Cayin iHA-6 / iDAC-6 headphone amp and DAC – a review

I’d venture to say that not too many people have heard of Cayin except maybe those audiophiles located in East Asia. Personally, I hadn’t heard too much about them either – it’s hard to keep tabs on the scene these days. I feel like with the advent of the internet, audio has entered a kind of renaissance. New products and companies spring into existence in a constant bid to bring musical enjoyment to more and more people across the globe.

Now, while Schiit is the 800 lb. gorilla n the entry-level market, competition gets ever more fierce as you move up in price, well, up to a point. Cayin’s latest entry into the world of head-fi is the iHA-6 / iDAC-6 stack. Retailing at $999 each, they’re not for the budding audiophile, but seemingly targeted at those who’ve been around the block a few times and are starting to settle down. Are they deserving of some long-term attention? Let’s find out.

Description

Clad entirely in aluminum, the pair make a stylish statement on a desktop. The proportions are squarish and the edges in the casework are fairly abrupt (though not as roughly finished as, say, the review sample of the Airist Audio Heron 5). The stack is hefty too with weight clocking in at around 20 lbs for the pair. The lettering on both units seem to be laser engraved – a nice touch that unfortunately makes it hard to read in overhead lighting. On more than one occasion, I had to put a hand over the top edge of the faceplate to make the words legible.

The amp is a push-pull, fully differential and discrete design. Volume is controlled by a potentiometer. It offers both balanced and single-ended inputs and the ability to switch between the two via push button on the front. You can also select between high or low current modes as well as high or low gain. High current mode is meant for planar magnetic headphones vs. the low current setting which is meant for ‘phones with dynamic drivers that, according to conventional wisdom, thrive more on voltage swing. Note that there’s less overall power available in high current mode than there is in low current mode (1100 mW vs. 2200 mW @ 32 ohms, single-ended output). Three outputs grace the frontage: two combo 3-pin XLR / 1/4 in. jacks and a single 4-pin XLR jack. The left combo jack when used with a single-ended plug is marked for low-impedance headphones, the right one for your high-impedance cans. A larger button on the left turns on the amp and lights up with a white halo when powered on.

The DAC is based on the Asahi Kasei Microdevices’  AK4490 and includes both a tube and solid-state analog output stage, although you can only switch between the two on-the-fly when using the single-ended outputs. Balanced output always has the tubes in the circuit. The case gets pretty toasty once the DAC has been turned on for a few hours – it’s probably best to stack the DAC on top of the amp to let the heat dissipate more effectively. From left to right on the front: a power button similar to the one on the amp, three smaller push buttons underneath a monochrome LED display that allow you to select the digital input, analog output stage, and variable or fixed output. The knob allows you to adjust the volume when in preamp mode and, with a long push, select the various digital filters native to the AKM chip as well as phase inversion. The rear panel sports inputs for balanced AES/EBU, coax SPDIF, Toslink, and USB and both balanced and single-ended outputs.

In all, it’s a tidy, both amp and DAC sport an elegant design that crams a lot features into minimal space.

Operation

The amp is fairly straightforward to operate. Once you push the power button, it takes a few seconds before the relays click in and it’s ready for music. When switching gain or current modes, there’s a brief break in the music as relays click into place.

The DAC is much the same way – except for one annoyance: the relays aren’t quite snappy enough when used with the USB input so it chops off about the first second of the music when you first play a track. Windows drivers were curiously missing from the flashy USB keys included with the DAC, so I had to download them using a link supplied by Andy Kong, founder of Cayin. After installing them on my Windows 10 machine, everything worked without a hitch. Linux (as always) didn’t require any drivers. Note that if you switch digital filters, invert the phase, or swap in/out the tube buffer, there’s a brief moment of silence as the DAC reconfigures itself.

For this review, I mainly used the USB and AES/EBU digital inputs, with a PC or my Ayre C-5xeMP serving as a transport, respectively. I tested different sample rates as well as DSD functionality using the USB input. For some reason, I wasn’t able to output a sample rate higher than 48 kHz from the disc spinner when using DVD-Audio discs that I burned myself from HDtracks material, so I stuck with compact discs for that setup.

Now a word on the digital filters. These all come prepackaged with the AK4490 chip – fast rolloff (F), slow rolloff (S), short delay fast rolloff (SDF), short delay slow rolloff (SDS), and super slow rolloff (SS). The F, SDF, and SDS filters had too much treble energy for my taste and I felt unnaturally emphasized transients and sibilants. The SS filter went too far in the other direction, imparting a slightly hazy quality across the audio band. I ended up doing most of my listening with the SR filter engaged.

Sound – iHA-6

Given the multifaceted nature of the amp’s capabilities, I started off with the amp in the ‘Low Current’ setting and plugged in my LCD-XC’s. As I went through some test tracks, I was slightly underwhelmed by what I heard. The amp sounded polite and the bass was a touch woolly. The overall presentation lacked verve, punch, and resolution.

All was not lost, however.

I’ve read that planar magnetic headphones thrive on an amp that can deliver gobs of current. With that in mind, I pushed the button to switch the iHA-6 into ‘High Current’ operation and – voilà – the amp launched into high-performance mode.

One highlight of the iHA-6’s performance was its solid grip on spatial layering and imaging. On “How Loud The Heart Gets” from Lucius’ debut album, Wildewoman (CD, Mom+Pop, MP120-2), the iHA-6 faithfully conveyed the sense of space generated from the interplay between the plucked strings and the percussion during the introduction. Images were fairly dimensional and well-delineated. There was a convincing notion of depth to the presentation. Vocals possessed a decent amount of inner detail without edginess. The iHA-6 displayed a similar character when I fed it “White Knuckles” from Tegan and Sara’s latest foray into retro 80’s synth-pop Love You To Death (CD, Vapor/Warner Bros., 553726-2). The opening measures in this track have the main vocals shadowed in the distance by a processed version pitched lower and set back in the soundscape. The Cayin handily resolved this perspective and exhibited a smooth quality to its delivery that never overemphasized the sometimes hot treble balance of the album.

Another strength of the iHA-6 lay in its precise, clean, and even-handed rendition of the audible frequency spectrum. Cueing up “Heartbroken, In Disrepair” from Dan Auerbach’s solo effort Keep It Hid (CD, Nonesuch 517241-2), the Cayin served up a smooth vocals with decent rhythmic drive. I felt that it didn’t quite retrieve all the detail from Auerbach’s performance, but it more than made up for that with a fairly tight and punchy portrayal of the drums and good body to the fuzzed guitar riffs. The same degree of control and finesse served the amp well on acoustic fare. “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train (24/192 AIFF, HDTracks) came through clean and textured, with good heft in the bass line and ample inner detail to piano and brass instruments. Murray Perahia’s stunning performance of the final movement to Schumann’s sole piano concerto (CD, Sony Classical, SK 64577) was emotionally engaging and rendered with a good degree of transparency, dynamics, and air.

I tried the amp in fully balanced mode and didn’t note too many changes. Perhaps there was a smidge more depth to its presentation along with slightly more dimension to the images even as it retained its precise and composed character.

Sound – iDAC-6

The Cayin iDAC-6 exhibited an unshakable poise in reproducing all the formats I threw at it – whether ‘Redbook’ PCM, high-res PCM, or DSD. Images were clean and distinct and the presentation was smooth and non-fatiguing. This DAC would be at home in a resolving headphone or two-channel setup. One thing to note is that the balanced output will always have the tubes in the playback chain, no matter how many times you push the ‘Timbre’ button.

Cayin seems to have a keen understanding of how to map out the spatial relationships from a recording. The iDAC-6 spun an excellent rendition of “Third Eye” from Florence + the Machine’s latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (24/96 AIFF, HDTracks). It deftly layered the instruments in the soundscape and images were well defined and stable. This also served it well on orchestral fare. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’ (DSF/SACD, Telarc, SACD-60634) possessed realistic scale. The DAC captured the ambiance of the church that served as the recording space without having it intrude on the main performance. Massed strings and brasses were rendered with a preciseness that never veered into analytical territory. The Cayin remained firm in its resolve during the thunderous finale.

That same composure and even-handed treatment of the audible frequency spectrum continued to serve it well on some more delicate fare. On a high-res copy of “The Girl From Ipanema” from Getz/Gilberto (24/96 AIFF, HDTracks), possessed clarity and transparency in spades. It never overreached into a more analytical approach to its presentation, rather the music seemed to be so cleanly rendered that it was hard not to be summarily impressed. Here I experimented a little bit by switching between the solid state and tubed output stages. The latter kept the evenness of tone and traded slightly denser images for less overall resolution. It wasn’t the typical ‘tube sound’ that some glassheads might crave and solid-state proponents might call into question the slightly softer quality. Still, it’s nice that it’s there for a change of pace.

Comparisons

I compared the iHA-6 to my current solid state reference, the HeadAmp GS-1. It was fairly difficult to tell the two apart as both exhibited equal amounts of grip in the lower registers and displayed a fine knack for precise imaging. I still thought the GS-1 edged out the iHA-6 in ultimate clarity and transparency and sounded just a tad more visceral in the bass but it was an incredibly close call. Next to the Sonett 2, the iHA-6 again proved itself to be an imaging champ, but the Sonett offered up a more organic presentation with denser timbre to instruments and vocals. Still, going back and forth between the solid state Cayin and the tubed Sonett 2, I could see a case for having both on hand, depending on mood.

When I pitted the iDAC-6 against my Ayre QB-9 DSD and Ayre C-5xeMP, I noted that the Cayin’s overall tonal balance was remarkably similar to that of the Ayre sources. Yet the Ayre painted a more realistic portrayal with more fleshed-out images – even with the Cayin’s tubed output stage engaged. Both had excellent amounts of clarity and resolution, but it was easier to suspend disbelief while listening to the Ayre and simply flow with the music. Relative to the Ayre sources, the Cayin couldn’t quite shake off the last trace of artifice that made me think I was listening to an excellent reproduction.

Conclusions

Cayin’s latest foray into head-fi is definitely worthy of your consideration if you’re looking for sound that’s athletic and dynamic with a precisely defined soundscape. Though it’s not inexpensive, I think it’s a good value for the price paid. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets you off the audiophile equipment treadmill and wanting to buy more music. If that is indeed the case, the Cayin then becomes truly priceless.

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC, Sennheiser HD 600

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty, Donald North Audio Sonett 2, HeadAmp GS-1 w/ Dynalo+ modules

Sources – Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD

Cabling – Blue Jeans BJC Twelve speaker cable, Blue Jeans LC-1 unbalanced and 1800F balanced interconnects

Power – Bryston BIT-15, ZeroSurge 8R15W-I

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