This is the second and final part of the NuForce Icon DAC review. In the first part of the review, we talked about the performance of the NuForce headphone output. Today, we want to concentrate on its use as a USB DAC. We listened to the NuForce Icon DAC with the following amplifiers and speakers ? Yamaha A-S2000, NuForce DDA-100, Denon AVR-X3000, Yamaha RX-V775, Q Acoustic 2050i, Klipsch RB-51 and Magnat Quantum Edelstein.
Is a 32 bit/96 kHz DAC really adequate?
The NuForce Icon DAC belongs to a line of mid-range USB DACs whose compatibility with digital audio files is limited to 96 kHz. Can we content ourselves with this or is it making a poor future choice and foregoing files sampled at 176.4 kHz, 192 kHz or even 352 kHz and 384 kHz? Let’s be honest, major online HD music services such as Hdtracks or Qobuz, mainly offer 24/44.1, 24/88.2 or 24/96 files. 24/192 quality files are less common and those with 32 bits and 352 kHz are extremely rare or even non-existent. Many HD FLAC format albums are transcoded from their SACD/DSD version and are therefore available in 24 bit and 88.2 kHz format. This format is natively supported by the NuForce Icon DAC. Qobuz will soon be offering DSD format (.DSF) files, which can be read by the NuForce Icon DAC.
If you use iTunes ? limited to 24 bits and 96 kHz ? and don’t like poking around your Mac, then the NuForce Icon DAC is just for you.
The NuForce Icon DAC is 24 bit/192 kHz compatible, but not natively compatible
We talk about natively because it’s perfectly possible to under-sample a 24 bit/192 kHz file in real time. This is what Windows and Mac OS audio mixers do by default if they are not bypassed. In other words, if you don’t use either Foobar2000 in ASIO mode, WASAPI or Audirvana, then the NuForce Icon DAC will read all your files.
The importance of cables
We connected the NuForce Icon DAC to an Acer laptop computer running in Windows 8 with Foobar2000. Our USB cable was an AudioQuest Forest model and the interconnect cables were NorStone RCS-500 and Viard Audio Premium HD RCA. Speaker cable was NorStone Silver 150 and Viard Audio HP Premium. The differences between NorStone and Viard Audio entry-level cables were such that we chose the Viard Audio. We will be reviewing this particular cable in the near future.
A few tracks we listened to
As with the headphones, listening on speakers emphasises the robust nature of the NuForce Icon DAC in the bass and upper bass range in particular. It is similar to the Pioneer N-50 as far as this is concerned. The medium is airy and detailed. Overall, a pleasing balance.
Since I’ve been loving you / Live at O2 Arena, Led Zeppelin (FLAC – 24 bits /48 kHz)
This album is torturous for a DAC which is less meticulous. As the dynamic range is particularly compressed, it’s difficult to sustain. Articulation in the upper bass range is convincing and the rhythm section takes full advantage. Robert Plant’s voice is well placed.
Travlin Light, Chet Baker (FLAC – 24 bits / 192 kHz)
The stereo sound is impressive ? the bass, piano and drums on the right, saxophone on the left and Chet Baker in the centre. The bass is never overpowering. What’s there not to like?
You’re my thrill, Chet Baker (FLAC – 24 bits / 192 kHz)
Another track from the Baker’s Holiday album but with Chet playing the trumpet this time. The rhythm section swings. The trumpet is soft and never crushes the other instruments.
Unfinished Sympathy, Massive Attack (FLAC – 24 bits / 96 kHz)
A legendary track, remastered for the Audio-DVD release. The opening section is majestic with powerful and deep bass which the NuForce Icon DAC handles with triumph. Strings and percussion are correctly separated.
Giorgio by Moroder, Daft Punk (FLAC – 24 bits / 88.2 kHz)
The Icon DAC extracts Moroder’s voice with realism. The Rs roll just as we like it. The final flourish is well controlled but electrifying.
Bob Marley & The Wailers, Punky Reggae Party (FLAC – 24 bits / 192 kHz)
This recording is extremely rich. We were expecting more bass but it’s Marley’s voice which stands out for its wealth of harmonics. The Icon DAC doesn’t betray the mix. The Wailers are at the back of the stage and male vocals are more present on the percussion.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Blue Rondo A la Turk (FLAC – 24 bits / 192 kHz)
Has a saxophone ever been as classy-sounding as it is on this track? We can even make out the artist blowing into the saxophone. The double bass is well placed. Percussion is sadly lacking precision, most likely due to the under-sampling to 24 bits and 96 kHz.
Variable level line ouput
The line output is controlled directly by the NuForce Icon DAC’s volume control, allowing it to be used as a pre-amplifier with a power amplifier. We tested this by switching the Yamaha A-S2000 to Direct In mode. This works very well even if the Yamaha’s pre-amplification section deserves to be used.
To sum up, the NuForce Icon DAC is a very high quality USB DAC, headphone amp and stereo line pre-amp which can be listened to using a computer and quality headphones or with an integrated amplifier or a power amplifier and speakers.