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SGB reviews the Cayin iDAC-1


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Wow, what a great sounding audio component! I could end this review here, and be satisfied that some readers might get the idea in their heads to give it a try, but for the majority of jaded audiophiles out there that adhere to the notion that something that costs more will always sound better, let me elaborate on why I think many seasoned audiophiles would find Cayin’s iDAC-1 a final purchase.

 

First off, though, let me tell you that after I had decided that I wanted to give the Cayin a try, I found only one dealer in the whole USA that had this DAC in stock at the time I was looking; all of the others that responded to my inquiry told me that they would have to order it from the importer and then ship it on to me. That would normally send up a red flag for me, but I recall that I had experienced similar situations back in 1999 when I decided that I wanted to try SACD. My local Marantz dealer said that there just wasn’t enough interest in the SACD format for him to carry their players, but that he would special order one for me.

 

If you are an avid audiophile, the Cayin name will be familiar to you, but if it’s not, Cayin is one of the few Chinese-made brands that have made it to prestige status among the cognoscenti, primarily for their well-made and beautiful range of amplifiers and preamps. In fact, two of my long-time audio buddies have had Cayin products in their systems at one time or another, and this kind of endorsement was just what I needed to settle it for me. I ordered my iDAC-1 from the dealer who had it in stock and it arrived in just two days.

 

The unit itself looks like a miniature tower computer, its brushed aluminum case standing 10” tall, 4.5” wide and 8” deep (you can see pictures of it here: http://www.cayinusa.com/Product_Name.asp?Category=26:62:53&types=3 ) and weighing just under 8 pounds. There are two analog — one fixed, one variable — and two digital outputs on the back that would enable one to use the DAC in a variety of situations. The two analog outputs do not operate concurrently, you must choose one or the other from a button on the supplied remote control. As a result, the user could actually have the outputs serving two different audio systems without having to plug and unplug connectors when he wanted to make the switch; or, by switching to the variable outs he can listen to his headphones by using the minijack on the front of the unit. Note also that these two analog outs offer two entirely different DAC chips in their circuits. The TOSLINK and Coaxial digital outputs are fixed, and are intended for use on any variety of components that offer such inputs. A master on/off switch is also on the back of the iDAC-1; powering down from the button on the front of the unit puts the unit into a low current wait state. On the front of the unit, the user will find controls for adjusting volume levels and changing selections from your iTunes playlist. The USB input, infrared sensor, headphone jack and large round window for viewing the blue backlit 6N1 vacuum tubes complete the array of features on the front of the iDAC-1. There is also a little LED just to the left of the USB input that glows red when the fixed outputs are in use, and switches to a pale blue color when the volume controlled outputs are used.

 

Speaking of the tubes, the 6N1 is a Chinese variation of the Russian-designed 6N1-P which has become popular among current tube audio manufacturers. I read somewhere on the web that even Audio Research uses this tube in a few of its products. For us old-timers who love to roll tubes in our equipment in the hope that we will find the ones that produce the best sound, this tube is very similar, but not identical, to the 6DJ8 or 6922 designs of yesteryear. Replacement/alternative tubes are available from most of the usual online sources.

 

The Cayin produces sound fit for a king. That is not to say that it trounces my KingRex UDAC-1 in every way possible, but the Cayin does not pose the sort of low gain/impedance mismatch problems with my preamp that the KingRex did. In fact, there is enough gain through the fixed output that I need to paint a little red line with the caption, “turn back, you fool,” about midway through the traversal of my preamp’s volume control. That is to say that the iDAC-1 puts out a tremendous amount of volume, and that its sound is so pure that you may be tempted to surpass reasonable levels, putting your speakers (and your ears) at risk.

 

What does it do right? Just about everything; its overall sound almost completely belies the fact that there are a pair of tubes pushing out that analog sound, but it doesn’t sound antiseptic or lifeless like transistors sometimes do, either. Soundstage is big and wide, just like you’d hope for, and there isn’t a single trace of hardness in the top end as you might expect. I guess you can thank those tubes for that. The midrange is gloriously open sounding with lots of blackness between those palpable images it produces. I confess to hearing woodwinds on my Nilsson A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night that I’ve never heard before, and a sense of ambiance to it that my extremely modified CD player only hinted at — and this after several hundreds of plays, no less. Over the course of several days, I sampled some of the great Classic Records CD reissues through the Cayin, along with that original CD release of Getz/Gilberto that has Astrud coming out of the left channel as originally engineered, and that marvelous sounding original release of Pat Metheney’s Off Ramp that might have you asking yourself, “how did they do this?”, and in each case, I was simply stunned at the level of resolution, the amount of texture and the sense of drop-dead transparency, pace and timing that these mere 44.1 recordings provide. Two of my closest audiophile buddies are reluctant to give computer audio a try, but I think that if they had a chance to hear what a Mac Mini and this little DAC can do they might be singing a different tune.

 

I had read in some online forum that the iDAC-1 will require about 100 hours of break-in before it starts to sound good, and I would be inclined to agree with that. In fact, I would probably recommend that you leave the main power switch on and the tubes in the wait/sleep mode so that you can minimize the amount of warm-up time it takes for this DAC to start sounding as I have described. For the first thirty minutes or so after I’ve powered up the system, it will sound just a little thin and threadbare before it comes into its own.

 

What does it do wrong? We all know that nothing in this world is perfect, so I would be remiss if I did not mention that the deepest bass coming from the iDAC-1 is a little lacking when compared to what I was getting with the KingRex. Being tubed, the bass isn’t quite as taut as the absolute best you would get from the very best solid state devices out there, and it appears to be about 2 dB down in level from what the much cheaper KingRex offers (which I found to be pretty nigh perfect in this area). Since I use an electronic crossover in my system, I can compensate for this very minor deficiency by clicking the bass output up a notch, but if you get your jollies by playing nothing but deep bass — and, by that I mean the stuff that shakes the walls... you know, the lease buster stuff — then you should not be considering a tube DAC.

 

If, on the other hand, you want a USB DAC for less than $800 that can rival those costing much more, you may find your Shangri-La right here.

 

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I may have to step aside and let you take over the site :-)

 

Thanks a ton for the excellent review! You even listened to some of my newly discovered favorite albums in the review. What more can a guy ask for?

 

I have always been a little skeptical about Cayin and its products. Not because of the price though. There is just something about the brand that makes me hesitate. It sounds like I need to reconsider and do a little more research.

 

Thanks again!

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Sweet review Steven. I really enjoyed it. DON'T let Chris step aside though, he does pretty well too....! ( .. besides, he has to keep the wheels spinning.. )

 

markr

....see what happens when Steven has too much time on his hands? ..... really nice piece of WORK

 

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Excellent review! I definitely need to put Cayin on my list. So far I've just been playing my recorded vinyl and iTunes back through the audio interface I use for recording (Focusrite Saffire) and trying to get more info on DACs. I definitely need to give this a listen. Thanks! Rod

 

RHA

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Sounds like a great product. Cayin's product line confuses me, though. They have the HA-1, a tube headphone amp, at $795. Now they have the iDac1, with much the same look and a very simlar design. It appears to be an update of the HA-1, with a built-in DAC. For the same price. I love that, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. I wonder if the amp section of the iDac1 is compromised somehow. Did you use the headphone amp in the iDac1? If so, what cans did you plug in and what kinds of results did you get?

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Did you use the headphone amp in the iDac1? If so, what cans did you plug in and what kinds of results did you get?

 

No, Tim, the only ear paraphernalia I own are the little earbuds that came with the iPod Touch. I have an audio buddy who is into using headphones big time, and has probably tried every model you can imagine, so I might ask him to recommend a set to me.

 

The iDAC-1 and the HA-1 do, indeed, share the same chassis/box, so they might be exactly the same product with that one difference being the USB input. I haven't compared specs, though, so couldn't say.

 

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I'd be happy to recommend headphones to you! How much to you want to spend?

 

So you used it as a DAC only? I've tried to call the US Distributor you linked, but couldn't get through. If this is a great DAC, integrated into a great tube headamp, it is an interesting product, indeed. I'm researching solutions now and pretty quickly getting to $500+ on DACs, $500+ on amps to get where I want to go. It would be great to get there in one piece for $800.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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in fact, the Cayin is far more than I needed.

 

I selected the Cayin because it fell below the price point I want to hold to. The majority of these devices fall in to one of two price arenas -- over $1000 or under $300 -- there's very little in that middle ground. In fact, most of the < $1000 devices appear to be combination headphone/DAC products from China. I think Pacific Valve imports at least two of these in the $500 - $800 range. I'll add to my initial review that the fit & finish of the iDAC-1 is on a par with all of the other Chinese products I've seen from Dared and Ming Da.

 

I think that if I were looking for headphones, I would probably like to try ones that offer wireless connectivity. My system is in a rather large room, so wired headphones would require about a 20 foot long cable, which, if my recollection is correct, would induce any number of problems for me.

 

Rest assured that if I found a USB/DAC device that did nothing but produce a signal as pure as the Cayin's at or below its price (the KingRex does but imposes impedance problems for my preamp), I would be inclined to try it. I should mention, though, that because the Cayin's remote interacts with iTunes so flawlessly I'll be hard pressed to abandon this one.

 

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Well, no such thing as a free lunch. I got Cayin's US distributor on the phone and he told me that with high-end, hard-to-drive phones like my 300 ohm Senns, they recommend the dedicated headphone amp, not the headphone out on the DAC. No surprise there.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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You have piqued my interest in the Cayin as something to address lower priced packages. I am fairly confused by their website. Do you know if they use dealer networks or do they sell direct? Thanks and nice review.

 

Audio Research DAC8, Mac mini w/8g ram, SSD, Amarra full version, Audio Research REF 5SE Preamp, Sutherland Phd, Ayre V-5, Vandersteen 5A\'s, Audioquest Wild and Redwood cabling, VPI Classic 3 w/Dynavector XX2MkII

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But like many lines of audio equipment the dealer network appears to be very small...

 

http://www.vasindustries.com/Product_Name.asp?Category=26:62:53&types=5

 

There's only one dealer in Texas, for example, and none here in Louisiana where I live (to be expected). They're listing Primus Audio in KC where you are, but none in Chicago... go figure.

 

The link above sends you to Acoustic Sounds if you pick any state for which there is no authorized dealer. But notice that Kasem is not listing more than about half of the products that VAS imports from Cayin. As I noted in the review, the build quality of the iDAC is excellent. If the piece were built by one of the major USA audiophile firms — ARC, c-j, yadda yadda — I would think it would be priced in the $2K range or perhaps higher.

 

With all due respect to certain sacred icons in the audio industry, I've mentioned that in addition to the Cayin, I also use a Ming Da preamp from China that was designed after the famous Marantz model 7, and I am pleased with both of these pieces. Yes, both Bill Baker (famous for modifying the ASL Hurricanes) and another audio designer I vowed not to name, worked on and suggested mods that took the Ming Da to another level (far past the point of diminishing returns, I'm afraid), but the original sound of the preamp before these tweaks is still there, and I'm not shy about admitting that it easily outperformed the multi kilo-buck preamp I had been using. My only beef with these imports from China is that they must think that all Americans use horns or really efficient dynamic speakers. Why else would they be calling 15 watt amps powerful?

 

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I will have to see if they are still a dealer. They have changed hands recently but we typically don't share lines.

 

Audio Research DAC8, Mac mini w/8g ram, SSD, Amarra full version, Audio Research REF 5SE Preamp, Sutherland Phd, Ayre V-5, Vandersteen 5A\'s, Audioquest Wild and Redwood cabling, VPI Classic 3 w/Dynavector XX2MkII

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  • 1 month later...

They may not have the widest distribution, but they are available in Calgary, Alberta.

 

I did not buy the dac but a tube integrated amp (A60-t) for the basis of the music system that will be receiving the wireless output of an airport express, at least for the time being.

 

I was interested in tube products, and had an excellent demo at the shop. Tried the tube amp and then solid state........... and fell for tube magic. The demo I had also featured a Cayin tube cd player. That cd player, my tube integrated, and a pair of Monitor Audio Silver RS-6 had amazingly transparent sound.

 

So far very happy with the purchase.

 

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The Cayin has been in continual use since it arrived. I'm not at all concerned with its PC tower look but in those two months I've found additional features (uncanny features at that) that make me pleased as punch with the device.

 

If you are prone to leaving your computers in sleep mode, then powering on the Cayin from the remote will awaken your Mac. No, it is not so intelligent as to start iTunes for you, but using the Cayin and an Apple remote for Front Row has worked extremely well for me. In all, I'd continue to recommend this unit for anyone who is not concerned about its limitation to play only CD quality resolution.

 

 

 

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  • 8 months later...

I posted earlier today on another thread about which iDac output to use for my Audioengine A2's, but since looking at the specs, it seems like only the analog output 1 uses the 2 vacuum tubes, while the output #2 does not. Could this be right?

 

I'm new to this, so I could be misinterpreting, but I deduced that from the following on the specs on the cayinusa.com website: "6N1 x 2 (Analog Output 1), PCM2706 x 1 (Analog Output 2)".

 

As I understand it, the "6N1 x 2" are the two tubes and they make it look like they are only for Analog Output 1. Please correct me if I'm wrong. What does this mean for the difference in the two outputs? I'm new, but trying to learn. Is there any advantage to using Output 2 other than being able to control the volume and such with the remote? How does the sound compare between the two outputs?

 

I've yet to hook up my iDac but I'll see if I can tell any difference between the two's sound quality.

 

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