The N8 is Cayin’s latest DAP, and their new flagship. Hewn from what feels like a solid slab of metal, it boasts a rich feature set - including the headline debut of the Korg NuTube miniature VFD triode … a first in the digital audio player world.
Primary features include:
Choice of Vacuum Tube and Solid State amplification via 3.5mm headphone output
Dual Output Mode: High Impedance High Output Mode delivers 200 mW @300 Ω (balanced)
Dual AK4497EQ DACs, supporting PCM at up to 32Bit/384kHz, DSD up to DSD256 (4x DSD)
4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm single-ended headphone outputs
Desktop grade line output: single-ended at 2.1V and balanced at 4.3V
I2S, USB Audio and S/PDIF coaxial output
Bluetooth DAC w/ LDAC support
Bluetooth source w/ LDAC support
128GB internal storage
TF (microSD) card up to 512GB
Supports external USB OTG storage (e.g. SSD or other OTG compliant hard drive)
USB 3.0 high speed data transfer w/ USB C connector
7000mAH battery with QC2.0 quick charging
The package includes cables to support all analog output options, including proper balanced, XLR, output at industry standard output levels.
The N8 was originally released in a stainless steel chassis with a PVD finish:
Cayin N8 - First Impressions (Stream of Consciousness)
Thanks to @andrew and @taronlissimore and headphones.com, I have the new, limited edition (300 units for the international market) black brass N8 in my hands to audition and review. As usual, I’ll post some stream-of-consciousness impressions as I explore the thing, ahead of a proper, formal, review.
I’ve been interested in this unit ever since I first heard about it. And that interest was further heightened after spending some time playing with the Pete MilletNuTube Hybrid headphone amplifier (we have a thread on it here), which uses the same Korg NuTube as the N8.
If you look closely at the above picture, the two green glowing rectangles are actually the NuTube, visible through the bottom third of the display whenever the unit is in tube mode and actually playing. This is a nice touch!
It is much too early to say anything substantive, or detailed, about how this thing sounds … but I will say that a) first impressions are excellent and b) in tube mode it definitely exhibits the same kind of euphonic, sweet, delivery that I got from the NuTube Hybrid - and with the IEMs I’ve tried so far no audible hiss! While that euphonic sweetness means there is likely to be higher levels of even-order harmonic distortion in the tube output, if it sounded the same as the solid-state mode there wouldn’t be much point in it!
Much more listening to do … but what I’ve heard so far just makes me want to hear more.
Form-Factor, Size & Weight
This is a big unit … larger than the relative brick that is the Sony NW-WM1Z, and it’s quite weighty too - albeit lighter than the Sony unit coming in at 394g vs. the WM1Z’s 455g.
The N8 dwarfs the A&K SP1000m (which is quite a bit thinner but you really have to have them side by side to appreciate just how different they are) and the SR15.
If you were the type that didn’t mind carrying the WM1Z around, then I expect you’d be okay with the N8 too. The extra bulk is offset by the somewhat lower weight.
The N8 is primarily touch-screen driven. Responsiveness is good, if not quite as fluid and snappy as the WM1Z and SP1000m. It has the usual niceties such as accelerative scrolling and nicely “damped” deceleration.
The OS is a Hiby-derived implementation, so there’s no installing Android streaming clients on the thing. It is a highly-focused music player first and last. Navigation is pretty intuitive, with the usual metadata driven modes for browsing by Album, Artist, Song and so on, as well as a folder-browsing mode.
Scanning your music library is initiated manually (as far as I can tell there isn’t an automatic option, or its off by default), and with 16/44.1 FLAC files proceeds at a rate of about 1,000 tracks per 40 seconds using a 512GB Sandisk microSDXC card in ExFat format.
Swiping down from the top of the display brings up various on/off options for everything from gain and amplifier mode to output formats. Swiping up from the bottom access settings for music, display and overall system behavior. I’ll cover all of these in more detail in a subsequent post.
The screen is small compared to most current touch-screen DAPs, with the bottom third being dedicated to the NuTube. The screen is bright and crisp with good contrast. It isn’t going to rival a flagship smartphone’s display, but it holds its own nicely with the Sony and A&K unit in terms fo quality. It is FAR better than the screen on the QP2R.
There are three tactile controls. The power/volume control (top dial), the play/pause/next/previous control (lower dial/rocker) and then the big gold triangle on the front that calls up the “main” display for whatever you’re doing (so if you’re listening to music, pressing it brings up the main “playing now” display, which has all the relevant details for the currently playing song, including things like file format and bit rate).
The UX is, so far, effective and gets out of the way to do the job it is intended to do, without being something you’ll want to fiddle with for the sake of it,
This took a couple of hours from it’s initial delivery-charge state of 38%, using the (very nice) supplied USB-A to USB-C cable and an Anker QuickCharge 2.0/3.0 compatible charger. A full charge is supposed to take 4.5 hours in quick-charge mode, and 8+ off a standard 5v/2A charger. This is largely due to the huge 7000 mHa battery … necessary to provide the high-output power and to drive the tube stage.
Aesthetics & Build
This is a VERY pretty unit and is built like the proverbial tank. Fit and finish is excellent. It feels like a true luxury product, and the Teflon coating over the brass chassis has a unique feel which is hard to describe yet very “touchable”.
Nothing rattles or moves when it shouldn’t nor feels sloppy and nothing grates. One niggle was that the second, rocker, “dial” wasn’t returning fully to center when pushed up initially (it’s sprung), but a dozen or so actuations of it and that stopped, so it probably just needed to settle a bit.
So those are my first thoughts … more as I spend more time with it …
I’ve read that there are only 300 of these Black Brass units being made for the international market. If the sound equals the experience of the rest of the unit, and assuming I don’t uncover issues in other areas, there’s a good chance that that 300 is actually going to be 299 … once I’m through the “new toy” phase …
Damn, that is good design! I really like that! This thing is way out of my range but I really dig the design of it. Especially the limited run version, I’m a sucker for Purple but, Black and brass is also a favorite!
I have about 16 hours of listening time on the N8 now (yes, it kept me up all night), and 24 hours and change of total run-time; a fair bit of that time has been spent doing little tests beyond just enjoying listening.
With my most sensitive and/or hiss-prone IEMs, the N8 is entirely silent, even in tube mode, unless I have the unit both on it’s highest gain setting (there are three) AND on it’s hi-power output setting (two modes here). And even in High Gain and P2+ power modes, what little hiss there is you have to listen for.
Interestingly, this doesn’t change much in solid-state or balanced output modes … there’s only the slightest, almost indiscernible, level of noise when nothing else is going on, and then (again) only in Hi Gain and P2+ power settings.
To put that in perspective, Low Gain and STD power mode are more than enough for the N8 to drive my tia Fourté or Zeus XR (Adel) far beyond any level I’d dare, much less care, to listen at. And in that mode it’s 100% silent.
That’s pretty impressive! I was expecting an increased noise floor in Tube mode, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The Sony WM1Z is similarly quiet and the latest A&K players are the only units I’ve had in my hands that are, as far as I can tell, absolutely silent no matter what mode they’re in or what they’re feeding.
Sound: Tube vs. Solid State
You can switch, on the fly, between tube and solid-State modes, which makes it relatively easy to compare the two. Switching from tube mode to solid-state is instant, going back the other way incurs a 5 second delay while the NuTube is heated. This delay is accompanied by an on-screen count-down and you can also tell when the changeover occurs audibly.
Even at initial power-on there are clear differences between tube and solid-state modes, and those seem to have become a little more pronounced after 24 hours of “burn-in”. Tube mode has a sense of sweetness and euphoria to its delivery, where solid-state mode is closer to a straight-up reference presentation.
Stage and layering are both very apparent and solid in, well, solid-state mode. Switching to tube mode yields an instantly apparent holographic presentation, with a wider and, to the extent it’s possible to hear with IEMs or cans, deeper rendering. There’s more space around instruments and they are more spatially segregated.
Tone becomes a little richer and sweeter in tube-mode, and acoustic instruments take on a little extra body or weight - but without sounding slow or thick. And there’s no apparent rounding or loss of detail. Dynamics, and low-end slam and presence, also move up a notch compared to solid-state mode.
So far I would say that I am enjoying tube mode more, but that solid-state mode is more faithful to the source. The fundamentals are still there in both modes, it’s just a different take on how they’re presented.
I need to do lots more listening, and especially between the single-ended and balanced modes (requires changing connectors and which socket I’m using), and that’ll be forthcoming.
Tubes involve heaters - most audio-types know this. Desktop tube amps, especially class-A designs, can easily remove the need to heat one’s listening room. So I was interested to see whether the N8 got noticeably warm or, even, hot.
I know from playing with NuTube Hybrid that the NuTube itself doesn’t really put out much heat. Not surprising since it’s a fairly low-mass device.
The N8, after several hours of playing into a 10 ohm load (lower impedance means more current, which means more heat), in a 73 degree room was, at its warmest point (middle of the display, not, as it happens, at the tube), at 97 degrees. That’s lower than normal body temperature and as a result doesn’t feel noticeably warm to the touch at all.
Cayin designed a suspension/vibration control system to reduce tube microphonics. I know, again from the NuTube Hybrid, that the NuTube is highly microphonic, and it’s very easy to make that unit ring like a bell for 10 seconds just by plugging in your headphones.
Happily the N8 is not nearly as prone to microphonic behavior. Tapping the unit, and connecting headphones, results in no audible ringing at all. Short of lifting the edge an inch and letting it drop onto the desk there’s no microphonic behavior at all, and even then it is both minimal and very short lived.
Walking around with the unit in a pocket does not excite any microphonic behavior, even when trotting up 10 floors of concrete steps in Pike Place Market.
So if you had concerns here, you can put them to bed!
Scrolling through music quickly will result in some lag in how fast the album art for each item in the list displays. It doesn’t hold up navigation … you can keep scrolling as fast as you want, but if you’re going by the album art for coarse identification, then you’ll be pausing your scrolling here and there to let it catch up in display the album covers.
Nothing I’ve come across so far makes me desire this thing any less.
Though in real-world use I have gotten spoiled by the on-device streaming capability of the Astell’n’Kern units. Cayin have talked about the possibility of having TIDAL and Qobuz support on the N8 itself, but I’ve learned the hard way not to “buy on on futures”, so the jury is still out there.
The Black Brass model is $3,699 vs. $3,299 for the Stainless Steel version.
That puts the steel version within $100 of the Sony NW-WM1Z, and the A&K SP1000 splits the difference between the black and steel versions at $3,499.
But, so far, it’s playing in the same realm as those flagship/TOTL players. Whether such things are worth it to any individual is obviously a personal call, but for those were they are, then it’s certainly nice to have another, legitimate, competitor.
The N8 is proving to have no issues driving full-size headphones. With the ZMF Vérité there’s ample drive and authority (not to mention volume) even out of the single-ended tube output (the using “Medium Gain” and “P+ (High2)” voltage settings). Even bass-heavy content, played loudly, shows no signs of running out of steam here, and there’s a nice sense of ease to the delivery even then.
In this mode, with the Vérité, I’ve been able to get the unit up to 100 F … which is just warm to the touch.
I still need to test really demanding cans like the LCD-4 and Abyss, which I’ll get to later today. I would have already, but once I fired the N8 up with the Vérité nothing else got done. It’s a really nice pairing.
Physical Controls & Keylock
The fleeting “stickiness” issue I had with the navigation dial has not returned. It is quite a sensitive control, all the same. Enough so that it is necessary to lock the controls if I put the thing in a pocket. The volume/power dial isn’t quite as sensitive to being jostled that way due to what it controls.
Fortunately, the N8 allows you to lock the physical controls automatically when the screen lock activates. And you can choose any combination of those controls to lock - it’s not an all-or-nothing affair. Right now I have only enabled the lock for the navigation dial.
I have not done anything here other than make connections and see what’s actually supported, so how it sounds will get discussed later.
When the N8 shipped originally it supported SBC and aptX codecs. While everything supports SBC it’s the lowest-common-denominator in quality too. Android devices, along with various Windows machines, and macOS can all support aptX, but iOS doesn’t. So right now, iOS users (iPhone, iPad) are stuck with SBC support, as the N8 doesn’t currently offer AAC.
Codecs can be added later, and Cayin talk about this possibility. Indeed, in firmware v2.0 they added LDAC support. And you have full-configurability for LDAC, including setting either “Connection Priority” or “Quality Priority”, and the option to specify which of LDAC’s three data rates (330, 660 and 990 kbps) are used.
This is going to be primarily interesting using the N8 either directly to drive wireless headphones (where it is really overkill as it’ll contribute nothing to the sound there … but nice to be able to do if you only have the one device), or for streaming as the current OS doesn’t support any streaming services.
iOS users will have to think about this one if they want to be able to stream - either waiting for a talked-about-possiblity-that-hasn’t-been-committed-too update for on-device TIDAL/Qobuz support or using a wired connection to do it.
Bluetooth on a $3500ish product is like massive overkill for essentially a digital transport. Definitely a nice to have though.
Thanks for the lengthy impressions. I’ll probably never buy one of these myself, but have been very interested in how the tubes behave in a portable device like this one since I first heard about this product last year.
Although the SQ difference between these TOTL DAPs and a well implemented $500->$700 model is likely well into the realm of diminishing returns, how much of a difference do you personally hear it/them make to your listening pleasure?
I realize percentage difference calls are difficult to make and can often be quite subjective. So, with that understood…
As this is a loaner unit, I think it’s quite possible that your opinion/evaluation re how an excellent unit costing in the hundreds (as opposed to the thousands) stacks up.
As there’s no buyer’s remorse nor pride of ownership/status bias (that might contribute to a placebo effect) when evaluating a loaned unit, I think your opinion might be even more helpful (ie objective) than one from someone who paid a great deal to buy the unit.
That is of course assuming you have access to the DAP for long enough to really acquaint yourself with (and compare) it’s sound quality/signature, UI, burn-in etc.
I’m very interested in your evaluation in this regard. Although not sure if “non- buyer’s remorse” (ie “sour grapes”) bias is a thing, I believe you’d not fall victim to it Torq .
Lastly, it seems to me that things like hi-res playback from, say, Roon or other software with true hi res capability, would be standard on a unit at this price level.
I’m obviously not familiar with multi-thousand dollar DAPs but am looking to put together a very good to excellent portable playback system. So a relative comparison to the better sounding units in a less rarified $ atmosphere would be very helpful.
I’m going to talk in generalities here … and will deal with specific unit-to-unit comparisons in other threads.
How much variance there is between, say, a $500 DAP and the “higher-end” stuff depends a lot on what you’re considering as interesting differences. If you’re only considering how they sound then, yes, they’re not immune to the ravages of “diminishing returns”, but if you’re considering them as a whole then the differences can be quite stark!
Consider that a DAP is storage, a (usually) touch-screen UX, a transport (an maybe a streamer too), a (likely-balanced) DAC and an, (probably balanced) amplifier, and it’s apparent here are many more areas that are affected and that may be upgraded, along with the sound, as you go up the price tiers.
Let’s talk about sound first, though … in (mostly) product-agnostic terms:
If we assumed that DAP-A, at $3,000 is the benchmark for a perfect-100 score (on a 100 point scale), then it’s smaller, $1,500 sibling (DAP-B) might score a 96, and the baby of the same family, DAP-C at $500 would probably come in at 90.
And some sonic technicalities that improve with a move from DAP-C to DAP-B might not improve further with an upgrade to DAP-A. The differences could simply be in features and non-audible aspects of performance (e.g. responsiveness of the UX or support for higher rate native DSD decoding).
The DAC side of most modern DAPs are all pretty competent (easier to assess when you can use them as external DACs and they offer a true line-out). Sure, some are better than others, and there are audible differences between them, but those differences are, as with desktop devices, often as much about splitting hairs over very specific preferences/technicalities (e.g. preferring better stage over absolute smoothness) than anything else.
Though within some specific manufacturer’s line-ups, the changes can be larger as you find they’re not just using incrementally more thoughtful/capable implementations as you climb the price tiers but also are changing what chipsets are used entirely (e.g. the A&K line up starts with the CS43198, next up is the ESS 9038 Pro and finally the AKM 4497 … and that tends to yield more obvious differences (not necessarily improvements, though in this case I personally think they are).
The AMP side of DAPs is often a much bigger point of variance. Compare the noiseless (no hiss at all, at least that I’ve been able to hear with the IEMs I own) output of the A&K SR15 ($700) to the QP2R ($1,300 at the time) which has audible hiss with almost every IEM and was so bad with the EE Zeus XR that it wasn’t listenable.
At the end of the day, a lot of it depends on what your preferences and priorities are in terms of sound, and which trades-offs you’re willing to make. And, to a certain extent, how you’re using the device.
I can easily tell the difference in sound between my A&K SR15 and my A&K SP1000M in the office or at home. But on a plane in flight? Or walking in downtown Seattle? Not a chance … the differences are completely masked by the environmental noise-level (even with the most noise-isolating IEMs I have).
The only way to know for sure is to listen …
More expensive DAPs often (not always) up the game in other areas. They become faster, more polished, and more feature rich (mostly). The SR15, which I use as my “EDC” DAP is pretty responsive, but it’s clearly not as fast as the SP1000M. Between the two, price wise, the QP2R’s navigation and interface was awful in comparison.
Sometimes you get more storage, or different input/output options, faster charging, bigger batteries/longer playtimes, larger screens, all of which are specific, tangible, benefits if you care/need them.
And then you may run into other differences that are just as tangibly obvious, e.g. when something is made out of steel vs. brass vs. copper, or is using other internal components of differing specification, be it fancy wires, boutique capacitors etc; BUT if and how those affect SOUND is more debatable.
Then there are sometimes unique selling points which may affect preference or conceptual desire. With the Cayin N8 that comes down to one primary thing for me … the “tube” output option, without which I probably wouldn’t have paid it much attention (since I already had a couple of flagship DAPs). And, as it happens, so far I like that output the best, even though I would say, even at this early juncture, that the balanced solid-state output is technically more faithful to the original material.
That’s a very long-winded way of saying “it depends on the unit and your priorities/preferences”!
You’ll never find an issue of buyer’s remorse coming up in my reviews. I very rarely buy without auditioning first, and when I do it’s either from the used market (so I don’t lose anything if I wind up selling it a week or two later) or from dealers that I have excellent, long-term, relationships with and consequently can return the thing anyway. So there’s nothing for me to be remorseful about.
I don’t generally let pride-of-ownership factor in, either. Not all expensive stuff is good/better. And my self-worth and/or ego isn’t very driven by what I own. And if it was, given my other pastimes and interests, audio gear would be a very poor way to flaunt it.
I think it is clear from a great number of impressions, across some specific sites, that that very much can be a thing. I know a number of people who are almost militant in their dislike for anything (not just audio gear) that they desire on some level but can’t afford.
It’s not much of an issue for me as, at least as far as I’m aware, as if there’s a piece of audio gear I want I can write the check for it quite easily - so there’s nothing for me to be sour about. Most of what I buy I never mention anyway - it comes, or comes and goes, without comment, unless I like it enough to want to write about it or, sometimes (not very often these days) it’s so egregiously bad that it’s funny.
Almost all DAPs today can act as external DACs which will work just fine both with Roon. What they don’t do, currently, is operate as network-addressable Roon-Ready endpoints. A&K have promised that support for their players, and they already support DLNA, but I’ve not seen comments in that realm from Cayin so far.
Streaming support is dependent on having a suitable client available. If your DAP isn’t running on Android then that means a fully-custom client, and that’s a lot of R&D expenditure for what is, especially as you go up the price levels, a progressively more niche-of-a-niche product.
This will be about behavior, not sound quality, for now.
The N8 works perfectly as a USB DAC with macOS. You have to switch the N8 to “USB DAC” mode (default is storage mode), but once done it shows up under Sound and in the Audio-Midi Utility as expected, with support for all relevant sample rates from 32 kHz to 384 kHz and at 16, 24 and 32-bit depths.
Default behavior playing from the OS, Roon or Audirvana+ (or the new Audirvana 3.5), is that it uses the appropriate (non-resampled) frequency and operates at 24-bit (the player/OS will simply pad zeros if the source material is actually 16-bits). You can change this in the Audio-Midi utility if you wish, and then those settings will remain in play.
Using an iPhone XS, you must use the Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter, and it must be connected to a power-source that is NOT an actual USB host (so a USB power pack or charger will work, but a computer won’t), otherwise you’ll get the “This accessory draws too much power” error.
(The Sony WM1Z gets around this by having a “Do not charge in USB DAC mode” setting, that has it tell iOS that the unit draws no power).
Once connected, it works as you’d expect, with the N8 showing the appropriate bit-rate/depth for whatever is playing. I found no issues with the built-in Music and Video players, and you can use hi-res players if you wish also.
On the latest iPad Pro 11" model, I was NOT able to get the N8 to be recognized at all. A straight, known-good, USB-C-to-USB-C cable results in the iPad attempting to charge from the N8, throws a “Not Charging” message, and the N8 does not show up as a selectable audio device.
This may work via a USB-C hub, something I’ll have to check later, but it doesn’t connect directly to an iPad Pro 11" - which is a shame, as things like the Chord Hugo 2 connect directly with just a USB-C-to-micro USB cable.
N8 as a Bluetooth DAC with iOS
You’re limited to SBC mode, which is the least desirable type of connection. It’s possible Cayin could add AAC support here, otherwise you’re stuck as iOS doesn’t support aptX or LDAC.
N8 as a Bluetooth DAC with macOS
This works fine, you can put macOS in aptX mode and get a better quality connection. Still not as good as AAC or LDAC, but it’s better than SBC.
In general, for me, this makes it very hard to recommend the N8 for use with iOS devices. It’s a pain to use in wired mode there (or doesn’t work at all - with the latest iPad) and Bluetooth SBC is the lowest quality possible for such things.
Unless Cayin decide to add AAC protocol support, then iOS users that want to stream to the N8 from their devices should look at the N8 as a transportable device or forget any notion of streaming to it at all*.
I found a quote from Cayin on future support for on-device streaming for TIDAL, Qobuz and Spotify - and the short version is that it is not going to happen.
Ian, I’ve just begun reading your thorough and detailed reply to my query.
At the moment, some pressing obligations prevent me from dedicating the amount of time required to read/digest such a detailed and helpful response.
I’ll most certainly be reading it with great interest asap, when I have the time to give it the attention it deserves.
For now, I just wanted to offer a quick thank-you for investing the time and effort that such a response obviously takes (especially while in the middle of reviewing the unit in question).
Your knowledge of things audio, and especially your knowledge of and experience with headphone gear, combined with your generosity in sharing your insight, is an invaluable resource for every member of this forum and/or any who might visit headphones.com seeking reliable information.
I personally find your insights and reviews to be presented in a manner that’s as objective and unbiased as one can be, especially when it comes to a topic/hobby that is of its very nature often such a subjective experience.
Thanks also for your dedication towards making this site such a great resource, especially for those of us looking to determine the most suitable components of the highest affordable quality, who often need do so without much opportunity to audition equipment.
I look forward to reading carefully both your reply to my question and the complete review of what appears to be an exceptional DAP (whether I can afford to buy one or not ).
So speaking of the used market, are there notable used DAPs that are quite good enough to recommend? Is it like my iPhone 6+ that is clearly bigger than my iPhone 4 and fast enough that I don’t yearn for a 7, 8 or 10?
Which of those would constitute a good way to flaunt it?
I am probably the wrong person to ask … as I only recently got a renewed interest in DAPs.
I started with an A&K 120, and the next one I had after that was the Sony WM1A. Which was rapidly replaced with a WM1Z. I owned a Fiio X5iii as a “take everywhere” alternative for a few months (until FiiO started making the firmware worse faster than they were fixing things). And that was it until the start of this year when I picked up the SP1000M and SR15.
I’ve heard a bunch of them, or had them on loan, but none were impressive enough, across the board, to bother with … sometimes based on value, sometimes just based on their quirks.
I will say that sound quality tends to improve much slower than other features or general performance (compare the indexing speed of an AK120 vs. an SR15 … and the AK120 is a horror show) though.
I will also say that, former-and-recently-replaced/upgraded flagships possibly excepted, the price for a given level of audio performance has come down to the point where a good number of excellent NEW units cost less than used, older, designs and sound better at the same time.
Not sure there is such a thing. I meant “poor” in the context of “ineffective”. But it is my least expensive hobby.
I got to hold this beast of a DAP yesterday thanks to @Torq. It’s an absolute monster of a player in terms of size, weight, and luxury. It’s really a work of art to be honest. I am quite confident I’ll never own one, but having a chance to play around with it and play a few songs with my CFA Solaris was a treat. (they also somewhat coordinate with each other color/style wise)
The only let-downs for me, so far, are the lack of on-device streaming and the poor interoperation with iOS devices (which could have covered for the lack of streaming).
Ultimately I’m not sure that’s going to matter for me … I have the SP1000M and SR15 that cover those duties nicely, and are both much more portable. So if I keep this, it’ll be for transportable use.
And sitting on the deck and having this level of performance (which is about where the WM1Z and SP1000M sit from a technicalities perspective) but with the “tube flavor” on top of it … is, well, addictive.
So … I’ve had the N8 running, either listening, or just playing to itself, for north of 100 hours now. There’s probably a solid 30 hours of listening time included in there, a good half of which I’d consider “critical”.
The N8 is proving to be an excellent listen.
Six months ago my favorite DAP, across the board, was the Sony WM1Z. The first DAP I’d heard since then that genuinely rivaled it (for me, and my perferences/gear) was the A&K SP1000M. I would say the N8 edges them both out on technicalities, and more than edges them out in terms of raw listening enjoyment. That’s true of all three output types/modes, but especially so with the tube mode (yes, even though - perhaps because - it carries some distortion and color that isn’t present with the solid-state outputs).
I will go as far as saying that, as long as you’re not running one of the rare pathologically power-hungry headphones/super-fussy IEMs, that this is a solid desktop-class listening experience.
Yes, it costs a bit more than an equivalently sonically capable desktop setup, but for the extra you’re also getting portability and a proper source. If you don’t need that portability, a desktop setup would still be ahead on value, though not by as much as I would have expected.
I will get into a detailed description and comparison of the sound in a final review … but at this point I’m content to call it “excellent” and is easily on par, or ahead, of every DAP I’ve heard.
Quirks, Oddities & Annoyances
The first is very minor, infrequent, quirk:
Twice, during my 30 hours of listening, I’ve had the unit make the kind of “radio interference” noises that you sometimes get with traditional tube amplifiers and/or old AM radios. This was short lived, a few seconds in both cases. Both times I was listening at my desk, which has a fair amount of radio gear on it, including a dual band WiFi router, and a bunch of wide-band receivers/transmitters (and supporting antenna), and my cellphone was sitting within a few inches as well (though it wasn’t the more common staccato “GSM” handshake noises being picked up). And both times I was listening via the NuTube output.
I do not consider this a problem (it’s a pretty harsh RF environment right there when any of the radios are running), and haven’t encountered it any any other mode or when listening anywhere else - mostly I mention it because anyone that’s never had a tube amp of any kind before may be surprised if they encountered it.
Of note, I’ve definitely heard the same thing from other tube amps running in the same spot in the past (including from the MCTH, NuTube Hybrid, Vali 2, Loxjie P20, Crack 1.1 and EC ZDT Jr) on occasion.
Other bits … some of which I’ve mentioned already, but have become more annoying since then:
I still can’t make this work as a USB DAC with the current iPad Pro 11".
Won’t work with an iPhone via USB without having external power and the bulkier adapter.
The lack of support for AAC over Bluetooth (especially in Rx, i.e. DAC, mode) - which exacerbates the above two issues.
The slight lag in displaying album art for albums as they scroll onto the screen (they populate once you stop scrolling, taking half a second or so to show up).
No “search” mode for finding music (that I can find).
“Genre” browsing isn’t very useful; there’s no organization beyond only including items tagged with that Genre (they aren’t sub-grouped by album or artist as far as I can tell - if they show up that way it seems to be more to do with the order they were added to the card).
Premium Case Included:
The case supplied with the N8 “Black Brass” is a custom-made Dignis case, which differs from the simpler, un-vented, case that comes with the “standard” Stainless Steel version of the N8.
While you can buy that case separately for the stainless version ($200), it is included as the standard case with the brass black model, which helps offset some of the extra cost of the limited-edition model.