As miniature 2.1 speaker systems go, for most of us it probably conjures up images of a small computer multimedia set. Yeah, not a good comparison right? I've gone through more than my fair share of speaker sets from the likes of Logitech, Altec Lansing, etc. You know the kind: two little speakers, amp built into the sub enclosure, tinny sound, one note bass, lots of garble in between, and a poor excuse for a headphone amp in one of the speakers. For many years, my main computer rig was a set of Cambridge Soundworks PCworks, which to even my uneducated ears at the time were a significant step up from the usual 2.1 culprits. In more recent years, I've also moved a step up within Cambridge Soundworks to their Model Twelve which is a nifty transportable 2.1 system. I have also experimented with a few 2.0 speakers/monitors like the M-Audio AV40, a couple older KRK models, and some Behringers. One time I even tried setting up a home receiver and biamped speakers, but this was far too cumbersome for a desktop setup.
So now I have the Nuforce speaker set in front of me. It comprises three pieces: the Icon2 amplifier (also usb dac and headphone amp), S-X speakers, and W-1 subwoofer. How do I feel about the system as a whole? In a word: Fantastic!
There are other reviews online that will espouse the technical virtues, so I'll forgo those here and just list my impressions.
(pictures will follow in the next post)
Quite neat overall. The Icon2 and S-X comes in very nice plastic boxes, which incidentally also fit exactly into a FedEx box for shipment. I mean, you're not exactly going to be showing off the packaging, but they're attractive and functional.
In contrast, the W-1 box is really, well, just a plain brown cardboard box. It's a bit drab compared to the rest. Other than some foam inserts to hold it in place and keep it from scratching, there's nothing of note. The sub itself is wrapped in an orange cloth bag, presumably to keep it clean and to prevent fingerprints as you're lifting it out.
It's all pretty much plug and play and all the connectors are self-explanatory. No surprises here.
The Icon2 amp is a tiny little thing, the same size as the HDP which we here on head-fi are more familiar with. Inside the chassis lies a usb dac, headphone amp, and speaker amp (30W x 2). It has three selectable inputs: two analog (3.5mm and RCA respectively) and one USB. Along with the speaker and headphone outputs, it also has a volume controlled lineout (3.5mm) for feeding into another amp or sub. Hard to believe all that packed into something roughly the size of a paperback book.
The Icon2 usb drivers self-installed without a hitch (I'm using Windows 7) and also named itself properly in the device menu.
After running for a few hours, the chassis is only mildly warm to the touch. I can't see heat buildup ever becoming an issue with this thing.
As a USB-DAC
Compared vs: iBasso D10, FiiO e10, HotAudio DacDestroyer, Sansa Fuze, laptop
Feeding into: Bottlehead Crack into Sextetts, vintage HK receiver into Paradigm speakers
I've owned or heard other Nuforce gear in the past (the uDac 1 and 2, the HDP), and I would describe those as mostly neutral and leaning just a touch on the warmer side. The Icon2 to my ear doesn't have that mild warm touch as the others, but it doesn't veer towards cool either. As a matter of fact, it doesn't seem to impart much of a flavour at all, which is either good or bad depending what you're looking for. It resolves better than my DacDestroyer, the FiiO e10 gives a little more weight in the bottom but but loses in dynamic range, and I would say it sits on par with the iBasso D10 or a teensy bit higher in detail retrieval.
If I were to pick a particular strength, it would be in the detail retrieval and instrumental separation. The clarity in classical music lets me pick out the softer instruments and their locations. I can hear foot and finger taps in some acoustic recordings. With vocals, I can practically hear the room resonances. Okay so I might be engaging in some flowery descriptors there, but I really am impressed. It's not a *huge* step up per se, but it's there.
As a speaker amp
Compared vs: vintage Harman Kardon 330A
Feeding into: full sized Paradigm monitors, bookshelf NuForce S-X speakers
- no noticeable turn on/off thump
- chassis only warms to roughly warm temperature
Well obviously the Icon2 doesn't have as much power on tap as my HK, but it's no slouch. More than enough to fill my basement with appreciable sound, though not enough for a loud dance party.
The HK definitely has a more “fun” sound, with a meatier bottom end (even without the loudness switch) and a bit of blurring that takes the edge off the treble. The Icon2 on the other hand has a more neutral presentation, and a cleaner midrange through treble. If anything, I would describe the sound as a touch cool and analytical.
It doesn't have the same authority as the HK when driving the big Paradigms, but that's really an unfair comparison. The Icon2 performs very well pushing the big speakers, and delivers surprisingly good bass, but once you crank the knob all the way those woofers are just too much for the Icon2 to handle and they lose control. Returning to the bookshelf sized S-X (since the Icon2 is a desktop amp after all) presents a much different ballgame. Here the articulation of the Icon2 is more readily apparent, while the HK now feels a bit brutish in comparison.
Volume balance is about right. Paired with the S-X, maxing out the volume is loud but not distorted. At low volumes, I couldn't detect any channel imbalance.
Bonus: driving the HE-6 from speaker taps
- speaker tap 1: configured with a 10ohm resistor in parallel to maintain a low load on the amp, and a 35ohm resistor in series with the headphone
- speaker tap 2: no resistors, HE-6 connects directly to the speaker terminals
- compared vs some vintage amps: Harmon Kardon, Hitachi, Mitsubishi
The Icon2 performed amazingly well driving the HE-6. It's not just a matter of having enough power, but synergy too as I've discovered the HE-6 sound signature changes quite a bit on the amp used (quite a bit more than my experience with typical headphones and headphone amplifiers). Overall sound was very neutral and clean, a little light on bass impact, but with a fantastic dynamic range and superb detail retrieval. I could turn the volume all the way up and not experience distortion unless I was running a 40Hz square wave. Comfortable listening volume for me was around 11 o'clock on the knob with classical music. Metallica's Black album at 3 o'clock was verging on painful.
The HK amp I tried was definitely warmer with more bass thump, but blurred details. The Hitachi was actually very good, with a slightly more U shaped sound overall. The Mitsubishi had the most power at 100Wx2, but sounded terrible and congested. The only nitpick with the Icon2 was a slight burr in the treble, likely a resonant peak. I'm fairly certain this is an artifact of the headphone itself from other impressions and measurements I've read, and some amps will hide/mask this, but the Nuforce does not.
As a headphone amplifier
- 3.5mm connector
- mutes the speaker and lineout upon connection
- barely perceptible on/off thump if headphones are plugged in at start
- very low noisefloor, only noticeable with sensitive iems
- very very slight channel imbalance at the lowest levels
Much like my impressions from the speaker amp section, the headphone output on the Icon2 doesn't particularly stand out in any way. While the specs aren't as powerful as the HDP, it had no problem taking most of my headphones to earsplitting levels. Even with the HE-6 in single ended mode it got reasonably loud before clipping at 12 o'clock.
Unlike the dac and speaker amp sections where I've been describing the Icon2 as neutral leaning slightly towards cool, I would say the headphone output veers ever so slightly towards the uDac and HDP signature of being a touch on the warmer side. Just barely.
One phrase I've been repeating a few times in this review is dynamic range. It's one aspect of the Icon2 that keeps impressing me. With the DAC and speaker output, I feel as though the amount of detail in the music is really brought out. The headphone amp is no exception, carrying through with the same trend. I would say this is the only part of the chain that imparts any of its own “flavour” so to speak.
- compared vs: Paradigm monitors, and whole host of other full sized speakers and computer/multimedia 2.1 sets
- connectors are the less common RJ45
The S-X speakers are (I believe) the update to the S-1 speakers. I've never heard the older model however, so can't make a comparison there.
They have an interesting 45° baffle, and a slim profile body. I wonder if the tall shape is an acoustic design, or just aesthetics. In any regard, they are a flashy yet not gaudy looking, and small enough to tuck into a small space. If laid on their side, they could fit into very small spaces indeed.
My set came are in all black, but they come in a variety of colours. The top and front panel are a matte rubbery texture, which visually add a nice contrast but make for pesky dust magnets that stick moreso than the slick metal casing.
In their literature the baffle design is supposed to radiate sound in a more diffuse and “natural” way. I would say my impressions mostly match that. They sound better in nearfield, up to perhaps 10' away. Beyond that they start to sound weaker. I found little difference with the speakers standing upright or on their side, though if placebo were talking I thought I liked them when placed on their side closer to hand height and pointed up to my ears. I also tried them briefly from the floor and thought they were quite good from there as well as long as I wasn't on the other side of the room.
A drawback of this diffuse sound field though, is a loss in some staging and directionality. The radiation of sound makes good use of room acoustics to make the music feel “fuller”, but in exchange for some fuzziness in the directional cues. If played in a large empty room, the sound is a bit thinner though inversely the directionality then feels a tiny bit better.
Midrange and treble detail is somewhat relaxed. There is an airy texture, and female vocals are rendered rather soft and gentle, yet forward. If I had to draw a comparison to headphones, it would be the Audio Techncia AD series. To nitpick, the upper octaves with metallic percussion feel slightly subdued and polite. At times I wish there were some more sparkle to the treble, but again this is a single 3” driver in a small enclosure; what am I reasonably expecting from it? It doesn't have the “zing” of an electrostatic tweeter for example, though that's comparing apples to oranges.
The weak point to these speakers is in the bass, though again that's asking something of them that they are not designed for. The specs rate these down to 90Hz before rolloff, and my ears agree with this. I would say that the use of a subwoofer with the S-X is absolutely mandatory (see the section on the W-1 below).
In terms of design though, I really wish Nuforce could have pushed the bottom end of the S-X down to 80Hz. As it is, rule of thumb with a subwoofer crossover is roughly 10 Hz above the speaker rolloff, which means with the S-X we'd be setting the sub at nearly 100 Hz which is too high in my opinion. A subwoofer should impart heft to the music without making it sound like it's coming from the sub (so essentially it should feel like the speakers are producing it). With a crossover that high though, the directional cues from the sub are too strong to ignore, which detracts from the spacial cues coming from the speakers resulting in a blurred soundstage.
If I sound like I'm being overly critical on the speakers, well, I'm not. I'm just comparing to my experiences with other full sized speakers. It's an unfair comparison, and they obviously do not match up, but they aren't utterly dominated either. Compared to other small computer sets though, no contest here I'd pick the Nuforce.
The S-X are currently at a new low price of $60 (from $225) on the Nuforce website, which is ridiculously good.
Line In: 3.5mm TRS and RCA,
Line Out: RCA
Controls: volume, crossover, and phase
My settings when paired with the S-X:
- crossover knob at just under 12 o'clock, which should be ~105Hz
- volume knob set at roughly 9-10 o'clock; any higher and the crossover is too noticeable during anything with acoustics
- maybe crank to 11 or 12 for electronic, but it starts to distort and sound flabby beyond that
As mentioned earlier, pairing with a sub is absolutely necessary to get the full feeling of music from the S-X speakers. The W-1 is Nuforce's own subwoofer; it does the job of filling in the low end, but with a rated spec of 50Hz before rolloff it will feel a little weak for the thumping of modern pop songs. I hesitate to even call it a sub; it's more like a repurposed woofer measuring in at a paltry 7.5"x9.5"x10.5". I've worked with subs who's drivers along were bigger than this entire box.
Within 60-100Hz at moderate volumes, it sounds very good. It's not overbearing, the sound is clean, and for the most part the transition is fairly seamless with the exception of directional cues which are more a factor of the crossover setting rather than the sub itself (which I've explained in the S-X section above).
The clarity is good for the price and size (it's only a 5.25” driver), but again don't go pushing this like it's an 8 or 12” sub. While you can certainly turn the volume up, you'll get sound but I wouldn't call that mess of pulses music. It seems to be a case where Nuforce has put in more power than the driver can handle (not a bad thing I suppose; it's good to have reserves for those peaks). In any event, leaving the knob at 9 o'clock was sufficient for me. Even at that setting, playing some dubstep with the volume at 3 on the Icon2 was enough to start shaking the dishes in the china cabinet.
When paired with the S-X, I really consider the W-1 more like a woofer than a sub. Ignoring the S-X, if I turn the crossover knob down to 80Hz or so, the bass clarity is better. When I have to bring it back up to mesh with the S-X, it loses that punch in the low end since it's trying to play the midbass as well.
The W-1 is currently at a new low price of $125 (from $250) on the Nuforce site.
The Nuforce speaker system sits as a very solid all-in-one set. Much like my review of the diminutive Cube (link), I've heard individual components that perform better, but as multifunctional units in this size and price, that's a pretty good deal.
If I've given the impression that I'm underwhelmed, that couldn't be further from the truth. I just tend to present things in a very blunt fashion. For the first little while I was indeed feeling underwhelmed, but as I continued to listen everything just settled into place. With other gear, I'd get these immediate first impressions like a really thumping bass or some spatial separation that really grabbed me, but then as time passed that initial zing wore off or I found myself actually distracted by it. With so much of my gear, I wind up listening for the idiosyncrasies of that particular piece of equipment. With the Icon2, I just listened to my music and forgot about the rest... and ultimately, isn't that what this is all about?
Edited by Armaegis - 3/13/13 at 3:18pm