My impressions of the Cayin N6ii:
Like a Finger Pointing Away to the Moon-- My Quest for the Perfect DAP
First off let me say that I am somewhat new to the world of high-end portable audio and as such I probably lack the experience, perception and vocabulary to do a really thorough review. That said I have been passionate about great sound my whole life and I know what I like. In that spirit I will share a bit of my journey through the audio world in an attempt to describe and do justice to this amazing music player.
It all began for me earlier this year when I picked up a pair of Campfire Audio Atlas IEMs and a Fiio M9. The Atlas totally blew me away with their massive sound, thunderous low end and crisp, sparkling highs. The M9 is a great sounding player and belongs on the “cooler” more analytic side of the spectrum. In this regard it was a great match for the naturally robust and powerful sound of the Atlas which was held in check by the subdued tonality of the player. As luck would have it (or tragedy if you talk to my wallet) I had an opportunity to demo the Campfire Audio Solaris and fell in love with them (the full story is recounted in my showcase review of that IEM). As it turned out, while great for the Atlas, the more balanced and “polite” presentation of the Solaris didn’t come through as well on the M9. Detail retrieval and sound quality was excellent but the cooler more reference tonality coupled with Solaris’ comparative lack of bass emphasis left a little to be desired. It didn’t help the EQ on the M9 is absolutely useless…and thus I began searching for a better player to complement my IEMs.
In terms of tonality DAPs tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum with neutral, reference, and cooler sounding players on one end and warm, musical and more organic sounding players on the other. After a lot of reading and research I came to the conclusion that my preferences were more on the latter end of things and with that I ended up replacing my Fiio M9 with a Sony ZX300. The ZX300 is an amazing player full of that ‘je ne sais quoi’ almost sexiness that characterizes the best Sony products. The interface is slick, intuitive and fast, the battery life is amazing, the player is eminently portable and most importantly the sound has a slightly warm, organic presentation that is clear and clean. Furthermore the ZX300 has a decent EQ and capacity for tweaking sound. Ultimately it was a clear step above the M9 in terms of synergy with the balanced and musical majesty of Solaris. My only qualms with the sound presentation of the ZX300 were that often (especially on older tracks) the presentation seemed slightly veiled, making it difficult to become fully immersed in the music; the higher frequencies tended to be a big fatiguing during longer listening sessions at times; and lastly there was some degree of hiss present (though not enough to really be distracting). For all I knew at the time this was more due to the tuning of Solaris than anything so I trudged on and, whether due to burn-in or my own psychology I eventually got over this and fully embraced the sound of the ZX300.
If sound quality was the only factor I would probably have been totally content with the Sony player however the thing that eventually drove me nuts about it was its playlist functionality. In a word-- it sucks. I love to keep a favorites list going and quickly throw together playlists on the fly-- both of these things are impossible in Sony’s ecosystem. At first I shrugged it off but got more and more irritating-- to the point that I eventually started browsing the marketplaces on Head-Fi and reading everything I could on up and coming DAPs. While all that was happening I had a chance to demo both a Questyle QP2R and Cowon Plenue R. Both had their strengths but were not for me. The Questyle in particular sounded amazing but it’s user interface (both physically and software wise) were so frustrating that if I had to rely on it as my daily player I probably would have smashed it to pieces by now.
(For those who are still with me and haven’t given up while shaking your heads wondering why, this far into a review of the N6ii I haven’t even mentioned it yet-- be patient, I’m getting there.)
I came to realize that, for my needs and preferences, a quality DAP embodies a number of factors-- usability, battery life, playlist functionality, functional EQ and, most importantly, an organic and musical tonality and, as long as it’s my main IEM, compatibility with Solaris (which for my tastes implies a DAP with a warmish and natural presentation with non-fatiguing highs). With that in mind I set out researching the latest slew of releases by Fiio, Ibasso, Astell & Kern and Cayin. A&K was out for me because at this time I’m more-or-less committed to 4.4mm balanced and they’re still stubbornly relying exclusively on 2.5. Fiio was out because, based on what I’d read, I saw no reason to suspect that the presentation of the M11 would be dramatically different from the M9 in terms of overall tonality. Furthermore, I also read that, in a lot of ways the DX220, at least in its stock configuration, is close to the M11. This coupled with some early reviews I’d read describing its sound and battery life lead me to pull the trigger on the Cayin N6ii and, spoiler alert, I’m only two days in but am prepared to say that it embodies everything I’ve been looking for in a DAP, plus a few things didn’t know I was looking for.
First off I wanna give props to Andrew and Musicteck for their impeccable service. All my questions were answered and the device was shipped to me promptly and arrived in record time. First impressions of the device-- it is unequivocally a brick. It’s a little thicker and longer than a pack of cards and the device packs some serious heft. I’m not sure I’d want to bring it on an airplane for fear security would worry about my capacity to club someone out with it. While not the most portable, I would be (and have been) comfortable carrying it around my house, on shopping trips, on short trips about town. Where it might not work is for when I go biking, running, hiking, or on longer excursions as the impact of my exertion and the weight of the player would probably pull my pants off. In any case I am probably going to keep my ZX300 on hand for those purposes and it suits them perfectly. The N6ii feels great in the hand and can be operated with one hand very comfortably. The controls are intuitive and the screen is sufficiently responsive. One of the advantages of Android based DAPs is the ability to choose a music player that suits your needs. I have played around with Hiby Music, Neutron, Jet Player and Cayin’s own app. On the whole at this point I am preferring the Cayin app-- the interface works well for me, it’s easy to use and does everything I want it to. An added note the player comes with a nice leather protective case-- something I deem an essential for players at this level.
Charging this thing is fairly easy as it is quick charge compatible-- it’s nice to go back to USB C after dealing with (and worrying about losing) Sony’s proprietary cable for the last few months. The battery life is decent. Based on reading around the average for flagship DAPs seems to hover around 8 hours. It’s too soon to say unequivocally at this point but extrapolating from my current usage I seem to be burning about 8% per hour with occasional (<10 min/hour) of screen time while listening to FLAC files on high gain with the EQ activated and WIFI off-- which should net me about 12 hours playback total. Not bad at all. On my first night with the device I turned off WIFI and bluetooth and, after 7 hours overnight I awoke to find the battery had dropped about 15% while idling. On the second night, with WIFI and bluetooth off I also unplugged my earphones and when I woke up the battery life hadn’t dropped at all-- so maybe having the earphones plugged in keeps something in the device active. Perhaps future firmware updates will address this.
Now is where things get good-- the sound quality. An obvious caveat here is that when describing the sound quality of a DAP it’s hard to know where to draw the line between whether you’re really describing the qualities of the DAP, your earphones, or the synergy between the two…so take this as you will and, of course, YMMV. The sound of this DAP is robust and muscular and, I would say, leans slightly to the warm side. The whole presentation has a richness and weight that I haven’t heard in other players. I would definitely describe it as analogue and organic-- it’s got a density but at the same time plenty of air with everything having room to breathe. The EQ on this player is very effective-- my Solaris responded very well on all frequencies-- more so than on any other player I have tried. There are many people who deny that, after a certain point, increases in power make any difference or who claim that people who spend over $1000 on a DAP are just rubes jerking themselves with snake oil. Truth be told prior to hearing this DAP I had almost completed my application form for the club of people who don’t think there’s a significant difference or improvement in sound quality as you move up the power and price chain. My experiences with the N6ii have wholesale converted me in the opposite direction. The Solaris is very easy to drive but its 10mm dynamic driver responds very well to EQ. Now, that’s not to say that the differences are huge, that diminishing returns aren’t a thing, or that everyone will feel the same way with the same experiences-- but for me the past two days with this device have been a revelation and I am wholly satisfied with the money I have spent.
So what places the N6ii in an echelon above the Sony ZX300 for me?
Firstly the hiss is greatly diminished and this has lead to an increase in detail coming to the fore but much more importantly is that the slight veil I had experienced through the ZX300 on many tracks is wholly gone. Forgive the analogy but the best way I can describe this is to compare the difference between using condoms and not. It’s still possible to have an amazing and beautiful experience with them but as long as even a slight barrier is present it prevents a total and complete connection. When you remove said barrier the level of intimacy and depth of connection you feel gets magnified in ways that can have a profound emotional impact. I’ve never felt this connected and in touch with my music before-- even with older and less ideal recordings. Everything just feels like it’s right there around you. I’ve been sitting here listening to music while trying to write this review and so often I’ve been pulled away from writing because the sound coming out of my Solaris through the N6ii is so enveloping and engging that it captures all my attention. I feel fully immersed and one with the musical space and not simply a spectator to it.
I can say with all honestly that I never really understood what the terms “emotional” and “musical” with respect to sound signatures meant until I heard the Solaris through the N6ii. This player is a perfect complement to the natural honesty and balanced tuning of the Solaris. I listened to a high res version of “Horse With No Name” and it brought forth a wave of emotion greater than I’d ever felt listening to that song before. A/Bing for a bit it felt that, on many tracks, my ZX300 indeed seems almost veiled and lifeless in comparison. Separation, imaging and holography-- already exemplary on Solaris-- are greatly improved, which leads to an increased perception of air, detail and soundstage. Couple that with the weighty and thick signature of the N6ii and you have winning combo. Extension is great on both ends, the low end is tastefully enhanced, mids are robust and the top end is presented in an engaging and non-fatiguing way…and yet none of this is really the point. I can imagine players that are better extended, that retrieve more details, that are more neutral and analytical-- but they still wouldn’t capture the charm and beauty of the “Cayin sound” which seems to me to be the capacity to present the music as an organic, musical and engaging whole . If I had to sum it up in two words I would quote the late, great Bruce Lee and say that the essence of the N6ii is “Emotional Content”.