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October 2018
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere Review!
Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review
Simply ravishing as Cayin dares to dream big with their new flagship amplifier and delivers!
Review By Dave Hanson

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

  The 300B is a bit of a holy grail when it comes to tubes. Ask any fan of the tube and they will likely gush about the 300B's ability to shine a warm spotlight on the midrange, deliver huge bass impact and project a massive soundscape. So when I heard Cayin was gearing up to release a 300B-driven headphone amp this year, I was extremely excited.

Cayin is one of those companies that has a reputation for over-delivering on value with every product. Their iDAC-6, iHA-6 and HA-1A Mk2 are all very well-regarded desktop components when it comes to bang-for-buck performance, and their line-up of portable DAPs is extremely impressive as well. So I was genuinely curious to find out what they could pull off at a higher price point with the new $3,999 flagship HA-300.

After getting a taste of the HA-300 at CanJam New York and AXPONA, I was hooked. In both listening sessions, the Cayin HA-300 exceeded my expectations, especially when paired with the Focal Utopia – a combination that was absolutely magical in every way shape and form. Would I like to review it? Hell yes! Let's get to it!

 

A Build Of Epic Proportions... Literally!
The Cayin HA-300 arrived in a massive box, weighing in at roughly 75lbs. And before you think, "Hey, I lift weights! 75lbs. isn't that much." Let me assure you that this is 75lbs. of the most awkward variety – nearly all the weight is packed into the massive transformers, so it's an extremely unbalanced load, which makes carrying this thing around an absolute royal pain. Once I managed to schlep this monster down stairs and get it open things really started looking up.

The build of the amplifier is gorgeous. It comes in two pieces: the amplifier itself and the dedicated power supply. The power supply houses four RCA 22DE4 rectifier tubes. This provides clean DC power to the amplifier unit via a fire-hose-like cable that is included with the package. On the amplifier side, two 6SN7-type driver tubes feed the massive 300B power tubes. Cayin saw fit to track down and include the biggest 300Bs and 6SN7s it possibly could... just because, why the hell not? Go big or go home, right? It's worth noting that both units also include removable protective cages that can be placed over the tubes – a nice touch.

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

The front panel on the amplifier side has several switches, allowing you to select RCA or XLR input modes, standard or balanced output modes, headphone or speaker outputs, and pick from three different headphone impedance settings (see specifications below). As the pièce-de-résistance, the faceplate of the HA-300 amplifier unit has two beautiful VU meters, which really take the build to another level. As amplifiers go, this is certainly one of the most beautiful builds I have ever seen.

The transformers on the back sides of both units are elegantly housed in rectangular casings with nicely rounded edges. The sides are an almost-granite-looking speckled gloss black aluminum, while the tops of the transformers and the faceplates are a very classy-looking brushed aluminum.

Cayin custom-built the transformers specifically for this amplifier, which was one of the main challenges in one of the most intricate R&D endeavors in the company's history. According to Bin Liang, CEO of Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., Ltd., parent company of Cayin, "This has been one of our longest and most intense projects in the last decade. We spent 450 days in R&D before the HA-300 was production ready. We underwent three major rounds of re-design and 17 rounds of optimization and refinements prototyping."

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

This was a true passion project for the folks at Cayin, and the fruits of their labor are extremely impressive. The amplifier will drive headphones with up to 5 Watts of pure Class A power and speakers with up to 8 Watts, making it ideal with horn speakers.

 

Basking In Sweet Sonic Glory
This is definitely one of those amps where synergy plays a big factor. Paired with the right set of headphones, the tonality and balance of the Cayin HA-300 is perfect. Not "almost perfect" or "just about perfect", I mean perfect. This group of super synergistic headphones includes the Focal Utiopia, ZMF Atticus and Auteur, Abyss AB-1266 and Sennheiser HD800. The sound is sweet and breathtakingly close to hearing the real thing. It sounded good with other headphones, but when it clicked with something synergistically, it really clicked.

The midrange is certainly the star of the show, dishing out all the goodness 300B tubes are known for. Instruments are full of warmth and body, but at the same time they don't lack for that aggressive edge either. You really get the full midrange experience here – the amplifier is equally forward and laid back, and never sacrifices in either direction to assert its own identity. While most amplifiers lean into one approach or the other, this is a midrange that has no compromises.

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy and satisfaction listening to the mids. Like my heart was fuller every time I listened. It's a rare and special feeling I only get when the midrange is truly exceptional. 300B tubes are often the culprit, and this amplifier can really get the best out of them.

The bass offered similar levels of excitement, with stunning impact that made my pulse pound. Hard rock and heavy metal tracks had me absolutely thrashing in my seat, as the amp was almost too exciting to even handle! I don't know if the sub-bass was quite the most rumbly I have heard, but it was very satisfying overall and definitely in the upper echelon. The mid-bass was the real star though, as it will absolutely knock you on your ass! It punches like a prizefighter, and you're the coach holding the heavy bag. You can feel every blow. Again, if you're familiar with 300B tubes, this won't be a huge surprise, but Cayin has it very well implemented here – it is extremely visceral and engaging.

Up top the treble was good, but how good really depended on the source and the headphone. Running in balanced mode with the Schiit Yggdrasil A2 and the ZMF Auteur, one couldn't ask for better in the upper frequencies. The music was airy and transparent, free of sibilance and the highest reaching cymbals were very natural and realistic sounding. Bringing in the Hugo 2 as the source made the highs a little sharper, particularly with more treble-sensitive headphones like the Sennheiser HD800. Certainly a little more forgiveness here would have been nice, but I suppose it is a testament to the amplifier's sense of neutrality.

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

Space, Space and More Space
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Cayin HA-300 is the phenomenal soundscape. This amplifier is absolutely a soundstage king, imparting the vast, open sense of space I would expect for the hefty $4K price tag. It reminded me quite a bit of the venerable Cavalli Liquid Gold (discontinued), in that the soundscape had an extreme sense of depth with no sense of outer boarders in its scope. The soundscape just seems to extend infinitely in every direction and sound images just float freely in space.

Imaging is razor sharp here and instrument separation is second to none. Every instrument has its own space and fully fleshed-out sound, top-to-bottom without bleeding into others. Inner resolution is also incredible, so not only are the instruments well separated, you can also hear deep down inside them, making every instrument sound remarkably unique with its tiny unique timbre quirks and recording space nuances. Really, the HA-300 is in the class with the very best of the best here in terms of fully realizing each player in the ensemble.

Attack is excellent for a tube amp, but will never be as quick as solid state. Compared to the HeadAmp Gilmore Lite Mk2 and the Wells Milo, the solid states felt more "on top of the note", emphasizing that zippy sense of PRAT immediacy you would feel if you were sitting right next to the instrument as it was being played. The Cayin HA-300 is more like sitting a couple rows back in the venue, giving the notes a more natural, relaxed and liquid flow, rather than a machine gun firing rate.

The notes also have a pinch more decay and weight to them, so while the music is slightly less zippy, it is more impactful. In some ways, it is probably a little more natural sounding – closer to how we would hear music in a concert hall in real life, versus a solid state. Both sides will always have their champions. My preference goes back and forth. Just know that the HA-300 sounds tubey in a very, very good and natural way in terms of the note attack and decay. It has the impactful, liquid, flowing sound you would expect from a great tube amp without getting all gooey on you.

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

So What's the Catch?
While the Cayin HA-300 is really spectacular in many areas, it's not a totally flawless amplifier. While they aren't big knocks, and can be mitigated with some effort on the part of the owner, it's worth noting a few quirks that may annoy some people.

For one, the HA-300 is sensitive to tube noise and some 300Bs can be a little noisy, including the ones that were included with the review unit. I've heard this amp sound pretty dang quiet at a couple of shows, but when I plugged in the tubes at home I got a lot of the buzz, blips, blops and radio frequency noise you get from misbehaving tubes. It was easily and instantly drowned out by the music, but was occasionally audible in very quiet sections and breaks between songs. Comparatively speaking, it was much quieter that the humming transformer from the first generation Ampsandsound Agartha I reviewed last year – this was definitely noise of the tube variety (which is easier to address) – but still, the amp is only going to be as quiet as the tubes you are using.

Another quibble I had with the HA-300 was the amount of gain at the low end of the volume taper. Running a sensitive headphone and a hot source in balanced mode gives you almost zero volume play. Using the ZMF Auteur (100dB/mW) and the Schiit Yggdrasil (4V in balanced mode) made the first volume step about 85dB more, depending on the volume of the recording. That's zero to pretty friggin' loud in 1 step! There are several ways around this, but the Yggdrasil is certainly not the only hot source out there. This shouldn't be an issue people have to deal with.

But all that being said, those are a couple of comparatively small drawbacks for an amplifier that gives you so much sonically. If your DAC is a more reasonable 2 or 3V, you plan on rolling tubes (or you get a quieter stock pair), and you don't plan on moving the amp around much (good God, it's heavy), you'll never even run into those issues. But I'd be remiss if I didn't point them out.

I would also be remiss not to mention that in spite of the 1-step of volume situation with the HA-300 and the Yggy and Auteur, I couldn't stop listening to that combo, it was just too good. And I never had to change the volume! (I kid, I was actually adjusting it in Roon on louder recordings, but I know several people really don't like doing that.)

 

Cayin HA-300 Headphone Amplifier Review

 

Final Thoughts
In spite of a few quibbles, I still find myself being quite fond of this amplifier. Both issues can be solved with a little effort. I would rather work around a couple of small quirks on an amp that sounds great than have an amp that sounds mediocre. And this amp really, really does sound great. The HA-300 grades out very impressively, with a perfect 5 stars in 9 out of our 15 categories, and a 4.0 or greater in 14 out of the 15 categories. That's quite a strong overall showing by any measure.

When it comes down to it, the massive soundscape, deep resolution, outstanding mids and powerful bass really make it an exciting and emotionally riveting experience to take in. There are times where this amp will absolutely take your breath away. The tone and balance are really something special and they are a testament to how Cayin was able to capture the special goodness of 300Bs and turn it into something magical.

If you have the opportunity to get an audition with this amplifier, definitely take a listen. It's an experience you won't soon forget.

 

 

Additional Equipment Used During This Review
Sennheiser HD800
Sennheiser HD600
ZMF Auteur
ZMF Atticus
Hifiman HE500
Abyss AB-1266
Focal Utopia
Wells Audio Milo Headphone Amplifier
Glenn OTL Tube Amplifier
Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum
Chord Hugo 2
Schiit Audio Yggdrasil (Analog 2)
DanaCable Lazuli Headphone Cables
DanaCable Onyx Interconnects
DanaCable Trustream USB Cable
Transparent Audio Music Link II XLR Interconnects
Wireworld Electra 7 Power Cables
PS Audio Duet Power Conditioner
Ginkgo Audio Mini Arches
Roon
Amarra 4 Luxe
Tidal Hi-Fi

 

Tonality

Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)

Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Headphone amplifier
Tube: Two 300B, two 6SN7 and four22DE4

Power Rating Balanced Headphone
Low: 1800mW + 1800mW
Medium: 2200mW + 2200mW
High: 3700mW + 3700mW

Power Rating Unbalanced Headphone

Power Rating (Speaker) 8 Watts per channel, two channels
Impedance Selection L: 8-64 Ohms
                               M: 65-250 Ohms
                               H: 251-600 Ohms
Input: XLR x 2, RCA x 2
Output: 4-pin XLR x 1, 6.35mm x 1, 
Speaker Output: Four taps
Dimensions For Amplifier: 286mm x 368mm x 210mm (L x D x H)
Dimensions For Power Supply: 159mm x 345mm x 210mm (L x D x H)
Weight: 19kg for amplifier, Power Supply is 10kg
Price: $3999

 

Company Information
Cayin Audio
9 Lianfa Road
Liangang Industrial Park, Shuanglin Zone
Zhuhai City, Guangdong
China 519045

Voice: +86 (0) 756-3828711
Email: info@cayin.cn 
Website: http://en.Cayin.cn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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