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Review: Cayin Fantasy – Missed Opportunities

Cayin Fantasy
Cayin Fantasy

Cayin’s flagship earphones are a technical but tiring listen.

My sincere thanks to Andy Kong for organizing the Cayin Fantasy review tour.

Cayin has made a name for itself in the portable audio space by offering great amps like the Cayin iHA-6, unique DAPs like the Cayin N6ii (modular DAC/Amp cards), and the unusual Cayin N3Pro (miniature tube amp inside).

When it comes to earphones, though, they don’t really have a large portfolio to draw upon. The Cayin YB04 (a quad-BA driver setup) are the only offering to date. I tried the YB04 when they launched in 2019 and found them very picky with tip-selection. The tuning could also do with some polish with the bass being quite meek.

Enter the Fantasy, Cayin’s second IEM release, this time priced close to the kilobuck-range (or the ~$1000 category). The Cayin Fantasy are single-dynamic driver flagships, joining the single-dynamic driver resurgence trend that’s been going around lately.

I love this trend!

The competition is strong and Cayin needs something special to carve a niche. Let’s see if the Fantasy can steal the spotlight.

Cayin Fantasy
Bottom Line

The Cayin Fantasy display astounding technicalities, though at times they just become information overload. On certain well-mastered tracks they are beyond fabulous, but such tracks aren’t commonplace. In fact, you might struggle to build a playlist that suits these picky earphones. Moreover, the treble focus can be grating in too many tracks. The Cayin Fantasy could be fantastic, but they just fall short of that mark. A missed opportunity indeed.

What We Like
  • Fantastic build quality
  • Stock accessories are mostly good/great
  • Fast, dry-yet-textured bass with good slam
  • Highly resolving with superb technicalities
What We Don't Like
  • Heavy shells
  • Impractical carrying case
  • Extremely prominent upper mid and lower treble peaks induce fatigue
  • Highly source/tip dependent sound
  • Overpriced

Technical Specifications

Packaging

Cayin always goes overboard with their packaging and it’s no different here. If you like exuberant packaging the Cayin Fantasy won’t let you down. It reminds me somewhat of the Sony IER-Z1R bundle with slide-out boxes that hold various accessories.

External appearance of the Cayin Fantasy packaging.
External appearance of the Cayin Fantasy packaging.
Showcasing the Cayin Fantasy box logo.
Showcasing the Cayin Fantasy box logo.
Cayin Fantasy box with all compartments opened.
Cayin Fantasy box with all compartments opened.

Accessories

The supplied 4-core OCC (Ohno Continuous Cast) copper + silver-plated copper mixed cable is really good. It is supple, doesn’t tangle, and the chin-slider works. I don’t think you’d need to change unless you’re chasing cable-endgame or prefer a balanced termination. The supplied tips work well, but I went for ePro Horn tips to help with deep-fit. Your mileage may vary.

The supplied 3.5mm cable.
The supplied 3.5mm cable.

Sadly, the one thing in the accessory set that disappoints me is the carrying case. It’s basically a leather pouch that offers no protection whatsoever and doesn’t even close properly. Form over function, as they say.

The supplied leather carrying pouch.
The supplied leather carrying pouch.

In the box

  • Cayin Fantasy IEMs
  • 12 pairs of eartips
    • 3×3 pairs of bass/vocals/reference silicone tips (S/M/L sizes)
    • 2 pairs of foam tips
    • 1 pair of dual-flange silicone tips
  • Leather pouch
  • 1.3m cable
  • Cleaning cloth/cleaning brush/shirt-clip

Design

In typical Cayin fashion, the build quality of the Fantasy is excellent. The entire chassis is made out of stainless steel. It’s a two-piece shell design and the finish is exquisite with no discernible seam in-between. However I have some qualms about the super-shiny mirror finish due to how easily it attracts scratches, so keep them protected.

The stainless steel housing of the Cayin Fantasy earpiece.
The stainless steel housing of the Cayin Fantasy earpiece.
The metal mesh on the Cayin Fantasy nozzle.
The metal mesh on the Cayin Fantasy nozzle.

The back of each earpiece has an interesting geometric shape with a triangular faceplate and laser-etched “Cayin” and “Fantasy” lettering on the right and left earpieces respectively. There are two vents that act as driver pressure-relief points: one at the base of the nozzle, and another beside the 2-pin connector (which is recessed, thankfully).

The nozzle itself is longer than average. Another interesting thing: you can unscrew the top of the nozzle. I think this system has the potential for further mod/applying more filters which might even help with the sound quality (more on this later).

Stellar build with the scratch-prone finish being my only concern.

Comfort and isolation

The weight of the Cayin Fantasy isn’t a problem at the start, though they can feel heavy after a while. There is also a bit of an edge that can push against the outer portion of your ear. Not a big deal for most people but one of my friends who tried these IEMs reported this problem. Otherwise, they fit quite snuggly in my ears and provide good isolation.

The Cayin Fantasy have heavy housings.
The Cayin Fantasy have heavy housings.

Internals

The Cayin Fantasy utilize a 10.3mm Beryllium (Be) plated Bio-cellulose diaphragm with a dual-cavity magnet structure. Bio-cellulose diaphragms are known for producing a very satisfying low-end, with excellent excursion/slam, when properly implemented. Be-plating enhances the diaphragm’s rigidity and in turn enables better pistonic motion and faster transients.

The dual-cavity structure allows for dispersion of standing waves and reduces resonant frequencies as a result. Finally, the 316L Stainless Steel housing (with high level of corrosion-resistance) suppresses internal resonance. The acoustic chamber design is nothing unique, but the Be-plated Bio-cellulose diaphragm is perhaps the first of its kind I’ve seen in earphones, so it is time to give these a spin and hear the results.

Cayin Fantasy Sound

The following sound impressions are made with ePro horn tips + stock cable + Questyle CMA-400i.

The general sound signature of the Cayin Fantasy can be described as bright, with a tilt toward the right side of the Frequency Response (FR) graph.

Bass

Those who prefer a flat-ish bass with a bit more oomph will feel right at home. Texturing is excellent, microdynamics are spot-on, and sub-bass rumble and bass slam can be felt despite the bright tonality. The speed is one of the fastest I’ve encountered for a single-dynamic driver. However, I do wish the macrodynamics packed more punch, and the sub-bass rumble had more physicality.

Midrange

The midrange has a prominent upper-mid focus due to the slight recession below 1KHz and then an almost +13dB rise around the 3KHz region. There is more upper-mid focus than even DF-tuned (Diffused Field) stuff so if you love your female vocals to be in-your-face, the Cayin Fantasy will serve you well.

I personally prefer more lower-mid weight and less emphasis in the upper-mids, so this was a bit intense for me. Tonality of the midrange has a shine to an extent where high pitched vocals sound almost glassy. Overall timbre suffers too due to these tuning decisions with vocals, string instruments, and woodwinds sounding overly processed at times.

Treble

The lower-treble is characterized by the prominent 5–6KHz peak (this peak shifts depending on insert-depth and tip choice). While tip-rolling can help somewhat (the stock “bass tips” reduce the upper-mid glare by a couple decibels) the brightness never really goes away.

The prominence beyond 10KHz is also noticeable as there’s quite a bit of emphasis in the “air” region, thus airiness and decay are exaggerated somewhat. Depending on your age and sonic preferences, you may find it too much to handle or just “sparkly/airy”. For me, the former applies.

Soundstage/imaging

The Cayin Fantasy dissect every instrument and present all background information. From subtle taps on the fret-board of a guitar to ambient room-noise – everything is picked up with abundant clarity. The separation is almost on par with the Hifiman Sundara, which is known to have some of the best separation you can get from a headphone under the $500 range. This is an impressive feat given these are IEMs with small dynamic drivers.

Imaging and staging are excellent on the Fantasy, especially how well they track “sweeping” sounds across the channels with no discernible gaps during panning.

Dynamics/speed

What stands out is the speed of the driver.

On As I Lay Dying’s This Calling there is a super-fast double-pedal that follows through the entire song. On slower drivers this results in congestion in the lower mids. On the Fantasy, this particular track is superbly handled as the IEMs are capable of portraying the “speed” of the drumming.

Microdynamics are great with subtle changes in volume being accurately reproduced. Macrodynamics (large shifts in volume, e.g. sudden bass drops), however, could be better and the thin midrange doesn’t help in that regard.

Overall, the tonal profile is dominated by the upper-midrange shine and the intense focus on lower-treble. The leading edge of guitars and cymbal hits are pushed to the front, with cymbal decays often causing fatigue in heavy tracks like Amon Amarth’s A Fury Divine.

On the contrary, Amber Rubarth’s  Sessions from the 17th Ward album is reproduced with outstanding fidelity. It contains binaural tracks mastered at the excellent Chesky studio, and the production value is extremely high which stands out when listening on the Fantasy.

Close-up shot of the Cayin Fantasy faceplate.
Close-up shot of the Cayin Fantasy faceplate.

The story is different on Avril Lavigne’s Tomorrow, however, as the higher-pitched vocals get shrill at times, and the cymbal hits are piercing thanks to loud mastering. The same applies to Alter Bridge’s Open Your Eyes. The entire song has a very brittle presentation as Myles Kennedy’s otherwise pensive-yet-powerful voice lacks the characteristic heft in the higher registers and sounds somewhat hollow.

Strengths of the Cayin Fantasy include piano tracks like Kashiwa Daisuke’s entire 88 album. Every understroke of the keys, the distinct “thock” sound, the sudden changes in tempo, the lingering of the high-pitch notes… these IEMs were probably built to enjoy music and instrumentals like this.

The key takeaway is that if you mostly listen to well-mastered tracks, the Cayin Fantasy will be a very detailed pair of IEMs that shouldn’t be too fatiguing. However, half of my library is ravaged by the “loudness war”, so you can understand why I can’t quite take the intense signature.

Comparisons

Vs Dunu Zen

The Dunu Zen are another single-dynamic semi-flagship with a price that’s quite close to the Cayin Fantasy. Both of these IEMs have stellar build quality but the Dunu Zen take the cake for the accessories (their modular cable is ace). Comfort is also better on the Zen, though they are just as tip-sensitive as the Cayin Fantasy.

As for the sound, the Dunu Zen go for an upper-mid centric tuning with subtle sub-bass bump (rather than a boost) whereas the Cayin Fantasy are unabashedly bright. The bass on the Dunu Zen is, frankly, my favorite under $1000 and the Fantasy don’t change that. The Zen’s bass has superb texture and slam that the Cayin Fantasy can’t replicate.

The midrange is mostly differentiated by their tuning decisions: the Zen have a fuller lower-mid representation whereas the Fantasy can sound thin in that region in comparison.

The treble is where you find stark differences. The Zen are rolled-off in the upper-treble region whereas the Cayin Fantasy sound noticeably airy. Staging is wider on the Fantasy, whereas stage height/depth are better on the Zen. Imaging is about similar on both. The Fantasy do layering better, and sound more resolving between the two. Dynamics are superior on the Zen, and so is the timbre.

Cayin Fantasy paired with the Lotoo PAW 6000.
Cayin Fantasy paired with the Lotoo PAW 6000.

Where to Buy

Conclusion

The Cayin Fantasy display astounding technicalities, though at times they just become information overload. On certain well-mastered tracks they are beyond fabulous, but such tracks aren’t commonplace. In fact, you might struggle to build a playlist that suits these picky earphones. Most modern Pop/Rock recordings will sound shrill, fatiguing, and overdone. Not unlike the bitter aftertaste of a burger-patty that’s been charred on the grill a tad too long.

I like the build and craftsmanship of the Cayin Fantasy, as well as the stock cable and how the bass is presented. However, I hate the carrying case and the upper-mids tend to cast a halo over the entire midrange. Moreover, the treble focus can be grating in too many tracks.

The Cayin Fantasy could be fantastic, but they just fall short of that mark. A missed opportunity indeed.

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