For me, and for many entrenched in this audiophile world, there is always this fascination with analog tube amplifiers. It’s old school, it’s cool and unique looking, and it has its own set of parameters to mess around with. It also provides a different listening experience for the curious ear. I’ve gone through a number of tube amps in the past: from hybrids, OTL, or SET-style tube amps for headphones and speakers, and I’ve also gone through a few portable tube amplifiers as well. While I’ve had some success with the desktop ones, the portable ones have always been mostly misses or more of “what’s the point?”
The Cayin C9 was announced a while ago and has more recently just showed up for sale. It caught my attention when it was first announced due to its looks and its specifications. It features both balanced and single-ended input and outputs, a nice sized volume knob, a switch to activate solid-state or vacuum tube circuitry, and an additional switch to active Class A or Class AB circuitry. In addition, this is a pure amplifier, and does not have a DAC, which lets users choose which pairing they want to go with it. Many portables are DAC/Amp combinations and does not give users the option to choose, which for most cases is the only way to keep them portable and have a small footprint.
The C9 comes in at a $2000 price tag, and is definitely on the upper-end of the portable amplifier market. It does, however, make up for its price tag with a very nice and high quality build, featuring an all-metal chassis that is simple yet elegant. The input/output connectors have gold rings around them, as well as the power button and volume knob to provide both style and functionality to its design.
The C9’s tube selection is powered by Korg NuTubes. These are unique and a relatively new tube design that glow with green LEDs and are laid flat on the board. The Cayin C9 has two oval-shaped window cut-outs on the top surface of the amp that lets the Nutubes shine their alien look when activated. When off, the windows are very dark and internals are not visible.
The C9 is pretty hefty, and definitely not pocketable. It may fit into a large coat pocket, but the weight would be pretty distracting and heavy to carry. Instead, this is definitely made for bag travel, and to sit on a solid table surface when in use. Due to the amp selections and metal chassis, the C9 also gets very hot in any of the combinations, and you’ll probably want to minimize contact with it when it has been running for a short time. It will heat up the area around it.
Note: The Cayin C9 amplifier was provided on loan as part of a private review tour hosted by Cayin directly. I will be shipping the C9 amplifier to the next leg of the tour in Europe immediately after this review.
The Cayin C9 has two “timbre” modes (solid-state and vacuum tube) and two amp circuits (Class A and Class AB), giving it a total of 4 combinations of user amp configurations. There is, of course, a high and low gain setting, but I’ll just say that for headphones, I used high gain, and for IEMs, I used low gain for all my impressions.
I’ll first take a look at some of the basic power demands and general observations and then go into the different configuration impressions and finally comparisons with other portables I have on hand.
Initial Stress Test
When I first took out the C9 and got it setup, I connected my Lotoo PAW 6000 digital audio player with line-out enabled into the input of the C9. I used balanced 4.4mm interconnects, which are provided with the C9 and are quite stunning looking. The C9 also includes matching 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnects as well.
My first stress test was to see how the notoriously hard-to-drive Hifiman Susvara planar magnetic headphone would sound with the Cayin C9, however only using the 3.5mm singled-ended output which has less power capability. I enabled Line Out on the PAW 6000 and set the switches to High Gain, Class A and Tube mode on the C9 and it was time to rock n’ roll. I put on Grace Potter & The Nocturnal’s modern classic rocker, “The Lion The Beast The Beat” and was happy audio came out, but I wasn’t thrilled that I ran to the end of the line on the volume knob.
Now mind you, it got loud enough for me to enjoy music at almost my normal listening volumes (roughly 70-75dB SPL@ 1KHz), however for some, that may not be loud enough, and this specific headphone pairing didn’t get it to even that level. Unfortunately with this, I did find the C9 to sound a tad bright, thin, and just lacking a great mid-range and smooth treble that I’d expect from the Susvara. The low-end held up fine though, surprisingly.
But, let me reiterate, this was just a stress test, and very, very few headphones require the amount of sheer power that a Susvara does and I also only tested it out of the weaker single-ended output stage. The majority of headphones and earphones I tried worked well within the bounds of the C9’s power output.
Headphones Pairing with the Sennheiser HD600
Now with that out of the way, I spent the majority of my headphone experience with the Sennheiser HD600. This is a classic reference headphone that many in this hobby have heard, and has a very well known and established tonality and timbre that appeases most people. It also pairs extremely well with most tube amplifiers, and so this was one that I had some good expectations for.
On this pairing, I kept the PAW 6000 in the chain, turned it to NOS mode, connected it as a DAC to my computer and turned on Roon and HQPlayer. I set HQPlayer to 768kHz oversampling with the Sinc-L filter and fired off some music.
First, I compared Class A and AB using the Tube mode on high gain.
In “Restless” by Alison Kraus & Union Station, I found the angelic voice of Kraus to sound really no different between either of the Class modes. In Class A mode, however, I did find the low end bass guitar to have just a slight amount of more impact, while the Class AB mode had a softer and brighter midrange.
Switching over to the live recording of Bill Laurence’s “The Good Things” from “Live at Ronnie Scott’s”, I found there were some more noticeable differences between the settings. The Class A setting had a more warm sound but with a more muted piano strike, especially around 0:54 in the track. In Class AB mode, this piano attack was slightly more strained with more resonance in comparison.
I continued to listen and moved quickly towards the mid-point of this track, where the stand-up bass solo begins around 5:38 into the track towards the end. In this case, the amp settings did not seem to make any pronounced differences.
So, of course, I decided to mess around with the “timbre” switch. I flipped back and forth between Solid-State and Tube modes and found that the second half of the track, which is led by a bass solo, while drums and keyboard are still continuing in the background, had some more appreciable differences.
In Solid-State mode, I heard harder transients with more crisp edges, while also have more defined cuts. While in Tube mode, the transients became softer and sustain notes held longer with more decay and just an overall more euphonic sound.
At this point, I wanted to try some older music, and pulled out some classic Beatles music. On “Let it Be”, Paul McCartney’s vocals sounded much the same between any of the settings I messed with, but the most audible change between modes was how drums sounded. On Solid-State mode, drums sounded a tad thin and lean, and lacking the heft and weight I heard while on the Tube mode, which sounded more realistic and defined. I also felt the whizzing guitars and bass around the 3 minute mark sounded clearly better with the tube amp enabled.
There are many great Beatles tracks, but one of the more memorable introductions is the combination of drums, bass and buzzing guitars of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Weeps”. In tube amp mode, this intro has a softer guitar presentation, and a smoother transition from the initial introduction to the guitar frenzy later. In Solid-State mode, the imaging is improved and things are little more separated, however, guitars are sharper but also more defined.
Some Time with In-Ear Monitors
I also spent a bit of time with various in-ear monitors on the low setting with the Cayin C9. No matter which IEM I used, I did not find any issues with hissing or noise. All of them had black backgrounds, and no trouble with any sound anomalies. For reference, I used custom Hidition Viento and Unique Melody MEST, and also some time with the universal Shuoer EJ07M, Dunu SA6, and Kiwi Ears Orchestra.
I spent most of the time here with my two customs. With the Viento, I thought the pairing was alright. The Viento is a very neutral reference monitor, with a small bass boost. The Cayin C9 tube amp had a clean signature, that had just a slight amount of warmth, but a surprising amount of air and treble quantity to it that I wasn’t expecting. It never felt harsh though with any of the IEMs, and that was good. It felt relatively sweet, especially after the initial brightness I found with the Susvara. Luckily, this isn’t the case here nor was it with the HD600.
I thought the pairing with the Unique Melody MEST was quite nice. The MEST is a quad-driver IEM with dynamic driver, balanced armatures, electrostatic-tweeters and a bone conduction driver. The MEST’s relaxed, yet exciting signature had some extra pop and reverbish sound to the low end while using the C9 in Tube, AB mode. Those Bill Laurence Trio live tracks had a nice amount of energy and an organic decay that felt very nice physically and mentally.
All in all, I think the C9 plays well with IEMs, which I will say, isn’t a typical thing with many portable tube amplifiers. Many are just too loud for most IEMs or have loud feedback from amp noise or electromagnetic interference (EMI) from phones or other wireless signals. The C9 is quiet. Very quiet.
Lotoo PAW 6000
The Lotoo PAW 6000 is my current audio player of choice when it comes to portability since it has a lightning fast UI, easy touch interface, and a really nice sound signature that is resolving yet natural without sounding too stuffy or too bright. The sweet treble is probably my favorite part of the experience.
I spent a good chunk of time using it as a DAC for the Cayin C9 and then quickly A-B switching between the player directly and the amplifier. This worked well since I was able to use balanced cables for the I/O between the two devices and 3.5mm cable for headphone listening.
The PAW 6000 surprisingly sounded a touch warmer than the C9, with just a little bit more elevation in the lower midrange and a more relaxed treble range. As mentioned previously, I don’t think the C9 is utterly bright, but I did notice it sounds like it has a little more energy up top than the other amps I have been using and own today. The C9 is also a little more precise in some ways, especially in solid-state mode. In tube mode, I do find these two line-up more comparably.
Chord Mojo + Poly
The Chord Mojo + Poly combination is new to me. I only just received it a couple days after I got this C9 and intend to use it as a portable Roon streamer while in and around my home. In my brief time with both of these amps, I have noticed the Mojo plays just a bit more warm, a little more rounded in the edges, and a little more contained. The C9 has a little more pop and dynamic energy, and again, has a more lift in the upper range.
Both of these have equivalent power, though, I think the Susvara had a little more drive with the Mojo than it did with the C9. Again, this is a crazy ask for either of these amps so take that with a grain of salt. In other headphones play, I found power to not be an issue on either of these units.
Ignoring the price tag, the Cayin C9 is a very nice addition and one of the better portable tube amplifiers on the market. It has a nice high quality build, pretty Korg NuTubes, and solid feeling switches and knob. The battery life also seems pretty good in my experience especially given how much heat this thing generates and the amp circuitry.
If I had to criticize anything, it would be that its a bit large, and heavy, and not super easily transportable without a bag. It also has a hefty price tag at $2000 USD, and puts it in the upper echelon of portable amplifiers.
But that said, I do like what I heard. It does not necessarily present the stereotypical warm and liquid sound that many think of tube amplifiers, but instead softens the transients just enough while keeping the upper range active and energetic to keep dynamics alive and resolution in-tact. It definitely outperforms other portable tube amplifiers I’ve tried, albeit, those were significantly less costly. So in the end, its a big dollar amplifier for those who can afford it. Its worth a demo for sure.