What do ROHM DACs make N8II sound like? Excellent

Cayin Audio will tell you designing their new N8II flagship music player was their biggest challenge in portable audio. Now, its release could be an equally big challenge for Head-Fi to stomach.

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With two new ROHM BD34301EKV DAC chips, everything the Internet could cling to in ascribing a sound to a music player based on its DAC chips has evaporated. The reason: ROHM DACs make their debut in a DAP.

Suddenly, there’s no more 'ESS sound' to cling to. No more 'AKM sound'. No more 'TI sound'. No more Burr-Brown. Not even any more 'R2R sound' to fall back on.

The blanket of security has been stripped away. Suddenly, we’re forced again to learn how a new DAC sounds, in a new implementation, premature ascribing of sonic flavour rendered useless by N8II.

Ah. Innovation rears its ugly head. Cayin have dared strip us of the familiarity that we use to pat and reassure ourselves with – we identify with that camp of bright sound, or that other camp of warmth, because our gear uses this or that DAC chip.

Or: have we just been missing the point this whole time? That there are other factors at work, with plenty more meaning derived from the name that is Cayin, delivering a flagship device in which we take a level of not just competence, but excellence, for granted.

If it would help with simplifying the concept of N8II, it’s a C9 flagship tube amp with a digital section aboard. That means dual ROHM DACs, and all the right digital paraphernalia including clocks and FPGA, to put those on the best foot forward.

For a quick introduction to ROHM DACs, the company seems obsessive about circuit layout design, excellent I2S signal processing beginning with dither and clock integrity lock at the very input. In N8II's case, DSD is decoded as a 1-bit format, without PCM/DXD processing on-chip.

Thorough frequency and time-domain development – objective and subjective  of their own linear-phase digital filters follows. That’s what ROHM's literature claims, anyway. (Let's agree that digital filters have a strong sound signature, but DAC silicon, less so).

So, ROHM appear to build a good DAC chip. Which BD34301EKV is. Or better, they give companies like Cayin the footing needed to build up something great from there.

Current outputs for lowest THD and tuning potential by way of N8II’s extensive current-to-voltage I/V conversion stage. True balanced, differential, circuitry for common-mode rejection and a precise, dynamic odd-harmonic character.

Direct coupling 90 per cent of where is possible for best low-frequency extension and correct phase response for fast, impactful bass; the finest coupling capacitors otherwise, where DC coupling couldn't be used.

The choice of hearing tubes in the input stage, where such devices are the most effective, or solid-state.

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Class A or a high-bias AB operation, the former reducing non-linearities to a minimum and the latter’s efficiency emphasising the odd harmonic character of a fast and precise push-pull design.

And a JRC NJW1195 analogue volume control that is implemented only after the driver stage, far after the input signal to preserve resolution for the best possible signal-to-noise ratio. This resistor ladder part also facilitates ROHM's decode of DSD as pure 1-bit in N8II.

If you guessed that every of the above, listed after and apart from the use of ROHM chips, has a greater bearing on the resulting sound from N8II, bravo: you’re on to something.

That’d be called the actual development of a high-performance audio circuit. It starts with ROHM DAC chips, but doesn’t end there. What matters is that Cayin supply ROHM DAC chips with the platform to perform.

And N8II boosts ROHM performance with an I/V stage, for extensive tailoring of the signature and quality of the DACs’ small signal output. Which other current flagship DAPs employ I/Vs?

We count on one hand two Fiios that might. The rest, don’t. After C9, which left your line source of choice up to you, Cayin now take full charge of the digital and analog circuit. N8II's drawing board, up to production and consumer.

So approach N8II with the right respect, a lot of awe, a clean slate, a willingness to accept we still have a lot to learn and new things to hear, and the reward of having something new to embrace. Quality is not attributed by merely falling in line with the known.

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But by understanding the player, understanding the engineering, and not just making a conclusion on sound quality because we've read about its DAC chips. The lazy latter would be doing a disservice to the level of innovation found in modern music players, and their creators.

Not that Cayin needed any external validation. But hot on the heels of N8II's Live launch date, iBasso Audio threw their hat into the ring for a new flagship DX320. Its DACs? Two ROHM BD34301EKVs.

Thanks then, Cayin, for not regurgitating, recycling, rinsing and repeating, the hitherto lack of originality elsewhere. And introducing something actually new for us to claim to have been pioneer listeners  to a pioneering player that heralds a new horizon. For what might eventually come to define the 'ROHM sound'. 🤭

1 comment

Avatar - Tom

Tom

Thank you for this blog/article. Well written indeed! I particularily like the following: “So approach N8II with the right respect, a lot of awe, a clean slate, a willingness to accept we still have a lot to learn and new things to hear, and the reward of having something new to embrace. Quality is not attributed by merely falling in line with the known.” So true!

89 days ago