2x ROHM BD34301EKV
matched paired KORG Nutube 6P1
Let me start this review by saying something: DAPs are quite interesting in the current audio market. They surely feel somewhat like relics of the past, something that is not functional enough to be perceived as “attractive” in 2022.
See, everybody has a smartphone nowadays, everyone has internet access, and with that, we’ve got basically all music ever created available for us in seconds. If you care about audio quality and you simply can’t stand the audio quality of your phone, just buy a dongle or an external mobile DAC/AMP and call it a day…right?
Well, not so quick. Functionality has a lot of different names and it’s perceived differently by different people. I just turned 30, so I’m still a relatively young guy, but I grew up in the era of CDs, radio, cassettes, etc. It created an appreciation for disconnecting yourself from the world when you’re listening to music. When it comes to music and audio, I’m rather an old-fashioned guy. I like vinyl, got my turntable setup in a completely different place than my PC and “testing gear station”. I planned it that way, because I wanted to split these two places, with Vinyl being my ZEN, chill place to just focus on whatever I’m listening to.
Here comes the funny part – MP3players of the past, I’m talking about the first iPods, ZEN players, etc were literally revolutionary back then. All this music in your pocket, no CDs, battery-operated – Woah, so cool. A lot has changed over these years. Right now, in 2022 I see these mp3 players as a more “traditional” approach to personal audio. Okay, okay…you can still use Tidal with it and literally turn it into a smartphone without GSM. But, you don’t have to do it. You can just simply upload your favorite albums onto it, disconnect from the world, push play and not give a damn about the whole world (which especially during the last few days sounds great doesn’t it?).
Yes, I’m a fan of DAPs, I don’t like dongles. With the latter, I always feel like I’m listening to music through the device that gets my attention. Hence I’ve been really enjoying my time with the N8ii over the last weeks, having it on my bedside table. Every day, before going to sleep, I just listen to music to chill, to remain sane and calm in these crazy times. My phone is charging out of my reach, and all I’m getting is music, no notifications, nothing to bother me.
Of course, you can do it with every single DAP in the world, but here comes the most important thing about our industry – the sound quality. The Cayin N8ii is priced at $3499, so it surely should sound fantastic, but we’ll get there.
Here’s my personal take on the DAPs in general, let’s dive into the N8ii itself and see how it performs.
Cayin has been pretty consistent in terms of unboxing experience over the past few years. Nothing to really write a book about, it’s rather clean, simple, and quite pleasant.
The N8ii however is their new flagship, a top-of-the-top audio device, so it surely requires something extra, doesn’t it?
While I wouldn’t call the unboxing experience of the N8ii luxurious, fascinating, or revolutionary, I like some smart ideas that have been implemented.
The box is pretty standard when it comes to its construction, but I absolutely adore its design. Take a look at the photo above, you see that “8” cutout in the top part, showing the balanced tubes feature that highlights the name N8? It’s really cool, I like a smart design choice like this.
Back to earth though. The overall unboxing experience is pretty simple and modest. Other than the DAP itself, you’re getting a USB cable and two adapters (2.5mm -> 3.5mm, and 2.5mm -> 4.4mm). There also will be a case in the retail packaging, but the N8ii I got here is an early unit and it does not have it, hence I can’t say anything about it. It is good that there will be a case in the box though, you’ll need it to protect this precious piece of metal.
Have in mind that this is an early unit so the retail packaging is slightly different in terms of its design.
The build quality. Cayin has really mastered it, for me, this is the TOP manufacturer when it comes to the build and finishing of their products. Every single product that they’ve released in the last few years, the HA-300, Fantasy IEM, N6ii…all these products are built to last and finished with the greatest precision.
Nothing has changed here, the N8ii is a pure masterclass when it comes to physical construction and finishing. From the first moment, you feel this is a serious device, with no shortcuts, no bad choices.
First of all, the N8ii is a big player. Not huge, it is still nowhere close to the Fiio M17 or Astell&Kern Kann Cube, but it is nowhere close to the likes of Cayin N3 Pro or Lotoo DAPs. Actually, I was expecting it to be even bigger than it really is, so this is a good thing.
What’s important to note though, is that Cayin really squeezed a lot in that device. Balanced KORG tube architecture, two ROHM BD34301EKV chips, Class-A amplification, powerful specs, a 5-inch screen…it’s a lot, and I’m really impressed that they managed to fit all of it in such a “tiny” body.
The whole unit is built of tempered glass and aluminum. It feels very solid and dense in the hand, with every surface being finished to perfection. The only thing I’m not crazy about it is the back of the device. Take a look at the latest Fiio M11 Plus ESS with its beautiful back-plate design. In comparison, the N8ii looks bland and just not really interesting. Oh, and the amount of branding on the backplate, it’s just too much. We’re talking about a $3499 DAP, minimalism is elegant and polished, this is far from that. Cayin N8ii would have been enough, at least for the big and highly visible stuff, the rest of the information could have been much smaller and less visible.
Okay, I complained a bit, now into good things. The volume knob is just beautiful, it has that beautiful and stylish finish that adds a lot of character to the device. Operating it is a blast as well, it just feels comfortable and easy to use. The left side of the N8ii has a glass panel that shows the KORG tubes in action (when you actually use them), and it’s a great touch. When I first saw renders of the N8ii I was pretty curious where will they put the tubes so that you can see them. My guess was at the back panel, but luckily this side view is much better.
The bottom part of the device is not flat, so forget about the N8ii standing on its own. It has a 4.4mm balanced output, a 3.5mm output, a dedicated 3.5mm line-out, a USB-C port, and a mini HDMI connector serving as I2s output. Basically, all you need, and I’m happy to see manufacturers ditching the 2.5mm once and for all – it’s about time.
The right side is where your buttons are located, as well as a single micro-sd slot. Speaking of buttons, there’s a power button, next, previous, and play buttons, so this is pretty self-explanatory.
Last but not least, the front. It is mainly covered by this huge, 5inch 720p screen. The resolution seems laughably low as for 2022, but it is actually a good choice. Fewer pixels = less processing power = better battery life. Why would you need more pixels in a DAP, are you going to watch movies on it? If yes…then I don’t even know how I can comment on it. Oh, I know…get a TV.
Back to the screen. It is an AMOLED screen, which is a great choice. Amoled screens are proven to give a better battery life while being superior in terms of display quality to IPS. The screen on the N8ii that I have in here has a significant red tilt to it, to the point where there’s literally no pure black, it’s always red-ish. This is probably due to the fact that this is a very early production unit, so I can’t comment if this is an issue of this particular unit. However, apart from that red-ish tilt, the screen in the N8ii is a blast – vibrant, bright, crisp with great contrast. For a DAP, this is way more than enough…and then some. Good job Cayin.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again…Cayin really squeezed a lot in the N8ii.
First of all, it is built around two ROHM BD34301EKV DAC chips. This is a rather new kid on the block, now being used more and more, because you know…AKM fire and stuff. Cayin N8ii is actually the worlds-first portable audio device using these chips.
The new ROHM DAC is a powerful beast. Clocking at -130dB SNR and -115dB THD, it is a bit behind ES9038PRO, but honestly, those numbers are still better than the rest of the analog circuits will be able to deliver anyways. Few decibels here don’t change anything, this is one of the best specs around. Compatibility is great, it will chew through PCM up to 768kHz and DSD 22,4 MHz. Later we will see how it translates into sound, but it’s good to have something besides AKM and Sabre.
To support these TOTL DAC chips, Cayin needed TOTL support, so they have employed two extremely low phase noise (-100dBc) Femtosecond Crystal Oscillators to ensure high precision low jitter digital playback.
Now onto the most impressive thing about the whole device. Cayin is THE company when it comes to revolutionising tubes in portable audio. First, they implemented a KORG Nutube 6P1 in their original N8 back in 2018, but because they could only fit one of it inside…it was single-ended or nothing. We all knew that Cayin wouldn’t quit unless they somehow fix that, and they just did it. The main priority of the N8ii project was to include a balanced output with tubes, and it just blows my mind that they succeeded. Here’s how it was accomplished:
“The Dual Nutube implementation in N8ii is even more challenging than C9 because of limited space and form factor. There is not enough room to lay the two Nutube flat like N8 and C9 because we need to accommodate a bigger screen for Android implementation. We can’t lay it flat on the bottom panel either because that will reduce the space available for battery. Finally we started the process all over again and developed mechanical shock absorption and damping system to install the Nutube vertically. The new installation system involves:
- Compartmentalized CNC Aluminum chassis to create an isolated, fully damped chamber for Nutube installation
- Flexible Printed Circuit (FPC) to minimize shock transmission
- Custom Built Shock-absorption Silicon Housing to hold and damp the Nutube
- Vertical-hanged Suspension Pin to mount the Nutube and Silicon Housing into the designated chamber securely
Having a dedicated chamber to isolate the Nutube from the main PCB is a head start in dealing with microphonic and anti-interference. We are surprised by the final result of this new design, it works like a charm and we are confident that the N8ii can cover our daily activities effectively.”
This is beyond impressive. The Cayin N3 Pro has been praised and loved by me from the first day of owning it (still using it a lot), and it was mainly due to its revolutionary and innovative approach. With the N8ii, Cayin goes a step further, and for that, they have my huge respect. In the world where the majority of DAPs start to look similar to each other and it all comes to personal preferences, Cayin took a different route and they give us something new, fresh, and innovative. Kudos for that.
The N8ii has two amplification modes – Class A/B and Class A, with both of them having a standard and high power mode as well. The volume control is covered by Premium grade resistor ladder electronic volume control from JRC.
When it comes to the operating system, the N8ii uses Android 9.0 which is “Streaming Ready”. I’ve used Tidal on it and it works like a dream. The smoothness of the entire OS is ensured by Snapdragon 660 CPU with 6G DDR4 RAM. The N8ii runs smooth and snappy, like a 2022 device should. Nothing to complain here at all.
At the end of the day, all of those endless hours put into designing and engineering the N8ii were meant to create a TOTL type of sound quality. The newest flagship by Cayin has a lot of different flavors to it, whether you’ll be using a Solid-State and Class AB mode, or you’ll go all-in with its balanced tube output with Class A amplification. In this review, I’ll focus mainly on the latter, as this is THE thing that is the most impressive about the new N8ii.
However, this review is going to be different than all the others on Ear Fidelity. I won’t be splitting the sound impressions into parts, as it wouldn’t have made justice for this DAP. This is a masterclass enjoyment piece of audio that sounds so coherent, natural, and just true, that there’s no other way than to describe it as a whole. I’ll get emotional, so I hope it won’t bother you.
So, let’s start by asking one question – does it sound THAT good? Yes, it does. The N8ii has that timbre to it that is just impossible not to fall in love with. But, it’s not a “tube” sound, to be honest, it feels like a perfect mix of Solid-State detail, air, separation with that beautiful timbre and tonality of the State Of Art tube amplifiers.
Because of that, the N8ii has a magnificent speed and clarity to it, absolutely top level. The N3 Pro in Tube mode is a very musical and smooth-sounding DAP, but when it comes to raw technical performance, it isn’t class-leading. With the N8ii, Cayin just took no prisoners, giving us a true “best of both worlds” type of experience.
The separation, resolution, and coherency were the first things that got my attention when listening to the N8ii for the first time. I remember listening to all of my test songs to get a glimpse of how good it was when it comes to the raw performance.
A song called “Bubbles” by Yosi Horikawa is one of these songs, when you really need that resolution and speed of the sound to get a feeling that it sounds nearly impossibly clean. Every single “bubble” is separated from everything else, you feel like you’re listening to tens of little balls falling to the floor at once, and you’re able to focus on every single one with zero trouble. This sounds so crisp and detailed on the N8ii, that I don’t get the same feeling with my Susvara plugged into Ferrum OOR, it’s that ridiculously crisp.
What’s important though – it never sounds harsh, forced, or in-your-face. Every single texture and slight dynamics variation is presented in a natural yet highly involving way that lets you just dig into it for real and be left with nothing else than excitement.
Another song that is my “technical” demo is “Keith Don’t Go” by Nils Lofgren, specifically from his album Acoustic Live. This song has been mentioned by me over and over again, I’m curious if you’ve tried it by now. Personally speaking, for me, this is the best-sounding recording that I’ve ever listened to. The amount of little details and the way that Nils’ acoustic guitar sounds is just out of this world. This is one of those songs that sound good on almost every audio system, but for it to sound great you need a beast of a system. When you pair the N8ii with something like Unique Melody MEST you get such an incredible level of insight into this recording that you just want to keep going (been there, done that). From the sound of fingers touching the fretboard to distant audience noises, everything is present in a lifelike manner, but it’s never forced to the foreground. It sounds balanced, yet highly textured and tonally marvelous. Nils’ voice vibrates, it’s sweet and coherent at the same time, it doesn’t sound sticky like you might be used to with many tube amplifiers. Here, the magic happens in tonality and the overall timbre of the sound, without sacrificing TOTL separation and resolution. Brilliant.
Enough of demo songs though, let’s get into real music. The first step, of course (you know me), is a song called “A Thousand Shards of Heaven” by Lunatic Soul. This is all about Mariusz’s voice, that sweet, romantic, smooth, and hypnotizing voice that I fell in love with many years ago. This is the first song that I’m playing on all new audio devices I get in my hands, as the first and most important test. If this vocal sounds good to me, the device gets my attention, and if it doesn’t sound good…well, you know where I’m going with that.
So, The Cayin N8ii in my hand, my custom Fir Audio M5 in my ears, pushing play, oh, where was I? Oh, I was supposed to dive into it and see if the N8ii sounds good right? So…I’ve listened to the entire album, without thinking about it too much. This is where it became clear to me – this is how this album is supposed to sound like, nothing less, nothing more. Dynamic, soft, warm, fast, accurate with such a calming manner that you simply dig into it and you won’t stop. This album is called “Fractured” and it’s about losing the ones you love. Mariusz states that this is by far the most emotional and personal piece of music he ever created, so you can be sure there are a lot of emotions included in this music. What makes it a masterpiece though is that there’s also a lot of electronics and little aspect that makes the entire album a wild ride with your chest wide open and your heart bleeding. The Cayin N8ii handles that hugely emotional piece of music with such excellence, that it is actually hard for me to describe. It sounds real, it sounds beautiful, calming. I’ve seen Mariusz numerous times, I’ve spoken with him face to face, I know how does he really sound like…and the Cayin N8ii is the closest I’ve heard yet.
Let’s get into “You All Look The Same To Me” by the British Trip-Hop legends – Archive. This is also a highly emotional album with electronic music added to the mix. The first song of the album, “Again” is my nr.1 song ever. This is what I call a masterpiece.
There are a lot of different flavors and constant changes of pace on this album, and the N8ii handles it all perfectly. Thanks to its beautifully emotional yet superbly technical sound, everything feels like you can reach out and grab it. You’re tossed into a mix of different emotions, flavors, and textures. While this album is not a mastering wonder, you never get a feeling that it doesn’t sound good, there’s no harshness or dryness to it. The N8ii does a great job of balancing the sound, making even mediocre masterings shine.
Last but not least, “The Wall” by the best band in history – Pink Floyd. This is one of the most powerful albums ever created, and it sounds exactly like this on the N8ii.
Here comes that huge dynamic slam, kick, and raw power of the sound, and it makes The Wall a spectacle just like it was meant to be. From the very beginning of “In The Flesh?” the aspects that hit you the most are the attack, huge dynamic range, and incredibly natural timbre. The N8ii has a very neat capability of creating a huge sound, just like you’re listening to a big boy stereo setup.
Next up, is the song called “Vera“, this song always gives me an emotional breakdown. The vocal is such forward, rich, and vibrant that it sounds absolutely mesmerizing. The tubes really do their magic in this kind of recording, where you have a vocalist very close to the mic, taking all the stage for himself. Lastly, the legend itself, “Comfortably Numb“. This song sounds dense, rich, and powerful on the N8ii, and the ability to reproduce Gilmour’s guitar solo is one of the best I’ve ever heard. This guy poured his soul onto the fretboard, and it’s not an easy task for an audio device to truly reproduce it, yet the N8ii does it without breaking a single sweat. This is what you get with such amazing engineering – a TOTL technical performance, with musicality to die for. I can’t describe it in any other way.
The battle of two flagships that are vastly different in terms of the size and the tech sitting inside. The M17 is the new definition of chunky, with the N8ii feeling small and portable in comparison.
I’ll skip the trivia, it’s all there in the products descriptions. Let’s get straight into the sound.
The M17 is probably the most powerful sounding DAP that I’ve ever heard. It is a stationary system in a (trans)portable body. Thanks to that, the amount of body, slam, and dynamic range is just mind-boggling. The N8ii definitely sounds more calm, relaxed, and cultured. It has its strengths in that lovely timbre and absurd detail retrieval, while the M17 is a true powerhouse of a DAP.
Luckily for Cayin, the difference in the price of these two devices also show in the sound quality. The N8ii is just more natural, more nuanced, and definitely more touching. It’s a master of musicality when the M17 is more about that huge scale of the dynamic range.
While listening to electronic music, both DAPs are doing exceptional, offering a truly high-end sound performance. However, the moment a natural instrument or vocals get into the mix, the N8ii takes a huge lead immediately. The way it reproduces everything natural is so true and magical, that the M17 sounds quite ordinary in comparison.
While I would call the Fiio flagship a big armored truck, the new Cayin N8ii is a Rolls Royce – I can get to my destination in both, but I’d much rather go with the Rollce, open a bottle of fine Scotch and simply enjoy the ride like there was no tomorrow.
Cayin N6ii (R01)
The N6ii with R01 motherboard is one of the most popular choices for everybody looking for a lush and smooth sound. It offers great value and flexibility since you can just change the motherboard at any time and get totally different results instantly.
The N8ii however has it in stock, all you have to do is just go to the menu and change the amplification or swap the tubes for some SS action.
The R01 is an r2r motherboard though, so it feels natural for me to compare it to the tube mode of the N8ii with Class-A amplification.
The difference is way bigger than I expected. The R01 N6ii sounds slow and lacking in definition in comparison to its new brother. The N8ii offers a much higher sense of realism to the sound, mainly due to its better dynamic range, excellent control over the bass, and separation and detail that are in a completely different league.
I would say that the biggest problem of the R01 is its bass response, which is a bit sloppy and slow, while the N8ii sounds powerful and perfectly controlled. The vocal representation feels somewhat similar at first, but after a few seconds, you’ll start to hear that the R01 is veiled and slightly too thick in comparison. The N8ii sounds like a TOTL R2R DAC, even though it’s a Delta-Sigma construction. Actually, it sounds more R2R than the R01, which is quite ridiculous.
Fir Audio M5
The Cayin N8ii + Fir Audio M5 combo is just striking. They both are highly emotional and smooth sounding, and if you combine them you’ll get such beautiful timbre and fantastic physicality of the sound, that it’s going to be really hard to stop listening (I’m doing it right now and it’s 3 AM, so yeah, trust me on this).
I would describe both the M5 and the N8ii as romantic and rich sounding with fantastic technical capabilities. This is a pairing for vocal and rock fanatics. I always say, that the ’70s and ’80s rock is a piece of music for romantic souls, and this is probably as good as it gets if you’re into that.
Unique Melody MEST
This setup is a different story. I’ve always said that the MEST is an incredibly fun-sounding IEM with TOTL technicalities. Now, when you pair it with the musicality of the N8ii and the refinement of the Erua TAWA you’re getting a sound that is just complete. This is the best I’ve heard when it comes to portable audio, this is the best setup that I’ve ever tried. Everything, the detail, the clarity, the timbre, the dynamics, staging, imaging…I won’t bother describing it. It’s the best I’ve heard, that’ll be it.
The Cayin N8ii is a wonderful pairing with the A8000. If you ever felt that the A8000 is just a touch too extreme or slightly too technical/bright sounding for your taste, this is a DAP for you.
While it retains the amazing technical performance of the Final Audio Flagship, it adds that richness and smoothness to the entire frequency response that just turns the A8000 into a beast. The physicality and crispiness are on the highest level, while the fun-oriented nature of the A8000 will give you the speed and clarity to truly appreciate the technical capability of this player. A great combo.
Campfire Audio Solaris 2020
The N8ii is the first DAP that made me think that the Solaris 2020 is slightly underperforming when it comes to technical capabilities in 2022. It just sounds so much better with MEST, that the Solaris 2020 just sounds as it’s not really worthy of its flagship status anymore.
I’m not saying that the Solaris 2020 is a bad IEM, absolutely not, I still use it quite often, every time I’m craving for that wet and fluid midrange, but it’s just not the best pairing with the N8ii.
It sounds somewhat too mellow and too smooth in the midrange area, while not giving you enough detail to truly appreciate the N8ii. If you’re going to pull the trigger on the N8ii, get MEST instead of the Solaris 2020. If you’d be leaning more towards something like Lotoo Paw Gold Touch, the Solaris 2020 could be a better choice then, mainly due to it’s romantic and unique sound signature.
It’s not all about IEMs though, as the N8ii pairs great with various over-ear headphones as well. The HE1000se by Hifiman is a technical monster with incredible speed and clarity, and the N8ii pairs up wonderfully with it.
It has enough juice to make them sing at their full potential, but it also does something else – it balances it out just a bit. The 1000se might come up as too aggressive or simply too technically impressive for many people, because of its unforgiving character.
The beautiful timbre and romantic soul of the N8ii make them sound absolutely spectacular, giving them that natural warmth and richness. Don’t worry about the power – it has way more than enough to unleash the full potential of the 1000se.
The Meze ELITE (review coming soon) took my heart by storm. From day one it became my most used pair of headphones, and it pairs up brilliantly with the N8ii.
The Elite is a very natural and forgiving sounding headphone, and the N8ii just adds to that. The sound of this combo is detailed, airy, and wonderfully polished. You can listen to this sound for hours and hours and you won’t ever get tired of it.
This is the type of sound that is so natural and smooth that you’ll be going for good-quality recordings to truly appreciate it. The Elite does not need a ton of power, and the N8ii has plenty enough.
Cayin N8ii is just a masterclass of a DAP. Its impressive and innovative technology meets a natural, romantic, and rich sound to create the best DAP that I’ve ever listened to. It is highly flexible with its different sound flavors, but the Tube + Class A is a game-changer. The build quality and overall feel is what you should expect of a luxury product, and for all of that, the N8ii get’s my highest recommendation.
Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:
- Headphones – Fir Audio M5, Unique Melody MEST, MEXT, Campfire Audio Solaris 2020, Effect Audio Axiom, Final A8000, Hifiman He1000se, Final D8000 Pro, Meze Elite, Audeze LCD-X 2021
- Sources– Fiio M11 Plus LTD, Cayin N3 Pro, Cayin N6ii R01, Fiio M17, EarMen Tradutto + Ferrum OOR
I would like to thank Cayin for lending me the N8ii for this review. All thoughts and opinions are my own, and I wasn’t influenced by anybody. I will be sending the N8ii back after this review goes live (sadly).