First, I’d like to thank the folks at Cayin for sending me a sample of their C5 portable amplifier for review.
Portable amplifiers, at least outside of the audiophile community, haven’t yet reached that level of ubiquity that higher end (or at least, expensive) headphones have, spurred on by the meteoric rise of the Beats by Dre line. But, with certain headphones, a smartphone alone simply isn’t enough to drive them to sound their best.
Of course, most people won’t care, as long as they get loud enough. But for the audiophiles out there, this is where a good portable amplifier will come in. They come in all shapes and sizes at a price to meet just about any budget. Enter the Cayin C5, a portable amplifier promising huge power output and resolution for a midrange price.
So, does the Cayin C5 measure up? Read on to find out.
The Cayin C5 ships with a microfiber pouch, two blue silicone bands to attach the C5 to a player, a 3.5mm right angle interconnect, a set of four stick on rubber feet and a micro USB cable for use with the C5’s charge out feature (more on that later).
Design and Build Quality
First off, this is the biggest portable amplifier I’ve ever seen. It’s larger than my iPhone, and a good deal heavier and bulkier too. Then again, that would apply to most portable amplifiers I’ve tested over the years. But, that weighty chassis is one that feels solid in the hand and able to withstand a beating. The aluminum casing with a champagne gold finish similar to that of the iPhone is actually quite nice to look at and gives the device a premium feel.
Similar to the Fiio E11, the C5 employs a volume knob guard by way of the plastic section you see along the top of the amplifier, which stops it from being adjusted accidentally in a pocket or what have you. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to make on-the-fly volume adjustments, especially considering the knob already provides a fairly meaty resistance to being turned.
Cayin’s C5 is rated for about 10 hours of run time and in my testing that’s about right, give or take an hour or so depending on usage.
A fairly unique feature of the C5 is its charge out function, which allows one to charge other devices from the C5 itself, essentially allowing it to pull double duty as a portable amplifier and external battery pack.
While the feature is convenient if you should need a bit of juice in an emergency but beyond that, the C5’s use as an external battery is limited by the rather small 1000 mAh battery powering the C5. Many phones these days have much bigger batteries so even in the most ideal of situations, the C5 will only be able to charge those phones up to around half or less capacity.
But then again, if all you need is a few percentage points worth of juice to keep you going or take care of that urgent matter at hand in whatever scenario you may find yourself in, the C5’s charge out feature will be a boon. So, while I wish the C5 had a bigger battery for better run time, I still appreciate the inclusion of an extra feature that you don’t see too often on portable amplifiers.
Sound Quality and Amplification
The most striking and impressive aspect of the C5 is its power output, measuring at a staggering 800 mW per channel into a 32 ohm load. For a portable amplifier, that’s a huge amount of power output, and will drive all but the most demanding loads comfortably. For comparison’s sake, my O2 desktop amp only delivers around 613 mW into the same load.
But, it should go without saying that pure power isn’t everything. The C5 delivers a great deal of power cleanly. I was able to detect a slight hiss on low gain with particularly sensitive IEMs but none with most other IEMs and headphones I tested the C5 with.
Because of that ridiculous power output, the C5 was able to properly drive everything I threw at it, from my 250 ohm Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pros, to my planar driver HE-400s to my 300 ohm HD 600s and everything in between. And note the key word there. The C5 didn’t just power my headphones, it drove them properly. Weaker portable amplifiers rarely have the power output and resolving capability to drive high impedance or low sensitivity loads properly, hamstringing them and not allowing them to realize their true potential. As I said in my Objective 2 review, an amplifier isn’t supposed to make your headphones sound better, it’s supposed to drive your headphones to a level that makes them sound like they’re supposed to.
But the one drawback of all of this power is that the C5 gets loud, quickly. The potentiometer goes up to nine, but – particularly with IEMs – I’d reached a more than acceptable listening volume at around two or three. This isn’t a big deal, especially if you plan on using this with more power hungry headphones, but it is an issue for sensitive IEMs, especially since there’s considerable channel imbalance at the lowest volumes that disappears after turning it up past two. Depending on your IEMs, this might not be an issue.
In terms of pure transparency and resolution, the C5 loses out ever so slightly to my portable amp benchmark, the JDS Labs C5/C5D, imparting just a tad of added warmth to the sound. Again, the differences are minor and the very slight added warmth was actually somewhat pleasing.
The Cayin C5 also includes a bass boost feature, a common addition to just about every portable amplifier I’ve come across as of late. The C5’s bass boost adds a few dB of emphasis across the low end, in fact, I’d say it adds a bit too much emphasis, but not in the way you’d think.
It’s not that the boost is excessive and just makes everything muddy, it’s more that too much of the range is emphasized, and, at least to my ears, it sounds like the lower mids are being boosted too, which is more than I’d like.
So the boost isn’t bad, it’s just a little too much of the frequency range is being emphasized for my taste.
At $169, Cayin has created one heck of a portable amplifier in the C5. The C5 has power in spades, able to efficiently and effectively drive loads other portable amplifiers simply wouldn’t be able to handle. Though the amp does hiss slightly with high sensitivity loads, the hiss is low enough that it’ll fade into the background once the music starts playing, even at low listening volumes. Its resolving capabilities rival its contemporaries in the portable amp space like the JDS Labs C5, Muse PD1+ and even the O2. The charge out feature is a nice novelty and could come in handy in a pinch but the C5’s small battery means it’ll have a fairly limited use.
So Cayin’s C5 is a pretty easy higher end amplifier to recommend. It delivers clean, powerful amplification that’s definitely among the better I’ve heard in this price range. If you’re in the market for a versatile portable amplifier, Cayin’s C5 is definitely worth a look.