Cayin N7 ($1995): The “near-flagship” carries tricks up its yellow sleeve…
Cayin sound-wonderfully musical
Mids sing wonderfully
Ability to download your music apps
Might be too neutral for some
May not be powerful enough without an external amp
Limited internal memory
Cayin N7 ($1995): The “near-flagship” carries tricks up its yellow sleeve…
Intro: This sample is part of a North American tour. Andy Kong contacted me to see if I was interested, and of course I said yes. After my time, this unit will be sent to the next reviewer in line. My words for good or ill are mine only, with no affiliate connection what-so-ever.
I have a soft spot for Cayin DAP’s & portable headphone amplifiers. One of my current go-to DAP’s is still the venerable N6ii, running the E01 motherboard. I also have the A01 & T01, but prefer the E01 for its sound, which favors my tastes. I did find this odd, since it only comes in 3.5mm se connectivity. I have not tried the E02, nor do I plan to. My other go-to is an “older” Shanling M6 Pro. I have loved the Shanling “house-sound” since the original M5, which I still own. That said, I will bring in my TOTL neutral DAP, the older Questyle QP2R as well. To me it may just be the finest unencumbered sound out there, new or old. I do also have the Astell & Kern ACRO CA1000, and use it heavily as a DAP and streamer in my office two-channel system, so I will try to provide some comparative aspects there as well.
Over the course of my two weeks, I was able to get over 50 hours of listening. Some longer days, some shorter. I tried to accommodate all listening options as well. Others will have had more time to do that with their personal units.
The N7 retails for a cool $2k, so it is not cheap by any means. Plus, in this day of streamers taking center stage, does one truly need this item? You will have to be the judge of that. Slotted just below the N8i, but with some newer technology, the N7 is different enough not to step on the toes of its older sibling.
Cayin N6ii (E01)
A&K ACRO CA 1000
Letshuoer Cadenza 12
Mostly Qobuz & Tidal favorites list (everything from Jazz to U2 to David Grisman)
Few nail the unboxing aspect every time. Focal comes to mind as one that does, having just finished a review of the excellent Stellia (eCoustics & Head-Fi), which does tend to set the unboxing bar. Cayin has always had nice unboxing experiences as well, but with a bit less bravado. More subtle, but still full of “oooo” moments.
Where others provide overly large boxes, Cayin uses efficiency to protect their wares. The N7 is a prime example of this, coming in a box more fit for a decent pair of IEM’s, except for the quality. The back is laden in gold foil, with black lettering of the specs and important information. Lifting the black rough patterned lid like a nice box of chocolates, you find a black paperboard pouch over with the Cayin mantra of “Never be the Same Again,” in gold. The contents of that pouch are plentiful including the screen protectors with an extra for the back, a very thorough instruction manual, the inspection card and two “HiRes” stickers. Under the pouch is the paperboard covered hard foam insert, which contains the N7. Pulling the insert and N7 out, you find the other accessories including two right angle jacks for 2.5bal to 3.5se and 2.5bal to 4.4bal. All connection options for your headphones are covered with the included jacks, except 6.35mm se.
Directly underneath the N7 lies another box, which contains the superb yellow Dignis case. Dignis is renowned for top quality cases, and this is no different (this one opening on the top, complete with magnetic clasp). The back of the case carries the familiar Cayin triangular shapes, complete with “slots” to see the geo-patterned back of the N7. This case is top notch, and I had no issues with using any of the buttons as some have mentioned on the Head-Fi thread. Tactility was excellent with no erroneous touches or wobbles. Also included in that extra box is a very sturdy USB-C to USB-C charging cable. This can be used for OTG use as well, I believe.
Straightforward, simple yet elegant.
*Individual app usage will be detailed below, as well as technological functions/advancements.
Two years ago, I was privy to the excellent Cayin C9 Nutube headphone amplifier. I mentioned that had I the need for a single amplifier, the C9 might very well be it. Some on the threads have stated that they use the combination of the N7 and C9 together, and are thoroughly satisfied. While I agree, the cost of the pair runs right at $4k USD, and I would hope the user is happy. That said, the combination can be used for pretty much anything with the right combination of connections, replacing your two channel systems if needed. BT of course make running powered speakers a breeze as well.
The C9 had impeccable build qualities as does my N6ii. I have gone months without using the N6ii, to come back and note that the battery had drained only 5-10% when powered off (which is normal, but still wonderful to note. Updates are still had, which is excellent support from Cayin. And yes, still being in production certainly helps (Titanium version). The N7 follows these with exemplary build quality as well. I failed to remember that the actual unit was black (with midnight-blue geometric shapes accented on the back) and not yellow due to the excellent case. Slightly smaller than my iPhone 13 Pro Max, but markedly heavier to me, the N7 is not a small critter by any means. I would also recommend the case for everything, except when changing the single SD card (up to 1TB), because with the curved sides it is slippery.
The 5” screen takes up a good portion of the front, as it should. But good working edges are to be had all the way around. I remember the smartphone craze of “borderless” designs, and find the amount given to the edge on the N7 to be quite good, and allows functionality without accidentally changing something.
The gold accented volume knob on top showcases a pattern similar to a Native American sandpainting, and sits well protected, much like the N6ii, but not on the side. Actual movements of the knob were one for one, with no phantom movements, either. The left side holds a single micro-SD card slot, while the right holds the business items, including the usual on/off power bottom (at the top and larger) followed by FF, play/pause, and REW. A sleek, simple design, with easy functionality.
The bottom of the N7 is a veritable functions paradise, not unlike the C9. Some have mentioned that it takes a bit of getting used to the location of all inputs/outputs, but this is not dissimilar to iFi and some of their older wares. The two gold-lined jacks on the bottom right are for the 3.5mm se & 4.4mm bal headphone connections. The bottom left is for use as either a pre-amp or line-out, such as into the C9 or another amplifier. Both 3.5mm se and 4.4mm bal are included again. Under the Pre-Amp/LO options lies an I2S connection for digital use, and to the right of that the USB-C port for either charging or digital use as well such as a DAC from your computer. Digital Coax can be used as well. This is where the potential use for streaming into your two-channel system can come about, which seems to be more the norm these days.
As noted in the picture above, the N7 comes with many improvements in technology from previous Cayin DAP’s, but are done without making the others superfluous. Of note first, is that the N7 is a fully discrete model, technology-wise. This means that no unwanted electrical passovers can ruin the flow from one part to the next. Isolation keeps unwanted energy from impeding the audio signal quality. We see this in fine home 2-channel systems, which allows the individual parts to function without interference from other parts. More manufacturers are turning to this design philosophy for the portable market as well. I applaud Cayin for doing this, even if the cost rises a bit to cover the tech involved. The discrete 1-Bit DAC converts digital signals to analogue through a resistor network composed of 128 pcs (4 x32) of high precision thin film resistors and, as quoted by Andy Kong, “a pure DSD DAC, that is designed to natively decode DSD format efficiently.”
Based off of the highly acclaimed Philips TDA1547, 1-bit is a dedicated Switch Capacitor Network chipset using technology from CD players. This technology is still in use in high-end Marantz CD players as an example, which lends further credence to the tech.
From Andy’s excellent explanation behind the tech involved:
“While reviewers and users appreciate 1-bit DAC technologies as natural, smooth, and realistic when compare to their analog experience in the practical world, they are inevitably not as popular as their PCM counterparts. The not-so-impressive measurements have hesitated a lot of vendors to devote their resources to 1-bit DAC. In addition, the existing solutions are far too bulky and consumed too much power for personal audio, so we didn’t have any 1-Bit DSD DAC implementation for DAP or even transportable DAC/Amp. To introduce 1-Bit DAC to our portable users, Cayin designs a micro-miniaturized 1-bit DAC circuit from fully discrete components:
DSP Pre-processing: Enhance digital audio signal and output L+, L-, R+, and R- digital bitstream for fully balanced decoding. Audio Bridge: pass-through DSD unaltered, convert PCM to 1-bit bitstream before transmits to DAC circuit Discrete 1-Bit DAC: convert digital signal to analog signal through a resistor network composed of 128 pcs (4 x32) high precision Thin Film Resistors Power Supply: Sophisticated low-noise highly-isolated supply circuit to support different functions of digital and analog processing separately
As mentioned previously, 1-bit DAC is very sensitive to the integrity of the incoming digital signals, we have to perform a series of DSP pre-processing including re-clock, de-jitter, and noise shaping. The resulting bit-stream will then be passed to Audio Bridge where all incoming signals will be organized before feeding to the DAC circuit. If the incoming signal is DSD, then it will be pass-through without any conversion. If the incoming signal is PCM, it will be transcoded and upsampled to DSD512. Theoretically, FPGA is a good fit for this job, but the FPGA we adopted for N7 cannot handle (1) and (2) above simultaneously, we need to off-load either (1) or (2) to other options, and after numerous studies and experiments, we decided to add a single chip SRC (Sample Rate Converter). With this design, DSD playback will remain purely software-based DSP in (1) and (2), while PCM playback will go through the single chip SRC plus software DSP in FPGA/MCU.” (https://www.head-fi.org/threads/cay…xplored-frontier.966860/page-24#post-17422765)
The major knock on 1-bit seems to be that it provides the listener with a more laidback, smooth presentation of the sound, versus R2R technology, which purports to be more “mastering-like” in sound. Frankly, I don’t care as long as the critter sounds good to me.
To me, discrete technology is the next logical step in isolating any unwanted electrical interference, and worth the extra cost. Woo Audio has done it with their superb tube amplifiers for a good while, having a whole separate power source. I liken this to when many manufacturers went to purposefully-designed sound chambers in developing their in-ear monitors. Having a consistent chamber, which reproduces sound allows the chamber to be used across multiple models, or between custom & non-custom models. On a larger scale, this is no different than when Japanese cars (and VW) moved to single or a small number of platforms & engines to cut cost in the long run, while still having the ability to develop many different models. Discrete technology allows for any potential sound impurities or outside interference to be isolated or removed as a result.
Many manufacturers are moving towards dual band WIFI as well, giving the user options and in some instances, the 2.4gHz can be a more stable interface (or at least another option). I have found that the lower rate does present issues with some streaming platforms, but having the option is a good idea. I have Starlink at our cabin up north in the boonies, and my solar panel interface (and Arlo cameras) runs strictly off of the 2.4gHz option, so I can use the 5.0gHz for my audio/streaming/computer uses delight. Having the choice is good. Running BT 5.0 on the N7, while not the most current application, still affords excellent connectivity to all devices I tried, and without issue. The ability to run LDAC as well as AAC, UAT & SBC (2-way), gives the user the latest options for sound quality.
The N7 can also run either Class-A amplification, or Class-AB amplification. It used to be that Class-A was meant for high dollar items only, and kind of the Holy Grail of audio component systems. A status symbol, but with the goods to back it up. Many current budget systems run either AB or Class-D amplification, for the cost savings. My current office unit, the versatile Yamaha A-S301 (yes budget, but it meets my needs) is a Class-D. The Shanling M6 Pro DAP can run either A or AB as well. While the N7 is not to be considered in the affordable bracket, it shows that many manufacturers are moving to incorporate both A & AB for consumers. This is a win-win. Hand mounting of the amplification units is done, after matching each channel gain-wise as close as possible. Thus, Cayin insures the parts function as a whole, without distraction, or error.
While the amplification is solid state, the user can still hook the N7 up to the C9, for that NuTube sound, which gives you the ability to tailor your sound, and the many options available between the two. Hence the mere fact that the combination could be all you need in a small apartment (complete with powered speakers).
Quoting Andy again, “The discrete amp circuit of N7 offers Dual Amplification Operation (DAO), a feature that allows users to configure the HeadAmp circuit in class A or class AB and deliver different audio experiences.
Both Class A and Class AB headphone amplification circuits can eliminate the crossover distortion of the output stage satisfactorily, but they perform differently with regard to their harmonic distortion and intermodulation distortion. The difference mainly occurred in the distribution and weight of various harmonic distortions. Even if we are using the same circuit, like N7 or N8ii, changing the operation mode from Class A to Class AB, or vice versa, will deliver a different sound signature and minor deviation in sound quality.
In fact, there is not much difference between the total harmonic distortion (THD) and transient intermodulation distortion of the two Amplification Operation Modes of N7 HeadAmp, but the distribution and weight of each harmonic distortion in different modes are different. With Class A, the proportion of even-order harmonics such as the 2nd and 4th orders are increased, and the proportion of odd-order harmonics such as the 3rd and 5th order is decreased, and that explained why Class A and Class AB sound slightly different when you compare them in a critical audition.” (https://www.head-fi.org/threads/cay…xplored-frontier.966860/page-49#post-17462035)
While the two solid state amplifiers run on the same circuitry, isolating them in the discrete circuitry allows for each to play a part in the sound, independent of the other and without bother from outside (other parts) sources. Many do feel that pure Class-A, while sounding closer to the mastering of the music source, providing a less powerful amp as a result but a smoother signature (but use more power). Class-AB thus provides more power and a different sound (but uses less). Depending upon who you talk to, this can be good or bad. Class-A does take more (battery) power to run, and thus there are listening length differences between A & AB. Cayin has worked to minimize that discrepancy, starting with the C9. To me, this is an insignificant portion of the user experience as some songs demand AB, while other such as jazz (to me) prefer pure Class-A. Class-AB tends to provide a somewhat more dynamic signature to me, and Class-A a slightly warmer and richer, but without becoming drippy or too molasses-like. I switch between the two regularly on my M6 Pro, and did so here as well. The picture below describes what we should hear from the N7.
As per most devices as well, the round lighted button on the bottom shows the format playing by color from red to green to blue to magenta. This is the typical format for users, so familiarity should be easy.
Running a customized Android 12.1, with Snapdragon 665, you get the latest snappiest OS for the N7 as well. That said, my N6ii still runs Android 8.1 and functions well. It did take me a bit to familiarize myself with the dropdown menu accessed by swiping down from the top. I do like that there are larger panels for each function on the N7, instead of the thin line item of previous iterations. Access to all usable functions is there, and you can even drag them about for a more personalized option. Other items can be added from the menu, listed below those tiles already present by clicking on the “pencil” to enter edit mode.
As noted above, I had no issues with the excellent case mounted, and tactile feel of all buttons was excellent. There was no “gap” between the case and button, the feeling was snug and secure, but not overly so. The one disadvantage to me is that the micro-SD card cannot be accessed unless the case is off. No bother really, since most of us have music on one card or stream from the device.
I was able to easily log into my Google Play account and download Qobuz, Tidal and the B&W app for use with the Px8’s in the testing. Functioning between apps was fairly quick, but there was some delay once inside both Tidal and Qobuz. This could easily have been the WIFI connection where I was as well. On my home network, the apps functioned as expected, and without much delay. There is also plenty of space to download all of your music apps, and I highly suggest you include your dedicated headphone apps, such as I did with the B&W for fully functionality of the headphones in use.
After a long intro, what follows is my sound interpretations based upon the different listening options presented in the N7.
The sound emanating from the N7 is as I expected, and hoped. Dynamic, full of energy and vibrancy when called upon, while technically quite proficient on both streaming platforms and internal use (including micro-SD card). This ranks up there with the best DAP’s I have heard, including the vaunted Astell & Kern ACRO CA1000. While not as technically proficient as the CA1000, the sound coming forth was rich, vibrant and accurate, based upon the many options available to the user for fine tuning to your tastes. While not cheap, this shows that DAPs are not dead, and hopefully can still be a huge part of the musical choices presented to us.
Listening to Ahmad Jamal’s Live version of “Poinciana” I am struck by the succinctness of each piano strike. Accurate and detailed, the supporting upright bass and drums fill the necessary gaps superbly. Timbre is accurate and detailed, providing me with a firsthand account like the front row. Moving to Lenny Kravit’s seminal song, “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” his voice is piercing, but delightful. S-sounds and upper notes are tight, and reach up into the limits of my tolerance. Yet, I still find myself reaching to turn the gold volume know UP, such is the musical experience from the song on Qobuz. Class-A here presents a more-forward signature, with cymbal strikes becoming more prominent and detailed. Class-AB sound fuller, but with less detail and clarity to me. On Class-A, that S-sound from his voice sounds more natural to me, and I leave Class-A on for forthcoming songs. Switching to Tidal for the same song, I find that Qobuz emits a warmer signature on the song than Tidal. I like both music applications and can see the continued use of both, even with the MQA debacle. FLAC is on the way for Tidal, so that seems to be a moot point.
Using the drop down menu to change amplification settings is a breeze, and you can truly change the sound song-by-song, or even within songs. A nice feature to have readily available. On Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” I switched back to Class-AB, since to me the drum strikes were too prominent. To me, this song demands a warmer, richer signature (even though I preferred Class-AB here…) to fully engulf my senses in the immersive effect of death and destruction of our planet. A fitting song, less than a week after Earth Day.
Courtesy of the internet
Switching between Tidal and Qobuz, I did find the user interface for Tidal to be more accurate and usable. Tidal continuously showed song progress and time played and left on each song. Qobuz had trouble showing time left on songs. Mind you, this is a minor quibble, and not Cayin’s faults. Many of you won’t care that the time left shows 0:00, but I like knowing. Tactility of Tidal was slightly better as well to me. Those of you with Android phones or DAP’s most likely already know of these limitations.
Coincidentally, the Midnight Oil song listed above sounded better to me on Class-A in Tidal, but Class-AB in Qobuz. Make of that what you want, but having the ability to change on the fly definitely makes this nice to have (and this could be my preference to a warmer, richer sound…). Conversely Nat King Cole’s “L.O.V.E.” sounded better on Class-AB in Tidal to me, but Class-A in Qobuz. I find his pulsating voice can bother my upper end intolerance, and as a result, having the ability to change is a definite positive.
Using the excellent Letshuoer Cadenza 12, I find the combination exquisite. Considering the total cost, it should be. But synergy plays into many combinations and here this duo plays together nicely on the see-saw of audio.
Courtesy of the internet
Connection on BT was seamless, and Using the B&W Px8 allowed me to add another device without issue. While wearing, the connection was easy, and the voice told me confidently, “Second device connected.” Hence, I could easily switch between my phone and the N7 without issue. I found that while I appreciated the quick, seamless connection of the B&W, the sound quality was markedly behind the Cadenza 12, as it should be. While not unpleasant, I was jaded by the quality of the Letshuoer, something I thought would never happen after the Tape IEM. It is good to see the company changing directions and correcting mistakes. A review of them is forthcoming.
Had I listened to the Px8 first, I would be (and really am…) thoroughly satisfied. The combination is very, very good, but without downloading the app* (I have not yet), you lose some options, such as tailoring the ANC. You are stuck with ANC on, or off and Transparency. One annoying aspect of use with the Px8, was that after about 10 minutes, the volume dropped markedly. I can only assume this is the Px8 safeguard volume adjustment. Without the app, I could not defeat that. When pulling down the dropdown menus, the volume dropped as well. I will as a result download the app, along with the Sony app for use with the WH-1000XM5.
*With the app installed, the volume drop was defeated, but without any input from myself. It was magic in other words…
Connection to the Sony WH-1000XM5 was easy as well, once I turned BT off on my phone. Once done, connection was entered easily. Mind you, this was a quick check before bed, and hence more explanation will be had below. The Sony sounded quite good as well, and in some instances, I favor it over the Px8 for wireless headphone use.
What I am finding is that the N7 scales well with whatever listening device you use. But and here is the kicker, that scaling effect can jade you moving from a high-quality IEM such as the Cadenza, to lower-priced but thoroughly satisfying wireless headphones such as the Px8 or WH-1000XM5. Be prepared to allow yourself time to acclimate to each listening tool before making judgment.
When listening to my favorite DAP (portable), the Shanling M6 Pro in comparison, I am presented with a warm, rich signature; with enough detail to keep me interested. On pure sound though, the A&K CA1000 wins hands down to me plus, the ability to incorporate it into a 2-channel system as a streamer makes it a winner. With the Cayin N7 though, the ability to enhance the staging quality (think placement within the cubic space) and imaging complexity of the headphones & IEM’s I used, is also delivered with a very natural tonality. To me, it mimics the M6 Pro in this regard, but more so. I have a soft spot for the Shanling “house sound,” and the N7 is the closest I have come to equaling that signature I love. The ability to drive whatever I threw its way makes the N7 extremely versatile as well. Some have mentioned that it may lack the power to truly drive harder headphones, but I found no issue with my Audeze LCD-3’s.
Excellent soundstage came about across pretty much any IEM or headphone I threw its way, limited only on BT to me and the aforementioned B&W and Sony models. Class-A sounds superb on the Cadenza 12 and the LCD-3’s, almost equally well; except for the sound signature differences of course. That dynamic range of detail and clarity within most listening devices affords the N7 the ability to present an expansive soundstage no matter the device or music. But, with good authority and note weight; and that quality mentioned above. Timbre is rich, but without coloring the sound too much, and to me enhances that spaciousness of soundstage. To me this would be a “just right” soundstage. Not too big, not too small, just about equally present in all dimensions allowing the instruments to be placed accurately and in a supportive manner across the song. It is that expanse, which allows the notes good detail and weight, where a larger stage might yield notes of too thin a character; with too much air between those notes.
Courtesy of the internet
Pairing the N7 with the “pedestrian” BQEYZ Winter allowed me to showcase the N7 working effortlessly with IEMs of all price points. Jazz from Qobuz through the duo sounded crisp and clean, with a solid bass line supporting whatever I sent its way, from “Sonny Side Up,” to Dexter Gordon’s “Three O’clock In The Morning.” I was not left wanting with this duo, and could happily pair them for whatever I saw fit.
Some have mentioned that adding an external amplifier made for a fuller sounding signature, with harder to drive headphones. In other words, to fully drive a headphone. To test this, I paired the N7 with the excellent EarMen Angel using the 4.4bal LO, and my Audeze LCD-3 as the listening source. The music was divine, with the Angel not countering the somewhat warm, rich character of the N7; something I appreciated. I cannot really say if there was more or less detail, only that the extra power from the Angel afforded me to fully drive the LCD-3 with ease, and give the notes a bit better weight to them. Your experience will of course differ most likely depending upon what you pair the N7 with, but many have had good results with the equally excellent C9. It seems Cayin knew what they were doing when they gave us these options.
My time comes to an end. I have given the N7 50+ hours of my time over the two weeks, prying, probing, changing, listening, and finally settling in with some commonalities, regardless of what music I played. My preference for Class-A over Class-AB was not to be had, since a simple flip for each song afforded me a good, solid listening experience, song-dependent. Some I preferred Class-A. Some Class-AB. I can easily do this on my Shanling M6 Pro, including bringing in dual DAC’s as needed. It seems manufacturers are taking this into consideration, by giving the user more options with each upgrade.
Comparing the N7 to the N6ii seems a bit superfluous, unless you are looking to upgrade. In that regard, I will not make the choice for you. There are many options to tailor the N6ii to your tastes, what with the multiple motherboards, but you are stuck with Android 8.1. The N7’s Android 12 is miles ahead in terms of functionality and use. It works better (as an upgrade should), but is not entirely unfamiliar to those who use the Android platform. As such, you will appreciate the newer OS, but I posit that should not be the reason for the upgrade.
1-bit is another upgrade, which will allow you to isolate your sound from input to output without degradation. Fully-discrete technology is overdue, and I welcome this, even if it drives the cost up a bit. Those with better ears can be the judge as to whether that is worth their cost. In my two-channel system, I can tell the difference with the black background. The black background follows on portable use as well, but as for auditory benefits, better ears can judge.
So, we are left with a “near” flagship DAP, from one of the most respected companies out there. Along with Astell & Kern, and FiiO (iBasso & HiBy as well), Cayin seems to be telling us, we are not going to give up on the DAP, and you should not either. From their flagships to their lower models, you get extremely good performance and units, which will be with us for a good long time. You can easily hook this into your two-channel system as well, taking a bite out of the streaming technology. And in that regard, the N7 is leagues ahead of pretty much everything out there that cost less, or possibly even a bit more. I find that by adding the A&K ACRO CA1000 into my two-channel as a streamer, I am completely satiated with the sound, knowing that there isn’t a streamer this side of $4k that compares. I would put the N7 in that same sphere, and not just for the streaming. The sound, and ability to change settings to your heart’s desire make this a serious contender in the ultra-DAP level. You should consider it if you like Cayin products. You should consider it if you like FiiO or A&K or iBasso products as well. But I will not spend your money for you and you must decide whether that cost is worth it.
I appreciate Andy & Cayin including me on this tour, between Will and myself, we have a great appreciation for the marque, and for the N7. It really is an astounding product, and if you are in the market at this price, please give it a comparison with the others. It will be worth the effort.