The Cayin N3Pro is a genuinely exciting DAP as it brings incredible sounding vacuum tube power to portable audio at $479. The N3Pro is also a no frills pure player – even more so than other devices that we’ve given that monicker. So when we take the tubes, the sound quality, and the features all together, does it add up to a must have device?
The Build and Design
For the N3Pro, Cayin went with a fairly simple black box. It’s not particularly wide, though it is quite thick to accommodate the two Raytheon JAN61418s tubes that power its tube circuit. The tactile hardware buttons and volume control have a nice feel, and the glossy black finish looks and feels luxurious. The screen is on the smaller side and only takes up about two thirds of the front of the device. It also has your standard DAP accoutrements including 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced headphone jacks, a USB-C port for charging and file transfer, and a microSD card slot. Note that the N3Pro has no internal storage, but supports microSD cards up to 512GB.
In terms of battery life, Cayin claims 9 to 11 hours of playback on a single charge depending on the playback mode, with solid state providing longer playback time than tubes. That was accurate to my testing, and it also was able to maintain a charge over multiple days of idle time.
The package includes the player, a charge cable, screen protectors, and a silicone case which covers the corners and will provide a good degree of drop protection and protection from incidental damage.
One other cool aesthetic note is that when you switch to tube mode, there's a soft red glow in the lower portion of the player where the tubes are. It's a nice touch if you've used tube equipment before and are used to seeing the tube filaments light up when they're turned on.
Once you turn it on, you start to get a taste for how Cayin can deliver a device like this under $500. The screen is fairly low resolution, and while it has Bluetooth support, it doesn’t have WiFi, and does not support the installation of any external apps. So when I say “pure player,” I mean pure player. Out of the box, this is a device for you to copy your songs onto, and then listen to them with headphones.
The player itself is pretty robust and was able to quickly organize and catalog the hodgepodge of FLAC, AAC, and MP3 files that I copied over. It seamlessly played through mixed playlists jumping between formats and resolutions without missing a beat. Music on your SD card is also blended into your collection with files copied to the device.
The main functions of the player are handled through a generally intuitive and familiar player interface, and different options (like USB Mode, Bluetooth Mode, and the Tube functionality) are toggled through a menu that you pull down from the top of the screen. Every time you switch to Tube mode, you have a 5 second delay while the tubes warm up, but generally speaking you won’t be switching back and forth while you’re listening. There's also a menu you can access with a swipe up, which contains more advanced features and system configuration.
Now, while the core functionality is just the player, there are some ways to use this device in conjunction with streaming services or with music that’s on another device. The N3Pro can be used in DAC/Amp mode both over USB and Bluetooth. That means, you can set it in Bluetooth DAC mode, wirelessly connect your laptop or mobile device, and then stream music from that device through the N3Pro to take advantage of its smooth tube output. It also supports Hiby Link which uses your phone as a remote control for the N3Pro, but doesn’t allow music playback through apps on your phone.
The Bluetooth 5.0 radio supports UAT, LDAC, or AAC, and can stream CD quality (AAC 44.1kHz 16-bit) from a number of devices, including iPhones. So with high resolution services like TIDAL Masters or Qobuz, you’re not getting the full level quality over Bluetooth, but with Spotify and many other services, AAC 44.1kHz is essentially “lossless.”
Now that we’ve got that all figured out, let’s get to the sound. The N3Pro has three different amp circuits: Solid State, Tube Triode, and Tube Ultralinear. The Solid State amp can be used with the 3.5mm unbalanced or 4.4mm balanced, but the Tube amp options can only be used with the unbalanced connection. I tested the various circuits with a number of headphones and IEMs, and used the iBasso DX160 as a comparison point.
The Solid State circuit provides a smooth, energetic, reference-like output which proved to be very similar to the DX160 with the N3Pro having a slight edge in resolution and sound stage. The Tube Triode option proved to be a little warmer and smoother with a more relaxed sound, and the Ultralinear circuit maintained the smoothness but with an energetic with a more forward, in-your-face sound.
The warmth provided by the tube channels was mostly subtle and well controlled. Most IEMs and headphones have some added depth, impact, and a touch of roundness to the bass, but remain coherent. The HIFIMAN Sundara was an excellent match, as the tube channel enhanced the bass impact, and added a little more “oomph” that the Sundara is missing. The Campfire Andromeda also felt well served by the added low-end, and almost took on the feeling of a hybrid IEM with the extra bass impact. On the other hand, the Meze 99 Classics sounded good with the slightly mid-forward Ultralinear option, but the more relaxed Triode sound left them feeling muddy.
In terms of genres, most pop and rock music felt subtly enhanced by the Tube mode. Classical music, on the other hand, didn’t get along as well with the tubes. There's a bit of dullness to the strings using the tube sound, and some of the dynamics of large ensembles music felt compressed. Switching back to solid state gave the violins and pianos back their sparkle.
The Bottom Line
In terms of pure sound, the Cayin N3Pro is unbeatable at this price point. The only downside is that the OS and connectivity features might keep you from easily enjoying music the way you like to listen to it. The way I see it, the N3Pro is for people in one of two cases:
- If you prefer to listen to your existing music library in digital formats with no streaming or other services involved, the N3Pro provides an excellent high resolution player for the money, with features unavailable anywhere else at this price point.
- If you absolutely need to have that tube sound for under $500, and don’t mind jumping through a couple of hoops to get it – whether that means converting your music collection to high-resolution digital formats, or using the Bluetooth connection to stream from another device.
If that’s you, what are you waiting for? Those tubes aren’t going to warm themselves up!