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Review of the NuForce DAC-9 - coupled to Sennheiser HD800 headphones

post #1 of 27
Thread Starter 

I've summarised the 60+ year journey to arrive at this DAC so its appraisal can be put into context.  If you want the review itself, then skip the preamble.

The Early Road to High Quality Analog

Love of recorded music started way back in the attic where, as a pre teen youngster I played cylinders on a wind up Edison player.  Progression over the years was to 78's and then microgroove vinyl with signals being fed into the back of radiograms.

Higher quality audio started with a Garrard table, Ortofon cartridge, Leak amps and Wharefedale speakers, first mono, then stereo via a Decca FFRR arm and cartridge.  Over the next 30 years there were numerous changes, many of them sideways, using all sorts of gear including Linn, Koetsu, Luxman, Crown, Levinson, B&W, Stax, LS3/5a, Celestion, Plinius, Meridian ....

 

And then came DIGITAL

For years I was a digital Luddite, hating the harsh sound resulting from CDs so I stuck religiously to vinyl.  But then a strange twist of fate led me down the digital path.  In 1989 my wife and I attended an London Albert Hall concert of the Berlioz "Damnation of Faust" performed by Solti with the Chicago Orchestra & chorus.  A couple of years later there is was on laserdisc!  Must have.  So began the journey though Pioneer and then Theta players & DACs, with a grim determination to tame the nasties in the audio.

Well after many years down the digital road of modifying players with better clocks I ended up with a used Esoteric UX-1 LE player coupled to a G-Os Masterclock and an Empirical Audio modded Benchmark DAC1.  The Esoteric was ultimately sent to "The Upgrade Company" where the modification improved things to the extent the Masterclock made no improvement so was sold.  Playing CDs, SACDs & DVD-As via Halcro amps and Sound Labs full range electrostatic speaks was producing VERY nice sound -  particularly in the context of the pentagonally shaped lounge/entertainment room built as the focus of this house 20 years ago. You can see more about the set up in diagrams and pictures at  http://gallery.audioasylum.com/cgi/view.mpl?UserImages=3758

 

In 2010 the move to Headphones and Meridian Sooloos

A Stereophile article by Sam Tellig sponsored an interest in headphones, an item which had never had much appeal despite the excellent results from a pair of Stax some years ago. Net research soon revealed a lot of praise for the Sennheiser HD800s so I bit the bullet and purchased a pair.

The setup used for them was a lengthy balanced digital line from the Esoteric (via a Neutric transformer) to the modded Benchmark DAC1 to the HD800's.  Wow, what great sounding audio!  For the first time I appreciated just how good were the mods Steve Nugent did on the Benchmark.  With fewer electronics in the way, the music was coming through with unsurpassed resolution and musicality.

Another Stereophile article on the Meridian Sooloos system by Cordesman inspired research on this with the result a few weeks later there was a Control 10, an MS600 and two twinstores, each with twin 2 TB enterprise drives inside, integrated into the system. What followed in the next 6 months was a very tedious burning in of over 8000 CDs & SACDs at the rate of 10 per hour.  So yes, over 800 hours were devoted to this, but not exclusively.  One could attend to the PC, read, look at TV or even listen to music on Sooloos during the process so it was not quite as horrific as might be imagined.  I was also able to persuade my wife to help when other tasks required my attention.

The audio quality from the Sooloos system was equal to that via the Esoteric so FLAC files are indeed lossless and as good as the originals.  And that was using the modded Benchmark and Sennheiser headphones, a setup I was preferring to use to listen to the big, mainly classical, collection.  Bliss, music could not sound better.  Or could it?

 

Enter the NuForce DAC-9

For some time now I have read very positive comments about the gear being sold by NuForce, a company with only 20 staff and 7 years old, so indeed new to the A/V scene. This year came the announcement of their new whiz bang DAC-9 with yummie specs you can see at  http://www.nuforce.com/hi/products/Dac-HPAmp/dac9/index.php

Curiosity got the better of me so I purchased one to see how well it stacked up against my beloved modded Benchmark DAC1.  Well it has been here several days now and I am very taken aback.  For many years I've been reading reviews on TAS, Stereophile, the net etc and observed the terms "inner detail", "musicality" "PRAT", "inner detail" "veil lifted" etc all with a degree of scepticism.  Yes, I understood what the reviewers were getting at but using this sort of hyperbole has always seemed a bit over the top, that is up until now. But these are the terms I will apply to the NuForce DAC-9 as it has genuinely surprised me just how good the music from CDs via Sooloos and FLAC, can sound.

The first jolt of realisation about this came listening to the Reference recording of the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier playing Rimsky Korsakov's "Russian Easter Festival Overture".  Full of contrasts this block buster piece came through with astonishing dynamics etc.  The transients are processed by the DAC-9 with astounding clarity and PRAT.
 
Piano and harpsichord recording have an extra edge to the percussive sound I had previously been unaware of.  It was probably always there but was not so obvious and hearing it gives an extra dimension to the artistry of the performer.
 
The sound of organ recordings can so easily dissolve into a bit of a mess when room acoustics are added to the massive acoustics of the church where they were recorded.  This happens to a degree even in this otherwise excellent listening room.  Those organ recordings sounded very good via the Benchmark and headphones, but inserting the DAC-9 also added a further dimension to the reproduction. The deep punchy bass reproduced on the Sennheiser headphones is awe inspiring.

Violins have the same sweetness I like so much using the Benchmark DAC1, but again there is more with a greater sense of that resin being scraped across the string to produce the sound.  No, not unpleasant as might be imagined, but just a little extra to give a livelier sound.  Brass is reproduced with more air and trumpets have a bite to them, illustrating just how well the DAC-9 handles transients. Cymbals sound like the real thing, not broken glass, and tympani have a wack with no hangover that make the hair on the back of the neck stand up.

Overall, great as the modded Benchmark DAC1 sounds (and Steve Nugent worked within some basic limitations in his excellent mods), it is laid back compared to the DAC-9.  Note that my experience with the wealth of DACs now available is not vast so it would be foolish to claim it is the best available, so please read the above in the context of my long but nevertheless restricted, experience over the last 60+ years. But in its price range it does offer superb value.

 So often I have claimed I've "finished" with upgrades and have achieved the "ultimate" (for me) audio quality. But I can say that the present audio quality  Sooloos -> NuForce DAC-9 -> Sennheiser HD800 headphones IS the best  I've ever experienced.
 
And it makes me appreciate the extremely challenging and difficult task reviewers face when investigating high end items.  There are traps galore and one of the biggest is that the result can never be better than the weakest link in the chain.  That is why I'm quite confident in the above appraisal of the DAC-9 because there are so few links in the chain used thus minimising the chance of mismatching.
 
Furthermore my experience differs from that of many reviewers of the Sennheiser HD800 headphones because I find none of the deficiencies in the sound of strings (even via the DAC1) and any bass deficiencies some reviewers have described.  Maybe the Warren balanced leads to the phone are helping, but I draw the line at trying to determine their affect.  The time lag which would occur between interchanging leads would depreciate auditory memory which I consider to be rather unreliable.  

But I can clearly hear the improvement brought forward by the NuForce DAC-9, and that improvement, and the extent of it, was totally unexpected.

Have I come to the end of the road?  Maybe.  To be sure I should cancel subs to TAS & Stereophile and stop researching on the net.  But this will not happen so who knows what the future holds.  In the meantime I can sit back in my lounge chair with headphones on and lap up the magical world of music.  And that folks, is what it is all about.

John

post #2 of 27

I saw the NuForce Dac9  for the first time just  a day after I bought my W4S Dac2 and first thing I thought was did I make a mistake. I still don't know the write u on it sounds so good on how it works. When I saw a pic of the insides it just looks it is not as well thought out as its competition. I am just a layman but what I mean is the wiring looks messy to me with too many connectors on the rca jacks and wow is there an awful lot of electrolytic capacitors. Does it have asynchronous usb?

 

ScreenShot Captured At 8 12 2011 9 03 09 PM.bmp

post #3 of 27

 

  • Output Impedance: RCA, 0.01 Ohm; XLR, 50 Ohm; Headphone, 10 Ohm
  • Output voltage 0dB, 1kHz:  RCA 2.0/4.0Vrms,  XLR 4.0/8.0Vrms  (Low output/High output versions, low output version has to be custom ordered)
  • Headphone power spec.:
    • 288mW rms @ 30 Ohm
    • 210mW rms @ 120 Ohm
    • 152mW rms @ 300 Ohm
  • THD+N:  0.01, 0dB, 1kHz
  • SNR: 103dB, 1kHz, A-weighted
  • Frequency Response: 20-20kHz +/- 0.25dB
 
Frequency response looks good. But only 0.01% THD+N? 103dB SNR? I wonder if this is the DAC and amp together, or just the DAC. Either way it's not very good. A $170 soundcard from ASUS has 0.001% THD+N for the headphone out, and up to 117dB SNR (0.0003% and 124dB for the DAC alone).
 
The headphone out doesn't even look very good. I'd expect more power and better output impedance for $1700, even if the amp itself is supposed to be a bonus.
 
Sorry for being objective frown.gif
post #4 of 27
Thread Starter 

I guess it gets down to whether one is more concerned about numbers than how it sounds.

 

Perhaps it might sound better if the DAC-9 had the specs you quote, I really have no idea about that.  Not trying to rubbish specs, they are important, but the bottom line is the audio quality and to these ears it is superb - the best I've ever heard and I've wasted more dollars chasing high quality sound than I care to remember.  But as I said in the review, my experience with high end DACs is limited so there could be better DACs out there with your specs that produce better sound.  Bring them on!!!

 

John

post #5 of 27

 

 Keen as mustard to get my grubby hands on this Nuforce DAC 9 next week ~ speaking to someone in the industry ~ he

 reckons this DAC 9 eats the Audiolab MDAC for breakfast - will see if the superlatives translate into actual listening.

 

 Doubt the headphone amp section is on par with the Class A unit in the MDAC but then again, who buys a $1999AUD

 DAC to use as their main head amp?

post #6 of 27

anyone knows what chip is this dac based on ?

 

txs 

 

greg

post #7 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by gregdee View Post

anyone knows what chip is this dac based on ?

 

txs 

 

greg



 I was asking the same thing ~ Nuforce do not state what chip is used for any of their products. Trawling for an answer, yet to get an answer.

post #8 of 27
Thread Starter 

Is knowing what the chip is a deciding factor whether or not to like this?  Personally I do not care what they use, but I do care how it sounds.

 

Maybe time for an update on how I'm finding it.

 

Recently I purchased a used pair of AKG 701's for a friend (set up to use with a NuForce HDP, and he is very happy) and was so impressed I eventually got a pair for myself, except I went for a used pair of 702s.  They took a long time getting here from the USA and when connected to the DAC9 they were impossible to listen to music. The crit about a forward mid range was spot on - the sound was far too hot and suffered from extreme digititis.  If I had not had the Sennie HD800's I would have started to doubt the DAC etc.

 

But they were not purchased for this but for listening to TV where I have it too loud for my wife.  So the speaker volume is down for her and is set on the phones as loud as I like.  In this situation (S/PDIF out from preamp/controller -> Benchmark DAC1 -> phones) the sound was fine.

 

Well yesterday I tried the AKG 702's on the music again, first via a Benchmark DAC1, then via the NuForce DAC9.  Surprise, surprise, the audio quality was fine - not as good as the Sennies but no harshness I'd heard before. Quite listenable.

 

So what is going on?  The previous AKG 702 owner assured me they had 600 hours use so one would not have expected that to be the reason. All I can think of is that somehow the long period without use (transportation time from the USA to Australia) was responsible.

 

Bottom line I still recommend the Sennheiser HD800's with the NuForce DAC9 as they give exceptional sound.  I continue to be surprised at the audio quality, hearing things on the recordings previously not revealed.  There may be other DACs there that are better, I cannot claim the DAC9 is the best, but I find it hard to see how they could be better.  Using the Warren cabling with the Sennies has made a marginal improvement, sort of hard to quantify.  All I can say is that they do make the sound more satisfying to me.  But with auditory memory unreliable it is nothing I would put money on.  But the comparison with the headphones is valid as they were both connected so it was simple to switch between them.  However you could be picky and still claim the comparison was invalid as the Sennies were on balanced Warren cabling whereas the AKGs were out front though an extra amplifier of the DAC9.  So maybe the AKGs would narrow the gap with similar balanced cabling, who knows?

 

John

post #9 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tassie Devil View Post

Is knowing what the chip is a deciding factor whether or not to like this?  Personally I do not care what they use, but I do care how it sounds.

 

Maybe time for an update on how I'm finding it.

 

Recently I purchased a used pair of AKG 701's for a friend (set up to use with a NuForce HDP, and he is very happy) and was so impressed I eventually got a pair for myself, except I went for a used pair of 702s.  They took a long time getting here from the USA and when connected to the DAC9 they were impossible to listen to music. The crit about a forward mid range was spot on - the sound was far too hot and suffered from extreme digititis.  If I had not had the Sennie HD800's I would have started to doubt the DAC etc.

 

But they were not purchased for this but for listening to TV where I have it too loud for my wife.  So the speaker volume is down for her and is set on the phones as loud as I like.  In this situation (S/PDIF out from preamp/controller -> Benchmark DAC1 -> phones) the sound was fine.

 

Well yesterday I tried the AKG 702's on the music again, first via a Benchmark DAC1, then via the NuForce DAC9.  Surprise, surprise, the audio quality was fine - not as good as the Sennies but no harshness I'd heard before. Quite listenable.

 

So what is going on?  The previous AKG 702 owner assured me they had 600 hours use so one would not have expected that to be the reason. All I can think of is that somehow the long period without use (transportation time from the USA to Australia) was responsible.

 

Bottom line I still recommend the Sennheiser HD800's with the NuForce DAC9 as they give exceptional sound.  I continue to be surprised at the audio quality, hearing things on the recordings previously not revealed.  There may be other DACs there that are better, I cannot claim the DAC9 is the best, but I find it hard to see how they could be better.  Using the Warren cabling with the Sennies has made a marginal improvement, sort of hard to quantify.  All I can say is that they do make the sound more satisfying to me.  But with auditory memory unreliable it is nothing I would put money on.  But the comparison with the headphones is valid as they were both connected so it was simple to switch between them.  However you could be picky and still claim the comparison was invalid as the Sennies were on balanced Warren cabling whereas the AKGs were out front though an extra amplifier of the DAC9.  So maybe the AKGs would narrow the gap with similar balanced cabling, who knows?

 

John



 I think a Woo Audio 6 to complement the Nuforce DAC 9 might bring a smile to your face smile.gif

 

 No way those 800's are getting all they need at :-

 

 152mW rms @ 300 Ohm

 

I'll audition back to back with the Woo 6 and the DAC 9's headphone out and get back to you with specific material selection, It'll give us something

to talk about.


Edited by Gwarmi - 1/14/12 at 7:25pm
post #10 of 27
Thread Starter 

Mmmm.  I'll be interested in what you find although doubtful I'd be tempted.

 

Note I'm using the XLR balanced preamp outputs to feed the Sennies.so I'm not sure how inserting another amp in the chain would improve the audio.  To my naive thinking one of the big pluses with headphone listening is the fewer number of items in the chain to mess up the signal.

 

I'm hearing very balanced audio, not a hint of brightness, great soundstage, delicacy, .... I've run out of description.  Of course it will not turn a pigs ear CD into silk purse music.  but what goes in, comes out unblemished.

 

John

post #11 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gwarmi View Post

No way those 800's are getting all they need at :-

 

 152mW rms @ 300 Ohm


That's about 118.5 dB peaks if the HD800 has the ~97 dB sensitivity I think it does. I don't know about you, but I don't need even half that.

post #12 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Head Injury View Post


That's about 118.5 dB peaks if the HD800 has the ~97 dB sensitivity I think it does. I don't know about you, but I don't need even half that.



 I'm taking a guess that the head amp section in the DAC 9 is identical to what is found in the NuForce HDP

 

 Same figures.

 

 http://www.nuforce.com/hp/products/iconhdp/index.php

 

 I've spent a bit of time with that and it's nothing special, no it does not sound like it's driving out of a V200,

 Woo 6 or even a BCL.

 

 

post #13 of 27

Well, that's talking about subjective preference. The HD800 is inanimate, it doesn't care about how it sounds to you. If it's getting enough power, it's happy. I'd say 150 mW is more than what they need.

 

You can talk all you want about what you like, but I really don't think you should make claims that algebra disagrees with. There's plenty of other reasons it could sound different, barring power.

post #14 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Head Injury View Post

Well, that's talking about subjective preference. The HD800 is inanimate, it doesn't care about how it sounds to you. If it's getting enough power, it's happy. I'd say 150 mW is more than what they need.

 

You can talk all you want about what you like, but I really don't think you should make claims that algebra disagrees with. There's plenty of other reasons it could sound different, barring power.



 Yes, exactly a lot of factors ~ but feel free to find HD800 owners who feel that the Nuforce HDP is a perfect match according to your basic calculations.

 

 Good luck with that, you'll need it.

post #15 of 27

I'm not saying it's a perfect match. I'm saying that's plenty of power, and all power determines is peak volume, so there's not much point in quoting a power figure if you're talking subjective preference. I'd need to see some in-depth graphs of distortion, noise, phase, crosstalk, channel balance and other sorts of things to say it's a good match or not smile.gif

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