I've had some surprisingly good experiences with NuForce products lately. Their DDA-100 (review pending) is a spectacular all in one integrated. Their Cube compact speaker, which seemed like a toy when I first saw it, is actually rather enjoyable and proves very useful in a number of situations. Their LPS-1 power supply feeds an Auraliti PK90 music server in my reference system and offers a noticeable step up from the stock wall wart. That's 3 for 3 so far - a good record.
When they offered to send me a review sample of their new HP-800 full size headphone, I feared the streak was about to end. Don't get me wrong - NuForce knows a thing or two about IEMs, as proven by their well regarded NE-700 series from a few years back, and more recently the affordable NE-600
models. But a full size headphone? At $150? That seemed like kind of a stretch, especially considering the competition in that price range. Companies like Sennheiser have been working that market for decades, and NuForce - primarily specializing in digital products like amps and DACs - expects to beat them at their own game? Sounds far fetched. Then again, HiFiMAN and Audeze both arrived onto the scene virtually out of nowhere with killer first offerings, so I figured it was at least possible.
DESIGN AND BUILD
The HP-800 is a full sized sealed headphone. It uses 40mm dynamic drivers with neodymium magnets. The cups are made from aluminum and the pads are memory foam covered by a reasonably nice pleather. It features a detachable single-entry cable system that connects with a standard 1/8" plug similar to the VMODA M80. Bundled cables include a shorter version in the typical "headphone rubber" and a longer, fabric clad cable. Both options terminate in a 1/8" jack with the longer cable coming attached with a gold plated 1/4" adapter.
The frame is plastic and uses a self-adjusting headpad system which I find very comfortable - it's similar to an AKG K701 (minus the bumps), and even more similar to the Kenwood K1000 for the few people who have used that model. Overall I find the HP-800 to be well built, with the partial-metal construction seeming more classy and substantial than the typical plastic found in this price range. And the gold "NU" on each cup adds a bit of flare to the otherwise low-key design. I also like the red lining inside the cups - another unexpected splash of color. Reading this description, it sounds kind of garish, but in real life it just works.
In terms of comfort, my only complaint is the pads being smaller than they appear from the outside, and touching my ears a bit more than I'd like. I should mention that my ears are on the larger side and this problem is more common to me than most other people. It's still very comfy though and the many angles of adjustment mean almost everyone should be able to get a good fit. Despite the "substantial" feel I mentioned, the HP-800 is not very heavy - your ears will get sweaty long before your neck gets tired from the weight.
Isolation is about average for a closed headphone. It does far better than the supra-aural VMODA M80, and better than the Denon D7000 as well (which isn't saying a whole lot). It's about the same as the Audio Technica W1000X and the Kenwood K1000, and trails behind the Thunderpants TP1 and Ultrasone Signature Pro. The bottom line is that sound leakage is not a problem, and outside noise is attenuated to a moderate degree. I can still make out the sound of someone talking nearby, but it's pretty muffled. With music playing the outside world is almost completely drowned out save for the loudest leaf blower or passing motorcycle. In my view, it's definitely "good enough" as closed headphones go.
I burned in the HP-800 for a few hundred hours prior to listening (I was busy). I then used it in two different systems, each on very different ends of the spectrum. The smaller system begins and ends with the Meizu MX 4-Core
Android phone. The Meizu is quite good sounding, easily superior to most other phones I've used and only a bit lacking compared to the better dedicated "audiophile" DAPs on the market.
On the other end of the scale, I used my main system which is just slightly more expensive than what I'd picture being used with the HP-800 in most cases. This system consists of an Auraliti PK90 music server being powered by a NuForce LPS-1 power supply, feeding an Izmo M1 USB to SPDIF converter via a NuForce Impulse USB cable. The M1 sends the SPDIF signal through a NuForce Precision coaxial cable which connects it to a Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC. From there, NuForce Focused Field interconnects take the signal out to a Violectric V200 for amplification. Overkill? Absolutely. At least we know the HP-800 won't be the weak link.
The HP-800 took me a while to get used to. Coming from my JH13 FreqPhase, Lawton LA7000, Heir Audio 6.A LE, Audeze LCD-2.2, Beyer T1, and other high end models, the HP-800 sounded.... well, let's just say it sounded like a $150 headphone among $1,000 headphones. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not exciting either. As usual, spending time with it and refraining from switching to a higher end model in between, my brain adjusted and I started really digging the sound. A reference, neutral studio monitor these ain't. But for what they are, they do a good job, and in some ways perform at a higher level than the price would indicate.
The overall signature is definitely bass oriented. The bass hits hard, deep, and is the most attention grabbing aspect of the headphone. If you simply cannot abide a fairly significant bass boost, then stop right now: this is not the headphone for you. If you fancy yourself a "basshead" keep reading because the HP-800 should be right up your alley.
Not only is the bass loud and low, but it has surprisingly capable texture and definition. Far from the typical "one-note" sound plaguing many popular bass-heavy models, the HP-800 is among the better bass presentations I've heard and could fit right in on a more expensive headphone. Like the HiFiMAN HE-400, it's almost unbelievable that such performance would come from a "lower tier" headphone. A lot of younger listeners or people new to the headphone world hold bass performance as job number 1, far surpassing all other considerations. For those people, the HP-800 is particularly well suited. Once I got used to the HP-800 bass presentation I actually started re-evaluating my other headphones in light of it. If this $150 model from NuForce can nail the slam of a bass drum, or the almost pain-inducing low notes of a pipe organ, or the authority of Anthony Lacen's tuba - why should I give a free pass to a Grado RS-1 or an Audio Technica W1000X or an AKG K701, all of which cost far more yet fall short in this area? I'm not saying the HP-800 is superior as a whole but it does set the bar rather high in terms of low frequency performance.
The only downside is that the bass doesn't quite maintain composure at ridiculous levels. The HE-400 (which, even as a "budget" model, still costs more than double compared to the NuForce) goes to "11" without breaking a sweat, while the HP-800 is only comfortable at moderately loud levels. In fact I'd say the entire presentation sounds best at medium volume. This wasn't a problem for me since I like my hearing and want to keep it for a while but some folks could find this to be a limiting factor.
The transition from lows to mids is handled fairly well - bass stays where it should without intruding and thus smearing the mids. Using frequency sweeps I hear a fairly large dip centered at 400Hz or so. It doesn't spread very far in either direction though. Once the response comes back from "the dip" it still seems a bit recessed but not drastically so. The results of this dip and somewhat recessed mids are mixed - sibilance in that area is kept in check (but isn't completely gone - see next section about the highs). Poorly mastered pop music is a little less terrible. Everything is pretty easy going and smooth - in a rather enjoyable way. Downsides? My chief complaint is with percussion instruments, such as congas, not having enough "slap" or "bite" to them. On the 24/96 release of "The Conga Kings" I didn't connect with the rhythm as much as I normally do. The Sennheiser HD598 (still $100 more expensive than the HP-800) is the king of budget headphones when it comes to midrange detail and they do much better in this area. But again, a 60+% price increase is significant, and they don't do bass nearly as deep or hard hitting as the HP-800. But realistically the HP-800 and HD598 don't compete with one another - an open headphone with a midrange emphasis versus a closed, bass heavy model is a battle that really comes down to listener preference rather than direct comparison.
Upper mids and highs on the HP-800 are mostly enjoyable. I say mostly because they do have a bit of minor peaky-ness in a few spots. There's a hint of sibilance which is weird because you never know where it will pop up - out of 10 different recordings of singers, maybe 2 of them will sound a bit hot at times. It's never a dealbreaker for me though and when it does pop up I simply think of the $150 price tag. Aside from that things are fairly smooth and even relaxed - vocals are set back in the mix but not so far as to be overly recessed, and things like snare drums have adequate snap without being piercing. I wouldn't mind cymbals having a bit less "energy" to them - perhaps this is due to those peaks I mentioned, but sometimes cymbals stand out too much and not in a realistic, "hey check out this awesome Zildjian" type of way. But again, this isn't a fatal flaw and at $150 I can live with it.
Soundstage and imaging are reasonably good if not class-leading - this is of course an area where the open HD598 will have a significant edge. Closed headphones of any type have a handicap already and it takes a high-end design to (mostly) overcome this limitation. Still, the HP-800 never feels completely 2 dimensional, and I'd say it competes well with most sub-$200 headphones.
As far as equipment - the HP-800 sounds decent enough powered by the Meizu Android phone, but really comes to life using an amp. It doesn't have to be a ridiculously mismatched system like I used - a simple budget portable amp or desktop amp should suffice. With its relatively forgiving nature, almost any amp will do, and I did have good results when I briefly used budget gear like the Audinst HUD-mini, Shonyun 306, and TCG T-Box. So the HP-800 is very appropriate for an entry level setup.
The HP-800 is a great first attempt by NuForce. It's got a fun, bass heavy signature that I find very enjoyable when taken in the right context - that context being fun, not reference listening. This confuses me because the NuForce marketing material goes on and on about the HP-800 being a studio monitor, being used in mastering sessions and such. BS. There's no way this headphone would be suitable for that purpose. The interesting thing is that I do feel the sound is very appropriate for the mainstream headphone audience - IE, it would be a great choice for someone who would otherwise end up with Beats or some other terrible marketing-driven headphone. Somewhere along the line NuForce got mixed up in the marketing and went in the wrong direction. Maybe they felt the need to address the more "serious" audiophile market instead of catering to the already over-saturated fashion headphone crowd. I can see the thinking behind that but I feel it's more important to present the HP-800 for what it is and let the quality speak for itself.
If it sounds like I'm being too harsh on the HP-800, then I apologize - that's not what I mean to convey. It's actually because I like it, and hear so much potential in it, that I can avoid the major complaints and focus on the more nit-picky stuff. Overall it's a rather enjoyable headphone that I can see being a good upgrade for the first time HeadFier, or even as a second "fun" headphone for a person who normally uses a more neutral higher end model but wants to rock out once in a while. If you fit either of those categories, I recommend you give the HP-800 some serious consideration. Well done, NuForce.