Depending on your point of view, these are either interesting or confusing times in the audio world because of changes in the concepts behind pieces of audio gear. D/A conversion, server architectures, and packaging for desktop and mobile use are all in flux. The various boxes that do audio things are not static in their conceptualization, something that even computer-oriented people occasionally find baffling. At the same time, the good news is that if you want some particular combination of features to suit your needs, you probably can find it.
NuForce is a brand that seems to specialize in interesting and innovative packaging for high quality audio. The company recently supplied us with a test sample of the Icon uDAC-2, which is basically a USB DAC and headphone amp in a small (2.7” x 1.5” x 0.8”) portable box. The price is $129, and NuForce claims that the DAC compares favorably to that in many audiophile CD players.
That doesn’t sound too confusing, but it took me a minute to figure out what was up with the uDAC-2. First off, the uDAC-2 is USB-powered only (no batteries) and so is designed to work with a laptop, not an iPod or iPhone or iPad (you can use such devices, but you need to interpose a powered USB hub). The laptop/desk orientation is signaled by the design of the uDAC-2, which is a sort of Lilliputian rendition of the NuForce Icon HDP, replete with rotary volume control and RCA output jacks.