The NuForce Reference 9 SE monoblocks took me by surprise, with startling dynamics, a big and transparent soundstage, and outstanding resolution. The musical presentation was better in every way than the twice-the-price Cary A 306. The NuForce amps had a subtle, sophisticated, and refined quality reminiscent of the best high-end gear, coupled with explosive transient impact and center-of-the-earth bottom-end solidity and power. There was a cognitive disconnect at seeing those little boxes on the listening room floor and simultaneously hearing such a huge and powerful presentation.
The Reference 9 SEs did, however, have some of the same “chalky” coloration in the upper midrange and lower treble I heard from the Cary A 306, along with a bit of truncation of the air riding on the top octave.
The Reference 9 SEs weren’t in the territory of the Kharma MP150, but at a third the price (and about one-tenth the price of my reference Balanced Audio Technologies VK-600SE monoblocks), the NuForce amplifiers are worth an audition.
I can’t recall an audio product producing such polarized response among different listeners as the Reference 9. Chris Martens thinks no similarly priced linear amplifier comes close in sound quality. Roy Gregory, editor of our sister publication HiFi+, had a negative reaction to them, as did Wayne Garcia, as you will see from his comment below. Overall, I give the NuForce Reference 9 SEs a thumbs up.
Perhaps Class D amplifiers in general, or the Reference 9 SEs in particular, interact with the associated components to a greater degree than do other amplifiers. Whatever the reason, an audition in your own system seems prudent.
More than any other amp in this survey the NuForce is going to generate controversy. My colleague Chris Martens is crazy about it, our EIC Robert Harley thinks it’s pretty good, and I think it’s terrible. To my ears—and in my system, which seems to be critical of some of these critters—this amplifier is not transparent; it’s cold and clinical with that kind of false “clarity” that fools us into thinking it’s transparent when it really isn’t. Take the Adés piece I described in my Kharma review. Heard over the NuForce, the soundstage seems like it has a sheet of glass laid over it. Yeah, it’s “clear,” but it foreshortens the recording’s superb depth, adding a slight but audible layer of opacity. Plus, its background noise isn’t as low or as pure as the Kharma’s. On the Bach violin solos, Kremer’s violin is all sharp strings and bow (admittedly, like many ECM recordings, this is a cool, borderline steely disc), with almost no sense of the instrument’s body and little dynamic nuance, which sucks the poetry out of Kremer’s beautiful playing. And on the Nina Simone disc, her voice, when pushed, gets brittle; the recording’s ambience seems bathed in dry ice; there’s no bloom anywhere; and the upright bass is all pluck with no weight.