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Joël Chevassus
Financial Interests: click here
Source: iTunes & iMac Osx 10.5.7 + Trends USB UD-10.1 lite, Winamp 5.56 & HP Compaq laptop, Sony Digital Media Player NWZ-A816, iPod Classic 30GB
Headphones: Sony MDS-JE520
Review Component Retail: $79

The context: NuForce recently decided to diversify its commercial offerings into portable gear while taking into consideration new trends in the audio market. The Milpitas company began with amplification devices and enjoyed an enthusiastic response also for the small Icon and Mini Icon class D integrateds. Now NuForce is exploring what for them are new categories - media players and more surprisingly perhaps, headphones.

To become a newcomer to the headphone business should neither be easy nor impossible. SkullCandy’s stunning example shows clearly how to take market shares from established headphones brands via a dedicated niche strategy. The headphones market has been largely opened up by Apple Inc. with the iPod and iPhone revolution. The fact that iPods sell by the millions with poor quality headsets definitely offered opportunities to enterprising headphones companies and particularly newcomers.

Of course it is always less risky to start from nowhere and enter the market with a good marketing strategy. With a relevant corporate image in place already, it becomes more delicate to open up completely new categories and play to new audiences without endangering a company’s existing image and reputation. The journey into portable audio land is not without danger for a hifi protagonist and the boundaries may not be as clearly defined. But NuForce is a Silicon Valley company and risky bets are all in a day's work for them.

NuForce decided to get a foothold in the headphone market with portables and approached the German Ultrasone company for delivering a competitive new headphone benefiting from their S-Logic technology. Enter the NuForce UF-30.


As was already the case for their two previous earphones, NuForce is neither targeting high-end lovers nor audiophiles with this new design but a younger audience who demands fashionable design, light weight and sonic quality (and perhaps in that sequence).

Thus an audiophile reviewer has to change bearings to produce an adequate evaluation of hip portable audio gear as it obviously should not be compared against traditional hifi models from the mainstream makers. I confess to having little background in portable audio kit as my listening references are oriented towards established upper-end manufacturers. Today's kind of equipment is obviously of great interest to all who frequently listen on the move or remain behind the personal computer for non-work purposes. I'd been shopping in fact for a set of headphones to mate to my Trends UD-10.1. My two traditional cans —AKG 240 monitor and Sennheiser HD 600—are not ideal due to their weight and high nominal impedance. I needed something lighter than these audiophile headphones and also more comfortable than my Shure earphones to enjoy iTunes for extended sessions. The kind of audiophile portable device proposed by Jason Lim of NuForce was thus a tantalizing proposition and when our publisher forwarded their solicitation to our staff, I volunteered.

Considering my scarce experience with portable audio, I tried to listen to a few UF-30 competitors to apply a properly critical context to NuForce's latest. It came as a surprise to learn that average value for money today is quite low when comparing such 'hip' products to more conventional audiophile headphones. It seemed difficult to find something cool enough that'd also warrant a long-term commitment. Like a dinosaur in this specific area, I of course only took into consideration the sound criteria yet those products are generally sold as fashion accessories whose colorful design cues are diametrically opposed to the sad black of audiophilia. Do you really think for example that a pair of Grado SR60s is particularly attractive to wear in the tube or sauntering along the Seine with a chic pouty beauty?

In this particular low-end but fashionable context, I was curious what particular strategy NuForce might adopt who are famous after all for their aggressive competitiveness in the high-end segment. Would the Milpitas gang issue higher sound quality for the going street price of inferior goods as was already the case for their Icons? Or were they simply going the me-too route to take a swing at the iPod-with-bad-buds crowd?