. There’s enough, though, to shine a light on the stage, revealing decent amounts of detail. The highs help to balance out the bottom-heavy tuning, giving the elements a strong presence and clarity.
Vocals are rich and velvety, whilst possessed of healthy texture and detailing. They sit rather neutral on the stage, with good size and weight. The N3 achieves a better than average level of transparency, allowing you to easily lose yourself in the music. Resolution of the mids is quite good, and better than I would have expected. Everything is so well defined you’ll be hard pressed to feel like you’re missing out on those more expensive devices.
As I mentioned, bass is of utmost importance to the Cayin sound. It fills out the presentation with great warmth and musicality. The lows fall like a hammer, thudding, and driving the tunes with crazy power. There’s great tonality and roundness, and a fine amount of texture. The N3 hits with superb depth and weight, making this player highly enjoyable to rock out to.
Shanling’s M2s fits well into the same profile as Cayin. It sounds so bloody close to the N3 it can be hard to distinguish them. Using an A/B Line Switcher, I was able to move back and forth between these two with split-second timing, and a few disparities emerged: The Shanling’s treble is less rolled-off, giving it better clarity and transparency than the N3. The N3 sounds smoother and more laid-back. It also has a slightly wider soundstage than the M2s, and perhaps a bit deeper, too. Apart from that… good luck deciding between the two.
Now, the Cayin i5 is a much clearer win. Take everything I wrote about the N3, and add a richer, more refined sound. There is better separation of elements. The notes carry more weight and realism. There is a greater sense of depth and air, with a blacker background. The whole thing comes off more organic and resolved. i5’s bass has a bigger, meaner monster behind it, leading one to fear for their life every now and again.