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.