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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: PC with Windows XP Pro; MacBook; Raysonic CD-168
Preamp/Integrated: NuForce Icon; Glow Audio Amp One; Passion &ound integrated

Speakers: Diva by Swans M200; Passion &ound monitors
Cables: Zu Audio custom, NuForce
Setup: Desktop in free space, desk top against wall, 24" Samsung screen flanked by speakers

Review Component Retail: $249/pr for the S-1 speakers, $99 for the NE-7 headphones, $249 for the Icon
This message is out of the bottle
NuForce has a dedicated site for its Icon integrated, matching S-1 speakers and soon-to-launch headphones: It's a clear message that's not at all bottled up or ambiguous. This ain't conventional man-cave and super girl loft fi. This is purposeful computer audio, so-called life-style stuff. But, it's directly connected to the company's hi-end line. It sports the same technology as the 'big' kit,
simply scaled back for the intended nearfield purposes of the desk top. Hence the tiny Icon integrated amp uses a proprietary NuForce class D chip (the NF12X201) exactly as their various award-winning high-power efforts do. It simply limits its output -- add Oxfordian intonation and Rolls Royce understatement -- to a perfectly sufficient and blatantly quality 12 watts. Its built-in USB DAC then does the secret handshake with your laptop or PC to drink their soundcard's milk shake. At least that's the implied sonic promise. It states that computers are noisy environments unfit for serious audio tasks. You're better off doing D/A conversion outside the PC. Unless the latter was purpose-designed for audio. Which is possible but not the norm.

Of course you'll need desktop speakers as well. And Nuforce is nothing if not wildly ambitious. For $249/pr, they now have us covered in four different speaker finishes to match the blue, red, black and silver anodized alu options of the Icon. As has Anthony Gallo with his famous orbs -- or balls in straight speak -- and countless others before 'n' since, the S-1 runs a 3.5" driver in widebander mode. Meaning no crossover. Specifically, it's a Neodymium/Titanium unit with die-cast basket and vented voice coil, 87dB sensitivity, 8-ohm rating and 80 - 20,000Hz response. Dimensions for the round-cornered MDF cab are 9.5" x 6" x 4.75" and each compact speaker puts 5.5lb on the scale.

The most striking visual feature of course is the colored waveguide. Less accented, we have already seen its kind around the recessed tweeter of the NuForce S-9, the related models in the SP Tech range, the tweeter/mid unit of the Emerald Physic CS2 open-baffle speaker, Hørning and Zu and WLM PAC and Super PAC tweeters and the Audio Kinesis models of affable Duke LeJeune. To name but a few. Exactly what distinguishes a waveguide from a shallow horn shall be left to acousticians and speaker designers to define. For our purposes, we think of them just as interrelated as rear-loaded horns are to transmission lines. Not identical but variations on a theme, with various experts disagreeing on where precisely the dividing line ought to be drawn.

Horns are impedance transformers and controlled directivity/dispersion devices with acoustic gain. Horns are distinguished by geometry (round, oval, rectangular), flare rate (how fast or gradual the diameter increases and what curve describes this progression), curvature (straight, bent or folded) and length (the distance between driver diaphragm and outer horn lip). The straight NuForce waveguide is clearly shallow but quite flared. The final diameter doubles that of the driver to present itself to your room as 6 inches across. The stated goal is "midrange gain, dispersion pattern and eradication of diffraction artifacts". The acoustic gain function reduces excursion demands for a given loudness level. That minimizes distortion by keeping the driver within its window of linearity for longer as SPLs increase.

The EQ network already built into the Icon automatically linearizes the S-1 response and is invoked by using the RJ45-terminated and included cables. They cleverly use one of the Cat5 conductors to recognize the Icon and link pin 1 and 8 to form a close circuit which activates the compensation circuit. (For those wishing to use their own non-RJ45 terminated cables and other speakers, NuForce has introduced the RJ45CX, a RJ45-in/binding-post-out converter box.) "The waveguide boosts the midrange, adding +6dB at 1.5kHz. Hence, the active filter in the Icon counters that with a filter range of 800Hz to 2.5kHz and a center frequency at 1.5kHz and -6dB attenuation. The EQ has no other purpose."

But there's more. With its mini jack, perceptive punters already expected NuForce's own 'phones somewhere in the future. That future is just about here and the company's Jason Lim is convinced to the bone that their first $99 headphone is a major contenduh that'll whupp butt on competitors easily twice the price. Whupping butt in fact seems high on the NuForce to-do list, in general and for these items in particular. The implied message between the lines isn't in a bottle either though you could say it's adrift on one big ocean whilst splashing real hard to attract attention: Computer users number in the millions. They listen to music and play games. They spend little on hifi 'accessories'. But they're the bright and rosy future of hi-end audio - if they can experience better sound now; get used to it and then aspire to better yet for their big rigs (or whatever form audio playback will take in the next 10 years).

Very much unlike most hi-end audio companies which bitch and moan about the declining state of affairs but at best perform lip service because even their most affordable stuff is still well beyond this prospective future customer, breaks down the price barriers. The company's strategy is clearly long-term. It's concerned with survival. It's most easily defined as "midfi is where the numbers are, PC audio is where the action is, let's bring 'em high-quality affordable stuff, introduce premium sound, evangelize by example and make converts". Or as Jason put it: "The Icon is packaged for general consumers (that's why we included everything), not your typical audiophile. We will be providing several accessories for audiophiles: a 45-watt power supply (instead of the standard 25-watt) at $45; 2-meter black RJ45 to banana cable for $39; RJ45-to-speaker-binding-post connector box (the case is the Icon case so you can get your matching color). We will also sell you an Icon front panel (to open up the Icon to mod it, the front panel and volume knob might get scratched or damaged) for about $10 so you hackers can go mess with it (no warranty)."

The men of the new force are clever and farsighted. They work both sides of the fence. They cater to the MP3 nation, the DIY/hacker looking for affordable platforms and the fully minted audiophile keen on ultimate performance in the context of traditional hifi. Needless to say, any company that begins as a 'boutique' hi-end audio affair but then also goes after the Bose market will experience wildly swingin' dynamics - from the micro to the macro, from small-scale production runs distributed through specialty dealers to mass production sold through Amazon and other online terminals. At minimum, you'd expect some growing pains. As things kick into higher gear, the infrastructure must catch up. Supply and demand need regulating, shipping must be scaled up and much more. The idea itself is admirable. The execution is surely riddled with peppery expletives and funding challenges. But that's how the old saw sings it. No pain, no gain. Very few NuForce competitors seem prepared to clone this particular recipe from this particular direction ...

A bit more on the headphones. Yes, there's actually two models, the NE-7M and NE-8. Both are sound-isolating designs with 3 pairs of replaceable flange tips included (small, medium and large) and a stereo microphone attached. Aha. Besides desktop and on-the-go iPod duty, this also covers cell phone users who "demand high-fidelity sound quality". The NE-7M even has a call-answering button in its leash since it's squarely aimed at this application. At the end of a 3.5mm-plug 1.2-meter cable, it puts a +/-3dB 100dB/mW @ 1kHz driver of 9mm diameter at your ear. Power rating spans 2 - 20mW. The entire affair weighs 12 grams. The omni-directional microphone claims a response of 20Hz to 16kHz and +/-2dB 58dB sensitivity to require no swallowing to pick up your speaking voice without gymnastics.

The NE-8 versions shaves of 2 grams, offers the same claimed 20Hz to 22kHz bandwidth, lowers sensitivity by 2dB to hover around 98dB and presents a 12-ohm load to the headphone socket. It too includes a microphone and carrying case. At press time for this preview, NuForce was still waiting for production to commence on their headphones, hence Casey couldn't deliver any photos yet. More soon and keep your eyes peeled also for Gary Krakow's reports on who as their senior technical correspondent covers all manner of hi-tech gizmos and sits smart on the S-1 review goodie list as well.

To wrap the intro, many 'philes diss Bang & Olufsen for being all looks, no serious performance - though the same 'philes might be listening to a Bel Canto Design or equivalent amp which runs off B&O-developed ICEpower. Regardless of your viewpoint there, nobody in business and their right mind could seriously fault B&O for its life-style focus which has always included... yes, telephones. After all, what you put to your ear and mouth when calling are a microphone and loudspeaker. Two distinct audio appliances. While it's hard to predict whether most people buy B&O phones more for their cool industrial chic or audiophile crystalline intelligibility, going after the massive mobile telephone market with a headset combo is clearly a worthwhile experiment for NuForce. No matter how you slice it, this outfit is enterprising and visionary. Thus, they're fun to report on. You're never quite sure what to expect of 'em next...