Truth, Beauty, and Greatness – A Review of the Cayin N5ii

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The Cayin N5ii has neutral-warm tuning, exemplifying clarity and resolution above all other conceits. The single 9018K2M SABRE DAC is implemented expertly, avoiding that cold thin sound many SABRE devices suffer from. While it’s not as warm or organic as the very best SABRE examples (Opus#2), the N5ii walks a delicate line, with a smooth yet revealing character.

CLEAN is the first thought that comes to mind. Cayin renders so very clean. You can hear everything, and it’s all so unspoiled. Details are highlighted, but not in the aggressive way brighter gear tends towards. Here, there is simply nothing obscuring them. The clearness is profound.

The N5ii has good body and dimensionality. You get weight and a decent sense of depth. The hint of warmth seems to come mostly from ample bass, as the treble has significant presence and is in no way lacking. Yet don’t expect a bass-monster here. The lows are capable, with strong attack, but they are not a showstopper. If anything, I’d call the mids the real star, for they are portrayed with vivid articulation and awesome transparency. It’s listening to the instruments and vocals that I am most impressed by this DAP.

The soundstage of the new Cayin is exceptionally wide. One of the biggest I have on-hand. And it illustrates depth better than any of the lower-budget gear I’ve tried. Dynamism is remarkable, as well. This is a lively f**ker and will immediately engage you. What really separates the N5ii from the pack, though, is its gift for natural, clear, high resolution audio. There are DAPs which do one or two of those three things better, but Cayin manages them all, and on a level of proficiency you have no right to expect at this price point.

Now, you may be saying, “Fine fine fine, you longwinded ghoul, but how does it compare to X, Y, or Z?”

Well… f**k you. You’re a ghoul! And here’s how it compares, you hurtful creep:

First, I must pit the N5ii against that which has long held the crown for Best Mid-Tier DAP… in Pinky reckoning. The Opus#1 ($289, Review HERE). And yes indeed, Cayin edges it out by the smallest margin. For the most part, I don’t consider the N5ii an upgrade to Opus. Their performance is just so goddamn close. Yet Cayin has a fingernail’s extra width in soundstage. The mids are fuller, with more body. Opus#1 comes off thinner, and sort of dry. Cayin’s treble is not as bright, and sounds smoother, more liquid, and just a tiny bit more natural. Even this feels like I’m exaggerating, as the differences are so minor. Rest assured, either device sounds incredible. However, I will give Cayin the unqualified win on build. It’s in a whole other league.

Perhaps the audio player with which folk are most eager for a comparison, is the Cayin i5 ($399, Review HERE). The i5 is much warmer and more analogue-seeming. Or you could say more “tube-like”. The bass is huge and indomitable, resulting in a fuller, meatier sound. The treble has less energy, attributing to that warm theme. However, the N5ii has the wider soundstage and the much cleaner, detail oriented presentation. I would say the N5ii is more transparent because of this, but the i5 is perhaps more musical, or engaging. Also, the i5 is significantly more powerful. Playing the rather quiet album, SESSIONS FROM THE 17TH WARD by Amber Rubarth on my HD6XX, both players on High Gain, I get good volume at 80/100 on the N5ii, and only 50/100 on the i5. Of course, that’s only on the 3.5mm single-ended output. In Balanced, the N5ii has tons more juice, though I don’t know the exact i5 equivalent.

At $269, the Shanling M3s (Review HERE) is a great budget-friendly alternative. It shares quite a lot in common with the N5ii in terms of tuning. Still, there’s no question to my ears Cayin is the more robust device. There’s greater note weight and a more realistic portrayal of depth. The elements on the stage are just a little more three-dimensional. Oh, and the N5ii is wider-sounding.

So what about a device that handily defeats the Cayin N5ii at its own game? Well, you’ll have to empty your pockets for that. The iBasso DX200 with AMP1 ($899) is a true upgrade to the N5ii’s mission statement of clarity and resolution. It renders clearer and sharper, yet somehow doesn’t over-do it, as it also feels more natural and real. Layering and depth are superior, and transparency is taken to a whole new level. Dynamics and punchy-ness are noticeably stronger, and the soundstage is all around bigger. But again, look at the price difference. Good luck finding something for under $600 that clearly beats Cayin.

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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.

27 Comments

  1. Juan Luis Quiroz on

    Hi Pinky,

    The N5ii would make a good match with the 99 Neo?

    • Pinky Powers on

      Oh yes. Because of Neo’s deep warmth, it plays beautifully with the N5ii’s clear, detailed output.

      • Juan Luis Quiroz on

        Oh, is good to know. I was already looking for a replacement for the N3 I use.

  2. Ajay Marrott on

    Hos does the N5II compare to the Opus #1s?

    • Pinky Powers on

      It compares well.

      • Ajay Marrott on

        Are they on equal footing or do prefer one over the other?

      • INDRAJIT on

        Hey, on the recent market of Audio players bringing in the 2.5mm(Bal), is there a way to simply buy a cable(male 2.5mm to 3.5mm female) for traditional headphones and use it with the 2.5mm output? I have an Audio Technica M50X and there are some cables that claim to turn M50x into balanced sound. There is a lack of such cables or even balanced headphones in a country like India and so i was wondering that if there is no way to convert M50x into balanced with a simple cable then how does a N5ii in (Bal mode) compare sonically with a Fiio X7 1st gen in (single ended) mode?

        • Pinky Powers on

          For the most part, any headphone that uses a L and R connector that goes into each earcup can use a balanced cable.

          If the headphone is designed so that only one side is plugged in at a time, then a cable cannot turn those headphone balanced. They must be modified so that the Negative L and R pathways remain separate.

          There are a few rare examples of a headphone using one-sided earcup connection, but that jack is a 4-pole. Meaning +L -L +R -R are all on their own pathways. These CAN use a balanced cable.

          From what I know of the M50X, they would need to be modified, since they share ground.

          Plugged a balanced cable into a single-ended headphone can damage your amp, and is highly inadvisable. You’re basically shorting two live lines together. 🙂

          • Indrajit on

            Hi, how does N5II compare with Fiio x5iii based on purely sound quality especially with single ended?

            • Pinky Powers on

              I was never a fan of the X5iii sound quality. I found it dull and severely lacking dynamics.

              So I can’t help but recommend the N5ii. It’s superior in every way, sound-wise. And in most other ways, too. 😉

              • Indrajit on

                Hi
                I have a Fiio X5iii and a Sennheiser HD598. Regarding the underwhelming amp-section inside the X5iii I have a question. How does the Fiio X5III+A5 compare with a standalone Cayin N5ii? I don’t use balanced, only single-ended. I am in a situation where I can either buy a Fiio A5 for the X5iii or get rid of the Fiio and instead get a Cayin N5ii for single ended? Which of the either scenario can bring me better sonic results with the Sennheiser HD598?

  3. Tim on

    Hi,

    Thanks for your advice. I’ve managed to get my hands on a 2nd hand OPUS 1 Dap. Great sound indeed. But one curious thing I’ve discovered is that unlike all my other DAPS – it’s not able to split cue files – so all my cue file albums play as one long track now 🙁 ….wonder if you’ve had the same experience?

    I can see why you like the sound though 🙂

    • Pinky Powers on

      Congratulations on the awesome purchase.

      I haven’t noticed this CUE issue. But I only load albums already broken up into their individual songs, so I wouldn’t see this anyway. Sorry.

      • Brian on

        How do you think the N5ii sounds compared to the Opus #1? I have the Opus and think it sounds decent with ATH-M50’s and 1More Quad IEMs.

        What about both of those vs a Mojo?

        My taste in sound is a v-shape…more bass and high treble with less mids.

  4. Victor on

    Hi Pinky,

    Great review. Really interesting when you hear with Tia Fourte and you said there is no obvious weakness of this N5ii. This player seems be the beast at its price range.

    What do you think if i’m upgrade AK100 1st gen to N5ii? Would it be great improvement?
    I use noble savant for my iem.

    Thanks

    • Pinky Powers on

      I would not seek an upgrade to a DAP by looking at one that is far less than even half its original price. That is not a reasonable mentality to have. lol.

  5. Tim on

    Hi,

    Thanks for your excellent review. One query – based purely on sound quality alone, and no other considerations, would you consider this new N5ii Dap or Cayin’s flagship N6 to have superior audio chops – for your tastes?

    • Pinky Powers on

      Tim,

      I have not heard the N6. I suspect it may still sound better, but based on how much DAP tech has progressed over the last two years, that may not be true anymore.

      However, the N6 is not long for this world. Cayin already has plans to replace it. But no word yet on when that will happen.

      Personally, if I were shopping in that price range, I’d buy the Opus#3. Even without auditioning it. I’ve had nothing but love for #1, #2 and now #1S. I would buy the #3 without any hesitation or fear.

  6. Zack on

    Hiby R6 review coming up soon? I would like to know how it compares to Cayin N5ii.

    • Pinky Powers on

      I have no contacts with Hiby, so I’m not sure if or when I’ll get my hands on the R6.

  7. Elric on

    I have it and use it with Noble Sage and Eros II, This is music i want to hear, great sound, great review.

  8. Scott Thouvenin on

    Hi pinky, great review and I’m going to pick one of these up and compare it with my current zx300. I just want to know what the iems were on the second page first picture? They look of gold or brass coloured and look tiny, which I like.

    Thanks again, a real concise review, with humour and wit 😉

  9. Csaba on

    Enjoyable writing – as always. Can’t resist – ordered one right now. Really curious with the Meze 99 Classic (I’ll show my balanced cable project soon (without 3D printed part) ).
    Nice color match Fourté – Symbio 🙂

    • Pinky Powers on

      Oh, that sounds marvelous. You need a webpage with a proper store, Csaba. Keep me posted, though. I’m a fan.

      Good job on the N5II buy. You’ll love it.

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