NuForce has been shaking up the hi-fi world with its hot-rod amplifiers that boast high performance at a bargain price. The company’s newest creation is the Icon, a miniature, multi-threat amplifier that can be driven by an iPod, CD player, PC, or Mac (via analog inputs), can play digital audio files via it’s own built-in USB DAC, and even serves as a headphone amplifier. At $250, the Icon is a great value for those who want to enhance the sound of their desktop audio system or to power a small, traditional stereo rig.
UNUSUAL DESIGN, WINNING RESULTS
If you think of dedicated amplifiers as hot, bulky components for the hi-fi crowd, the Icon may come as a surprise to you. Its slick, modern design features an anodized aluminum case (in various colors), a small stand to keep it steady, and oversized volume and input selector knobs. Somehow, NuForce managed to pack all the circuitry in a case about the size of a small paperback, so the Icon can easily fit on a desktop, bookshelf, or wherever else you might use to set up a small stereo rig. Around back, the amp has a 3.5-mm input for iPods and other portables, RCA inputs for stereo components, a USB connection for PCs and Macs, and a 3.5-mm line-lever output for driving outboard amps or a subwoofer. On the front of the unit is a 3.5-mm headphone jack. Thanks to one of its most unique and useful features, the Icon can convert generally-mediocre digital audio output from a PC or Mac into a high-quality analog signal. When you hook the Icon to your computer via the (included) USB cable, the amp uses a built-in (Burr-Brown) DAC to work its magic. When you want to patch an iPod or CD player into the Icon, standard analog (RCA or mini-jack) cables will do the trick.
I tested out all of these connections using an Oppo DV-981HD universal player, an iPod, and a Macbook, with the Icon driving a pair of Usher S520 bookshelf speakers (as reviewed and recommended in Playback 5). And in order to see how the Icon fared vs. a traditional, full-bodied amp, I listened to it in side-by-side comparison to a (very solid) Rotel RA-1062 that puts out 60 watts per channel (as reviewed in Playback 7).
A FULL-FLEDGED PERFORMER
The Icon puts out just 12 watts per channel, but you would be amazed at what those 12 watts can do. From the very first track I listened to, I was surprised at how powerful and detailed the sound was on everything from rock to classical and jazz music. When I put on Radiohead’s In Rainbows [ATO Records], I could immediately tell this amp had some guts. On “Bodysnatchers,” the track opens up with some heavy, fuzzed-out guitar and thumping drums, and as Yorke’s high-pitched vocals come in, the Icon was able to balance out all of these elements, putting out a surprisingly balanced sound with tight bass and clean mids and highs. When I switched over to the Rotel, the initial impact was slightly more dramatic—a slightly bigger sound, with heavier bass—but the overall difference was not significant. In fact, some of the mids and highs— cymbals crashing and high-pitched vocal passages, for instance—sounded brighter and more realistic through the Icon.
To test the Icon with more subtle, acoustic music, I put on the NuForce Live! BluePort Jazz Sampler and Joe Wilder and Marshal Royal Quintet’s “Mood Indigo.”
On good live recordings like this, you can hear details and textures in the horns, winds, and percussion that don’t come across as vividly in studio material. Here, Wilder’s big, lush tone on the trumpet sounded amazing and life-like, and as each instrument came in and out of the mix, the blending and balance was excellent. This time when I switched over to the Rotel, the difference was hardly noticeable at all. Again, the Rotel produced a slightly beefier sound, and was able to produce higher volume levels before it started to break up and distort the music. But at normal listening levels, the soundstage, balance, and imaging was equally impressive on both amps.
The Icon’s output was also impressive through the headphone jack when I plugged in my trusty Grado SR80s. If you’ve never tried a headphone amp before—much less one with a USB DAC—the Icon will really open your eyes and ears. Compared to listening straight from a PC or Mac headphone output, the Icon revealed more detail in the music, and a smoother, more refined sound, even with compressed tracks. On Feist’s The Reminder [Cherry Tree], “The Water” is a track where the singer’s highpitched voice is filled with dramatic fluctuations in style, tone, and delivery. The Icon produces such sharp images that you don’t feel like you’re missing even the slightest detail in her voice or the backing music; the faint piano and subtle scraping of guitar strings are all there.
While some may consider a desktop amp a luxury (and OK, maybe it is), the Icon makes a convincing case to justify its very reasonable cost. Not only will it work wonders on digital tracks coming from a PC or Mac, but it’s a wonderfully versatile product and a full-bodied amp that can hold its own in a traditional stereo setup. The Icon will have been made available through Amazon on April 25, and the companion S-1 speakers will be available after May 25.