Big fantastic sound in a tiny package

A Review On: NuForce Icon uDAC-3 - High-Resolution USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC) - Silver

NuForce Icon uDAC-3 - High-Resolution USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC) - Silver

Rated # 23 in Amp/DACs
See all 5 reviews
Recent Pricing:
Review Details:
Audio Quality
Design
Quality
Value
Purchased on:
Price paid: $125.00
Dsnuts
Posted · Updated · 8658 Views · 2 Comments

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.

Features:

  • Discrete asynchronous USB audio receiver and D/A converter stages
  • Direct-Stream Digital (DSD) decoding capability
  • Coaxial S/PDIF output
  • Double jitter-reduction mechanism at data level and at over-sampling filter stage
  • High voltage 2V analog output
  • A linear TOCOS volume control for improved channel tracking at low listening levels
  • No capacitors in any of the audio signal paths
  • USB-powered, no external power supply required
  • Headphones impedances between 16 and 300-Ohms are suitable for use with Icon uDAC-3  

 

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.

2 Comments:

uDAC-3 works for 24bit format and I didn't see any mention about this problem in your review. It doesn't need additional driver, unless you are using it with Foobar for DSD file format.  Please contact our support.  A big thanks for your detailed review.
How does it compare to the Dragonfly 1.2?