The Fiio X5iii and the Cayin N5ii have been the most hyped players released in 2017. They compete in the similar price point and even have very similar features. So it was obvious that we pit them against each other and find out which is the best.
Read on to find out.
"We were really excited when each of these products came out and thought each was the next big thing. Despite being very similar, there is one that really jumps ahead in the aspect that atters most, SOUND. "
The Cayin N5ii is the newest product from the Chinese Audio giant Cayin, who ventured into Personal Audio only a couple years ago and have been making some products that have garnered much fanfare. The N5ii, their newest DAP, has been highly anticipated for some time. It is so because it seems to be packed to the rafters with an attractive set of features which aren’t usually found in other DAPs of a similar price. The extensive set of features and an attractive design have made it a highly in-demand product.
The N5ii we received is an early review unit, not the final production unit, so certain things in the final retail packaging may be different, the contents of the box will stay the same and product as well. The operating system will be updated on the retail units, with certain features enabled, that aren’t available currently. Them being the ability to use the DAP as a USB DAC/Amp will be enabled with the software update on release.
The packaging itself is of high quality and certainly feels like a retail version, as a matter of fact, if they didn’t tell us it wasn’t the retail unit, I would not have known. It’s a matte black box with a gloss silhouette of the DAP on the cover, with the Cayin logo on top and a Hi-Res sticker on the bottom left. The lid opens up like the cover of a hardback book, with a magnetic flap keeping it shut. The literature and warranty information can be found on a compartment on the inside of the lid, with the silicone case and the USB to USB-C charging cable on the right. The DAP is in the left compartment, hidden under another lid.
On first look, the N5ii really reminds me of the Astell&Kern AK100ii/AK120ii, the design is really similar. Both are chunky machined aluminium blocks with big foreheads and volume knobs on the top right side. Though the design of the knobs is entirely different and I actually prefer the knob on the N5ii, it’s super solid and not exposed on the surface like on the AK100ii. People who know me also know that I really appreciate a good “Knob Feel”, which is how satisfying turning a knob is. Just one good rotation of the knob lets you know the attention to detail put into the build by the manufacturer. The “Knob Feel” on the N5ii is Top Notch, each turn of the knob is extremely satisfying and screams of quality. Other than the knob, the other physical controls are the power button on the left side of the body and the playback buttons on the right, being, Next Track, Previous Track and Play/Pause. You can also find two Micro SD (TF Card) Expansion Slots, that support cards upto 400GB each. At the bottom it has the USB-C port which supports charging, data transfer and OTG Storage Expansion. The headphone jacks can be found on the top, with a 2.5mm TRRS Balanced Jack and a 3.5mm TRS Single Ended Headphone Jack that doubles as a fixed voltage output (Line Level). Lastly, it has 3.65” TFT Display, that has a Tempered Glass screen protector pre-installed, which is a nice touch.
Just examining the body of the player gives away a bunch of the features, but there’s a lot more under the bonnet. The chip used for the DAC is the ESS9018K2M, which if implemented well can be as good, if not better than custom chips multiple times its own price. The DAC feeds the amp circuit, with a pair of OPA 1652s going into another pair of OPA 1622s which handle the Balanced Output and there are also separate Op Amps, an OPA 1622 for Single Ended output and another OPA 1652 for Line Level Output. The major issue with a lot of Balanced Amps that fall in the “Budget” category is that they just use a Balanced Jack with a Single Ended Circuitry and not really balanced. However, the amplifier circuitry is not only truly balanced in the N5ii, but it also has dedicated chips for SE and Line Out. It has Three Active Oscillators, which Cayin claims will ensure jitter free playback. It supports nearly all formats under the Sun, the likes of WAV, SACD ISO, FLAC, APE, the various levels of DSD and even the most hated child in the family of music formats, MP3, it can play anything.
The list of all the audio jargons in the feature set of this player are endless. I am personally more excited by the features that make this player truly different in what it can do. The N5ii has a Quad Core Processor and 1GB of RAM to make sure the User Interface is smooth and free of lag, which is really important. It uses Android 5.1 as its operating system, which is an OS a lot of people may be comfortable using and it also supports a whole host of third party apps that a custom OS would not. You can switch to an “Audio Priority” mode that shuts off WiFi, Bluetooth and disables all third party apps, in order for you to enjoy a No Interference Audio Listening experience. One quirk of the Audio Priority Mode is that it is on by default when using the 2.5mm Balanced Output, which prevents you from using apps like Tidal to stream music through the balanced output. I hope this quirk is fixed with an update.
The Cayin N5ii also supports Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi. You can use WiFi to access a Network Access Storage(NAS) Node or even a LAN and access music remotely from the DAP. So if having two expandable slots wasn’t enough, you can access potentially Terabytes of music while in your network, or if even that isn’t an option, you can also use USB flash storage devices via the USB-C port. The USB-C port even supports S/PDIF output via a USB-C to Coaxial cable.
BOTH ARE BUILT REALLY WELL. THE X5 HAS DUAL DACS UP ITS SLEEVE, BUT THE N5 HAS A BETTER AMP CIRCUIT.
If you are someone who is regularly involved in online Audio Forums, you may have come across the term Chi-Fi at some point. For the uninitiated, the term Chi-Fi simply stands for Chinese Hi-Fi, a term assigned to the Chinese High Fidelity Audio brands and Audio products. It was mostly meant for those brands/products that made big claims for small prices. Initially a derogatory term, it now just stands for budget friendly Hi-Fi gear from China.
Fiio is a brand whose journey has truly resonated with the term Chi-Fi, from the initial meaning of the term to the now modern day version. They were previously known for making cheap products with an impressive spec sheet that, in all honesty, sounded mediocre to all right. Over the years however, they have truly been evolving as a company and making better products as they go on and one of the product categories they have really been doing well is DAPs (Digital Audio Players). Their DAPs, from the most basic model to the flagship, are all super competitive in their categories. As a matter of fact, I remember writing about the Fiio X7 in 2016 and being thoroughly impressed with it.
The X5iii was a super hot release of last year, as Fiio completely revamped their DAP design and modernized it. The first two iterations of the X5 had a click wheel, like the older iPods, and were pretty bulky. The newest one looks somewhat similar to the 300 series Astell&Kern players, which I consider to be the most beautiful players on the market. The similarity is down to the larger touch display and the angled, wedge like left side of the body. The screen is a generous 3.97” and the back is also covered in class. You can find the Hi-Res certified sticker just below the display on the left.
For physical controls, you have the Power Button on the Right side, Playback controls and the volume wheel on the left. There is a variety of options for connectivity, with MicroUSB, 2.5mm TRRS for Balanced, 3.5mm for Single Ended Headphone Out and 3.5mm Line Out/Coax out. It has 32GB of internal storage and 2 concealed memory slots for expansion, allowing for a total potential storage capacity 544GB.
Like the X7, it also has an Android OS with a Pure Music Mode which runs just the Music App with all third party apps shut down. Internally, the X5iii has a Dual DAC design, using a pair of the AKM AK4490EN chips, which is a capable chip as long as it’s implemented well. The Amp circuit utilizes dual OPA 1642 as a low pass filter and a custom OPA 426 for amplification. It also uses Two Crystal Oscillators for Jitter Free music playback.
The X5iii also boasts of a myriad of other features like, Dual Charging modes, so you only do fast charging in times of dire need in order to avoid battery wear. It also supports WiFi and Bluetooth with AptX.
Judging the sound quality of Source Equipment is very different to judging Transducers (Headphones, Earphones, Speakers). You normally take a pair of headphones/earphones, try them out with your reference Amplifier and DAC or a DAP, maybe compare it further with another set of headphones. Usually the differences are apparent, as with headphones, they are the last piece of the chain and often the most easy to judge. With Players or other Source Equipment however, you need to try them out with various headphones, sometimes even make sure how they perform in different modes.
So to make my life easier, I settled on using two pairs of IEMs that we have at the office that I am very familiar with and have often used with some of my own gear. I only used IEMs because I am aware the majority of users who will buy this DAP will mostly use it with a pair of IEMs and mostly via the 2.5mm TRRS Balanced Jack. So the In-Ears of choice for my time using these was the Noble Audio Kaiser Encore and the Audeze iSine 20. The Kaiser Encore is a superb IEM focused on a Reference sound with great technical ability and the iSine 20 is an Open Back In-Ear that has super low distortion and is extremely clean.
The first thing that jumped out to me when I started off with Jim Hall’s Concierto De Aranjuez, was how clean it was sounding. Now it isn’t the cleanest sounding player I have ever heard, that’d be the Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000, but that costs close to 10x as much as the Cayin N5ii and the N5ii gets pretty close to it. Both the IEMs I am using are very sensitive to low level noise or even a hint of distortion and I got none of that listening to them on the N5ii. Going deeper, the sound all across the board feels more present, more full bodied, combined with the blacker background, everything feels more natural and upfront. Vocals on tracks by Adele and Nilufer Yanya sounded so natural and full, even the horns on certain jazz tracks had the same natural realistic spatial presentation. No particular section of the frequency range is overemphasized or accentuated, the presentation is smooth without any lack of sharpness.
I am a huge fan of the Spatial Presentation from this player. In my experience, in this budget range, players generally have an artificial feeling stage presentation. The soundstage on the N5ii is super wide and again, it sounds realistic and not exaggerated and has a good amount of depth too. It has some great Dynamics and does justice to the Music and makes the Transducers perform at its best. The Bass section is a pleaser, it doesn’t have any bloat and has great impact and extends deep. The treble section is equally pleasing too. The real star however is the Midrange. I wrote earlier that it has some great spatial presentation and great body, the mids really benefit from that, makes it sound really special. Everything is tight and at the same time, loose enough to sound smooth. The player paired really well with both the Kaiser Encore and the iSine 20 and made both of sound really enjoyable while also showcasing its technical acumen.
THE BETTER AMP CIRCUIT ON THE N5 REALLY SHINES AND PUTS THE X5 TO SHAME.
The previous generation X5 was a very technically capable player and had some great clarity and detail. Though at times it could be considered as analytical, which certainly is good, but not really enjoyable. The goal for the X5iii was to retain the same technical ability while sounding more musical and actually enjoyable. It is easily far more capable on the feature front, but has it achieved its goal of sounding great? Let’s see.
On first play, you notice an expansive soundstage with some good separation and layering. It certainly has a wide presentation and a natural sounding one at that too, however I do feel it is slightly lacking in depth. An improvement in depth definitely could elevate the spatial presentation of the music.
The Bass impact is great and has excellent energy. There is no bloat or distortion and is not just enjoyable, but pretty accurate as well. The mids follow the same characteristics and are pretty engaging too. The treble region for me sounds a bit smoothed over and lacks some energy and sparkle. It really left me wanting for more. Another issue for me is the background noise, which was not an issue on the X5ii, which I find odd. Blacker backgrounds make the presentation of the music even more natural, but the X5iii really loses out on that, especially considering that most people are going to use it with sensitive IEMs.
The X5iii really got me excited with all the features and the dual DAC design, with a plethora of Audiophile mumbo jumbo, but ultimately, in my opinion, it doesn’t compare with some other products in this range in terms of sound.
Though I must say, it makes for a great transport, whether portable or desktop. It supports USB Audio passthrough and even has Line Out and Coaxial Out. With all its features and its technical prowess, it does have great use as a good transport. It is so because I do feel the amplification circuit on the device really lets it down, hence even with Analog Line Out with an external amp, it sounds fantastic.
I like the movement of the full touchscreen Digital Audio Players, it’s been a long time coming. For how long were we meant to use players with a User Interface from 90s, we left MC Hammer behind, why not leave clunky devices too.
The device is easy to hold and the buttons feel super solid and easy to press. On start up, the setup is pretty easy and it scans the device and SD Cards for music pretty quickly too. The Android Interface has been taken from the i5 and refined a further bit.
The Menu structure is easy to navigate through, with horizontal menus for music and vertical menus for settings. The status bar is the standard Android status bar and can be found at the top of the screen. Drag your finger down from the top and you will find the Quick Access settings menu, just like any other Android device and so you can also find the gear icon that will take you into the proper ‘Settings’ app. There is a Quick Playback bar at the bottom, which also takes you into the Music Player App. Now, you would expect the circular grid icon at the bottom that takes you into the Application menu, but on the N5ii, you drag from the left to right to access the Apps Menu.
The Music Player App has a customizable screen, akin to the i5 player. You currently only have three themes, but I do think there’ll be more with future updates. All the other features work perfectly too. You can use their USB-C to Coax cable to output digital signal to another DAC. The option to use USB passthrough isn’t available as yet, though it will be available with the next update and so will be the ability to use the N5ii as a DAC/Amp. A couple features that i do find really need are the ability to access your music remotely and HiBylink. I used Samba to access the music on my network, mostly because at the time I only had one Micro SD card and didn’t have some of my music onboard. It worked smoothly and I guess unless you have a terrible network, it should work fine for anyway. HiBylink, lets you remotely control/access your DAP via your smartphone. So it allows you to control your player without having to take it of your bag or pocket, which is super convenient.
Overall, I found the Cayin N5ii extremely easy and smooth to use. It’s one of the better the DAP’s in terms of UX available at the price point and combined with its amazing sound, it’s probably the best DAP available in the price range.
THE BETTER SOFTWARE INTEGRATION MAKES USING THE N5 REALLY SMOOTH.
The X5iii is also an Android based player and thus has all the benefits of Android. You can use it with the Music App as standard, which is pretty smooth itself. You lose the ability of running other apps in the background however. On Android, you have the option of using a third party player, Onkyo HF Player, HiBy Music, Google Play Music are ones that come to mind. You can also use third party streaming apps. Android also allows you to customize the screens. The screen itself could benefit with a warmer hue.
As far as Audio goes, you get a 10 band Equalizer, with 9 prefixed settings available. You also get network access and it also automatically adds on missing album art and other missing album information. You also get digital filter and gain settings.
There are some things that I found to be holding it back, like really holding back the user experience. The time it takes to scan music from the Micro SD cards is excruciating. Gapless music playback is non-existent. And it generally starts lagging at times. Most of my issues with the player would just go away with better OS integration or an extra Gigabyte of RAM.
The Fiio X5iii does have some really attractive features and on paper it even seems like it might be better than the Cayin N5ii. But the better Amplifier circuitry with dedicated Opamps for Single Ended and Line Out and higher end Opamps in general, really make for a great sounding product. So despite missing out on an additional DAC and some minor other features, the Cayin is a no brainer for better sound and a smoother User Experience.