NuForce Icon USB-input integrated amplifier

In a world of me-too products, NuForce distinguishes itself from all those other components whose names begin with i by actually using a capital I. Actually, that statement is unkind, even unfair—unlike the myriads of products designed to capitalize on the Apple iPod's current sexiness, the NuForce Icon isn't designed to be portable (although NuForce does offer an Icon Mobile). What the Icon unquestionably is is a fine little piece of audio engineering, which most of those other i components are not.

And "little" this 12Wpc, class-D amp most definitely is: 6" by 4.5" by 1". That's barely enough space for three inputs, preamp and headphone outputs, and speaker terminals. In fact, it isn't enough space—NuForce works around that by using RJ45 terminals for the speaker connections, 3.5mm stereo jacks for line input 1, the pre-out and the front-panel headphone jack, and an external 15V DC power supply. A single pair of RCAs completes the line-level input features. The other input isn't perzackly line-level, it's a mini USB jack.

Yup, the Icon is an integrated amp with a DAC inside. And that headphone jack on the front panel has its own discrete op-amp.

The Icon's slender point-of-sale packaging includes a milled aluminum stand for vertical mounting, the power supply, a USB cable, a mouse pad for horizontal placement, and a pair of RJ45-to-banana speaker cables—all for $249.

I can't explain
The heart of the Icon is NuForce's proprietary class-D analog switching IC. Despite the cramped interior of this li'l wonder, its circuit board is packed with NuForce-branded components, including a hefty capacitor labeled "AUDIO-GRADE." The USB digital-to-analog conversion is handled by a Burr-Brown PCM2706 chip, a 16-bit delta-sigma stereo DAC (signal/noise and dynamic range of 98dB) capable of handling sampling rates of 32, 44.1, and 48kHz.

Inside and out, the Icon's layout and fit'n'finish are the best I've seen yet from NuForce, and exemplary for such an inexpensive component. The front panel's two controls—volume/power and source select—felt smooth and sturdy. I never felt as if NuForce had merely gone through the motions. And the extruded aluminum case is impressively well turned out, and available in silver, red, black, or blue.

I just don't know what to do with myself
NuForce obviously thought of the Icon as a desktop system. They include 1m speaker cables and that USB input, which strongly implies that they saw it as a good fit for computers—plus there's the 12Wpc output, which suggests nearfield listening rather than room-filling sound. Yet there's been a lot of buzz on the interwebs about the Icon being a giant-killer, especially when paired with high-efficiency loudspeakers. With that in mind, I auditioned the Icon in three settings: on my desktop, driving a pair of Axiom QS8 speakers, using my G5 Mac Pro computer's ALC library as a source; in my small listening room, driving Usher Be-718 speakers with the Simaudio Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player; and in my home theater, with a Bel Canto e.One CD player and a pair of Definitive Technology Mythos STS speakers.

If you intend to set the Icon up in a room, you may well want longer speaker cables than the 1m lengths NuForce provides. They also sell, for $29.95/pair, 2m runs terminated to the same gold-plated RJ45 and bananas as the included set. If you have a wire crimper and feel like rolling your own, there's a pin diagram on the Icon's webpage. In both of the rooms in which I auditioned the Icon, the 1m cables worked, if just barely—I had to place the amp on the floor between the speakers. A longer run would have been nice, but the lack of a remote control is another suggestion that the Icon was intended for desktop or nearfield use—the fact that it can be press-ganged into other duties is mostly gravy.

Because the Icon is class-D, it runs cool enough that you could leave it on 24/7 with only the mildest of twinges to your energy profligacy. (The power supply continues to run even when the Icon is turned off; the only way to cool that usage hotspot is to unplug it.)

I didn't know what time it was
I began by using the Icon as a desktop system. Given its tininess and the absence of any heat buildup, you can put it just about anywhere—although I, a chronic desk-clutterer, did keep losing it under pieces of paper. I connected it to my Mac's USB output, chose "Audio USB DAC" in the Mac's system preferences, and we were off and running.

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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