NuForce is well-known within the audiophile community for its class D power amplifiers, high-performance preamps, a high-end speaker system, and a very interesting desktop sound system powered by a tiny, paperback book-sized combo USB DAC/integrated amplifier called the Icon. But let’s face it: NuForce isn’t exactly a household name among iPodders and portable audio enthusiasts—a state of affairs that could soon change thanks to three product announcements made at CES 2009.
Is NuForce going mobile? Yes, and in a big way. At CES, NuForce showed not one but two new in-ear headphones called the NE-7M ($49) and NE-8 ($69), plus a slick new portable, rechargeable, lithium ion battery-powered USB DAC/headphone amplifier called the Icon Mobile ($99).
The NE-7M in-ear headphone has been designed to sound its best when driven directly by an iPod—something that, believe it or not, isn’t always true of in-ear headphones (some models are actually pretty hard to drive, and therefore sound much better when driven by auxiliary headphones amps such as those offered by Headroom, Ray Samuels Audio, and now NuForce). But the NE-7M is perfectly happy to be driven by garden-variety iPods. What’s very cool is that the NE-7M is not just a headphone but also a headset that’s perfect for use with iPhones. NuForce has cleverly embedded a tiny microphone pod/click-to-answer button within the NE-7M’s signal cable: nice. First impressions: very early on the NE-7M won a spot on my list of great sub-$100 in-ear ‘phones (another great one is Skullcandy’s excellent Titan). The NE-7M offers slightly warmer-than-neutral bass (not a bad thing with iPods), and an astonishing amount of detail and subtlety for the money.
According to NuForce VP and product guru Casey Ng, the NE-8 is more of a budget purist’s headphone (it’s not a headset as the NE-7M is) that works well when powered by ‘Pods, but even better when driven by an outboard headphone amp such as—you guessed it—NuForce’s new Icon Mobile. I don’t yet have a lot of listening experience with the NE-8s, but here are my preliminary conclusions. First, the NE-8 is, as advertized, very accurate-sounding, perhaps almost to a fault. It strikes me as offering some—though perhaps not all—of the sonic benefits of in-ear ‘phones such as the Klipsch Custom 3 or the Sennheiser IE7 (clarity, definition and detail in abundance, with reasonably neutral tonal balance), but at a bargain basement price. But like the Klipsch and Sennheiser ‘phones, the NE-8s might also initially strike listeners as sounding a little cold, analytical, or overly bright. Time will tell. Second, the NE-8 does, again as advertized, benefit from the extra “oomph” an outboard headphone amp can provide, which brings us to the Icon Mobile.
The Icon Mobile incorporates several noteworthy features:
* Inputs: 1 x 3.5mm analog with 4-pin jack that supports headsets, 1 x USB 2.0 (supports Skype and Messenger-type mics).
* DAC: Support both 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates
* Master Gain: 2 settings (one for traditional earbuds, the other for conventional headphones).
* Output Volume: Continuously adjustable via a “high-quality rotary volume pot” (i.e., a thumbwheel control).
* Outputs: 1 x 4-pin 3.5mm mini-jack (for use with headsets), 1 x 3-pin 3.5mm mini-jack (for headphones or line-level components).
* Power: Built-in Lithium ion battery.
* Accessories: USB cable,3.5mm-to-3.5mm (iPod-to-Icon) cable, soft silicone rubber strap for attaching the Icon Mobile “piggyback-style” to your iPod or iPhone.
My experience with NuForce amps of all sizes is that they need some “run-in” time before optimal sound unfolds, so I won’t comment on the Icon Mobile’s sound until later on, when I review the unit in Playback. But for now, let me leave you with this thought: it seems to me the Icon Mobile offers a ton of functionality for $99. Best buddies take note: the Icon Mobile can . A handy feature, no?