Today, we are checking out a very interesting portable digital audio player (DAP) – the Cayin N3Pro. I think it’s quite an interesting audio player since it features both Solid State and Vacuum Tubes. As a result, Cayin’s N3Pro is capable of delivering dual timbre or sound signature. Well, to be exact that would be four: via the solid state, via balanced output, and via the vacuum tubes that have a Triode mode and Ultra-linear mode. If you’re in the market for a sub-$500 portable DAP that is rich with features and sound characteristics, check out our Cayin N3Pro below.
Cayin N3Pro DAP Review – Two (or more) Modes Is Better Than One!
The Cayin N3Pro is perhaps one of the company’s ambitious and interesting portable digital audio players. They have a DAP with an interchangeable motherboard – the N6ii. And their flagship N8 is perhaps the first to feature a unique dual-channel Triode Nutube vacuum tube amplification. The N3Pro can be considered as the little brother of their flagship N8.
This DAP also has a lot of features, so let me break it down. The Cayin N3Pro features two AK4493EQ DAC chips in a dual DAC configuration. It also features two vintage miniature Raytheon JAN6418 vacuum tubes that can be operated in two modes: Triode and Ultra-linear. Each mode offers a different sound signature and characteristics.
On top of the single-ended output, the N3Pro is fully balanced; capable of delivering balanced headphone output of up to 800mW. This player also supports a plethora of audio formats; from 32bit/384kHz PCM, up to DSD256 and even MQA (later added).
It runs on a proprietary OS and it does feature swiping actions and touch functionality. But since this is not Android, you won’t be able to install any apps nor does it have support for any streaming service. It’s purely a dedicated audio player. Speaking of touch, the display, although a bit small, is a touchscreen display.
The N3Pro has several physical connectivity options, which I will get into later. It has wireless connectivity options as well, like Bluetooth 5.0 and WiFi (for OTA updates). Thanks to its BT 5.0, you can connect your smartphone to the N3Pro and wirelessly “stream” via UAT, LDAC, or AAC.
I do not want to bore you with words alone, so, I will discuss more of its features as we take a closer look at the unit itself. Meanwhile, below are additional technical details and specifications of the N3Pro.
Cayin N3Pro Specifications
Packaging and Closer Look
The Cayin N3Pro came in with a nice rectangular box. I’m not sure if you can see it but there is an embossed image of the N3Pro at the front portion with its tube amps turn on. At the back of the box, the highlighted features and additional information about the product are printed.
Inside, you get a transparent silicone protective case. It is not a very attractive-looking case, but it is serviceable enough to protect the unit. There’s also a braided USB-C cable for charging the unit and data transfer. And finally, there is an (optional) Emerald Green leather case, that is sold separately by default. However, some retailers include the leather case without additional cost.
The display is a 3.2″ (inch) IPS touchscreen display with a resolution of 480×360. It’s quite responsive, but I think the XBurst MCU with a clock speed of 1.GHz is somewhat on the slow side. It’s not that sluggish, but it’s not that snappy or very responsive as well.
When it comes to dimensions, the Cayin N3Pro measures 115.2mm in height, 63.5mm in width, and 18.9mm in thickness. Its body is made of CNC-machined aluminum chassis and weighs around 195 grams only.
More Storage Via OTG
It only has one microSD card slot, and it supports up to 1TB of microSDXC. I haven’t tried using a 1TB microSDXC card since I don’t have one. But if you have a huge library of music, the N3Pro can also playback music from USB OTG storage via the USB-C connector. And yes, it has a DAC functionality, meaning you can use the N3Pro as a DAC for your PC or other sources.
On the right-hand side are the physical controls. That power icon is just printed and doesn’t lit up. It’s just an indicator that the volume knob also serves as the power button when pressed. Right under the volume knob are the play/pause, next and previous buttons.
Underneath the N3Pro are the USB-C connector, 3.5mm line-in, 3.5mm single-ended headphone out, and 4.4mm balanced out. Although it uses a USB Type-C interface, I don’t think it’s the highspeed USB 3.2 Gen2 10Gbps. It’s probably a USB 2.0 or 3.0, I’m not sure about this.
Software and UI
Like I mentioned earlier, the Cayin N3Pro runs on a proprietary software called Cayin OS. And I think it is a customized version of Hiby’s OS. It does support touch and swipe functionality but generally speaking it’s a dedicated audio player through and through.
Operating the N3Pro doesn’t take long to get used to. It’s very easy to navigate and I just think it’s being held back by its processor which sometimes lags a bit. Swiping from top to bottom reveals some quick access functions. This includes a gain switch, solid / vacuum mode, Bluetooth, and several others.
To see the “advanced” menu and settings swipe from bottom to top and a small menu will show up. You will be presented with music settings and system settings.
Obviously, the music settings give you options and settings related to music or audio. And the system settings provide you more options regarding the operation of the N3Pro itself.
I wasn’t able to get some photos, but the N3Pro has several options for PCM digital filter and a couple for DSD digital filter. There is also a 10-band equalizer if you want to do some custom EQ settings, and there are EQ presets as well.
Above is how the playback menu looks like. When playing music from the selection menu or playlist, you may want to press the circle touch button on the lower portion of the N3Pro; below the vacuum tubes. This will take you to the “now playing” screen.
You can also use the touch buttons to play/pause or skip the track. The center screen (album/cover art) can also be swiped, showing additional information about the track or lyrics. Notice the three dots right below the battery indicator? Pressing that will give you additional options, like adding/deleting the track to a playlist or favorite and change playback mode.
Speaking of playback, I haven’t taken notes regarding its battery duration. But according to Cayin, one full charge should offer around 9 to 11 hours of music playback. That’s probably an aggressive estimation, and it may be shorter depending on the settings used.
Impressions and Subjective Listening
Now, let’s talk about the sound quality and characteristics of the Cayin N3Pro, which is the most important part of this review. A digital audio player usually has only one sound signature or characteristics. Some players with a balanced output tend to have slightly different sound quality. Like I mentioned earlier, the unique thing about the N3Pro is that it is capable of producing several sound characteristics.
Users will have the option to choose from the (default) solid state or vacuum tube. Both outputs produce different timbre and sound characteristics. And on top of that, there are two different modes you can choose when in vacuum mode; triode and ultra-liner. I’ll get into that later. Let’s start with the solid state first.
By the way, I am using Campfire Audio’s Solaris 2020 and Andromeda to test and audition the N3Pro. These two IEMs are fantastic, with excellent detail, clarity, and tonality; especially the Solaris 2020. I highly recommend them and if you’re looking for the best or one of the best IEMs in the market, these two are a must.
Solid State Mode
I think the solid state mode would be the more familiar tonality and perhaps the more acceptable mode for the most genre. It sounds dynamic, energetic, and with a very good instrument separation and detail retrieval. The low end or bass sound fast and tight, and it can go low when needed.
To my ears, it doesn’t sound reference or flat. The N3Pro in solid state mode is a bit on the warmer side with the vocals having a clear and transparent sound. It’s not too forward or laid back, and I think it’s just the right mode for the most genre and music types.
The 4.4mm Balanced Out
Now you can’t use Triode mode when connected to the 4.4mm balanced output. And I was having a bit of a difficulty comparing the 3.5mm single-ended to the 4.4mm balanced out; since I have to replace the cable. So, what I did is just listen to the tracks several times and take note of the differences that I have observed.
To my ears, the 4.4mm balanced output sounds a bit more energetic or lively than the 3.5mm out. It has more power output since I have to lower the volume a bit to match the 3.5mm output. The tonality and timbre sound very similar to the unbalanced output. I’m not sure if it’s because it has more power output, but it sounded like it’s a bit brighter.
I didn’t stick long with the balanced out since it is more convenient for me to use the 3.5mm plug. And I am quite satisfied with the unbalanced output alone. Perhaps, the balanced output would be more useful if you are using a full-sized headphone.
I noticed that the N3Pro is generally a great DAP for earphones and IEM. But for full-sized cans, you’ll need to take advantage of the balanced output’s power to drive the cans a bit better.
Vacuum Tube Mode – Triode Mode
When enabling the vacuum tube mode, there is a 5-second delay before it completely switches to vacuum. This gives the N3Pro a bit of time to warm up the tubes. However, I find that the sound quality gets better after a few minutes of using the tubes. Probably because 5 seconds is barely enough to warm up the tubes. Also, when using an IEM, I can hear a ringing sound for a few seconds after the vacuum tube has been enabled.
In Triode mode, the N3Pro sounds smoother and a bit warmer. If the music was an image, it’s akin to applying anti-aliasing that smoothens the rough edges of an object or image. Some people like smooth and somewhat “liquid” tonality. But I think you get that kind of sound in exchange for a bit of loss in detail, or perhaps a slightly recessed treble.
Another thing that I noticed is the vocals sounding a bit forward-leaning. Perhaps a bit more intimate compared to solid state mode. If you want to feel the artist singing to your ears, this is perhaps the better or the best way to experience the artist’s voice. But again, wait for a few more minutes and allow the tubes to fully warm up.
Vacuum Tube Mode – Ultra Linear Mode
One compromise I observed when using Triode mode is that soundstage seems reduced. It feels as if the music became a bit focused and perhaps a bit “cluttered” for some genre. To counter this, and if you want a somewhat relaxed, lively, and wider sound stage – enter Ultra-linear mode.
Yes, it makes the music somewhat “linear” and to my ears, it definitely sounds wider. Contrary to the triode mode, there is more sound stage and a sense of spaciousness in ultra-linear mode. This is perhaps good for orchestra, live performance, and similar genres. But, personally, not a huge fan of the ultra-linear mode.
It’s like a combination of solid state and vacuum tube and then made the sound a bit brighter and wider. Again, the genre or type of music and the headphone or earphone you use would also play a role. So for me, Campfire Audio’s Andromeda and ultra-linear mode is a no-go. With the Solaris, it’s a bit tolerable; but most of the time I find myself simply sticking with solid state mode.
It is a matter of personal preference already and it depends on the earphone/headphone you use. But the good thing here is users will have the option to change the tone, timbre, and sound characteristics of the N3Pro without messing with the EQ.
Like I mentioned earlier, I primarily used CA’s Solaris 2020 and Andromeda to test and audition Cayin’s N3Pro. I noticed that when paired with a sensitive IEM/earphone, there is a bit of background noise or hiss. It was apparent when I listened to it using some of the tracks from audiocheck.
I then compared the N3Pro with the Opus#1S, and the difference was noticeable; especially with the background noise. The Opus#1S had a dead silent background without making the player sounding dark. The Opus#1S was a bit more neutral and linear sounding. Perhaps the Opus#1S was more reference sounding-like compared to the N3Pro.
If you have a full-sized can, I wouldn’t recommend that you use it directly with the N3Pro. Especially if your headphone is inefficient or has a high impedance rating. You need an external amplifier or at least use the 4.4mm balanced output.
Pricing and Availability
The Cayin N3Pro fully balanced, dual timbre, portable digital audio player is now available. It comes with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $479.00 USD. For the latest pricing and availability, kindly check out the link below.
Cayin N3Pro DAP available on Amazon.com here
Cayin N3Pro Review Conclusion
Wrapping things up, I think Cayin has a winner here with the N3Pro. It offers features similar to its flagship DAP, the Cayin N8, but at a significantly lower price. In the grand scheme of portable DAPs, the N3Pro may look like it is an upper entry-level or lower mid-range player. But it offers great sound quality, with the option to change tonality and timbre. It simply offers a unique feature that none of its competitors has.
On the flip side, it doesn’t run using an Android OS. So, there are no Android-related features like installing apps or using streaming services. It’s primarily a music player with touch functionality. There is wireless functionality and it supports HiBy Link. So, you can stream music from your smartphone and output it to the N3Pro.
But what I usually do, is simply pair my smartphone with the N3Pro via Bluetooth; and choose the highest audio quality. So, whatever audio my smartphone produces, gets outputted to the N3Pro. It’s similar to when you pair a Bluetooth headphone/earphone with the smartphone.
There are a few things that I would like to be improved in future DAP versions. Perhaps a larger display, a faster processor, and a more responsive and snappier OS. Competition is becoming tougher each year and Cayin’s competition is no slouch; constantly improving with each DAP iteration they release.
Overall, if you are a bit adventurous and would like a DAP that offers solid state and tube sound signature (without changing modules), consider the Cayin N3Pro on your top list.