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Reviewer: Edgar Kramer
Source: Metronome T-1i CD player
Preamp/Integrated: Supratek Sauvignon with NOS RCA and Bendix tubes
Amplifier: NuForce Reference 9 Special Edition monoblocks
Speakers: Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 6
Cables: Cerious Technologies Digital; Harmonic Technology Magic Digital; Cerious Technologies; 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; Shunyata Research Diamondback, Eichmann eXpress AC power cables; PSC Gold Power MKII AC cable [on loan])
Equipment Stand: Finite Elemente Pagode Signature
Powerline conditioning: PS Audio P-300 Power Plant (digital equipment only)
Sundry accessories: Burson Audio Buffer, 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: 17' w x 35' d x 12' h in short wall setup, opens to adjoining kitchen
Review component retail: $5,500/pr

Dressed to the Nines
I guess you could say that I'm pretty familiar with NuForce products. Back in August 2005, I reviewed their first and seminal attempt at switch-mode amplification, the Reference 8 monoblock amplifier. Later in May 2006, I acquainted myself with their flagship model, the Reference 9 Special Edition, giving it a deserved Blue Moon Award. In between these auspicious dates, our main man Srajan did the honors with the Reference 9.

Nowadays, the NuForce line-up is ever expanding and includes three power amplifiers, two preamplifiers, a home theatre processor, an integrated amplifier and the subject of this review - their first-ever effort into loudspeaker design, the NuForce S-9.

The S-9 loudspeaker is the result of a combined effort between NuForce and SP Technology. In fact, you may hazard a conjecture that it bears more than a passing resemblance to that company's Continuum models. Doppelgänger indeed. Of course, this resemblance is purely a product of designer Bob Smith's ideology and engineering philosophy. However, many elements of the design were co-developed specifically for the NuForce, being the result of fine tuning with Bob and NuForce's Casey Ng' s keen ears and their combined wealth of sonic, design and engineering experience.
The NuForce S-9 is a two-way in the familiar D'Appolito configuration. Unusually and in line with SP Technology's design philosophy, the 1" cloth dome tweeter is deeply inset into a waveguide flare beautifully machined out of a thick solid hardwood baffle. This arrangement allows for physical time alignment of the tweeter in relation to the 6.5" midrange/woofer drivers while managing dispersion control to minimize room influences. In addition, the added gain of the flare's horn loading reduces the tweeter diaphragm's excursion to result in marked reductions of distortion.

The following from NuForce: "As frequency is increased, the amount of gain provided by the waveguide continually decreases such that at approximately 5kHz, the gain is reduced to unity. This means that from 5kHz on up to the upper limit of tweeter operation at 25kHz, no acoustic gain is added to the tweeter's nominal output. This sloping gain reduction eliminates the honky and irritating sound often associated with traditional horns. Simultaneously, the added gain of the waveguide permits a crossover frequency of 1.25kHz, which is well below most traditional designs. Such a low crossover eliminates much of the undesirable break-up modes produced by woofer cones and in so doing, delivers unprecedented detail and resolution in the critical midrange frequencies.

"Adding to this, the waveguide provides an elegant solution for three other common problems. Diffraction artefacts (a form of distortion) are essentially eliminated as a result of the gentle sloping nature of the waveguide flare and its transition to the front panel. Time domain distortion is reduced as a natural by-product of the tweeter's recessed positioning required by the waveguide. The last major area of improved performance provided by the waveguide is that of controlled dispersion. Without some form of wave-directing device, virtually all tweeters will suffer from a somewhat random pattern of sound dispersion. A well-controlled and constant degree of dispersion is much preferable, especially when real-world listening environments are considered."

The enclosure construction is quite different and worth spending some bytes on. Rather than using the almost ubiquitous MDF panel recipe, the S-9 is assembled from a 23-layer sandwich stack of far costlier Baltic Birch ply. Intricately patterned to form the internal geometries of sub divisions and ports, these layers are bonded by a high quality adhesive that strengthens the whole enclosure to a level far in excess of the standard MDF box. In addition, the sandwich layers that form the rear panel incorporate the cut-out shape for the subtly flared twin reflex ports. Visually the end product is striking and in my experience, quite unique, although the ply pattern bears some resemblance to the radically more expensive Magico Mini and similar stacked solutions have been applied by the Gershman Acoustics Opera Sauvage, the TAD Reference One and continue to be employed in the head assembly of the Vandersteen Model 5A. These aspects of construction make the S-9 a tour de force in enclosure design and arguably unprecedented at this price. A me too product this certainly ain't.
The NuForce website provides extensive information on the construction methods and other aspects of this sophisticated and advanced design. In addition, the complex internal structure and limited volume necessitated an external crossover. This in itself has a number of further benefits, mainly the elimination of microphonics from enclosure-borne pressures on individual crossover components. The high quality filter components are contained within a classy black anodized aluminium case about the size of a small amplifier. It connects to the speaker via the supplied cable on professional Neutrik Speakon NL4 connectors. At the amp end of the crossover box, we are presented with the superb and simple Eichmann speaker pods. The filter network
is an acoustical, phase-correct 4th order Linkwitz-Riley with a comparatively low transition point at 1.25kHz. The S-9's back panel exhibits a switch labelled SPST in the case of one speaker and Zobel in the case of the other. This switch activates a Zobel network in the crossover and according to NuForce: "In the off position, the speaker will provide a gentle boost of 2dB over a moderately broad range between 1kHz and 3kHz."

Being a purist at heart, I did my listening with the Zobel network bypassed in order to eliminate the added circuitry involved and to capitalize on the potential extra liveliness in the presence band the standard crossover allows. This proved a useful feature in the listening sessions to follow. And by the way, as far as the design and engineering go, the instruction manual is thoroughly informative but somehow omits the speaker's specifications. Odd, that.

Specs wise, I found out that the NuForce covers a range of 40Hz to 25kHz +/- 2dB, with the -3dB point at 33Hz. These are good figures given the enclosure stature. Short term power handling is an impressive 500 watts whilst long term is an equally notable 200 watts. Sensitivity is about average at 89dB at 2.83V at 1 metre or 86dB at 1 watt at 1 meter and impedance is a nominal 4 ohms. None of this is an insurmountable load for a good quality valve amplifier and a breeze for the solid-state kind.

I placed the S-9s on very solid mid-height four column sand filled speaker stands. Bearing in mind the controlled dispersion design, I futzed around with positioning and toe-in during the extended listening sessions and ended up with the speakers aimed so that very little of the cabinets' inner side walls were visible. Thanks must go to Peter Hardie of Reference Audio Systems, the New Zealand NuForce importer, for his speaker positioning and fine tuning advice after doing the hard yards prior to my receipt of the S-9s.

If 6 was 9 - Jimi Hendrix
I received what I assumed was a brand new pair. Although I had requested a sample pair with some hours on them, the packaging was too neatly assembled, everything too new looking and smelling. Yes, that adhesive wafted to the point of addiction. Mind you, just like that new car smell, it eventually fades and after surviving the cold sweats and cramps, you find yourself missing its aroma. So I gave them a good caning for a couple of hundred hours before commencing serious listening.

At this point I should mention that my system has just undergone an upgrade that has taken it a quantum leap forward. My latest acquisitions, the sensational Finite Elemente Pagode Signature racks and the mind-blowing Metronome T-1i CD player, have propelled the system to a new frontier, by far the best sound my couch has ever heard.

So, the S-9s had some pretty impressive upstream partners for support in this mission. However, initial listening impressions had me scratching my head a little. Here was a pair of speakers with a waveguide-loaded tweeter for controlled directivity that lacked in projection, treble extension and dynamic range. This couldn't be I reasoned. Let's get our thinking caps and rigging gloves on. Some extra work was in order.

First change to the standard Kramer setup was to introduce some silver-content cable into the equation. The superb DanA Digital Silver Reference interconnects did the honors from my Metronome player to the Supratek preamplifier. Silver and copper hybrid cables by way of Harmonic Technology Magic Link connected preamp to the NuForce Reference 9SE. Cerious Technologies speaker cable completed the cable harness. This cable combo I knew could spring any reserved candidate into extroversion. Indeed. Ready for sexy time. Quite the transformation.

Like a weary miner chipping away in a rocky quandary, where I previously had a shut-in dark sounding pair of speakers lacking in detail and presence, I had now chipped away enough to discover a little diamond in the rough. Treble extension and detail were now much improved and by comparison with the restraint just prior, more on par with the expected performance associated with its design formula.

Vocals took on a more realistic presence. Dianna Krall's close microphone technique on "Temptation" from her Doug Sax mastered The Girl in the Other Room [Verve B0002293-36, 2004] can put her in your room but also bite you in the ears with sibilants that tend to come to the fore. Good tweeters will survive the sibilant test by just adding a bit of bark rather than bite. The S-9s mellowed that sss and ttt sound without robbing the voice of its true nature and timbre. That track has a potently recorded stand-up bass and the NuForce speaker did a great job of reproducing it, quite surprising actually when taking into account the rather small 6.5" drivers and the size of the enclosure. The bass was fast, detailed and pretty weighty if lacking in ultimate depth when compared to my bigger reference Watt/Puppy in my very large room. NuForce hasn't broken the laws of physics but they have certainly bent them their way. The midrange presented a lively and honest timbre to Dianna's piano and her playing skills were demonstrated with aplomb by the S-9s' speed and transient attack.

Tool's brilliant Aenima [Volcano Entertainment 61422-31087-2, 1996] is one of the best Rock recordings I own. On "Eulogy", the bells and delicate cymbal work at the start of the track still sounded a little muted, lacking in shimmer and being too set back into the soundstage compared to what I'm used to. In fact, the drum kit as a whole and even after the cable change sounded quite dark and lacking in air around it although it was much better than in the all copper setup. The snare again was set deep in the soundstage and resulted in a distant and less impactful crack with a reduced impression of the sharpness of metal coils on stretched drum skin. Danny Carey's cymbal work (alongside the drummer from the Mars Volta, the best rock drummers around these days I reckon) therefore found itself overshadowed by the midrange presentation of the well separated, massive and resolved guitars. In fact, complex
works didn't bother the NuForces one iota. The more complex and dense the mix, the more they relished it. I would also imagine that the wonderful Reference 9 SE amplifiers were playing an important role here in unravelling the multitude of simultaneous musical strands.

Ditto for the amazingly manic guitar work of Sylvain Luc and Bireli Lagrene's Duet [Dreyfus Jazz FDM 36604-2, 1999]. On their cover of "Stompin' at the Savoy", these two lads really ham it up with all manner of guitar technique pyrotechnics and the S-9s separated all the strands and resolved the different guitars' tonal signatures in a most natural manner. The attack and strumming power when these guys hammer their instruments is realistically reproduced and in this area the S-9s don't lag too far behind my reference which is actually one of the references in terms of resolution and impact. Again, the air and ultimate high treble extension was reduced and robbed recordings of the aural impression of the studio or venue's ambience. In other words, the S-9s are a darker sounding speaker with a tonal palette towards the warmer side of the neutral sand line.

Dynamic contrasts were strongly presented from the bottom to the mids but again the top end let the team down a little in that the muted presentation didn't permit ultimate treble incision and presence. This of course could be the bees' knees when introduced into a system that's overpowered by a sprightly top-heavy solid stater or an upfront source. Or when playing back recordings produced by a graduate of the Spinal Tap School of Engineering - you know, the guys who turn all the EQ dials to 11.

A case in point was the superb The Company You Keep by John Gorka [Red House Records CD-151, 2001]. On the beautifully written and nostalgic "When You Walk In", John's baritone is closely miked and tends to almost overload the microphone. On a very neutral system, this recording tends to scream and in a very revealing system, it becomes less than enjoyable. Pity too as it is such great music. With the darker sounding S-9s, the beast was tamed, Gorka's vocals less prominent and slightly set back, the sharpness removed but the vocal and accompanying guitar clear and detailed.

The same applied to the superb Miracle Makers, a slightly strident recording of varying compositions played with early Guarneri and Stradivari instruments. Again the S-9s' laid-back presentation mellowed the stridency in this recording, having both violins sound more listenable albeit with the very last ounce of rosin-y subtlety missing in action.

Famously spacious recordings like Harry Belafonte's Live at Carnegie Hall [RCA R30P-1001/2, no date found on my re-issue] are another great test. The sense of reverberance, air and size of the venue was muted and far less realistic than my reference. Paradoxically, the soundstage was incredibly wide and deep and Harry's antics on stage superbly imaged from left to right and front and back. These speakers really image incredibly accurately without over-focusing or etching the presentation. They project to the point where some sounds seemed to emanate from the side walls of the room way outside the boxes.

The NuForce S-9 speaker had me puzzled to start off. Slotted straight into my reference system, they lacked extension and sounded muted from the lower treble on upwards as though their off-axis response in that region was significantly depressed. Changing to silver content and livelier cabling improved things markedly although they never quite reached the
openness and airy extension on top I am used to from my system and others. This sonic trait resulted in more acceptable results from recordings of mediocre quality and my supposition is that in a brighter setup, they'll be restoring a balance without loss of detail that would transform such a system.

In the end, you have to give it to these NuForce guys. They don't dive into the shark pool with their togs at half mast. I was mightily impressed with the S-9's overall heroic build quality, superbly engineered enclosure and sound crossover principles. The overall impression was one of superb material value for the money. Sonically, the slightly muted and laid-back top end left me wanting for a little more air around instruments, more ambience and venue acoustic information and more treble presence and dynamics. In all other areas, the S-9s performed extremely well
and impressed with their tight and generous bass and very good dynamics and detail from the midrange on down. More specifically, in the important areas of imaging, soundstaging and instrumental separation, the S-9s flat-out excelled, approaching my Wilson reference.

The design's pedigree is also noteworthy, being a product of collaboration between Bob Smith, an established and skilled loudspeaker designer, and the innovative wizards at NuForce, an increasingly successful high-end company on the up and up spiral. The NuForce S-9 then is a powerful debut and vigorous future for a potential new force in loudspeaker design.
Manufacturer's website