Audio-gd NFB-10ES2 balanced desktop amp/DAC

Average User Rating:
4.83333/5,
  1. Mshenay
    5.0/5,
    "Comparative Review Audio GD NFb10ES2 SE OUT vs Schiit Vali (Opening Notes About the NFB10ES2 Dac Included) "
    Pros - Clean sounding, EXTRAS, Powerful
    Cons - Heavy, Large, Headphones Need Re-termination
    Schiit Audio - Vali )[$119 New]  VS Audio GD NFB10 ES2 Balanced Amp (SE Out) [$600 New (Unit is a Dac/Amp Combo)
     
    Personal Back-Story  
     
    I’ve enjoyed both Tube and solid state amplifiers over the years, although I prefer solid states. That said, there’s still something magical about tubes for me, thus I owned two before the Vali, both where attempts to find that perfect tube sound, the right mix of warm mids and taught bass and airy treble. That said, I got the Vali, with hopes it would bring the balanced I was looking for. That said, though I’m still undecided about wheather I like a solid state amp or a tube… so it’s time for a comparison!
     
     
    Notes on the NFB10ES2 Dac
              The NFB10ES2 balanced dac uses a ESS 9018 chipset, that said the unit has a very clean sound. Ton’s of detail and virtually no audible noise in both the internal headphone amp and Fixed Line Out. Micro Details are phenomenal and the ability to opt for a low or high gain Line out makes feeding the Dac into multiple amps very easy, not to mention the incredibly clean sound from the dac. Sound stage is also phenomenal as well, and to reiterate this for the third time, this unit has very clean sound!
             

    Vali

     
    Pros: Airy sound, smooth mids, taught heavy bass, scales well
     
    Cons : noisy,  needs high end Pre Amp for optimal performance
     
    Build [4/5]

     
    Schiit… well the know their schiit! The Vali is built very nicely,  sporting a metal case with a silver coat. The RCA jacks, and volume knob are both very sturdy. Each has a nice solid feel to it, though I will admit the Power Switch feels a little flimsy. Thankfully I’m only touching it once every few hours! Still it’s a very attractive unit, and thus far I’ve had no mechanical issues, and frankly I’m not too concerned that I will!
     
    Specs

    Sub-Miniature Hybrid Headphone Amplifier
    Frequency Response 20-20k, -0.2db, 5-100kHz -3db
    Maximum Power 32Ohms: 650 mW RMS per Channel
    Maximum Power 600 Ohms: 115mW RMS per Channel
    THD <.04%
    SNR >93db
    OutPut Impedance 6.5ohms
    Gain 12db
    Power Consumption 8W
    Size 5 x 3.5 x 1.25”
     
     
    Extra Features

    The Vali doesn’t have any extra features, it simply does exactly what you paid for it to do! Meaning, it’s an amp with only one input and one output. That said, for the price it’s easy to understand the lack of Extra’s.
     
    Price to Performance : [5/5]

              Excellent! Performs far beyond many similarly priced competitors such as the Indeed G3 and Millet Hybrid Tubes.
     

    NFB10ES2

     
              Pros; Clean sounding, EXTRAS, Powerful
     
    Cons; Heavy, Large, Headphones Need Re-termination
     
     
    Build [5/5]

    The unit is built rock solid and weighs around 15 or so pounds! While I do not recommend you drop it… chances are it could take the hit. No flaws to the build what so ever in my opinion.
     
     
     
    Extras

    The Audio GD NFB 10ES2 offers 2 headphone outs, a SE and balanced. On the negative side how ever, the Balanced out is much cleaner and more dynamic than the SE out. While this review was done with the SE, everything that applies to the SE can be said for the Balanced as well. Think of the balanced out as a complete upgrade over the already excellent SE out.
     
     
     
           Price to Performance : [4/5]

    For the price there is not a better balanced Solid State amp, however if you only need a SE Amp there may be better options, again the Audio GD NFB 10ES2 is a Dac/Amp combo unit and the amp cannot be purchased separately.  Additionally, to get the most out of your headphones you will need a recable to 4pin Balanced XLR.
     
    Specs

    Frequency Response
    Maximum Power 50 Ohms: 5950MW [Balanced Out] 1650MW [SE Out]
    Maximum Power 600 Ohms: 590MW[Balanced Out] 150Mw [SE Out]
    THD <0.0005%
    SNR >120DB  
    OutPut Impedance 2
    Gain: Adjustable
    Power Consumption 22W
    Size W240 X L360 X H80 (MM, Fully aluminium )
     
     
    Sonic Test Process
     
    Vali
    Source Win 7[Foobar2000 WASAPI] -> NFB 10ES 2  SE Fixed Line Out [Low Gain] -> Schiit Vali -> w1000x
     
    NFb10ES2
    Source Win 7[Foobar2000 WASAPI] -> NFB 10ES 2  SE Headphone Out   -> w1000x
     
     
     
     
    Sound
    Bold Italic is final preference
    Italic Text is NFB10ES2
    Standard Text is Vali
     
               
    Vali         

    Sound Signature- Very clean, a slight bump on the mids and a small dip from upper mids to highs. Maintains a touch of sparkle, with lush mids. I’d call it the reference sound signature for a hybrid tube, tubey mids and bass with the details of a solid state. The Heart and Soul of a tube, with the detail of a solid state!  
     
    Dynamics- quick and effortless
    Timbre-  Very Natural  
    Speed- Sufficiently quick, yet has very minimal smoothness.  
     
              Sound Stage:  A  wide sound stage, great instrument separation, and good 3D  and 2D placement of instruments.
     
     
    It should be noted as well, that the Vali does have a slight hum of noise in the background, as well as being prone to micro-phonics or ringing in response to external vibrations acting on the internal PCB.
    Audio GD NFB10ES2

    Sound Signature- Very clean, flawless neutral sounding. No color or noise to be found!  Perfectly Pure Sound
     
    Dynamics- Well extended and fast and natural.
    Timbre-  Flawless  
    Speed- Lighting fast
     
              Sound Stage:  Very accurate sound stage, depth is wonderful and 2D sound stage is top notch! Sonically, the sound stage presents instruments realistically enough to differentiate the space between each in inches! The NFB 10ES2 is a very neutral sounding amp! It is lacking completely in any color what so ever! Crystal and uncompressed clarity with a JET BLACK presentation, no noise what so ever.
     
     
    Songs
     
    Kool Keith (Black Elvis/Lost In Space) 07 I’m Seein’ Robots {16bit Flac}
     
              BIG tight thumping bass, and crystal clear lyrics.  The Schiit valis is sounding very enjoyable with this tune! Keith has a few whispered lyrics in this track as well, and the Vali does an excellent job of maintaining each of the little details Keith’s mastered into the track! A very smooth sound for a lyrically Smooth MC!
     
    Sub Bass isn’t quite as heavy on the NFB 10ES2. The sound is a little dry as well. In addition there’s a touch of grain in Keith’s voice…
     
    The Vali is the clear winner in this track. While the NFB 10ES2 presents the sound faultlessly… the added color of the Vali brings a nice smooth sound to the track, not only smooth but it retains even the littlest detail as well! That said I enjoy the Vali’s sound very much!
     
    Daiqing Tana & Haya Band [Silent Sky CD#1] 08 Golden Bracelet {16 bit}
     
    Vocals are perfect for my on the Vali, Daiqing’s voice has just the perfect mix of body and airy presentation. Her lows and powerful, and her higher notes are gentle and very light and airy. This track is a duet of sorts, a piano and Daiqing dominate the track, there is sufficient space between each, however a touch more separation in the mids for this track would be nice. The highs are also very enjoyable; Daiqing hits most of the higher notes as well, which the Vali presents wonderfully.  
     
    Upper mids have a touch more energy with the NFB 10ES2, cleaner and more balance presentation of the mids as well. Lower notes, are not as powerful… yet are presented more delicately. The NFB10ES2 has a touch more air up top as well. Micro details, are also a touch better with the NFB10ES2. Most notably the sound of footsteps in the opening of the track.
     
    For this track, I’d have to say the Vali was enjoyable, each individual instrument was perfect in it’s own right. However when presented at the same time, the Vali lacked the balance to perfectly pair the Paino and vocals.
     
     
    David Chesky [Jazz in the New Harmonic] 08 Transcendental Tripping {16bit Flac}
     
              Right off the bat, I’m really liking the dynamics of the Vali in this tune, the quiet bursts of the piano are not lost, despite having two brass horns front and center. The sound stage is very nice as well, 3D and 2D placement are really nice. The 2 previous hybrid tubes I had, tended to squash the music. This one does not! The w1000x is a bright headphone, that said slight smoothness of the treble further compliments the sound of the W1000x. The Vali gives me all the details, without any of the occasional grain. Bass is nice as well, a touch thicker than neutral, there’s an extra bit of both body and decay. However this extra thickness to the bass isn’t flabby, or overly thick. Vali is really bringing a lot of enjoyment to this jazz piece!
     
    The NFb10ES2 has noticeable less coloration, and has a slightly deeper 3D presentation. The piano stands a little more ground on the NFb10ES., While  it was never lost with the Vali the NFb10ES2 does a better job balancing all the instruments. Also there’s the touch of grain in the trumpet with the NFB10ES2 that the Vali does not have. Also worth noting is the bass, this tune places the Double Bass pretty far back, the NFB10ES2 maintains this withdrawn placement of the bass
     
    I enjoyed the Vali more for jazz, the extra color to the mids and bass was very pleasant. The Vali’s color also… created a sense of “psudeo depth” that I did enjoy. Meaning  the mids and bass where bumped up,  and Upper mids and highs dipped down, this in turn created a sense of depth due to the coloration and not  the mastering of the track. Either way, I enjoyed it!
     
    Anne Gastinel, François-Frédéric Guy [Beethoven: Cello & Piano Sonatas # 2, 4 & 5]  Sonata for Cello & Piano No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2 - III. Rondo (Allegro) {16bit Flac}
     
              Another duet, classical Beethoven performed with the cello and piano. The Vali has a lovely presentation; neither seem to be fighting for my attention. The low notes again have a touch more power to them, there is also a tad more body to the Cello, which I find to be very enjoyable. Details and speed are a touch lacking, but there is lushness… a rich grandeur to the presentation that’s very much enjoyable.
     
              Upper mids are better on the NFB10ES2, however the lows lack a touch of power. There is noticeably better speed and details as well, yet as a whole the track lacks a touch of the grandeur that the Vali had. It is almost a touch to polite and delicate.
     
              Still unsure, there is the richness and grandeur of the Vali for this classical tune, as well as the finesse and speed of the NFB10ES2… not sure which I like better.
             
     
     
     There is no clear winner in my book, the choice of solid state or tube is up to the listener. Both are very capable options! How ever I do think the Vali steals the show here, at $119 dollars it proves it self a worth while compliment to my $600 Audio GD NFB 10ES2
    GioF71 likes this.
  2. vampire5003
    5.0/5,
    "Great for LCD-2. Neutral but not boring, Extremely Detailed. IMO Compares to Beta22 at half the price."
    Pros - Details! It sounds 10X better than Schiit's Bifrost Uber, Neutral, but not boring, powerful, drives the LCD-2 to heaven!
    Cons - Plastic Casing. Headphone(s) need to be terminated to balanced. Difference is sound between single ended and Balanced
    Well not much to say here. Audio-GD kicks as(s). Seriously this amp/dac combo has details, neutral, but not boring, powerful, has a remote control, preamp functions, low and high gain, balanced output, etc, all at $580 promo price. I cannot recommend more. It sounds better than the Schiit Bifrost, and the amp in this NFB-10ES2 is better in every way than the M^3 with ADA4627 opamps. For rock music, reggae, and jazz this thing wins. Seriously I don't care if this is made in China or US, it sounds amazing. I compare this to the Beta22, my uncle had a beta22 2 channel, and it was so similar sounding. 
     
    Honestly this unit should be priced at $750 maybe even $1000. Hell I'd pay $1000 for it. NFB-10ES2 is that good. 
     
    The only downside is the casing is plastic, and the amp outputs more power and sounds better out of the balanced output. I went with a Charleston Cable Company LCD-2 4 pin XLR cable, but you could DIY a cable easily as well. This amp should be on anybody's list. This unit sounds good with basically everything since its neutral. I love the Sabre ES9018, and this is coming from a warm and musical music loving freak. If you want a warmer amp, then NFB-10.33 should go on your list as well, it costs the same, is balanced, but uses 2X WM8741 (warmer sounding chips). 
     
    For Rock (J-Rock too), Daft Punk, Jazz etc this amp is perfect. Buy it without hesitation if you have the funds for it. I don't think I need a Beta22 anymore.
     
     
     
    Conclusion:
    I highly recommend Audio-GD's NGB-10ES2. Loving it with my LCD-2 Rev 1. 
  3. Currawong
    4.5/5,
    "A good value balanced DAC/amp and headphone amp."
    Pros - Good with everything from IEMs to orthos. Un-coloured sound. USB input is excellent. Handy remote control. Good volume range with gain levels.
    Cons - Headphones will need re-termination or a new cable to work with the balanced output.
    If Audio-gd is known for anything, it is for invading Head-Fi with a regularly changing series of units consisting of headphone amps and DAC all in one box. Back when a combined amp and DAC meant a severely sonically compromised unit with either a poor DAC or poor amp, Kingwa demonstrated that it was possible to do it with little compromise, but instead provides products where, simply, a higher price meant you got more hardware, better components, lower distortion and better sound. That can often making figuring out what to buy confusing as, very often, there is more than just one product at any price, the result of customers badgering Kingwa with ideas and his working hard to entertain them. 
     
    This means you can often decide to buy a DAC, but then are faced with the decision whether to buy the ES9018, WM841 or PCM1704UK version. Or do you get a unit with a built-in headphone amp? Or will it be worth getting one further up the range? And so on. Of the former choice in my example, the ES9018, Kingwa has been steadily perfecting his execution of this difficult chip. He described it akin to a Ferrari where you cannot use anything but the best parts or it won't work. Indeed his very first attempts at a low-end DAC/amp using it were far from perfect. Likewise, other DACs I've owned or tried that use the ES9018 can very often end up sounding flat and un-musical, leading me to wonder how they garnered good reviews.
     
    The NFB-10ES2, the latest revision of a long-running $600-800 balanced design sits in the middle of the range, below the large all-in-one DAC/pre amps and the smaller, single-ended units.  While balanced DACs were originally intended to reduce noise in pro audio on long cable runs, with headphone amps they are a design choice most often used as a means to increase power while keeping distortion down. Unlike other design choices however, balanced output affects the end user who must re-terminate their headphones. That doesn't mean that non-balanced-terminated headphones can't be used, as there is a regular headphone socket, but headphones that demand a lot of current, such as the latest crop of popular orthodynamics are going to benefit most from using the balanced outputs. Many are handily available with cables that have the necessary 4-pin XLR plug. For headphones that don't, if DIY is not your thing, there are many competent people or companies that will re-terminate your headphones for you or sell you a cable terminated for headphones on which the cable is detachable. 
     
    The design.
     
    I asked for and received a review unit from Audio-gd so I could see how Kingwa's designs had progressed in design and sound quality over the previous WM8741-based unit I have.
     
    Comparing my original WM8741-based NFB-10 "light case" model and the current NFB-10ES2, nothing seems to have changed externally. When Kingwa switched to the lighter cases from the heavier type he uses for his high-end gear he abolished the rotating volume control due to the frequency with which postal services seemed to break them. Indeed, it wasn't a volume control as such but a rotary encoder which adjusted a digitally-controlled series of relays that set the volume. The volume control was replaced with an up and down button instead, duplicated on the included remote control. This can make turning up the volume a bit slower, but the NFB-10ES will also remember your volume setting when switched off. Turning the unit on, the display will flash for a few seconds, during which time you can either hold down the "down" control to reset the volume to zero, or the "up" control to set it as it was before. The other front panel switches other than the power button respectively control whether the NFB-10SE sends sound to headphones or the DAC/pre-amp and a switch for low or high gain. Lastly, the "filter" switch, which was used on the WM8741 versions to change the DAC filter is used on the 10SE to change the brightness of the front panel between normal, dim and off. Kingwa has been in the habit of re-using cases for new products so this small mis-label is not such a surprise for people familiar with his products.
     
    Around the back of the unit nothing has changed exempt for the addition of CE and FCC certification stickers. Input is via USB, coax S/PDIF (which can be optionally ordered with a BNC socket) and optical. USB is, unlike my old unit and it's Tenor chip, likely to be the best choice sonically as it uses the VIA USB receiver that has firmware where all functions other than those absolutely necessary for low-jitter digital transmission are disabled. It is also more reliable than the Tenor chips according to Kingwa, who has been known to cancel products if even a small percentage of customers were having serious reliability issues. The VIA USB receiver also supports up to 384 kHz input, if not DSD yet. Even if there are only a handful of files recorded at or near this resolution (equivalent to 8x over-sampled 48 kHz audio) it does allow you to run programs such as Audirvana (on a Mac) that can use top quality software to up-sample to this level (though when I tried up-sampling to 384k my Mac had a fit and I only got a weird noise. 192k was fine, however).
     
    If your output isn't to headphones then you have a choice of standard single-ended RCA outputs or balanced XLR. By default the 10ES2 acts as a pre-amp, but by opening the unit and inserting a set of jumpers the unit can be set to act as a DAC with no volume control for the rear outputs.
     
    The important bit.
     
    In initially ran the NFB-10ES2 to my Adam ARTist 3 speakers•. Prior to burn-in I felt the 10ES has much the character of the previous model I have here. While a bit more forward and not as effortlessly spacious-sounding as my main rig, there was that attention-grabbing clarity I noted from the original NFB-10 along with the "younger" presentation of vocals one gets with the ES9018. Only because I have better equipment to compare it to (a Master 7 being the prime example) can I say it makes instruments sound a bit flat in comparison (or rather the Master 7 delivers a more lifelike presentation), but it is not something someone heading down the wallet-emptying path on Head-Fi would notice without having done the comparison. Indeed, in basic terms it sounded very good with nary a hint of digititis that I find annoying. However, NOS DAC fans may not agree. Regardless, further impressions require that I give the unit a good couple of weeks of run-in as the components are well-known to need it before the sound settles at its best.
     
    Indeed the sound signature reminds me of the Calyx DAC 24/192 when I owned it and fed it an S/PDIF signal from the USB 32 version of Audio-gd's Digital Interface. It was as if Audio-gd's slightly "dark" house sound came from the DAC, compared to when I used the Audiophilleo 1. The Anedio D2, in comparison, sounded more detailed and less flat, but a little aggressive through the mid-range, especially with vocals and the bass was a little boomy. Given the Anedio uses bus-power for the USB input, there is an easy improvement available via a good USB bus power solution from any number of companies.
     
    I'm sure at some point I'll be asked to compare the sound from the NFB-10ES2 to the Master 7. The NFB-10ES is like watching a movie of a band playing on a HDTV. The Master 7 adds a very distinct degree of 3-dimensionality, detail and depth to the sounds, making instruments on the 10ES sound more flat in comparison.
     
    Where the NFB-10ES really shone was using the USB32 input and feeding my Emotiva Airmotiv 4 active speakers. While I initially fed it using the optical input from my TV, which is connected to an Apple TV, the USB32 input fed by a computer or streaming music through my Raspberry Pi was a distinct step up. If you want a basic speaker rig for under $1k that sounds great, it makes for a good combination, with only the speakers lacking in the low bass region.
     
    One of my favourite audiophile recordings, Friday Night in San Francisco, which has some of the fastest and most amazing guitar work I've ever heard was no trouble for the NFB-10ES2, either as a DAC, pre-amp or any of my headphones.  Indeed, one of the criticisms of previous models was that they were either very dark-sounding or too aggressive, which was fine with orthos but less so with other headphones. I gave the 10ES2 a run both balanced and single-ended with Audeze LCD-3 (low impedance, current-hungry and dark) and my old MB Quart QP 400s (high impedance, high voltage-swing desiring and bright) both out of the balanced and single-ended sockets.
     
    The result I felt was good in both cases, neither demanding pair of headphones suffering from a lack of soundstage, even if the amount of power available out of the single-ended socket is considerably less. Ideally the amp is supposed to be used in balanced mode.
     
    David Chesky's awesome binaural recording of Amber Rubarth took up duty when it came to determining detail and resolution. While instrument notes weren't as layered or detailed as out of the Anedio D2 or the other high-end DACs I had on hand, they were delivered with a lack of fuss in comparison (the D2 can sound a bit forced at times). If anything, the NFB-10ES2 has a purely listenable quality about it, that is, rather than analyse the sound I just wanted to listen.
     
    I also tested the NFB-10ES2 with the best IEMs I had on hand from the SE output using a 3.5mm adaptor. The result with both my JH-13s and a pair of Tralucent 1plus2s was excellent with a totally silent background and the music coming through clearly.
     
    So, overall, if you're after a neutral and very IEM and headphone-compatible all-in-one unit for $680, the NFB-10ES2 is a worthy contender, especially if you want to also have a DAC and/or pre-amp to go with active speakers. Probably the greatest disadvantage is that, to get the most out of it you ideally need to re-terminate your headphones to a 4-pin XLR for the balanced output. If doing so is something you're not willing to do and you're not otherwise going to use it with active monitors, one of the single-ended models will probably be a better choice. 
     
    *Not headphones because my son had fallen asleep on me and he wakes up if the music is turned off!
     

    gevorg, thegunner100 and JBal4 like this.