CAYIN HA‑1A MK2 REVIEW

MSRP: $999 USD

  • TONAL BALANCE / NEUTRALITY 89%
  • PERFORMANCE FOR THE PRICE 93%
  • FEATURES / FUNCTIONALITY 93%
  • SOUND FIDELITY 88%
  • MUSICALITY 95%
  • BUILD QUALITY 88%

PROS

  • Rich sound
  • Gorgeous tonality
  • Beautiful Build Design
  • Versatile

CONS

  • Chassis bottom bows from transformer weight (not visible with the case on)
  • Chassis casing can be annoying to pull off for tube rolling
  • Noise floor (maybe tube rolling can help)

INTRO 

Special thanks to one of the coolest retailers out there, Jason of THE SOURCE AV, for lending me this unit for review.

The MK2 amplifier from what I understand is more popular overseas. I have seen it a for a negligibly  cheaper price  than in the states but good luck finding the right voltage, dependable retailer, or any warranties etc being honored when purchased from abroad. 

The iHA-6 made it’s way through a US tour that I helped put together on Head-fi. Later on I snagged one up on the for sale forums. The HA-1MK2 has been a bit more elusive to track down but now and at last there is a reliable retailer here in the US for it.

The iHA-6 was a very good effort by Cayin. It honed in on the brands ‘Spark’ (Cayin Spark) and lit house sound with good resolution, tight bass, and slightly cold but punchy tonality.  Compared to a lot of solid state amplifiers on the market it comes easy to recommend for the price. The 1A MK2 tube amplifier is another addition to Cayin’s newer releases that launched about the same time the iHA-6 did.

 SPECS

SPECS
Model HA-1A MK2 Tube 12AU7×2、EL84EH×2、12DT5×1
Color Silver Dimension 126.5mm×304mm×215mm(WxDxH)
Net Weight 9.5Kg Power Consumption 65W
Input Terminal CD,AUX Output Terminal PRE-OUT
PHONES OUT
Power Rating 1400mW+1400mW (@32Ω) 
850mW+850mW (@64Ω)
1200mW+1200mW (@150Ω)
2000mW+2000mW (@300Ω)
2200mW+2200mW (@600Ω)
Frequency Response 20Hz~45kHz  ±3dB THD 1%(1kHz)
Sensitivity 200mV~440mV SNR 100dB  (A-Weighted)
Output Impedance 8~32Ω,33~64Ω,65~150Ω,151~300Ω,600Ω
PRE-OUT
Output level 2V (MAX  4V) Frequency response 10Hz~42kHz  ±3dB
Sensitivity 420mV THD 0. 5% 
SNR 100dB (A-Weighted)

 

BUILD/DESIGN

BUILD/DESIGN/FUNCTIONALITY

The MK2 got rid of its speaker taps from the first version and built the unit around the sole purpose of driving headphones. The MK2 can drive two headphones simultaneously, yet not without the loss of sound quality. It also has an impedance selector, an input selector for CD and auxiliary, and outputs on the back.

The unit itself is quite heavy although it doesn’t take up too much desktop space. The chassis cover is removed by unscrewing the four screws in the back and sliding off the wooden shell. This will enable you to tube roll. The unit I have for review has an issue where the chassis is bowed in between the two transformers as seen in the gallery above. The issue I think has to do with weight or positioning and is luckily not visible with the cover on. However, it does cause the chassis cover to catch when trying to slide it off, as does some of the bolts and nuts inside. I would suggest Cayin to make the top of the chassis slide back instead of the whole shell as well as reinforce the bottom where the transformers are.

IMPEDANCE SELECTOR

The impedance selector is a pretty fun option to mess with. At this point I have owned two amplifiers with impedance selectors, tried the different output impedance jacks on a couple of tube amps and even solid state, and now I am here with the MK2 impedance knob. I can say that I am familiar with the various effects that they produce. The broad perspective is that those knobs and output options are there for the user to have fun with and get more bass or bloom from higher impedances or more precision from lower impedance outputs. I have to debunk that before continuing with my explanation of how the Cayin works.  Most of these settings will really determine how well the driver is being controlled and how compressed or dynamic the headphone will sound.

Let me use my Auris HA2SE as an example for a second. I initially expected the 300ohm setting to sound the best with my Atticus. Compared to it’s 50ohm setting it was a lot less compressed and more expressive. Compression of dynamics is most definitely not the goal but neither is a loss of control. After selecting the 100ohm setting that particular amplifier gives my Atticus just as much liveliness but also controls the bass the best so 100ohms is where it stays for that headphone. The Trafomatic HEAD 2 sounds best at 300ohms with my favorite high impedance cans but the 600ohm setting can be enjoyable when I want a little more bass (though less control). The Kenzie only loses a shade of control from its 600ohm output compared to its 32ohm output for the Atticus and HD650 but it gains way more openness, dynamics, and even resolution when using high impedance headphones. These results of  all of these amplifiers performance based on selecting the right output have been very detectable and influential in how I perceive the product.

Where does the Cayin fit into all of that?

Well it seems different to me than some of the other experiences I have had and I can’t explain why from any technical perspective. The results are a lot less dramatic between selections than previous experiences have lead me to expect but still useful.

ATTICUS:

The 151-300ohm setting does well for it, bringing out some bloom but making the images fuzzier with the amps noise floor being increased.

The 33-64ohm setting hits home. *Make sure you level match when trying these different outputs… sounds like a no brainer but I can’t stress how important that is. The images gain better separation and the background becomes cleaner which enables the notes to emerge with better distinction. The other settings are either too noisy, or in the case of the 6-32 ohm setting not dynamic enough to be considered ideal.

HD650:

Similar to above but I preferred the 65-150ohm setting that gave the drums a little more pop. The 650 prefers a higher output impedance than the Atticus but the results between selections are not really that dramatic on the cayin compared to my Auris or how memory holds the Trafomatic Head 2.

KENNERTON ODIN:

Pretty much un-phased (sorry for the poor pun) by the impedance selector. Having the lowest setting makes the most sense since the amplifiers noise floor is the lowest but even then you can’t really hear it raise by fiddling with the selector. It performs as is to be expected from a low impedance planar; the impedance selector is quite useless for it. Using the high impedance option on my Auris drops the dynamics of the Odin a bit and compresses the sound  but it is far less effected than my dynamic headphones are.

MEZE 99 CLASSICS

6-32ohms gives it the most control, solidity, and even slam. The other settings are useless. I would be tough to convince that any higher impedance setting would sound better with that mushiness that comes from higher ohms on a low impedance hp.

INPUT SELECTOR

I have had my Metrum Pavane and a loaner Schiit Yggdrasil  plugged into the back of it being able to easily switch between inputs and hear the differences between DACs. Just to check, I rotated cables and inputs to make sure any differences weren’t because of the unit.  The CD and AUX inputs proved to be the same and could have easily been marked as input 1 and input 2.

KNOB/POT

It is really tiny. With such a tiny knob it is good that it has a nice amount of resistance as to prohibit a prompt and accidental raising of the volume too high. I personally prefer a larger pot but the combination of size and resistance make it perfectly functional and practical. No real issues dialing in my ideal listening levels were experienced.

LOOKS

This amp is very clean and well designed unit in and out. I very much appreciate the glossy wood panels on the sides, the tube window, and chiseled knobs. This amplifier looks gorgeous in person. I wish other manufacturers put forth such efforts at this price and above. It seems that most make the excuse that aiming for the best sonics at an affordable price eliminates the need for good aesthetics. Come on! We are paying top dollar for these things, they ought to look the part.  I mean I can understand that perspective but there are affordable ways to make a chassis look nice. Let the Cayin HA 1A MK2 be an example for ages with its timeless design. These external parts on the Cayin don’t cost a lot but the whole package make it seem worthy of it’s price. Just sayin…Opinionated? Who me? No never.

POWER/DRIVE

I wasn’t really interested in testing my T50 Mod with this amplifier. I was too caught up in the music with my other headphones. It does have a good amount of juice for even some serious planars though and was able to make my Odin sound relatively punchy. Sure my Mogwai is more powerful and opens up planars better, and the iHA-6 is way more powerful, but the 1A-MK2 is no slouch. 

SOUND

  • BASS EXTENSION 95%
  • BASS BALANCE 93%
  • LOWER MIDRANGE BALANCE 98%
  • MIDDLE MIDRANGE BALANCE 91%
  • MIDDLE MIDRANGE PRESENCE 100%
  • UPPER MIDRANGE BALANCE 90%
  • TREBLE BALANCE 90%
  • TREBLE EXTENSION 84%
  • BASS CONTROL 88%
  • TONE DENSITY (BODY , OPPOSITE OF THINNESS) 89%
  • MACRO DYNAMICS (SOFTS TO LOUDS) 90%
  • MICRO DYNAMICS (SMALL GRADATIONS OF VOLUME) 83%
  • SOUND STAGE WIDTH 75%
  • SOUND STAGE DEPTH 89%
  • BLACKNESS OF BACKGROUND 78%
  • CLARITY 89%

The sound signature of the Cayin is beautiful. It is flattering and rich which can’t be considered neutral but at the same time I can’t say any part of it’s balance is overdone in any area for my tastes. . It sings!

BASS

Low end grunt and bang the HA-1AMK2 doesn’t squelch. I have owned a few cayin products from their portable gear, to their desktop amp/dac all in one HA3, and most recently the now sold iHA-6 (kinda miss that amp) and one thing I could never say was that the bass of any of these units were mushy, bloated, or loose. This is the first tube amplifier that I have heard from Cayin and while it is not as tight and dry as the iHA-6 it still has enough control and substance. It is a bit rounded with a smooth decay but has good speed and impact. Just a tad more focus  and solidity would tip it up into excellence but as is I’d use words like good instead of exceptional. It has no problems at all with reach with bass that extends as deep as any.  While I find it to have a warm hue in the upper bass, there is no creep into the midrange or any overzealous boosting of mid bass. I find it to be actually a little faster than most tube amps I have heard even above its price but not any more resolved or textured. Listening to ‘Deed I do’ by Ray Charles & Milt Jackson has the upright bass sounding firm and sizably realistic and punchy yet not with the same energy  and heft as my other tube amps have it. Turn on some EDM or Hip Hop and if your headphones work well with those genres then the Cayin will be a treat as it is very responsive to what the recording has in it.

It takes my Atticus and pumps some juice into them and I never feel like it is selling them short. The MK2 welcomes all genres and their various demands of bass performance unless you like exaggerated bass. In that case I would recommend using a bass enhanced headphone with the Cayin and let its uncompressed natural sound bring them to life.

MIDRANGE

I LOVE the presentation of the Cayin midrange. It is full, forward, warm,  and glowing with an organically ethereal delivery. It has tube wetness all over it yet at the same has a distinct lack of compression with its bulbously resonating tones. The real word for the Cayin iHA MK2 midrange (on stock tubes; sorry no tube rolling was done) is colorful. Hearing the xylophones’  resonate with good strength and snap is a really musical experience on this amp. The balance is stately with a warmth in the lower and middle midrange, but the upper midrange has decent presence as well. This amp is all about the midrange. It could use a little airiness and there is a slight want for the breathe of singers to be better revealed but all in all it sounds really good. Voices, while saturated, are strong and believable. When I put the stock tubes in my Mogwai words like nasally or honky (non issues with my other tubes)  start coming up which I can’t attribute to the Cayin at all despite its midrange opulence. It sounds unhindered and the music flows magnificently.

TREBLE

Here is where the Cayin excels at for a tube amplifier(The midrange description above is regardless of amp type). It has good definition of the notes in the treble. The timbre is a little sharp but crisp, solid, and smooth at the same time.  It is not hashy, nor  is it hazy like I am starting to hear on my Auris. But it is also not raw and  shimmery. Sure in the comparisons below you will see how it is not super resolving, but bite on the Cayin is actually its strong point. More so than most tube amplifiers I have heard. It has a dark kind of sound to it but I have been caught off guard a few times as the piercing nature of some instruments in the treble have cut through the recording with more intensity than my other amps have allowed. It’s got some kick and snap but is much darker than its solid state brother the iHA-6. Extension is okay which means it could have just a little more presence in the upper treble like my Mogwai with PSVANE tubes in. I imagine some tube rolling could very much change my impressions of the treble extension because it doesn’t need much more to get it to ideal.

PERFORMANCE

DYNAMICS

Its pretty good at handling percussion.   Micro dynamics seem fine to me. The bass is decently punchy but voices and instruments never sound constrained. Not necessarily visceral since tonal density is about average but still capable of hitting hard. My 650 has sounded more alive on my Mogwai and Auris but the Atticus responds to the Cayin with exceptional synergy. Headphones performance in this aspect vary quite largely. More so than other amps.

ATTACK/DECAY

I don’t find the attack necessarily hard but the transients are crisp for a tube amp followed by a wet reverb like sound from the tube warmth. Sure tube amps sound wet but the Cayin is even more wet and ‘tubey’ sounding than those I have here to compare it to. Snares, finger snaps, rim shots etc sound specifically sharp and to the point. The combination of snappy notes and wet decay should appeal to other tube lovers like myself. 

RESOLUTION

With my gear I hear the Cayin as only decently resolving. It costs less than the other amps on my desk and also resolves less even if it is more satisfyingly musical to listen to. The good thing is that for some of the older high res recordings the background noise and air is not that loud. I really do not feel like details are missing per se because everything is distinct, well separated, and the clarity is very good but the finer brushwork and cymbal textures are not as resolved as on my pricier amps even if it sounds more crisp with better bite. 

SOUNDSTAGE

This amplifier has a deeper than wide soundstage. The instruments are well separated. The full and forward resonating tones, nice separation, and decent imaging give a good sense of layering that is much better than the iHA-6, Phonitor E, and many other even more expensive gear. It would be cool if the soundstage were wider, and overall larger in size but it is adequately holographic reminding me of the iCan Pro with its deeply layered sound.

NOISE/BLACKGROUND

The Cayin team could stand to improve upon the noise floor of this amplifier. It is not a deal breaking high but definitely audible. I imagine a cleaner background would make it sound much more pleasant than it already does. The beautiful tones it drives is hindered by this. With such good layering, body, and realism, a black background would be icing on the cake. The lower the impedance you select the less audible the amp itself is but even at the lowest setting with my Odin it is still faint in the background with normal listening levels.

TIMBRE

Tone density is good to average and my Pavane really helps it sound solid and firm. The Yggdrasil reveals the amplifier to have a liquid sound with good presence but an ideal level fullness. I do believe my Auris to have denser tones but it lacks the smoothness and flow that the Cayin has. All in all I find the timbre of the Cayin to be wonderful.

COMPARISONS (for reference as these are all at very different prices)

vs. MOGWAI w UPGRADED TUBES AND CAPS (2400USD)

Diminishing returns is a reality.

  • The Mogwai has a wider soundstage with better imaging and separation but a little less depth
  • The cayin is more snappy in the treble and bass
  • The Mogwai has a heftier and better textured bass.
  • The Mogwai timbre is excellent but the Cayin has slightly more immediacy and richness. The Cayin is a little less dense.
  • The Mogwai renders treble shimmer and pretty much every fine detail better. It has the higher definition
  • With the tubes I have in now the Mogwai has better treble extension and hear through factor but the Cayin sounds more bloomed and forward.
  • The Mogwai with upgraded caps has better clarity and openness
  • The Cayin is faster than the Mogwai

vs. AURIS HA2 SE

  • The Auris is more linear in the midrange and less flattering.
  • The Auris sounds  little more dry and less organic in the midrange
  • The Auris has better bass control and slam and also a little more presence. The Cayin bass can be a little more punchy at times but responds to what the recording is doing better. E.g. If I play a jazz song and listen to the bassist he will sound slightly more in volume on the Auris; but when playing an EDM song on the Atticus, the Cayin conveys the energy of kick drums just as well.
  • The Cayin’s treble is more crisp, present, and distinct but overall less resolving of fine details.
  • The Auris has better separation and soundstage just like the Mogwai does but is in between both of them for width (the stock Mogwai soundstage is not as wide as mine and maybe similar to the Auris). The Cayin sounds deeper and a little more reverberant.
  • Overall the Auris has a blacker background, is more resolving but clarity is equal. I imagine the Cayin may surpass the Auris in clarity if I were to tube roll.

vs. KENZIE from recent memory

  • The Kenzie has a more linear midrange with slightly more upper mids while the Cayin is sweeter, warmer, and more forward.  Both presentations of midrange rank really high in my books. The Cayin has to be one of my favorite midranges with the Kenzie ranking a little higher for having better hear through factor.
  • The Kenzie sounds more open but has a similar soundstage presentation but a little larger. 
  • The Kenzie is more resolving and has bass just as if not tighter than the Cayin and is more transparent.
  • The Cayin does better with planars and actually makes them sound punchy. It is a better choice for someone with a variety of phones.

vs. SPL PHONITOR E

  • The SPL has slightly more upper mids and is less flattering of the lower to middle midrange frequency range. It sounds less bulbous and more dry and compressed.
  • The Cayin is almost as clear but still behind the SPL for resolve by just a little.
  • The Cayin has a deeper soundstage and sounds more holographic
  • The Cayin is more punchy and the music flows with better realism than the SPL
  • The SPL unit has better extension in the treble and is just as crisp just not as solid in timbre or dense being a little thinner.

vs. CAYIN iHA-6

  • Preference between the two for my tastes easily goes to the tube amplifier. It is more bloomed, better layered, is more musical, and less bright.
  • The iHA-6 is resolving and clear, maybe just a little more clear and definitely more extended in the treble. However the MK2 tube amp is more open sounding; not in terms of air but the soundscape and instruments sound less restrained and more effortlessly natural.

CONCLUSION

%

I really love the tonality of this amplifier more than most I have heard. The last amplifier I buy will have this sweetness to it but a little more precision and resolution. The Cayin is a solid 999 which isn’t cheap but for my tastes I would have to pay, and have paid much more to do better than this. There are gems out there like the Torpedo III , and Schiit Mjolnir (have yet to hear but comes highly recommended) that I wonder how the Cayin compares to. I can’t say how it compares to similarly priced tube amps, only higher priced ones and similarly priced solid state amps. BUT if I had a grand to spend on a headphone amplifier this would be it over anything I have heard under 1500 for my personal tastes. I got tons of enjoyment out of this amplifier and will be recommending it to those looking for something under 1K.

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