Random Noise 29
[This review appears simultaneously at StereoTimes.com as Random Noise 29.]
NuForce’s DAC-9 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Beginning in the mono era — my college years — my interest in good sound meandered along at a leisurely pace to where it’s become this ancient’s obsession. I mention this only by way of observing that life’s too short for unnecessary compromise. So let’s get this out in the open again: I work for NuForce and am here setting about commenting on a NuForce product. I ask that you believe me to be sincere in my devotion to well recorded and reproduced music and in what I have to say about the DAC-9. Failing that, think of this as an infomercial. I’ll do my best to keep you entertained.
Enter Geekdom at your peril
My favorite toys in all the world: a pair of Dave Wilson’s Sasha W/P speakers. If you’ve seen the Sashas in ads, you will perhaps have noticed them in the company of la crème de la crème — Lamm amps, for example, or similarly spendy gear. When I mention to audiophiles that NuForce electronics and peripherals do the deed here at the Noble Pile, a polite silence follows. Nobody has yet to say “Are you kidding?”
Actually, no, I’m quite serious. When the company was young and I in no way connected, NuForce mono switching amps sounded smoother to me and better detailed than the highly regarded high-end space heaters I’d been using for several years. The flyweight amps’ resolution was nothing short of astonishing. Further, they drove my then WATT/Puppies with as much authority as I could have desired.
And from NuForce there to NuForce here: Reference 18 mono amps, P-9 preamp (to be replaced in due course by the P-18), CDP-8 with its LPS-1 analog power supply feeding the DAC-9 via a BNC digital cable; speaker cables with Magic Cubes. (So far as I’m aware, the Magic Cube, consisting at its core of what the designer, Bob Smith, calls the Smith Cell, is unique to NuForce and Aether Audio, Bob own enterprise.) RCA interconnects throughout. Lastly, an Italian import NuForce distributes, BlackNoise Extreme and 2500 line filters. See NuForce.com for details about all of this. Departures: Oyaide duplex outlets and Nordost power cords. (NuForce does not as yet offer a power cord.)
There’s a signature sound to NuForce’s top-tier products: exquisite soundstaging, superb resolution, transparency, dynamics, and harmonic textures, to all of which the DAC-9 contributes substantially. The CDP-8 as a stand-alone player leaves little to be desired. The CDP-8 with its optional LPS-1 power supply feeding the DAC-9 leave even less to be desired.
Returning briefly to crazy-expensive, The CDP-8 at $1450, LPS-1 power supply at $329, and DAC-9 at $1695 approximate the price of the interconnects I removed to make way for a NuForce pair. I sacrificed nothing in the way of outcome. This NuForce ensemble raises a good recording to a more lifelike event than anything that’s preceded it.
I demur, sir!
I mentioned my system’s seductive soundstaging. (O those Wilsons!) Because I hear a beautifully proportioned soundstage as one of listening’s foremost pleasures, an aside: A popular philovinylite whose columns and reviews I enjoy — even when his topics hold little interest — has taken a position that calls for comment. In atypically harsh terms, the writer contends that the audiophile’s enthusiasm for a well dimensioned and detailed soundstage is fatuous inasmuch as it has little to do with the sound of live unamplified music: in effect, with the sound of classical music in concert halls. (Once upon a time unamplified instruments and voices served as the purpose to which hi-fi aspired. The predominance of live-performance amplification has long since blunted a worthy distinction.)
For the most part, when we attend a live symphonic concert, we have a less than laser-sharp sense of where, say, the viola section sits. Hall reflections tend to blur these perceptions. An audience member has only to shut his or her eyes to appreciate this point. A good stereo recording reveals locations we don’t identify nearly as precisely in a live setting. We don’t need to. We’re looking at an ensemble of whatever size and usually see who’s doing what. Our eyes augment our ears. I’ll probably be a sucker for two-channel sound as long as my hearing holds out. In my contentment with the medium I’m obliged to mention that our lot listens blind. We hear the sounds but can’t see the sounders, which brings me to this:
A recording’s well detailed soundstage helps us to envision the event. For this listener — I know I’m repeating myself — it’s one of canned sound’s great attractions. The opposing viewpoint has merit withal. It’s a matter of taste. I ask in all serenity, whence the vituperation in expressing a preference?
Getting back to the DAC-9
Along with its independent headphone amplifier with 6.3mm and 3.5mm output jacks, The DAC-9 accommodates all known digital sources and is configured to accept those that don’t as yet exist. (I do no headphone listening so have not checked out the unit’s headphone capability.) Again, in league with the CDP and its beefy linear DC power supply — a definite improvement over the provided power supply — the trio reveals qualities that belie the compact disc’s unenviable reputation among philovinylites. Apart from Aurum Acoustics’ superb Integris CDP, which I removed to make way for my NuForce threesome, I have nothing with which to compare, nor much of a history in that department. Clement Perry faults me for my indifference to shows or other folks’ sound systems. It’s true. My idea of an excursion is to the end of my driveway, pause, deep breath, return to the house. In my defense, I’ve been denting sweet spots for a very long time. I flatter myself that I can distinguish good sound from mediocre and worse.
Listening to starboard
This brings us to my thoroughly biased opinion of the CDP-8, LPS-1 and CDP-9 (with, to be inclusive, Reference 18 mono amps, BlackNoise line filters, Magic Cubes and NuForce cabling).
I’m not sure what required the most breaking-in. Like any thoughtless tyro, I installed the DAC-9, LPS-1, BNC digital cable and second set of NuForce interconnects simultaneously. The CDP-8, having been in use for a number of months, was already well seasoned. In any event, the maturation process didn’t take terribly long. For the pure pleasure of it, I kept returning to the Auryn String Quartet’s Tacet label performances of Haydn’s and Beethoven’s string quartets, which I regard, of this kind, as among the best-sounding in my collection. Great performances too, but that’s not what we’re about.
Equipment that so thoroughly portrays the near-tactile allure of well-recorded strings is equally adept at revealing warts, in one interesting instance, a London CD released in 1989 of Carl Nielsen’s First and Sixth symphonies, Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London 425 607-2). The violins sound a good deal grittier than I remember. I suspect this may be due in some measure to the orchestra’s home venue, Davis Symphony Hall, which has always impressed me as having a distinctive sonic signature. Heightened resolution also plays a large part. The DAC-9 is not a forgiving addition.
I listened to a great many large-scale recordings more rewarding, indeed more thrilling, than the above. Foremost among my impressions: enhanced dynamics and resolution, and a wonderful sense of breadth. But to return to my hobbyhorse, nothing is so revealing — or gratifying — as well recorded strings, and most especially string quartets. In addition to the Tacet discs, I have the Quartetto Italiano’s performances of Beethoven’s string quartets on the Philips Classics label, recorded in the late Sixties and reissued on CD in 1996. The other set I used for comparison is on the Telarc label: the Cleveland Quartet’s 1995 Beethoven readings produced by the most excellent Judith Sherman and recorded by the likewise excellent Jack Renner, assisted by Thomas Knab, whose work I’m not familiar with.
The Auryn Quartet’s sound is meticulously detailed and diamond-bright. Equally detailed is the Cleveland’s honey-rich sound. And as the DAC-9 so honestly reports, the Quartetto Italiano’s recordings show their age. The thing is, experiencing these distinctions as clearly as I did — and do — exemplifies our hobby’s rewards.
DAC-9 Digital-to-Analog Converter, $1,695.