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[review] Nuforce Cube - portable speaker, usb dac & headphone amp

Discussion in 'Portable Source Gear' started by armaegis, Jul 15, 2012.
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  1. Armaegis
    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
     
     
    Specifications
    Operation Time:
    1. 8 hours typical

    Dimension
    1. 58.5mm x 58.5mm x 60.0mm.

    Available Colors:
    1. Black, Silver, Red, Blue

    Included Accesories
    1. 3.5mm stereo cable 0.6M
    2. USB Cable 0.7M
    3. Soft carrying pouch


     

     Battery Health Guide

    1. Charge the battery for 12 hours before first use.
    2. Unplug the 3.5mm input when Cube is not in use.
    3. Recharge the Cube after each use for maximum battery life.


     
     
     
     
    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...
     
    1968384210LL.jpg
     
    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. 
    139195582LL.jpg 995264380LL.jpg
     
    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.
     
     
    Connectivity
    inputs: mini-usb and 3.5mm
    outputs: speaker or 3.5mm headphone jack (mutes speaker when plugged in)
     
    544410424LL.jpg
     
    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)
     
     
    DAC
    - 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.
     
     
    Speaker
     
    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. 
     
     
    Headphone Amp
    - 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.
     
     
    Bottom Line
     
    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.
     
  2. Armaegis
  3. hkppl
    Seems interesting to toy with [​IMG]
     
  4. Armaegis
    Pick one up and post your impressions [​IMG] I think it suits the student and mobile professional lifestyle very well. 
     
  5. CantScareMe
    Nice review man. 
     
    I was looking for something like this, though I don't need the dac/headphone amp part. I wanted a smallish mono speaker that was rechargable like this and which had an aux input. It's that for this computer based rig i'm using, all onboard audio is permanently disabled (not installed) and instead of using the laptop speakers for the rare occasion speakers are needed, something like the cube might be suitable. It'll connect (via auxilary connection) to my desktop dac to provide, hopefully, a non-crappy sound.
     
    The main problem is I've had awful experiences with nuforce products leaving me feeling they're just about worthy of being sold in a pound store. I'm talking about the nuforce udac2 and two nuforce hdp's. Unreliable junk.
    Is there anything else out there, similar speaker wise to this nuforce cube?? 
     
  6. Armaegis
    There are a few alternatives listed near the beginning of this review here: http://www.soundandvisionmag.com/blog/2012/06/01/review-nuforce-cube
    though I haven't heard any of them. I've heard various mini speakers in the $30-50 range that were comparable in size to the Cube, but they were terrible. Other small speakers and docks I've heard that were better sounding were all larger and/or more expensive. 
     
    Sorry I'm not much help beyond that. 
     
  7. CantScareMe
    Thanks, I might get the cube in the future. What would you say- how does it sound compared to say bose companion 2 speakers or creative t10/t20 computer speakers. I take it that you have heard some of them, so it would put the sound of this thing in context.
     
    In the meanwhile I got some x mini II speakers (£15 amazon). Nearly 2,500 reviews this thing has had on amazon uk. Blimey. Yea, it don't sound very good at all, but it'll do for now I guess.  

     

     
  8. Armaegis
    I actually used to own the Creative T40 speakers a few years ago. It's really an unfair comparison though, putting a small mono usb speaker vs AC powered stereo speakers. 
     
    Going from memory, I'd give the edge in clarity to the Cube in the midrange. For sheer power, bass, and even upper treble response however, the larger speakers win out easily. Soundstage is obviously a no-contest. 
     
  9. CantScareMe
    Fair enough. Of course it's not really fair to pitch it up against speakers 6 times its size and weight!
     
    But it's good to know it's midrange is impressive, even up against the creatives.
     
  10. HeadphoneAddict Contributor
    Nice review, thanks!  I posted the following at the InnerFidelity review, where I saw the link to this review:
     
     
    I've had the Cube for a while, and I completely agree with your impresisons.  I use mine most as a portable speaker, whether via 3.5mm audio jack from iPad and iPhone or via USB from an old Macbook with terrible speakers.  The headphone amp is respectable, and it's more of an upgrade in power output and impedance matching than as a DAC "sound quality" upgrade.  The DAC is not a downgrade at all, but it's also not the same upgrade one gets from the uDAC-2 SE or an Audioengine D1. The amp is a bit more powerful than the iPod or Macbook headphone jack, which is more useful with full-size headphones than earphones.  
       I also have the Nuforce Podio speaker, and I was impressed with that when it first came out, although the Cube improves on that with more features and better sound.  I prefer the Cube because I can use it via USB and not run the battery down, where the Podio used the 3.5mm jack to charge or to play music, but not both at the same time.  However, if you don't need the USB the Podio is much cheaper.
     
  11. Armaegis
    Nice, thanks for the note. I'm glad to see that two other well known folks around here agreeing with my impressions. 
     
  12. bsl100
    Hi. I have just ordered the Cube based on various reviews. I was reading another thread wherein the author mentioned that he uses the Cube with his IPod Classic with a LOD. How is this possible if the Cube doesn't have volume control.
     
  13. Armaegis
    It'll work just fine... except you won't have volume control.
     
  14. HeadphoneAddict Contributor
    Quote:
     
    Quote:
     
    Maybe you could use a Westone or Shure volume attenuator, but if you ask me there's not reason to not just feed the headphone out into the Cube.
     
    So, I recently got the $99 Zooka Bluetooth sound bar, and I can't say that the sound quality is any better than using the cube via headphone out of my iPhone 5.  Sure, the Zooka has a little better imaging and soundstage due to dual drivers being 10" apart, but it doesn't have the USB audio or headphone amp, and the sound fires out sideways instead of directly at the listener.  
     
    If I had to pick between the two, I'd rather have option #3 which would be a Bluetooth Cube.  I made one by combining it with my Motorola S705 Bluetooth pendant.  [​IMG]  
     
  15. Armaegis
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