Pros: great performance for price, generally neutral with a tinge of warmth, plug and play, transportable, great for IEM's
Cons: slightly overly energetic in the upper mids (think shouty vocals)
Pros: great performance for price, generally neutral with a tinge of warmth, plug and play, transportable, great for IEM's
Cons: slightly overly energetic in the upper mids (think shouty vocals)
Pros: Size, build quality, versatility, sound quality, DSD support, value
Cons: Micro USB plug doesn’t quite seat correctly, couple of quirks getting bit-perfect working
|uDac-3 From NuForce (front panel)||uDac-3 From NuForce (rear panel)|
My audio chain has been very stable of late, my last addition being my HD700s, and before that my Studio V3 Anniversary (DAP) and Dunu DN-1000s. With the addition of the Studio V3, I had pretty much solved all of my remaining audio requirements – good desktop system, good DAP for portable, good headphones – what more could I need?
Then out of the blue, Wolfgang from NuForce contacted me to inquire if I’d be interested in having a listen to their uDac-3. Having never heard any NuForce gear before, I was immediately keen. Even more so when I realised the size and portability of the unit. So, as I was traveling to the US last month, we arranged a suitable address for me to pick up the uDac-3, and for the last month I’ve been putting it through its paces.
I was provided the uDac-3 as a review sample. There is no financial incentive from NuForce in writing this review. I am in no way affiliated with NuForce - and this review is my honest opinion of the uDac-3. I would like to thank Wolfgang for making this opportunity available. When approached, I did offer to return the unit if they so desired. The unit they sent me was “B-Stock” but cosmetically or sonically I’ve noticed no flaws.
PREAMBLE - 'ABOUT ME'.
(This is to give any readers a baseline for interpreting the review).
I'm a 47 year old music lover. I don't say audiophile - just love my music. Over the last few years, I have slowly changed from cheaper listening set-ups to my current mid-fi set-up. I vary my listening from portable (iDevices and Studio V3) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > coax > NFB-12 > LD MKIV > HP). My main headphones at the time of writing are the Senn HD700 and HD600, Beyer DT880, Dunu DN1000 & HAS BA-100 IEMs. A full list of headphones I’ve owned (past and present) can be found in my profile.
I have very eclectic music tastes listening to a variety from classical/opera and jazz to grunge and hard-rock. I listen to a lot of blues, jazz, indie, classic rock, and alternative rock. I am particularly fond of female vocals. I tend to like audio chains that are relatively neutral/balanced - with a slight emphasis on the mid-range. I am neither a bass or treble head (you could argue that I do like clarity though). Current amps = NFB12 and LD MKIV. I also formerly owned several portable amps - the most notable being an Arrow 4G and GoVibe PortaTube. I have also in the past owned Fiio’s E7, E9 and E11.
I have extensively tested myself (abx) and I find aac256 or higher completely transparent. For my portable listening – it has been my preferred format (space vs quality). For home listening, I use my archived FLAC copies, as space is no issue. All of my music is legally purchased (mostly CD – the rest FLAC purchased on-line).
I tend to be sceptical about audiophile ‘claims’, don’t generally believe in burn-in, and would rather test myself blind on perceived differences. I am not a ‘golden eared listener’
SO WHAT IS THE UDAC-3?
The uDac-3 is an extremely small (a little larger than a zippo lighter) high resolution USB powered DAC and amp that is capable of 24/96 decoding, as well as DSD (it does DSD by converting to PCM rather than natively). It also has digital out (so can be used as a USB-coax S/PDIF bridge) and RCA dual analog out (can be used as a DAC to another amp).
|uDac-3 compared to my iPhone 4||uDac-3 beside my Seiko|
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
The unit I was sent arrived in a well-built cardboard retail box with a clear plastic inner mould to display the diminutive uDac-3. The front of the carton lists some of the main points of the unit (eg driverless async mode, works with PC and MAC, DSD playback support). The rear of the carton lists in more detail both features, and also specifications.
|Retail box front||Retail box rear|
Also included in the box is a micro-B USB cable, warranty card, manual, and foldout brochure listing some of their other products. I actually thought the foldout brochure was a nice touch (on the cover it says “May We Recommend”) – I found it more interesting than the manual to tell you the truth. The one thing missing from the manual is instructions on needing drivers for DSD playback – but thankfully these were easy to find on their website.
|All of the accessories||Micro-B USB cable|
|Foldout brochure||Foldout brochure|
Note to NuForce (for consideration) - the two accessories I would have loved to have seen with the unit would be a soft cloth carry case – doesn’t need to be expensive, but would protect the unit during transport. The second thing would have been a mini-stand so that it could be easily mounted vertically (if someone wanted to use it in a more permanent setting).
The table below lists most of the relevant specifications.
USB 1.1, 2.0 compatible
Native Bit Rate :
32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz, 24-bit
Output (line out) :
Analog RCA output = 2Vrms
Dynamic Range :
S/N Ratio :
Digital Output :
Coaxial RCA 75-Ohm
Headphone Output :
80 mW x 2 @ 16-Ohm
USB Bus Powered, 80 mA/5V
68 x 38 x 21 mm
I have asked Wolgang about the impedance rating for the headphone out – he has asked his engineers, but at this stage I am awaiting a definitive reply. I didn’t notice any really glaring frequency issues with any of my headphones (including the 10 ohm DN-1000s), and NuForce recommend using headphones from 16 – 300 ohm. I’m going to take an educated guess – and with a damping factor of 1:8 – estimate that the headphone out is possibly around 2 ohms impedance.
BUILD / DESIGN
The build quality for this little unit is extremely good. The unit consists of a one piece milled body, and matching front and rear plates. On my unit, everything lines up nicely with only a very small lip between the body and end plates. Screws are nicely even and countersunk correctly. Edges are smooth with no sharp corners. The volume pot is an excellent size (not too small), and rolls smoothly – yet has enough resistance to avoid accidentally bumping. It doubles as an on-off switch (rotating fully to the left turns the unit off). The front headphone socket is 3.5mm and the fit with everything I’ve tried has been snug and firm. It has no problem with 3 pole plugs (ie headphone cables with inbuilt microphone) – and does not suffer for cut-out.
|uDac-3 front panel||uDac-3 rear panel|
At the rear of the unit are 3 gold plated RCA ports – left and right for outputting to another amp, and a coaxial digital S/PDIF port for using the unit as an USB to coaxial converter. The plug sockets are placed nicely apart – and I had no problem with all 3 plugs fitted at once.
|USB plugged into rear - the gap is one of the rare faults|
The USB port at the rear is micro-B and fits the supplied plug firmly. It also had no issues with 2 other micro USB plugs I had on hand. My only criticism here was that while the USB plug fits firmly, it does not seat fully. I know this is nit-picking, as it doesn’t affect functionality – but even so, having the plug fully seated in the socket would be better long-term for both the unit and the cable.
|Great build quality - blue LED when no signal||LED changing to blue/white when signal present|
There is a single LED on the front panel which glows blue when the unit is plugged, and changes to blue-white when engaged (signal being fed).
The NuForce name is nicely engraved both sides of the main housing – so you can orient it whichever way you prefer, and still see the etching (a nice touch).
FEATURES / FORMATS
The uDac3 has a discrete asynchronous USB audio receiver and D/A converter stage, and does have DSD decoding ability. DSD decoding is converted to PCM rather than natively – but I did test this (downloaded some free test tracks from Blue Coast Records to check this), and it worked admirably. It also sounded extremely good – the DSD files were mastered beautifully.
The unit can function as an USB to coaxial S/PDIF bridge – and also tested and confirmed that this works wonderfully as well. The RCA L/R analogue ports allow output to another amp, and I tested this with my LD MKIV tube amp (more on that later). These ports operate a line-out at 2Vrms.
The uDac-3 is fully USB powered – and I had no problems with my netbook, laptop, and two desk-tops. Unfortunately my iPad 2 did not have enough power to run it (via the cck).
The uDac-3 can natively decode bit-rates up to 24 bit, and samples at 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, and 96 kHz.
|Test gear - the uDac-3 tiny amongst them all|
The u-Dac3 was essentially plug and play on all the systems I used – being recognised as “SPDIF Interface 2-uDac-3 Async”. Playback defaulted to 16/44.1 – and interestingly 24 bit didn’t show in the windows mixer – but 32 bit did. I tend to have my system running natively at up to 24/96 – so I changed the settings to 32/96 and after that had no issues. In Foobar’s preferences WASAPI playback didn’t seem to be a workable option – but ASIO showed up as an option – and worked admirably.
In order to have DSD support (Foobar), you need to download NuForce’s own driver plus they also supply a Foobar plugin package and full instructions. This isn’t mentioned in the manuals (but should be). The drivers are easily found at https://nuforce.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&layout=item&id=680&Itemid=2751.
The downloadable NuForce driver can also be used for normal playback.
AS A DAC
The first thing I did for critical testing was to set-up the u-Dac-3 feeding my LD MKIV (full OTL tube), and also set-up my NFB-12 the same way. I then volume matched both amps to within 0.5 dB using an SPL meter and a 1kHz tone. I then A/B’d both units (sighted) using a switching box with dual inputs and single output. The uDac-3 showed limitations of its diminutive size, and was a very pleasurable listening experience with a variety of test music from Dire Straits / Steely Dan to Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi. Using the LD MKIV for both sources – there was very little if any difference at all – which is a testament to the uDac-3.
|uDac-3 - about to feed the Little Dot MKIV|
At this point I should mention that the volume pot on the uDac-3 does control gain on the RCA outputs (I understand this range is about 6 bB gain). I generally ran it at around 12-1pm on the pot, and this provided more than ample output for the Little Dot.
The uDac-3 was surprisingly detailed for such a small footprint – and very similar to the output from the NFB-12. It has a nice linear bottom end, with a full mid-range, and slightly mellow (yet still detailed) upper end. If anything – it just gets out of the way and lets the music shine.
Main headphones used for this testing were DT880 and HD600.
AS A DAC/AMP COMBO
For testing this time, I compared directly to NFB-12, and once again volume matched carefully. Switching was a little more cumbersome this time, as I had to plug and replug. This time I mainly used my HD700, as well as my DN-1000 and BA-100 IEMs.
|The tiny uDac-3 with the NFB-12|
When testing the IEMs, I had to take the volume pot a lot lower than with the full sized headphones – but noticed no channel imbalance in doing so. Both IEMs performed admirably with no signs of hiss (I wasn’t sure what to expect with the 10 ohm Dunus). As mentioned earlier, I have asked Wolfgang about the impedance of the headphone-out, as I suspect it may not be ideally suited to the Dunu’s – which exhibited a slightly more flabby bottom end than they normally do from other sources. I suspect that some of this could be from a slightly mismatched damping factor. The BA-100s (at 36 ohm) were fantastic, as were the HD700.
My overall impression was that the uDac-3 is relatively neutral overall, with a slightly warmish tilt to the bottom end and mid-range. It’s subtle – but very pleasant. The detail levels remained extremely good overall – and whilst the NFB-12 may have just topped it overall with slightly more transparency, once again the comparison was extremely close between the two.
On power – with the BA-100s, the pot was at around 9 o’clock (switch off occurs between 7 and 8). The HD700s were comfortable at anywhere from 10-12 position. My 250 ohm DT880s needed about 11-1pm on the pot. The volume can crank all the way to 5pm – but you’d deafen yourself before attempting this with the headphones I have. So there is plenty of good clean power available – and at no time did I encounter any hint of clipping or distortion.
Looking at the uDac-3’s small size and simple design, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is more toy than serious sonic device. But looks can be very deceiving, and I’m pleased to be able to report that the uDac-3 is a seriously good DAC/amp combo at its price point (USD 125.00 MSRP) – especially if you’re cramped for space, or looking for an easily transportable device. It was a welcome addition to my recent 2 week global business trip – especially as I had just picked up the HD700s whilst in New York, and this gave me the perfect platform to enjoy them.
I now use the uDac-3 almost every day at work (paired with my DT880). It is a revealing yet slightly warm and friendly signature that just does its job and lets the music shine.
The real litmus test is would I recommend this amp to my family and friends – and to that I would say yes with no hesitation.
I did offer to return the unit to NuForce after I’d finished the review, however - because of the shipping cost and the fact that it was B-stock, Wolfgang invited me to keep the unit and I am very grateful for their generosity. If they hadn’t, I would have bought one myself – my office would simply not have been the same without it!
Wolfgang and NuForce – thanks for the opportunity. I shall be keeping a very close eye on your progress in future, and I have no doubt that your higher end products will be on my radar at some stage in the future.
Pros: tiny, robust, multifunctional
Cons: driver and stability issues, not a real step up from the uDac-2
Full review and images here... http://www.head-fi.org/t/693047/
Pros: Unexpected performance and usablility in a small package
Cons: Some driver issues it seems. Only shows 16bit instead of 24bit.
The new uDAC-3 was a surprise to me in several ways.. But let me start by stating where I stand for my own preference in sound and usability for sources I own.. Many of you guys know me for my discovery thread and we have many an open discussion about the latest and greatest gears, mostly earphones and the like on the thread. I think guys on the thread know me well enough to understand I like to spot light phones and gears that simply perform. To me it is not worth the effort of posting an impression or doing a review if a gear in question if it don't have the 2 main things that are extremely important to myself and friends on the thread. That is sound quality. Second of importance is value. In the sea of great and not so great gears that are on the threads I find value in gears to be something that clearly performs over and above the price point for purchase. If it don't have it then it isn't worth mentioning simple as that. With that being said. Introducing the new Nuforce uDAC-3.
The first surprise to me was the size.. It comes in a nice package with instructions/ Warranty and a micro usb cable included.. Decidedly this device is made for ease of use. A simple plug and play dac/amp.
I have seen older pics of the Nuforce uDAC-2 and I always thought they were larger dacs for some reason. But opening the package I got this little thing.
Yes that is the uDAC-3 on top of my over sized NFB-5. To give you guys a better idea of the smallness of the dac here is another one for comparison sake.
Small is the new big. I suppose we all can equate to having a large box form for Dac Amps that may or may not equate to a big full blown sound when it comes to sources.. The uDAC-3..Proved to me otherwise..For testing purposes I threw on the uDAC-3 on my main burning station laptop which has my Audinst MX2 pumping my DnB music for burn in for all sorts of earphones and headphones I use. On first listen I grabbed for my Fidelio X1. And it brought a smile to my face immediately. I didn't expect the sound out of this little unit to have the richness I immediately heard. I didn't expect the sound to be so smooth and enjoyable with solid detail and clarity right out of the box. I didn't expect the bass end to have the fullness I can only associate with higher end sources. I ended up listening for a good two hours of my music. The sound is simply fantastic. Doing more than justice for Dave Brubeck to Metallica to Armin Van Burren everything I was listening to.
Burn in. I know this community is split when it comes to breaking in equipment but I am of the camp that not only believe in burn in but I have a permanent break/burn in station in my home. And to this point. Out of box the the highs did seem a touch bright and not as controlled in the region as I would have liked so while I heard the potential from open box, to really let me hear how the uDAC-3 performed with the X1 and my music. I knew the unit needed some break in.. 3 days and nights of full break in and today I feel they have adequate enough run time for them to show me what they are all about in sound.
This impression of the uDAC-3 will be based on the simplest and easiest way to use the uDAC-3 and that is with it connected to my main media laptop filled with most of my music. Which consist mostly of standard high quality MP3 and lossless Flac files playing through MediaMonkey. Using a variety of in ears and headphones I have on hand I spent the greater part of the day just listening to how my music sounded and comparing the sound to my other Dac Amps.
On very first listen I switched from the Audinst MX2 and to be honest I expected a bit of a downgrade in sound quality but how surprised was I when not only was it not a downgrade but actually had the better more involving midrange and bass end. This was out of the box.. To put this in perspective. I equate the SQ of the MX2 to be of the O2/ODac combo in performance level. So this was a big surprise right off the bat. Don't know if I was expecting just an decent $100 dac that sounded good enough. But this little unit was showing me it was more than capable with hanging with higher end Dacs in sound..
I recently had the opportunity to review Nuforce's new NE-700X Iem http://www.head-fi.org/t/672193/review-the-new-and-improved-nuforce-ne-700m-ne-650m#post_9611289. I find it very interesting that these uDAC-3 is like the source version of the NE-700M in sound. A higher end version I would like to add. What I mean is. I am hearing similarities in how these different sound gears are tuned..The uDAC-3 at it's heart has rich deep mids with a fuller than neutral bass end. In how the NE-700 is tuned it is similar in this regard..So while the overall performance is not as neutral as lets say my MX2 or Meridian Explorer in sound quality, I am in the camp where deep mids and a full bass end with a 3D type rendering of sound is a good thing. Which is why I hold my NFB-5 as my all time favorite source out of all my gears..How does the uDAC-3 hold up to it in sound? Keep reading. The overall sound has a touch of warmth to it with a richness and texture that is not as evident on my much more expensive MX2.
The overall sound is a deeper fuller one and with clarity and detail in the dynamics of the sound that one would not equate with this little cost coming from this little box.. The sound that is coming out of this little dac is much better than I thought could come out of something so small. It clearly exhibits a quality sound tuning from Nuforce. While the sound is more colored over a neutral presentation for a source in that the sound has more thickness than more neutral sounding sources. The amp portion coming into play perhaps. It is not so overly cooked that it makes anything you listen to sound off or different in any way. Just more of your music to love. Every bit of that musical thickness is textured, smooth and on the cross streets of lushvile way and absolute engaging.. The popular belief for most might be that higher end sound means neutrality but for me neutrality can go south in a hurry if not done correctly. I know many like to dab into higher grade amps to throw some coloration and stage in their neutral sounding sources but what Nuforce has done is thrown down the proverbial jack of all sound on this little unit. Musical coloration on one hand yet neutral enough to satisfy guys that stick to it for reference. It simply sounds fantastic!. I kinda like my music with some richness thicker and deeper vs a skinny and flat presentation. All detail and no meat and that don't make Stan Getz to sound better. But that is just me. I think if I was to nit pic I would say it could use a bit more stage and even more depth to throw this sound into another tier all together..The only other source I have that has deeper, wider and a more holographic 3D rendering of sound is my NFB-5. It is of a similar coloration and sound presentation but in overdrive. Using the moon opa. Back to the uDAC-3
Cassandra Wilson Strange fruit the depth of sound and her deep vocals with them bass strings playing with my senses made me realize just how solid the sound is on the uDAC-3. In a direct comparison to the MX2. Details in tunes are similarly comparable but the mids are not as deep as the uDAC-3 nor is the bass end have the same authority. The MX2 does have more of a neutral tilt in sound as a source and does show a bit more stage over the uDAC-3. I noticed after the burn in of the uDAC-3 the mids sound deeper and more fleshed out, the bass end a touch tighter, the highs have equal footing over the overall sound but do exhibit a touch of cut off at the upper most extremes..Highs take a touch step back from the deepness in the mids but this makes for hours of non fatiguing listen. The overall sound is very satisfying and does no have me nit picking details in string instruments and as well as vocals are all very well represented in the sound. exceptionally so. Detail in faster Jazz pieces passes with flying colors. Listening to Stan Getz
I can clearly make out high hat notes with the perfect amount of reverb and depth. Each instrument has distinction. I ended up listening to Stan Getz Artistry of Stan Getz entire album while doing this review. While I meant to hear just one tune. But no, one tune is simply not enough.
Vocals just absolutely shine on the uDAC-3.
Rather spectacularly. It is awesome to hear such detail and range in vocal performances. So what was interesting was just how much I was enjoying the sound of this little unit with much more expensive gear sitting right next to it..Next up was a comparison with my Meridian Explorer..
As small as the Meridian Explorer is the uDAC is actually smaller and is about the same size as the cheapest dac I own. The Ele..Now here is where the buck stops right? The uDAC-3 cost about a 1/3rd of the Meridian Explorer.. The ME has had some mixed views among headfiers because of the initial batch issues with high impedance out. The ME I own is a revised version which fixed this issue.. In comparison the ME does have an overall better resolving sound especially in the treble, however does the ME sound $200 more in SQ? Absolutely not. In fact. They both exhibit similar resolution of sound for depth of music and while the highs are not as resolving as the ME. The uDAC-3 more than hold their own in this department. The bass end is almost a draw with the uDAC-3 with a touch more impact, The ME emphasizing a bit more deeper low end. One would figure for something that cost this much more it would be an absolute slam dunk but to be completely honest..I think the uDAC-3 is comparable in sound here as well..The overall sound of the uDAC-3 is a bit more rounded vs the ME.
And lastly but not least. A comparison to my NFB-5..I suppose this little comparison is not a fair one but what amazes me to no end is just how good the uDAC-3 sounds in comparison to the best of what I own.. I don't know if you guys are keeping tally but I am comparing the sound of the uDAC-3 to Dacs that cost considerably more. Much more.. In fact I don't know if I should be happy or angry to the fact that this little unit sounds so damn good in comparison.. Oh yea and here is another shocker. I also own both the Fiio X3 and the DX50. As good as both of these Daps are.. Both of them don't sound as good as the little uDAC-3 connected to my laptop playing Flacs. They both are excellent in performance and come close but are not quite to the sound level of the uDAC-3..The uDAC-3 sound is like a mix of both the X3 and the DX50 in sound. The stage and detail level of the DX50 with the depth and bass end of the Fiio X3..
Connected via RCA out. I hooked up the uDAC-3 to my Denon AVR-1601 receiver to see if nuForce is telling it like it is when it comes to these units being able to hook up to receivers..And these do sound just as good as my Sony RCDW500Z in sound playing out of my laptop..So this little unit is showing me that it is more than a one trick deal. Makes for easy pairing for speakers and receivers alike for and easy media player hook up..And one other claim I had to test was the ability to play games using the uDAC-3.
Surprised again. Not only did the uDAC-3 sound absolutely stunning with Bioshock Infinate but I now find myself wanting to try it with my Alienware MX17 for BF3. Will report back with more details about directional cues and sound. But for what it was worth. I wasn't missing my Titanium HD on my gaming rig one bit using the uDAC-3..I Found myself playing for a good hour when I was testing out the sound on this game using my Asus gaming laptop..Absolutely spectacular sound using the uDAC-3. Directional cues was excellent as well using the X1.
So in closing I would like to give some big props to NuForce for a compelling product that deserves some praise. The pros of a solid sound quality and ease of use clearly out weigh any cons that I can see or hear. Unfortunately I was not able to try out the DSD playback feature of the uDAC-3 which I apologize for and will get around to doing so when time permits and driver issues are fixed.. I rate the sound quality to clearly be above the monetary value of the cost. I am happy to report. NuForce absolutely got the 2 main things I look for in all my gears..Sound quality and value. This little unit has a big full blown sound.The sound quality easily hangs with higher end and more expensive gear. At the cost Nuforce is asking for the unit. It is a worthy unit. It easily rivals listening enjoyment of my Audinst MX2, Meridian Explorer, and to a lesser extent my NFB-5. Absolutely fantastic for media play and can be easily hooked up to complete a full media sound library..Great job NuForce and I look foward to even more progress in the realm of sound.. The NuForce uDAC-3 is simply a capable and enjoyable sounding unit. Regardless of price or size.
I had way too much fun writing this review. I will have more to add to the review on the uDAC-3 thread..Thanks to all those that read and as always. Happy listening.
|Feature||Discrete asynchronous USB audio receiver and D/A converter stages Direct-Stream Digital (DSD) decoding capability Double jitter-reduction mechanism at data level and at over-sampling filter stage A linear TOCOS volume control for improved channel tracking at low listening levels USB-powered, no external power supply required|
|Title||NuForce Icon uDAC-3 - High-Resolution USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC) - Silver|
|Package Height||2 inches|
|Package Length||6 inches|
|Package Width||6 inches|
|UPCList - UPCListElement||816924011042|