I probably spent a good five minutes trying to figure out which subforum to put this review for Nuforce's latest little gadget. It's a tiny portable speaker, with both aux and usb inputs, and also functions as a headphone amplifier. It functions on both battery and usb power.
Specifications from their site: http://www.nuforce.com/hp/products/speaker-cube/index.php
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
This really is one of those "jack of all trades, master of none" products. Have I head better portable speakers in that size? Debatable. Have I heard better dacs? Yes. Have I heard better headphone amplifiers? Yes. Can I get all three of those in one baseball sized package for $120? Wow ok, let's back it up a sec...
Seriously now, this thing is smaller than a baseball. It's less than 2.5 inches per side, sports a 1 inch "full range" driver, and somehow manages to cram in a battery, usb dac, and headphone amp as well. So let's start from the beginning.
Packaging & Build
The cube comes in a nice little display case with hard plastic cover, which is cutesy but not really functional in any way (since nothing actually secures the speaker or the cover, so transport in the case is useless). There's an included manual, a short usb cable and aux cable, carrying pouch, and that's it.
In terms of build, what's not to like? The Cube is tiny, lightweight (relatively) and doesn't really stick out obtrusively. It feels solidly built, with no fiddly bits sticking out. It's just, well, a cube. It comes in a variety of colours; mine is a simple matte silver. It's a simple and understated aesthetic.
inputs: mini-usb and 3.5mm
outputs: speaker or 3.5mm headphone jack (mutes speaker when plugged in)
No power switch. Automatically turns on when Aux input is plugged in.
No volume control; must be controlled from your source.
Plugging in headphones will mute the speaker.
Plugging in an aux input while connected via usb will automatically switch to the aux (and as far as I can tell, uses usb for power) even if you have something playing through usb.
Volume from the usb input is quite high, whereas the amplification from the aux input is noticeably lower (I wouldn't mind an extra +6 dB here)
- comparing via plugging the Cube headphone output into my other amps such as Bottlehead Crack, iBasso D10, home receivers, etc.
- compared dac vs iBasso D10, HotAudio DacDestroyer, laptop and desktop onboard audio, Sansa Fuze, some pro audio interfaces, whatever else I got my hands on
So overall, the dac is good but not great. It's a step up from onboard sound, but not quite as good as something like the uDac (from memory) or the iBasso D10. In the grand scheme of things though, that step up from laptop audio is very good, and the next step up is minor in comparison.
I really dislike trying to quantify dac qualities beyond this, so I'll stop here.
Well first of all, you can't expect bass response from a small speaker like this. It just doesn't happen. I've heard my fair share of mini/portable speakers of similar size and price, and the Cube holds its own against those that are twice as large and twice as expensive in terms of bass. There's a rolloff in the upper frequencies as well, though this isn't really as noticeable.
The speaker's strong point is within the midrange (which I typically define as human vocal range), particularly in the upper mids. When listening to vocal/a capella arrangements, the upper tenor and alto ranges practically jump out. Almost a bit "shouty" at times, but not abrasively so. Clarity is actually remarkably strong for what it is. As mentioned though, a little bit of detail is lost due to the upper frequency rolloff, but this may actually be advantageous (and possibly intentional?) to the Cube as it also tends to smooth out any harshness that may be in the recordings. I actually have a few test tracks where there are passages that are grainy due to bad encoding or recording, but the Cube speaker evens them out such that I don't even notice it.
Cranking it up all the way, I hardly encountered distortion unless I was playing heavily compressed and loud recordings. According to the review here, the Cube can hit 82 dB. By my ear, that seems about right. I might even venture to say it goes louder than that by a little bit. It's more than enough to fill up a moderate sized room, and small enough to tuck in to a corner and make your guests wonder where the heck the music is coming from.
In terms of projection, the dispersion seems to be somewhat narrow and accounts for that "shouty" aspect I mentioned earlier. I often found the speaker more enjoyable to listen to when pointing it at a wall and listening to the reflection. To be fair, this is my preferred listening arrangement for other similar front positioned mini speaker systems as it disperses the sound and makes it feel more "surround" rather than blasting the sound directly at me; maybe that's just the bootstrap way to make a stereo sound out of a mono-mixed speaker.
- sources: Cube, iBasso D10, HotAudio DacDestroyer, laptop, proaudio interfaces, Fuze, etc
- compared vs Bottlehead Crack, Bravo Ocean, home receivers, anything else by memory
Much like my feelings with the dac, the amp in the Cube is good but not great. It pumps out more than enough power for your typical consumer headphones and iems, and even does an adequate job with orthos like the T50rp and some of my DIY ortho monsters, but don't go expecting it to do a respectable job with an HE-6 ok? It's better than your standard laptop outputs, and better than a standard cmoy or budget amp like an e5. Compared to dedicated amps though, well that's no contest.
Bass quantity is actually quite good, and I almost wonder if there's a slight boost there or if it's just a slower decay. The midrange feels just slightly emphasized, much like the speaker. Comparing to the uDac and uDac2 from memory, while I recognize the uDac2 as a superior amp on the technicalities, I think I actually prefer the sound from the Cube. It's a little bit hazier, but I think that lower resolution and slightly looser bass is also what makes it a little groovier to listen to.
There is a low level hissing to the amp though. Noticeable with iems and more sensitive headphones. It's not that bad, and not noticeable when music is playing, but the nitpicker in me wishes it were better.
I may seem like I wasn't overly impressed by the NuForce Cube, but truly that's not the case. Yes, it's a bit of a niche product. Yes, I have portable speakers that sound better (but are bigger). Yes, I have usb dac/amps that sound better and are smaller. But the true test? The Cube is in my bag wherever I go. It provides music for my workplace or sitting outside for lunch, I can use it to feed other speakers or amps, and it's a (sort of) portable headphone amp which I can tuck away in my man bag (*ahem* satchel). As someone with a somewhat transient lifestyle where I'm hardly ever in one location from one hour to the next, I'm surprised just how much I use the Cube. It's not the best at what it does... but it does a lot of things very well for something the size of your fist and just a bit over a c-note.
Edited by Armaegis - 8/10/12 at 12:39am