Audio products tend to be either very affordable or very expensive, and I’ve always believed that as you go higher, even a small improvement needs a big investment. Whether we’re talking about headphones, speakers or digital audio players, the best products often cost a lot of money and are accessible only to the buyers with enough money to spare.
But occasionally, a digital audio player comes along that defies the norms. Praised by users and experts alike, the Cayin N3 is a digital audio player that hopes to offer high-end audio at a price that is decidedly not so high-end. I’ve reviewed the Rs 12,999 Cayin N3, and here’s all you need to know about it.
With looks so ordinary…
Now, even within the digital audio space, there have been audio players that look fantastic. The original Apple iPod was a marvel of design, with many imitating it for years to come. The Astell & Kern AK Jr and Sony Walkman NW-A35 both have very distinct styling as well. However, Cayin is a Chinese manufacturer that, like another famous Chinese audio products maker called Fiio, started out as an OEM and later decided to brand and market its products itself.
Naturally, design isn’t the company’s strongest point, and that shows in the Cayin N3. The device is rather plain on all sides, with a small 2.4-inch non-touch screen with capacitive controls and physical buttons at the front and sides. The casing is brushed aluminium, with a leather-finish plastic panel at the back that looks rather odd against the otherwise tasteful metal. Despite its odd design and styling, the Cayin N3 is built rather well and feels solid. It’s also incredibly compact and pocketable, so you won’t face the portability problems that larger digital audio players typically come with.
The bottom of the Cayin N3 has the 3.5mm socket to plug in headphones. There’s a USB type-C port for charging, data transfers and USB-OTG, but you can’t listen to music with USB Type-C headphones. This is among the first portable audio players to feature the type-C charging port, which helps in quickly charging the device as well as fast file transfers. The front has the navigation controls, while the sides have the power, volume, next, previous and play/pause buttons. The interface is unfortunately a bit clunky and the controls are difficult to use, which is the biggest flaw of the device.
The Cayin N3 is capable of a frequency response output ranging from 5-50,000Hz. Battery life is claimed to be around 12 hours on a full charge, and takes about two hours to charge provided you’re using a 2A power adapter (which isn’t included in the package). Worth noting is that the Cayin N3 does not have any in-built storage; an open microSD card slot on the right side of the device supports up to 256GB cards. While this certainly helps keep the cost of the Cayin N3 low and lets users slot in storage according to their own requirements, the option of internal storage would have been nice. You also get Bluetooth connectivity on the Cayin N3, letting you listen to your music without wires.
The Cayin N3 not only works as a digital audio player, but can also serve as a DAC when connected to a PC, with support for a fairly comprehensive list of high-resolution and compressed audio formats, including MP3, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, DSD and more. The device also supports USB-OTG, so you can connect a USB drive with audio without needing a microSD storage card on the device. The player supports audio files up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution with some formats, and 32-bit/384kHz with others. The amplification is slated to drive headphones with impedance ranging from 16-200 Ohms, which means that the N3 should comfortably drive even high-end headphones. ALSO READ: The Sennheiser HE 1 is Rs 45 lakhs worth of luxury personal audio, complete with theatrics and powerful sound
I tested the Cayin N3 using a handful of audio tracks in various formats, including compressed and high-resolution formats. I used a range of headphones with the Cayin N3, including the TekFusion Twinwoofers M2, Sony MDR-100ABN paired over Bluetooth and the Sennheiser Momentum On-Ears. The focus tracks for the review were Astor Piazzolla’s Suite Punta del Este in DFF format, and Michael Jackson’s You Rock My World and Bonobo’s Days to Come in FLAC.
Starting with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s classic composition which inspired the Twelve Monkeys theme, I was impressed with everything from the definition to the quality of the timbre. With multiple elements throughout the track and with a file format that leaves nothing to chance, the Cayin N3 admirably handles the audio. The sound improves vastly when you use better headphones, but doesn’t fail to do justice with even affordable headphones. Of particular quality were the cello and bass instrumentals, with distinctly aggressive timbre that felt real and present.
With You Rock My World, the Cayin N3 showed that it can keep up with and accurately reproduce even exciting tracks. While treble and bass felt a bit too much on the TekFusion headphones, results were better with the more neutral-sounding Sennheiser headset. And while listening on the Bluetooth-powered Sony MDR-100ABN wasn’t quite as capable as on the wired Momentum, the sonic differences were minor and forgivable. The same was noticeable with Days to Come, and it’s clear that the Cayin N3 will serve your headphones without prejudice, highlighting the strengths (and weaknesses) of the headphones.
After my listening sessions, it’s evident that the Cayin N3 is best used with capable headphones, and after spending Rs 12,999 on the audio player (what you’d typically pay for a decent mid-range smartphone), you won’t do it justice with cheap headphones. When combined with a decent headset such as the Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear, the Cayin N3 produces the ideal results and real-world performance that you’d expect for the price.
Additionally, wide format support and a compact form factor make this an ideal digital audio player for beginner audiophiles. While the interface isn’t the best and the lack of internal storage may be bothersome to some, it’s a good start into the world of high-resolution listening, and definitely worth a look if you’re looking to invest in a dedicated high-resolution audio player.