NUFORCE UF-30 REVIEWSpecifications:
Driver: Ultrasone® designed 30mm moving coil
Sensitivity: 101 dB/mW at 1kHz
Frequency Response: 20Hz ~ 20kHz
Impedance: 35 Ohm
Plug: 3.5mm 3-pin Stereo
Accessory: Carrying Pouch
I've had the pleasure of testing the UF-30, having put 300 hours on them so far; and I thought I should report on them now that they are out. Most of my listening has been with the new Head-direct.com HiFiMan EF2 tube hybrid amp, which has over 350 hours of burn-in, fed by the built-in DAC and the Pico DAC-only from my Macbook. But, I also pulled out several of my portable amps and iPhone 3G and 3GS, 5.5G iPod video, and 4G Nano for listening.
First I'd like to say that I like the improved cable vs the pre-production version, which is much more tangle-free and sturdy. I also like the way that you can adjust the headphones off the head, but once they are on the head the position is somewhat locked in place so that the fit doesn't change on you when you don't expect it. They fold up more like a PX100 than the old iCans, and since the cups do not need to be rotated like the iCans before collapsing them you can't break them like the old iCans.
The earlier prototypes had a good open soundstage but seemed a little thin sounding, requiring a punchy amp to get a fuller sound out of them. After 200 hours they had smoothed out but not filled out, and they went back to the drawing board. In contrast, the original iCans sounded dull and drab out of the box, and mine needed 450 hours to truly open up and sound good enough to enjoy. Nuforce is very responsive to suggestions from their testers and that is reflected in the final product, which is a noticeable upgrade right out of the box. And after 200-300 hours of burn-in they have become more refined and transparent than they were out of the box.
Without any burn-in the new pair was already better than the pre-production pair. The sonic changes were not huge in themselves, just a little tweek here and there, but as a whole these changes noticeably affect the way they portray the musical performance, for the better. The bass was a little more present, and the tonal balance was much better and not so tilted towards the highs - I think there was a slight edge/peak in the upper mids/lower treble in the pre-production pair that is much better in the new pair. Out of the box the new ones sounded a bit more refined and immersive, and above their price point. There was still a very slight "cupped hands" coloration to the upper mids at first, kinda like an artificial added echo which the iCans also had. However, this coloration was very mild and almost completely disappeared with burn-in (I'm not really hearing it at all right now).
With these phones I have tried classical, jazz, new age, electronic, country and rock music and they have done well. They can be somewhat revealing of compression artifacts in low bit-rate music, but it wasn't bad with my jazz and electronic eMusic downloads. I tested them with some 128kbps rock music (Green Day) that a friend ripped and gave me, and the results were less stellar and I felt the treble energy and grain was a bit too much with highly compressed music. With higher bit rates this is not as much of a problem, but they are still fairly revealing - a "bad recording" will be exposed for what it is. Dave Matthews "Live at Radio City" or Jack John "Sleep Through the Staic" in 128K for example sounded much better than Green Day and All American Rejects at the same low bit-rate. I still prefer my lossless electronic, new age, jazz, folk, acoustic and classical over rock music that is hitting the brick wall, so it is hard for me to use rock to review gear.
The sound does change depending on the amp you use - with my HiFiMan EF2 from Head-direct or Practical Devices XM5 with AD8065 opamps they sound their best, and I could spend hours listening to that combination without wishing for my hi-end gear to rescue me. They also sound very good with the the Meier Headsix, iBasso T4, and Pico - but they were a little bright with my iBasso D2 Boa or D10 and rolled opamps (AD744-OBCA/EL8201 buffers), Predator, 3MOVE and ALO Amphora. However, even with the amps that they lack synergy with they were acceptable if the music was well recorded. With the 5.5G iPod video, 4G Nano and iPhone 3G they tend to need the volume at about 80% at normal listening levels via the headphone jack, but the sound is good out of those even at 100% (louder than I care for). As expected, among the iPod family they sounded best via the iPhone 3GS and 3G headphone out which I am always praising, and I found myself getting lost in the music instead of working on my review with the newer iPhones. They are not terribly difficult to drive so they can sound good un-amped, but like my Phonak PFE IEM they need the volume to be set higher than other portable phones. Interestingly, I could never enjoy my iCans without an amp, and those seemed to be even harder to drive with an iPod than the UF-30 are. Another difference is that for some reason the UF-30 are also more comfortable to wear than I ever recall my iCans being - despite having a similar look to the headband, the UF-30 headband seems to fit the top of my head better.
Test tones from 20Hz to 16,000Hz were audible with the UF-30, but stronger from 25Hz and up. Regardless of the amp, I did find they sound a little recessed between 2K and 4Khz, which seems add to the sense of space with them and helps keep the soundstage deeper and more immersive than my SR-60 or MS-1 (which were more like a wall of sound). The MS-1 or KSC35 frequency response is a little more neutral and flat sounding than the UF-30 (and more forward in the mids), while the curve of the UF-30 somewhat reminds me of the deep bass, sparkly highs and slightly recessed mids of the UE11Pro, Grado HF-1/bowls or the Denon D2000 (but without too much bass). I think that is an attribute that aids in their more immersive sound-staging with live recordings in Classical, Jazz and instrumental, while at the same time allowing for enjoying the music at lower volumes. Unlike headphones with a midrange suckout (Lambda Pro, Darth Beyer V3, Proline 2500 in that order), with the UF-30 the vocals are not recessed or hollow at all, but with something like Diana Krall "Live in Paris" I am in placed in the 3rd row instead of sitting on her piano stool next to her on stage like with the SR-60 and MS-1.
The UF-30 also sound more immersive than my Yuin G2, KSC75 and KSC35, or SR-60 and MS-1, while not as forward sounding. Normally I am surprised by the closed Yuin G2 sounding more like an open can - but switching from the G2 to the UF-30 makes the G2 sound much more like a closed headphone. Switching from the MS-1/SR-60 to the UF-30 made it even more clear that the low-end Grados are deficient in soundstage. I'm not a huge fan of the SR-60 compared to the MS-1 which I think is more natural sounding, but only with Rock music did I prefer to grab the MS-1 over the UF-30. Vs the Sennheiser PX100, I would grab the UF-30 every time, for their more detailed and lively sound over the darker more veiled sound of the PX100. Compared to my ATH-ANC7 closed noise canceling phones, I also prefer the open/spacious and clear sound of the UF-30. Comparing the UF-30 to the more expensive Ultrasone HFI-700DVD or dampened/re-cabled ATH-A900, the ATH and HFI were a better, despite the added "closed can" coloration of the HFI-700, with more balance, soundstage and bass impact.
In the end, with the upgraded sound in the final product, I would have no problems recommending these to others, while the pre-production pair would have me adding more caveats about the sound and trying harder to determine what the person's tastes were before recommending them. For me, when I want to grab a light and inexpensive on-ear headphone (that wont isolate me too much from the outside world) before I run out the door, the UF-30 are more likely to head out with me now.