The Playback editors have come to respect the designs we’ve reviewed from NuForce. Their amps and D/A converters consistently offer good value. Not only that, NuForce seems to have a guiding vision that, in a short phrase, might be captured as “sonic clarity top to bottom”.
Recently, NuForce sent us their UF-30 headphones. In keeping with the NuForce value orientation, these retail for $59. They are lightweight, on-ear headphones designed for mobility, since they fold up and store neatly in a small oval case that actually offers some protection from the bump and grind of city life. The UF-30’s claim to fame is the use of driver technology licensed from Ultrasone.
Ultrasone is a somewhat below-the-radar German headphone company, whose costly but exquisite Edition 8 model left a serious positive impression on us. The UF-30s, like the Edition 8s, use a patented Ultrasone technology called S-Logic. While it sounds like something digital, S-Logic in fact involves the acoustics of using an offset driver to make the headphones sound more spacious and less “in your skull.” Ultrasone’s Edition 8 retails for around $1500, though, so having similar technology in a $59 headphone is interesting to say the least.
Consider this headset if: you want headphones with a balanced sound and good bass and treble detail.
Look elsewhere if: you need maximum refinement and smoothness in the midrange.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)
The UF-30s provide a sound that immediate strikes you as detailed and perhaps just slightly bright (emphasizing the treble range). This sense of detail holds up in the midrange, where guitars and voices are very articulate. Even the bass is tight, with excellent rendition of plucked bass lines.
Most people notice overall balance of bass, midrange and treble more than any other characteristic of headphones and speakers, so it is useful to talk about this in detail. With the UF-30, on some tracks this top-to-bottom balance seems very good, while on others the bass seems somewhat reticent. In the case of the UF-30s, I came to think that this happens because the mid-bass is well balanced and controlled, but the headphones don’t have much deep bass. As a result on real bass corkers, the UF-30s sound less balanced than they do on more normal material. In my experience you’re going to have to pay a lot more to get (good) deep bass, so this isn’t a huge loss. Still, if big punchy bass is one of your fervent desires, look elsewhere.
I was impressed with the efficacy of the S-Logic technology. The UF-30s do a nice job of moving the sound outside of your head, whereas many headphones make you feel like singers and guitarists have replaced your brain. Now, to be clear, S-Logic doesn’t put the band or orchestra in front of you, as they would be you heard them in a live setting. Instead, S-Logic simply creates of pleasant sense of the sound coming from the outside world.
For $59 you get a very usable sound with the UF-30s, but you don’t get perfection (heck, for $1500 you don’t get perfection). You should know about the limitations of the UF-30, not because they’re knock out factors in general, but in case one of these is of critical importance to you. With the UF-30, the treble is clear and very listenable, but to live up to the sound of live music it could be smoother. Lower midrange seems slightly under-represented, with the result that some instruments sound clear, but “thin.” Acoustic guitar strings, for example, come through beautifully on the UF-30s, but the resonant body sound is reduced in volume. Small issues to some, more important to others.
One final note is that the UF-30s are on-ear headphones. As a result, they do little to isolate the listener from outside sounds. This is not ideal in an airplane, but in an office it can be an advantage if you need to hear people address you. In addition, the design of the UF-30 seemed ideal to me for quick removal and replacement.
On Neko Case’s song “Dirty Knife” [Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Anti], the bass to treble balance is excellent and instrumental definition is quite good, particularly the electric bass. Case’s voice, however, shows a bit more shrillness than normal. Through the UF-30, voice and instruments have very low grain, which often is not the case with a lot of headphones in (or even above) this price class.