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Reviewer: Edgar Kramer
Source: Sony XA-5ES as transport; Bel Canto Design DAC 2
Preamp/Integrated: Supratek Sauvignon with NOS RCA and Sylvania tubes
Amplifier: Pass Labs X 250.5; NuForce Reference 9.02 SE monos [this review]
Speakers: Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 6, WAR Audio Dianne [in for review]
Cables: Cerious Technologies Interconnects; Harmonic Technology Magic Digital; Cerious Technologies Digital; Harmonic Technology Magic and Truthlink Silver; DanA Digital Reference Silver; Eichmann eXpress 6 Series 2; Bocchino Audio Morning Glory interconnect cable; PSC Audio Pristine R30 Ribbon (on loan); Cerious Technologies and Harmonic Technology PRO-9+ loudspeaker cables; Cerious Technologies AC; Harmonic Technology Fantasy AC; Shunyata Research Diamondback power cords, Eichmann eXpress AC power cable; PSC Gold Power MKII AC cable [on loan]
Stands: Lush 4-tier, partly sand filled
Powerline conditioning: PS Audio P-300 Power Plant (digital equipment only), dedicated 20 amp circuit
Sundry accessories: Bright Star Audio IsoRock Reference 3, Bright Star Audio IsoRock 4 isolation platforms and BSA IsoNode feet; Bocchino Audio Mecado isolation diodes; Black Diamond Racing cones; Stillpoints ERS paper in strategic positions around DAC, Shakti On Lines; Densen CD demagnetizer; Auric Illuminator CD Treatment; ASC Tube Traps
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 10'/11' h [stepped ceiling] in short wall setup, opens to adjoining office room
Review component retail: $2,500/ea.
As we wait with baited breath...
For the last couple of years, the audiophile world has been abuzz with ever-snowballing titbits of a diminutive and controversial amplifier, the first product from audio specialist newcomer NuForce. A couple of products and many glowing reviews and accolades later, our communal pulse is once again racing and a-flutter in anticipation. For word has got around of an upcoming flagship model.

NuForce's first product, the Reference 8 monoblock, was reviewed by yours truly back in August 2005. Srajan reviewed their second product, the upscale Reference 9 in September of that same year. Since that time, NuForce has been busy churning out products to mate with their analog switching amplifiers. We now have the P8 preamplifier, the IA7 integrated amplifier and the soon to be released Home Theatre processor. Also rumored to be in the pipeline is an upscale P9 preamplifier. The new Reference 9 Special Edition is NuForce's all-out attempt to challenge the top-end of the market.

...and the leaves begin to turn Down Under
Synchronicity aligned the SE release with the arrival of autumn in Sydney. Liquidambars (straciflua) native to North America where they are commonly known as sweet gums line the suburban streets. Their turning leaves paint a kaleidoscope of deep warm browns to blood reds. This carotene arboreal debris makes for a hue-rich parallel to the Ref 9SE's copper red chassis.

You'll either love or hate the Ref 9 SE's svelte anodized aluminium skin tone. My expectations upon hearing the term 'copper red' to describe the new chassis were a little... well, low. And wasn't I pleasantly surprised at first sight to find the SE's copper red livery really quite attractive. Only the Special Edition version of the Ref 9 will be so attired although NuForce offers a wide range of special order finishes for all their other products. If you so wish however, you may order a P8 preamplifier in the copper red chassis to match the SE. To my eyes, NuForce got the right balance of Xanthophyl and Carotene in the mixture to create a warm, visually distinctive tonal palette.

Specifications remain almost the same as the standard Reference 9 although internal differences are substantial. To accommodate the circuit enhancements, it was necessary to decrease output power by an insignificant 10 watts from 160 watts to 150 watts a side RMS. The SE's power supply is a substantially beefier beast and includes numerous superior quality and higher specification low-ESR capacitor banks. The analog front end now has its own independent switching power supply with higher performance input capacitors and 6 nines PCOCC oxygen-free copper input wiring. The SE version also comes fitted with the WBT NextGen RCA input connector and the Eichmann speaker pods as standard accessories. As per the standard version, a small toggle switches between the NextGen and the balanced XLR connection. The SEs' build quality is high and considering the switching power supply, they feel weighty, solidly assembled and can drive all manner of speakers, perhaps even Apogee Scintillas.

Special Edition idiosyncrasies include the harmless turn-off farting noises mentioned in past Reference 9 reviews and as advised by NuForce, a one-minute post turn-on warm-up period whereby the amplifiers must remain idle without signal feed. What happens if you press 'play' immediately after powering up? Buggered if I know. I ain't tryin' it.

Oh, I must report that in keeping with the traditionally tumultuous Kramer/NuForce relationship, my original sample SEs packed up on me soon after the break-in period, around the 80-hour mark. Click, click, click went the relays at turn on. On and on ad infinitum. NuForce's Jason explained that some 240-volt reviewer samples around the world failed in similar fashion.

"We pushed for low ESR and paralleling 30 capacitors, the ESR becomes extremely low. As a result, during turn-on, the sudden near-short-circuit load presented by the capacitor bank prevents the power supply to start. We speculate that during the break-in period, the capacitors go through further changes and the ESR dropped further so while the Ref9 SE could turn on initially, after prolonged break-in, some units could fail. We'll service the units including paying for shipping if the problem ever occurs with the initial production run."

The above diagnosis was then refined and expanded upon soon after as follows: "On all the Ref 9 and Ref 9 SE, we set the power supply voltage to 52V. And it turns out that the DC-DC converter (the black thing with the NuForce label on it) on the Ref 9 SE has a lower voltage rating than expected. So in some Ref 9 SE units such as yours, the DC-DC converter failed after it has been used beyond its rated range. Every device has different tolerance and some will work just fine. We plan to use a different DC-DC converter in the Ref 9 SE after May 20 (production date for general consumers, as opposed to reviewer samples - EK). But for the units in stock, we will adjust the power supply down to 48V."

I look at it this way:

1. NuForce states that these issues will be ironed out prior to consumer production runs.
2. Yes, other manufacturers may not suffer the same niggling little reliability issues but then they are not presenting a new and evolving technology invented from the ground up.
3. NuForce is most efficient at dealing with and resolving matters as they arise.
4. From a consumer's point of view, even when dealt with quickly and efficiently, these issues are a pain in the proverbial culo.
5. Pain in the culo notwithstanding and given our very individual pain thresholds and tolerances, a short temporary parting with these amps may be a small price to pay for the pleasure of owning a superb sounding product that performs way above its price point

Special specials
Second samples in situ. Bring it on! How will the SEs compare with the standard versions? How will they compare with their competition? Will they live up to the expectations? Out of the box, I must say, the Special Editions impress with some qualification. They are a little lean and bright but very dynamic, detailed and fast, so their post break-in potential can be deduced if listened to intellectually. After approximately 50 to 70 hours of electron blood flow, the SEs kind of turn the other way and become too polite, a tad ponderous. Drums lack bite and snap and dynamics are stunted. Post the 75-hour mark, the SEs' stamina recovers, their previously lack-luster persona now flaunts itself vividly and purposefully like an extrovert cat-walk model.

I suppose the best place to start an evaluation of the SE would be by comparing it to its doppelgänger or perhaps better put, its immediate predecessor. When comparing the Special Edition to the standard Reference 9.02, the SE has a deeper and more controlled bass that also delivers a more powerful wallop. There is detail and impact a-plenty, the high damping factor really gripping my Watt Puppy's twin 8 inchers with super-glue hold. Yet the bass is not overdamped and the SE's reproduction of acoustic bass in particular is very life-like. The snap and attack of the initial transient lead to a visceral, palpable roundness of the full note and then to a harmonically rich decay.

Of higher personal importance and further up the frequency range, the SE has a more refined and smoother yet more resolving midrange. Voices and instruments are presented with improved separation and presence. This midrange refinement makes the SE a tad mellower when compared directly to its standard stable mate, yet paradoxically, the total lack of grain and subtly laid-back presentation do not deter the SE from swinging with the wildest of dynamic onslaughts. In fact, not just in the mids but throughout the whole spectrum, the SEs reproduce superior harmonic and timbral textures with a good dollop of body and image density, to the extent that proponents of this technology's clichéd 'digital coldness' stigma will have to discard their favored anthem.

As expected, detail throughout the whole frequency spectrum is quite superb. Unless on the recording, brightness or harshness in the highs and bloatedness or muddiness in the lows are non-existent. The SE and Ref 9.02 are on par when it comes to macro dynamics, soundstaging and imaging. The two brethren are almost indistinguishable in these areas. The high frequencies are however subtly more extended on the SEs. Ambience and air, that indescribable energy whereby we reviewers and audiophiles refer to the palpability of the recording's environment, are more easily discerned via these more transparent Special Editions.

In comparison to other amplifiers, I would have to say that the Reference 9 Special Edition monos are amongst the best all-rounders I've come across at any price. As I said in my review of the NuForce Reference 8B, they "excel at balance" and that if I may say so now, best describes the NuForce house sound. In fact, a summary of NuForce's house sound would have to also include descriptives such as speed, power (above their specified rating), dynamics, resolution and smoothness. Barring other more esoteric audio qualities, the sum total of these house sound characteristics also bring on a surmising term to the tonal equation - that of naturalness. When the range of frequencies reproduced by an amplifier are so tonally in coincidence with each other the resulting music, all other components permitting, is a life-mimicking representation that approaches by a significant step the live experience. Nothing stands out within the music to remind one of the artificiality of reproduced sound. Yes, that would be descriptive of the whole NuForce power amplifier range and I've lived with them all.

But the Reference 9 SE takes it some steps further by retaining these qualities and adding a measure of finesse, harmonic richness, resolution and bass power that places these diminutive, brightly clad boxes in a league amongst the A graders for what is Little League coinage.

Over the last two decades, professionally and as a 'true blue' audiophile, I've owned/auditioned/assessed/compared scores of excellent amplifiers using all manner of technology and circuitry. I consider the NuForce Reference 9 Special Edition amplifiers to be amongst a select small group of the very best amplifiers I've heard. In fact, the SEs better most of these elitists in the areas of resolution, dynamics, bass power and frequency-wide detail.

As the seasons turn and the old leaves wither away, the promise of imminent new life and rebirth swell in our universal consciousness. In a life-assimilating fashion, the NuForce Reference 9 Special Edition mono amplifiers have inspired a new cognition of what the future of amplification will be.
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