Cayin iHA-6 headphone amp, iDAC-6 DAC, and iDAP-6 digital audio player
If you jumped into an audiophile’s time machine and went back about a year and a half (to late 2016), you might have seen and heard two compact yet very impressive new components from Cayin Audio. The first would have been the fully balanced iHA-6 solid-state headphone amplifier and second would have been its sibling, fully balanced iDAC-6 hybrid solid-state/valve high resolution DAC. In the US, each of these components sold for $699, which is an interesting price point. In the world of high-end audio, $699 is a price expensive enough for a component to be taken seriously, yet also accessible enough for it to be considered affordable (or at least relatively affordable). At the time and ever since, I have had brief opportunities to hear both the Cayin i-Series amp and DAC at various tradeshows and came away with generally positive impressions, but as we all know shows are perhaps not the best environments in which to do in-depth performance assessments of unfamiliar audio products.
I recently got the chance to try out the iHA-6 and iDAC-6 in my own home and using my own suite of reference headphones. Along the way, a third Cayin i-Series component joined the group: the iDAP-6 digital audio player, which acts as a streamer/server/digital player that in essence turn Cayin’s i-Series power trio into a fully self-contained high-end personal audio music system. Just add the headphones or earphones of your choice and you’re good to go! This review will provide an introduction to each of the three Cayin i-Series models and then provide commentary on how they perform together.
All three i-Series models feature slightly wider than half rack-width (240mm wide) chassis that sport thick-walled, satin finished silver aluminium chassis, which share a tightly coordinated design theme. It’s obvious, both from having seen various Cayin displays at shows and from also having seen numerous photos of the components in use together, that Cayin intends the component to be stackable—typically with the amp on the bottom, the DAC in the middle, and the DAP on top (probably to allow clearance for the DAP’s rear panel-mounted WiFi/Bluetooth antenna). In any event, the fit, finish, and visually apparent build quality of the components—not to mention greater than 3kg weight per piece—makes them look and feel far more costly than they actually are.
The iHA-6 is a balanced solid-state headphone amplifier that provides both balanced and single-ended analogue inputs, and two sets each of balanced and single-ended headphone outputs. In fact, there are two single ended 6.35mm headphone jacks, one optimised for low impedance headphones and the other for high(er) impedance headphones. There is also a Left/Right pair of balanced three-pin XLR headphone jacks (for headphones such as the Abyss AB-1266 Phi Edition CC, that have separate left/right signal cables, each terminated with three-pin XLR plugs) plus a balanced four-pin XLR headphone jack.
Faceplate controls are blessedly simple and straightforward; there is a large illuminated on/off switch, and also three smaller illuminated push-button switches: one for input selection, one to engage or disengage high current mode, and one to select either high or low master gain. The only other faceplate control is a large volume control knob connected to a premium grade ALPS four-channel rotary potentiometer. Cayin describes the amplifier circuit as a “quadruple amplifier with full discrete components and full-balanced design.” Expanding on this theme Cayin adds that the circuit uses “Toshiba audio-grade (K246) FETs in a differential input circuit and a “push-pull amplification design with ultra-low on-resistance (HUF 76633) power MOSFETs at the power amplification stage.” The result is a muscular (maximum output is 2 × 7000mW @ 32 Ohms in balanced mode), wide bandwidth (10Hz–80kHz), low distortion (≤ 0.02%), and low noise (S/N ≥110dB) headphone amp that can drive virtually any load and that won’t break the bank in terms of price.
As far as both technical and sonic personae go, the iDAC-6 is the perfect complement to the iHA-6. Like the amp, the DAC is a fully balanced design that features dual AKM AK4490 DAC devices (one for each channel), a four-channel active low pass filter system said to “fully explore the potential of the two DAC chipset”, and a pair of independent 5L25 5B K55750 Crystal oscillators claimed to “synchronize DSD and PCM decoding.” Additionally, the iDAC-6’s analogue output buffer stage features a quartet of 6N16B valve’s that can be switched into the DAC’s signal path or deliberately bypassed, depending on the listener’s tastes and preferences.
All the expected digital decoding capabilities are present and accounted for including PCM up to 32/384 and DSD up to DSD128. There are four digital inputs to choose from including USB, AES/EBU, Coaxial S/PDIF, and Optical S/PDIF. Two sets of analogue outputs are provided: one stereo pair of balanced outputs via 3-pin XLR connectors and one stereo pair of single-ended outputs via RCA jacks.
As with the iHA-6, the faceplate controls of the iDAC-6 are straightforward and easy to use. A set of three push-button switches support, respectively, Source selection, Timbre selection (Vacuum Tube or Transistor), and Line (fixed) or Preamp (variable output) selections. A large rotary control, matching the appearance of the one found on the amp, serves double duty as either a volume control (when the DAC’s output is in Pre mode) or as rotary/push-to-engage/select menu navigation control and menu item selector. The key menu driven options include Phase settings (Normal or Inverted) and Filter selections (options include Sharp, Slow, Short Delay Sharp, Short Delay Slow, and Super Slow filter settings). Finally, there is a large, centrally positioned, and slightly back-tilted OLED display window that shows the playback status of the DAC in real time (complete with information on the file type being played). The end result is a capable and sonically refined DAC that provides a just-right amount of flexibility, without overwhelming the user with a bewildering plethora of configuration options and arcane adjustment settings that probably the designer alone could understand or explain.
Last but not least, we come to the newest member for the Cayin trio: the iDAP-6 digital audio player. The iDAP-6 is a multi-faceted player that deliberately blurs the lines of distinction between streamers, servers, and conventional digital audio players with on-board music storage capabilities of their own. I say this because the iDAP-6 can support file sharing via WiFi or Ethernet for devices, notes Cayin, networked “through Samba, DLNA, and Airplay.” Similarly, the iDAP-6 can “transmit or receive through dual Bluetooth v4.1,” and supports, “Bluetooth remote control profile.” However, one of the simplest and easiest ways to enjoy the player is to plug in your own SD memory card or USB storage device loaded with music files and then to control playback proceedings via the iDAP’s own sophisticated user interface, which Cayin describes as a “multi-lingua custom designed UI” via the built-in 3.95-inch AMOLED display screen. The screen shows Album Art, music information, and the unit’s various control menus “in a clear and effective presentation.”
Indeed, this latter option is the one I used in my listening tests, by connecting a spare 2TB music library drive I had on hand to one of the iDAP-6’s USB ports, then using menu controls to read the files on the drive and to load music library information. One thing that is very nice about this approach is that, once you’ve select a file you wish to play and have initiated playback, the selection’s album artwork and other important playback data (for example, information on the file format being played, play/pause status, or the run time of the track in play) automatically appear on the large, colourful display screen. Even from some distance away, you can tell at a glance what material has been selected and is presently running.
The versatile iDAP-6 effectively provides the following inputs: Bluetooth, WiFi, Ethernet, a full-size SD card slot, and three USB ports (USB storage devices are treated as OTG sources numbered 1 through 3). Digital outputs include USB, I2S, AES/EBU, Coaxial S/PDIF, and Optical S/PDIF. Generally speaking, the USB output is arguably the most versatile as it supports both PCM files up to 32/384 and DSD files via DoP up to DSD128 (granted, the I2S interface can go up to DSD 256, but I2S is not an input commonly seen on most DACs—yet).
Given this overview, let’s now talk about how Cayin’s i-Series threesome actually performs. For my tests, I used the Cayin components with three very high performance (though admittedly challenging to drive) headphones: the Abyss AB‑1266 Phi Edition CC, the Final D8000, and the HiFiMAN Susvara. I also ran the components through a mid-priced but very revealing headphone, the Cleer Next, and with the superb Campfire Audio Atlas earphones (mostly in order to evaluate the Cayin’s ability to drive very high sensitivity earphones).
From the very start, the sheer levels of power, articulacy, and overall control offered by the iHA-6/iDAC-6 pair simply floored me. Candidly, if you listened to these components without knowing their identities or prices, my guess is that you might take them to be components priced north of, say, $4,000-$5,000, judging purely by the sound quality on offer. On a track that thrives on textural subtlety and timbral nuance, such as ‘Bon Soir’ from “Apricot Blossoms against a Sky. Chang Jing. Guzheng” [10th Anniversary of Rhymoi, 2001–2013, Rhymoi, 16/44.1], the Cayin amp and DAC answer the call with a deft and delicate touch. The track contains some beautiful and intimate-sounding cello passages and the Cayin pair captures their incisive transient sounds and almost vestigial shadings of tone and expression with impressive grace and realism. As I listened to the track I found analytical thoughts were quickly pushed aside as I became caught up in the sheer richness and desirable intricacy of the sound.
On tracks where rhythmic drive, power, and dynamic expression is called for, such as “Yesternow” from Miles Davis’ soundtrack for A Tribute to Jack Johnson[Columbia, DSD64], the Cayin pair again proved its mettle with a sound that captured the propulsive groove of the music; the sometimes ‘in-your-face’ dynamics of the bass, drums, and trumpet; and the at times mysterious, otherworldly vibe of the soundtrack.
Finally, the iDAC-6’s five digital filters proved useful, too, because they allowed listeners to compare and choose from among five subtly different approaches to the overall sonic presentation. Which filter(s) you prefer will largely be a matter of taste or a function of the music you choose, though I personally used the ‘Short Delay Sharp’ filter more often than the other (your mileage may vary, of course).
I attribute this strong performance partly to Cayin’s strong and well-executed circuit designs, but also to the fact that Cayin chose a “let’s stick to the fundamentals” approach to these designs. Many manufacturers seemingly delight in piling features on top of features in their products, but Cayin wisely understood that if you get the sonic fundamentals right, you really have no need for additional ‘gongs and whistles’.
I was delighted, too, to find the iHA-6/iDAC-6 pair had sufficient transparency and power to take full advantage of my reference Abyss, Final, and HiFiMAN headphones, which is saying a mouthful (especially in the case of the very difficult to drive HiFiMAN Susvara). At the same time, with its gain setting backed down to ‘Low’, the iHA-6 proved quiet enough to be used with my revealing Campfire Audio Atlas earphones.
The iDAP-6 proved convenient, fun, and reasonably straightforward to use, once I made sure I had the unit configured to output higher res DSD128 files correctly. Sonically, I compared the iDAP-6 to the Lenovo/Windows/jRiver media server I normally use and found the iDAP-6 was in most respects competitive with the server, although the server perhaps enjoyed a narrow edge in terms of resolution of very low-level sonic details and an ever-so-slightly lower noise floors. On the other hand, the iDAP-6 was arguably more convenient to use and had that lovely AMOLED display to boot.
Together, Cayin’s iHA-6, iDAC-6, and iDAP-6 form a powerful, articulate, easy to use, and musically satisfying high-end personal audio playback system whose sophisticated sound more than justifies the trio’s moderate price.
iHA-6 headphone amplifier
Inputs: 2x RCA jacks, 2x 3-pin XLR jacks
Outputs: Two single-ended via 6.35mm headphone jacks, two balanced outputs (1x L/R pair of 3-pin XLR jacks, 1x 4-pin stereo XLR jack).
Frequency response: 10Hz – 80kHz, +0/-0.5dB
THD+Noise: ≤0.02%, [email protected] Ohms
S/N: Single-ended: ≥105dB (A weighted), Balanced: ≥110dB (A weighted)
Power Output: Single-ended: High Current, 2 ×1100mW @ 32 Ohms. Low Current, 2 ×2200mW @ 32 Ohms Balanced: High Current, 2 ×5000mW @ 32 Ohms Low Current, 2 ×7000mW @ 32 Ohms
Dimensions (H×W×D): 69mm ×240mm×252mm
Price: £599; $699 US
iDAC-6 digital-to-analogue converter/preamp
Valve complement: 4 ×6N1B valves
DAC complement: 2 ×AKM AK4490
Inputs: USB, Optical S/PDIF, Coaxial S/PDIF, AES/EBU
Outputs: 2x RCA jacks, 2x 3-pin XLR jacks
File formats supported: PCM to 32/384, DSD to DSD128
Frequency response: 20Hz – 30kHz, ±0.5dB
THD+Noise: Valve: ≤ 0.8% Solid-State: ≤ 0.004%
S/N: Valve: ≥105dB (A weighted) Solid-State: ≥110dB (A weighted)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 69mm x 240mm x 252mm
Price: £599; $699 US
iDAP-6 digital audio player
Inputs: WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth v4.1, SD Card, three USB ports
Outputs: USB, I2S, AES/EBU, two S/PDIF (one optical, one coaxial BNC)
File formats supported for playback: DSF, DFF, SACD-ISO, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, APE, ALAC, WMA, MP3, AAC, OGG
Output formats supported: PCM to 32/384, DSD to DSD128 via DoP or DSD256 via I2S
Dimensions (H×W×D): 69mm ×240mm×269mm
Price: $799 US
Manufactured by: Cayin
Tel: +86 (0)756-3828711
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