Review: Nuforce Icon integrated desktop amplifier

My office desktop audio setup has always been the poor cousin of my main home theatre setup in the family room. The problem is, I spend way more time in my office these days and I always listen to music when I am on the PC. So when I was listening to music most often I was doing it on second rate equipment. I had though managed to cobble together a spare pair of Krix Brix bookshelf speakers and mounted them on the wall either side of my desk. These were connected to a cheap Chinese all-in-one mini CD/DVD/Radio/Amp – you know the ones – $100 everywhere these days…. I thought the sound was acceptable but the amp definitely lacked the guts to drive the speakers properly – even up full there was no bass to speak of. So I mainly used the headphones. But using the headphones I could hear a lot of background noise and the quality overall was still lacking.

So I started researching and lurking on sites like Headfi and Computer Audiofile learning about the issues surrounding PC audio.

I quickly learnt that on-board PC audio is pretty poor. To keep the price down they generally have cheap components and suffer noise crossover from all the other kit in a PC. They also have cheap digital to analogue converters (DACs). The DAC is the critical part that converts digital audio into an analogue signal that comes out your headphone/line out port. I confirmed this by bypassing my amp and plugging my headphones directly into headphone socket. The sound quality was appalling and all the amp was doing was making it a little louder and adding its own deficiencies.

So, what to do? First thing I decided was that I needed a better quality external DAC to eliminate the noise problems. There are a few available – but they don’t come cheap. I had a secondary problem of how to drive my external speakers – so still needed an amplifier as well. Oh and I wanted to use my headphones still – especially at night. What I needed was something that had an external DAC, integrated amplifier and a headphone socket. Turns out such a combination is rare indeed.

The Nuforce Icon integrated amplifier and DAC is one solution. It connects to your PC via USB, has an internal DAC, headphone socket and pumps out 12 Watts per channel (peak). This may not sound like much but I am not talking about running a rave party here – I want to listen to music as I type. 12 watts  is plenty when your speakers are no more than a meter away from your ears.  The reviews I read were impressive to say the least.

I ordered mine via Amazon and shipping to Australia was no hassle. It arrived in two weeks – beautifully boxed. The included power supply supported all international voltages and has a standard PC cable power socket. So all you need to do to get it working in other countries is replace the power lead – sweet. The device is about the same size as an older external USB drive and has only two knobs – one for volume and one for source selection. You can select from USB (using its own DAC), 3.5mm socket, or RCA. So if you just want to plug in an analogue source (like a phone) you can. There is a little blue power LED and a 3.5mm headphone socket also on the front. It comes with a nifty plastic stand so you can stand it vertically on your desk to save space.

The back panel has a power socket, 3.5mm stereo audio input, USB type B, stereo RCA (in), and a line out socket (apparently you can use it as a DAC/preamp only or use this socket to drive a powered subwoofer). The weirdest thing is how the speakers are connected. Nuforce have decided to use two standard RJ45 (yes Ethernet) sockets for this. Its a bit strange but at least they give you two one meter speaker cables with banana plugs as part of the package. The nice thing about this arrangement is that if you want a longer cable you can just use standard straight cat5e cable (something that I have plenty of) and a cheap RJ45 cable joiner – thats what I have done as my speakers are more like three metres from the amp. Or, if you want, you can make up your own cables using the wiring diagram on the website. Its worth noting that Nuforce use all 8 wires in the cat5e cable – 4 wires for positive and 4 wires for negative. This means that you have the benefit of 4 x AWG24 – the equivalent of a single AWG18 cable. But don’t get me started on speaker cable…

The important thing of course is how the thing sounds. On that score, it’s just brilliant. I have plugged it into my 10 year old Krix Brix bookshelf speakers and they have never been driven like this before. No need for a subwoofer, the bass is fantastic and the high end is audible for the first time. At volume set to 1 o’clock, the sound is about comfortable listening level about 1 meter from my speakers. Set it to 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock and sound comes alive – clarity I have never heard before.  On the headphone front the device performs admirably but I think I may have to upgrade from my Sennheiser CX300s to really appreciate it.

With the multiple inputs, its possible to run direct comparisons between the internal DAC and the on board audio on my PC. The difference is noticeable – if not glaring. First off for some reason, the signal from the onboard audio is much louder – maybe +5  or +10 dB.  In this case though, louder is not always better as the on-board audio is much muddier and clouded with mid range bass. The high end seems to be lacking and of course the noise is still there is quieter bits.

Its worth noting that Nuforce have recently released an upgraded Icon-2 amp. Its 50% more expensive. The main differences is doubling of power (to 30 Watts per channel) and a 32 bit integrated DAC. The extra power would be nice but as I do not have any 32-bit source material (has anyone?) I doubt I’d hear any difference. There is also a PCB upgrade from the Icon to the Icon 2.

All in all an excellent and much worthwhile upgrade to any desktop audio system – especially if you already have some good high sensitivity speakers and are looking for something to drive them.

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