Cayin N5iiS review Page 2

I approached this evaluation with the smartphone-user in mind. How much does the N5iiS add to the experience versus just using the device one already has in their pocket? The answer, as usual in the audiophile world, is a resounding ”it depends.” 

The first and most obvious factor is the choice of headphones or in-ear monitors being used. When I use budget models like my trusty RHA MA750 or the classic Koss Porta Pro, the Cayin doesn't really show a massive improvement over my Samsung Galaxy S8. If I listen closely, I do notice somewhat better separation, deeper low-end response, and a bit more clarity in the treble region. The difference is not massive though, and I get the impression the headphones are the limiting factor. It's probably not the sort of thing worth carrying another device for. And that's with the mediocre-sounding Galaxy S8 – the difference is even smaller when using an audio-oriented phone from LG, Vivo, or ZTE. For casual use – and I mean that in the least condescending way possible – a decent smartphone is probably all one needs. 

Stepping up to a more resolving monitor is a whole different story. I swapped in my Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered and immediately noticed superior clarity and articulation. Bass texture improved dramatically with the right source material, and the Cayin produced a more potent, dynamic presentation than even the best smartphones could muster. 

Note that none of this really shines through when playing highly-compressed modern pop. But with the new 24-bit/176.4kHz version of Reference Recordings' latest Quartet San Francisco release, these improvements snap into focus rather quickly. Ditto, Drone Logic from Daniel Avery, Antiphone by Alpha Mist, and an SACD rip of the superb Los Lobos album Kiko. The difference really isn't difficult to notice with quality material and resolving IEMs. 

When dealing with certain traditional full-sized headphones, the performance delta is also fairly clear-cut. As impressed as I am with the LG V30, it really doesn't do justice to higher-impedance headphones from Sennheiser or Beyerdynamic. The LG drives them well enough to achieve adequate volume, but feels lacking in what I'll call drive. This is a common experience when under-powering any transducer. And when it comes to planar-magnetic headphones with lower sensitivity ratings – Audeze, HiFiMAN, and MrSpeakers being the most common – the Cayin N5iiS is absolutely worth the effort. Again, the LG V30 does surprisingly well for a multi-purpose tool, but there's just no getting around the increased resolution and superior tonal weight of the more potent Cayin. 

Moving on from the smartphone scene, the Fiio X5 mkIII is an obvious point of comparison. It's been around for a bit longer than the Cayin but remains very popular, and offers a generally similar feature set for its $399 USD price tag. Aside from their sonic properties, the two devices are pretty evenly matched. While both units are close to one another in size, and sport similarly excellent build quality, Cayin's player manages to be noticeably heavier. It's a difference that doesn't bother me but may be significant to some. Fiio's display is larger and therefore easier to work with for my big paws, but the Cayin screen sports more vibrant colors. 

On the software side, the X5 feels just a tiny bit more responsive. Cayin chose a similar quad-core ARM Cortex A9 processor (Rockchip RK3188T) yet it somehow feels slower. And it does get bogged down more easily, particularly when installing or updating apps. On the other hand, I find the N5iiS UI to be laid out more intuitively. Cayin also seems to make better use of their somewhat limited screen real-estate. And their WiFi implementation is faster and more reliable in my home, but this might vary from one network to the next. Both players had some fairly significant bugs to work out after launch, and both have steadily increased in performance and reliability. The N5iiS typically manages 10+ hours of real-world usage, while the X5 can usually only muster eight or nine hours. I don't consider that a deal breaker, but some might. 

In the end it's roughly a tie in these areas but a clear win for Cayin in the sound department.

In comparison, I find the N5iiS to offer a more detailed, resolving sound, with faster transient response and an overall sense of improved transparency. It's not bass-shy by any means, but seems to tip the focus just a tad towards the treble region. In comparison, the Fiio comes across as a bit dull and closed in. Where I find it to sound perfectly presentable when taken on its own, playing the devices back-to-back shows the Cayin unraveling additional layers of air and sparkle up top. This never becomes harsh, bright, or overly analytical, unless of course your musical choice already leans in that direction. 

The Fiio also seemed a touch dynamically flat compared to the Cayin. The extremely low noise floor no doubt contributes much to this result, Fiio is what I'd call acceptable, but Cayin is clearly better. I noted a bit of unwanted hiss from the X5 when playing sensitive in-ear monitors from Empire Ears and 64 Audio. Meanwhile, Cayin's device is essentially silent. The cumulative effect has the N5iiS coming across as more exciting and alive, whilst Fiio's device feels a bit flat and not in the good way.

Astell&Kern's chunky KANN player is so vastly different in focus that general comparisons would be absurd. But I will point out that the user experience on the KANN feels more polished, and is probably more accessible for the average user. I'll also point out that the Cayin is in no way sonically embarrassed by the twice-the-price AK player. Each unit has its own character and I would be hard pressed to choose between them based purely on sound signature alone. KANN gets far better battery life while Cayin has offline downloads for Tidal, in addition to other streaming services via Google's Play Store. I'll stop there because... just look at the size of each player. As I said, absurd. 

Conclusion

In the end I can happily recommend the Cayin N5iiS for those who still have the dedication to lug around a portable audio player. It offers clear improvements over even the best audio-oriented smartphones on the market, provided one feeds it with quality material and listens through suitably resolving headphones. The N5iiS competes well in its price bracket when it comes to aspects such as build, connectivity, and user experience, yet leads the pack for pure audio enjoyment. 

COMPANY INFO
Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., LTD
9 Lianfa Road, Liangang Industrial Park, Shuanglin Zone,Zhuhai, Guangdong, China
info@cayin.cn
0756-3828711
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
DaveinSM's picture

The Hiby R6 has been on my radar for awhile, though I have an Onkyo DP-X1a that I am already happy with. I’d be curious to hear your take on one or both players. In my view, the main caveat with the Hiby is that 10 ohm output impedance. What were they thinking? But the display quality and user interface and speed look very compelling (still happy with the Onkyo).

John Grandberg's picture

I owned the original Onkyo DP-X1 for a while. Nothing but trouble, culminating in a broken headphone jack that fell off inside the device. Not good. I meant to follow up with the revised model but never got a chance.

I agree on the Hiby R6 - looks interesting but that output impedance is far too high considering the intended pairing with IEMs (at least that's my preferred match when going portable). It's basically DOA as far as I'm concerned.

bernardperu's picture

It would be nice to read how the Cayin sounds in balanced mode. I own the Kann and the Hiby R6. Hiby sounds subpar in unbalanced and great in balanced. Kann sounds good in unbalanced and great in balanced.

Most of the investment in these DAPs are worth it because of the balanced mode (same goes for the awesome Pono, which I also own). Balanced mode allows us to use better headphones that lead us to an overall much more pleasant and engaging listening experience.

So any comments on balanced mode (and comparisons), John? I know you dont have to deliver them, but they would be highly appreciated!

John Grandberg's picture

I didn't comment on this in the write-up because my primary use tends to be portable... which for me strictly involves IEMs (usually customs) or very occasionally something like an old V-MODA M80 or Sennheiser Momentum. None of these, when used in a portable scenario, really benefit much from balanced mode.

I do use balanced when listening at home though. Thanks to a nice little adapter from Moon Audio, I can use all my big 4-pin XLR terminated cans with the 2.5mm balanced output of the N5iiS. That nearly doubles power output, making the Cayin that much more comfortable with HD650, HD800, and LCD-2 (among others). It's still not an absolute powerhouse but for a fairly compact DAP I feel it does an admirable job.

That said, I still think the general flavor still applies when using SE mode. You aren't missing out drastically, especially when using a more sensitive headphone (IEMs or K812 for example). So while balanced is appreciated and worthwhile, it's not completely essential for an enjoyable experience.

Hope that helps!

bernardperu's picture

I appreciate the feedback

Pop Zeus's picture

The N5iiS is designed to be fully balanced, so that's definitely the better way of using the device. Even decent IEMs benefit from the improved separation and dynamics in balanced mode, as long as they aren't super efficient I suppose (I wouldn't know, I don't own any).

jherbert's picture

All those old android versions do not get any security patches anymore. I don't get it that all those companies (including biggies like pioneer/onkyo) still ship Android 5.x or earlier stuff and do not give a damn about. These devices are wide open to a wide range of attacks.

The most current Android release is 9.x, most new phones run 8.x.

I still have to read a review pointing at this issue.

John Grandberg's picture

Is that really a problem on a device like this though? I don't do any mobile banking on a portable audio player.... don't log in to my retirement account either. Have a special Google account that I use exclusively for audio gear. What's the worst that could happen? Tidal or Spotify account compromised? Not much harm done there either.

jherbert's picture

John, do you keep the OS of you Mac or PC current, and do you let let it load security patches whenever they are offered? There is good reason to do so, because theses devices otherwise are open for attacks, and they might spread malware to other devices in the network they live in.

Please consider that a compromised android device is or may become part of a local network, be it at home or - worse - at work. This device will be the entry points for attacks on this network. I am not talking about banking scams or the like, but sophisticated attackers.

May Samsung phone and my huawei tablet both receive security patches almost every month for that very reason, my pioneer dap does not. Go figure.

DAPs these days are general purpose computers running specialized software. They should be handled that way by their manufacturers. Ignoring this is irresponsible, not asking manufacturers for a fix is a disservice to the audio community imho.

So, why not just ask manufacturers why they do not supply security patches and deliver OS versions that have been outdated for years?

ednaz's picture

Yes it does matter. There have been several hacks recently where malware came onto a device via an app then took over the device and became part of a large scale bitcoin mining network. Ran in the background. Phone performance would suddenly suck, but unless you knew what to look for, you couldn't explain it. The apps that were hacked were downloaded via legitimate app stores, and escaped attention from the app stores for quite awhile.

I've seen demos of malware hidden in audio files, jpg files, and pdfs. I can spoof a hot spot that you'll think is one you know well, and the second you connect punch some really interesting code onto your device. I've seen more and more hacks that aren't purposeful, like stealing your account info, but just to create a problem that the hacker can brag about in his script-kiddie groups.

On my home network, no one gets to log in to it other than those using devices I control... they go to a guest network that's completely sandboxed. I've had to hunt and kill some network malware that some guest unwittingly passed on to my guest network. It was running a re-routing app (for covering up where some attack is actually coming from), at a high enough usage level that I could see the performance hit on my home network.

So I'd agree with you that maybe outdated OS code doesn't matter... as long as you're not downloading anything to the device, or installing anything other than what came on it, and never connect to anything other than networks that you control.

John Grandberg's picture

...where you and the above poster are coming from. I guess I just don't worry about it too much - many of the DAPs come with pre-installed Tidal and Spotify etc. If not, I just load the handful I use from the Play Store. And that's really all I do - no internet browsing, no sideloading questionable Apps, no connecting to random other networks. I feel it is reasonably safe though I agree there is a small chance something could go wrong.

You are correct, of course, in saying that it would be ideal if these companies all continued pushing updates for all their products. But many of the audio firms in question are relatively small, and simply don't have the resources for that. If Sony and HTC can't always keep up with security patches, what chance do Cayin or iBasso have? Realistically, I'm just happy to see bug fixes and optimizations keep coming year after year - much better than the Calyx M which seemed to be abandoned after a short time.

When we are dealing with DAPs from Sony or Pioneer/Onkyo, I suppose expectations should be a bit higher. So I see your point there.

stalepie's picture

One thing I wish phones would borrow from DAPs is their nice volume dials, with lots of volume steps (the AK Jr seems to have a good design).

Simply Nobody's picture

The newly released iPhone is available with up to 512 GB internal storage ........ We can get a Lightning to USB adaptor and AQ-DF Red for example and get ready to rock n' roll :-) ..........

John Grandberg's picture

It is great to see such high capacities available. Shame about the $349 premium it commands though. Cayin offers dual microSD slots and 256GB+200GB+built in 64GB costs roughly 1/3 as much. Still, for those on the Apple ecosystem, I'm glad the huge storage exists.

Simply Nobody's picture

One of the advantages of the phone is that, we can access internet anywhere .......... Useful for access to streaming services, anywhere ........ A separate portable DAP has the advantage that, we don't have to worry about battery life in the phone ........... Of course, both devices can co-exist ...........

Simply Nobody's picture

I forgot to mention that, the new Samsung phone has storage capability of 1 TB ..........

sbaradaran's picture

Thanks for the review.

I'm curious why the Ibasso DAPs and iems don't make their way over to innerfidelity? The DX150 would see like a good candidate to compete with the Cayin. The DX200 with Fiio's X7, etc.

John Grandberg's picture

...generally speaking. I covered their DX90 a few years back, in Part 3 of my DAP Survey (see link at the beginning of this article). I quite enjoyed it overall - very solid value for the price.

Would love to cover the DX150, and the DX120 looks pretty intriguing too. But only so much time in the day.

jherbert's picture

Just to get that straight: It's not just old versions of android. It's also security patches provided by google are not delivered to customers. This at least seems to be true for the Onkyo/Pioneer stuff. My DP300R did not receive a single security patch since I bought it, nor did it receive patches for any shortcomings in functionality.

ednaz's picture

The older a version of an OS is, the bigger the library of attack tools available.

We don't live in a very nice world these days. There's a lot of focus on IoT and mobile device hacks since people are now sensitized to the computer risks. Someone created a very effective DDoS attack network by creating hacks that took mass control of network connected refrigerators, washing machines, light switches, etc. and then had them firing requests that overwhelmed the target sites. You can't use certain manufacturers' phones to connect to wifi on military bases these days, because of network attack malware built right into the phones.

But. Everyone has their own level of risks and concerns they're comfortable with. I'm not comfortable with a lot of things because I've had to deal with a lot of the more creative attacks. Fully admit I may be more sensitized by how much I've seen.

jherbert's picture

@ednaz Attacks do not depend on sharing, unfortunately. Consider the BlueBorne vulnerability (https://www.armis.com/blueborne/) which made it to the headlines some months ago. There are apps to check your device on Google Play. My DAP, the Pioneer XDP-300R, IS vulnarable, and Pioneer/Onkyo just don't care.

Problem is that you can be attacked anytime you are using the device with a bluetooth headset in public. Which is one of the popular use cases for these devices.

The same is tue if you are using an unpatched device on the road via wifi, which you usually do if you listen to spotify or tidal. Once the mobile device is compromised it may spread almost everything to your deviuces back home, once it has a chance to talk to them. No need to share, unfortunately.

So, all I wish for is that reviewers ask one non-audio question to manufacturers: Do you supply Android security patches, and if you do, how frequently?

John Grandberg's picture

Small point, but I personally would never connect to a network on the road for streaming services. It's all about loading up music for offline listening.

But I will certainly keep your suggestion in mind.

Sjeb's picture

John—-I commend you for pointing out this unit supports offline play for Tidal, etc. Unfortunately, most of your colleagues on this site, Stereophile and elsewhere ignore this feature or lack thereof (and thereby give the A&K players a free pass). I couldn’t imagine spending a lot of money on a DAP that lacks the ability to use Tidal while on a plane etc, so I bought an LG V30. I had bought an AK120 years ago when they first came out, and just of can’t understand why they haven’t adopted offline play, and why reviews of their products don’t point this out.

blm's picture

I would like to know with the C5NiiS if you can pick which card you want to listen to music from. If you can, how do you do this? Here is why I ask: I have two cards in my FiiO X5 II. One has all classical music and the other jazz, rock etc. With the FiiO I can pick which card I want to see the index to - so the music from each card is indexed separately. Is this the case with the C5NiiS?

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