NuForce Icon USB-input integrated amplifier Page 2

The Icon sure didn't sound puny. My Axiom QS8 speakers had lots of low-end sock and created an extremely solid center fill, even with a large flat-screen monitor between them. When I compared the Icon's USB DAC to the computer's optical S/PDIF output fed to a Musical Fidelity XDACV3 which in turn was connected to the Icon's analog line-in, there were audible differences, but not to any distracting degree.

"Trampled Rose," from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Raising Sand (ALC file, Rounder 619075; CD, Rounder 9075) sounded slightly sharper through the USB DAC, which made it marginally more detailed. The XDACV3's timbrally richer miasma (which fits with producer T Bone Burnett's modus operandi) made the banjo and mandolin stand out more from the murk. The USB input had the individual instruments standing out more discretely from one another—an effect somewhat enhanced by slightly less oomph in the big bass drum. Point to the XDACV3.

On "Concierto de Aranjuez," from Jim Hall's Concierto (CD, CTI/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 2012), the Icon did a fine job of sorting out the textures of the spare arrangement, giving Paul Desmond's tart alto saxophone an immediacy that was quite engaging. Ditto Hall's tastefully assertive bite. However, the XDACV3 gave the session greater depth and air. Both DACs performed well enough that repeated listening to this track was a pleasure, not a chore. Although I thought the XDACV3 was better, I liked the Icon. A lot.

Sheesh, the 1m length of Kimber Kable KCAG connecting the XDACV3 to the Icon cost more than the NuForce itself. The li'l gizmo was punching waaay above its weight class here.

My friend Jeff Wong suggested I place a Shakti Electromagnetic Stabilizer atop the Icon, and it did tone down, very slightly, some of that excessive detail. I know—that way lies madness. This is a $249 amplifier. An audiophile tweak here and an audiophile tweak there, and sooner or later you've got a $1000 amp—and who doubts that a $1000 integrated can sound pretty good? On the other hand, tweaking can be fun, so if that's what floats your boat, tweak away. Contrariwise, you can't polish a turd, but you certainly can polish the Icon.

If you work in an office or an environment where you can't always be broadcasting your music, the Icon's headphone amp was pretty good. It was the slightest bit harder, and had less air than, say, Ray Samuel's $350 Emmeline The Hornet. I can live with that, especially when I compare its performance to the bulk of the mass-market headphone amplifiers that I recently profiled for a consumer publication—90% of them added grit and not-insignificant amounts of noise as they boosted the signal. The Icon is a quiet, competent headphone amp.

I can't stand up for falling down
In the absence of any truly high-sensitivity bookshelf loudspeakers around the house, I used the Usher Be-718s (see my review in the May 2008 Stereophile) because they were easier to drive than Dynaudio Special Twenty-Fives reviewed in June 2005.

Let's just say that, like Dr. Johnson's dancing dog, it was impressive that they could do it at all. I don't mean that the Icon sounded terrible, but it was a stupid party trick. If you own inefficient speakers, don't buy the Icon and expect to rock out. If you have an Icon, don't buy inefficient speakers.

And no, the Icon didn't epically distort, but it couldn't muster much in the way of depth or, more important, dynamic contrast on such tracks as "A Walk in the Rain," from the Marvin Sewell Group's The Worker's Dance (CD, Llewes 7124). "Rain" is filled with textures and detail—from soft accordion sighs to percussive details and Jerome Harris's lonesome bass wails—and they simply weren't alive through the demanding Ushers.

If you said that I chose the wrong speakers, you'd be correct. But I'd been hearing some outrageous claims about the Icon, and while many of them are indeed true, you have to choose horses for courses for it to amaze.

I can't win
So I lugged (ha!) the Icon into my larger, home-theater room and set it down between the 91.5dB-sensitive Definitive Technology Mythos STS SuperTower speakers (see my August 2008 review). Pairing a 6"-wide amp to a pair of 48"-tall towers may look like an epic fail, but remember that >90dB sensitivity—and that each Mythos has its own powered subwoofer.

I cued organist Cameron Carpenter's performance of J.S. Bach's "Evolutionary" Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 565 (CD, Telarc CD-80711). Omigawd! The Mythoses simply roared—the furiously pedaled bass made my home theater's paneling buzz. Man, the Icon really rocked the DefTechs.

Then I settled down and listened again to "A Walk in the Rain," this time at a rational loudness. The sound was full-bodied and timbrally rich, yet I was now aware that the Icon was somewhat noisy with high-efficiency loudspeakers. It turns out that this is a known issue at NuForce. They don't recommend using the Icon with speakers above 92dB sensitivity, because the $249 integrated has more switching noise than their top-end amplifiers. They do make a solution for them what wants to pair it with hi-eff speakers, though. For $149, the Icon owner can purchase an RJ45CX-F filter that will roll off the noise above 40kHz. Of course, that turns the $249 Icon into a $398, 12Wpc integrated amp, thus complicating the value issue.

I surrender, dear
Don't believe the hype. You don't have to hype the NuForce Icon—it is what it was designed to be, and it's all of that and a bag of chips. At $249, it's an amazing little integrated amplifier with USB DAC, and it's styled and built to a fare-thee-well. Who cares if it doesn't drive $3000/pair audiophile speakers better than the high-priced gewgaws? Not me—and I'm picky.

I don't think NuForce designed the Icon for people who have $3000 speakers or are comfortable buying them. The Icon is a "Now I get it" product for people who think good-sounding audio is expensive and silly. The Icon is good-sounding and not silly. It's the kind of amp that someone who spent $250 on an iPod could listen to and want—and afford. I loved its performance on my desktop, and I could see it as the heart of an entirely satisfying dorm-room or guest-room system. Heck, pair it with a pair of, say, Paradigm Atom v.5s (see my September 2007 review) and you'll have a $500 combination that will make your jaw drop. Often.

And that's just considering the Icon as an integrated amplifier. Add to that impressive performance a very satisfactory headphone amp and its very nice USB DAC, and it's hard to think of the Icon as anything other than a stone bargain. Its solid build and great styling are just icing on the cake.

I think I now know why the Icon has a capital I and the other iPod-inspired products don't: It deserves it.

Company Info
NuForce, Inc.
356 South Abbott Ave.
Milpitas, CA 95035
(408) 627-7859
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seifu's picture
Wes's "profile of mass-market headphone amplifiers"

I realize this was a couple years ago now, but I can't find this anywhere. Does anyone know where it is? Not available on the web? (The sound of another internet plea fading into oblivion. Oh well, I had to try.)

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