My journey of audio systems from NuForce to NuPrime

– By RafaPolit, audiocircle.com

Part 1 of 4 : Starting out

Starting a new home has many challenges, no doubt about it.  When my wife and I decided to move in together we knew early on that we wanted music… great music filling our home.

Therefore our process of selecting audio components actually started before looking at any electronics or speakers.  It started with questions:  Where are we going to listen to our music?  Is it in the living room? Is it in our small study? For us, it was in the bedroom where we watch epic movies, exciting concerts, listen to relaxing music while reading or painting, or just fall asleep to sweet piano tunes.

This presented the first challenge: the system needed to be small enough to fit in the bedroom, produce loud enough sound when you want it to, but be able to lay back when you are just background-listening.  This is no small feat, as some equipment that can blow the roof off out of a house is not necessarily great at doing low volume and subtle music.

Obviously, it had to be able to grow, or at least adapt to other needs as time goes by.  As for most people, it also needs to fall within a budget.

There is one piece of background information that is quite important: we live in Quito, Ecuador.  A great place for outdoor adventures, mountain hiking, and eternal spring.  What it is not so great at is having lots of Hi-Fi audio distributors, or even online distributors.  It is also a country with heavy taxes on imported electronics so distributors only carry what they can easily sell, and only import upon specific request.

So there are two things which you cannot do: audition multiple systems (which should be your first approach at selecting components), and take home equipment to test and then return whichever you felt was not for you.  This wa the second challenge.

There is a local distributor which carries Paradigm and Totem speakers, NuPrime (and prior to that NuForce) and Hegel amps and DACs. Other local distributor imports Marantz, and the market is filled with the lower end Yamaha and Harman Kardon AV Receivers (not the top of the line though), as well as expensive Bose systems.

Most new buyers here (perhaps everywhere?) follow the notion that speakers are the single most important purchase, and that you then pair them with whatever equipment you have available.  I was of this idea myself when we started the actual component search. After weighing in local options of speakers, I had set on a pair of 8Ω Totem Mite speakers which I would pair to an old Panasonic AV Control Receiver I already owned.  But, after listening to the bigger and deeper Totem Rainmaker Speakers (which due to stock clearance sale where more or less priced in the same range), we decided: why not!

Great, so: “That’s it!” we thought.  We are set to go! Yes, but these speakers are hungrier, they demand 4Ω from the amplifier.  This meant that the decision for better speakers had pushed us on the quest of purchasing also a new amp.  Very thin on budget we opted for the most basic option available at that time: a used NuForce DDA-100 which would provide the basic connectivity and a decent 75W@4Ω to drive the new speakers.

I am always hesitant when purchasing used items.  I am known to be a bit obsessed about taking good care of my equipment, and when buying used I have this sour taste thinking that the previous owner probably did not put as much care as I would have.  But, when it comes to expensive equipment, sometimes there is no better alternative (or at least not within a budget).

The system worked great though, and we were very pleased with the overall sound and the simplicity of the setup.  The sound was brilliant with guitars and female voices, but male voices were less lavish.  Orchestral soundtracks and classical works (specially full orchestras) sounded a bit thin.  Still, nothing to keep us up at night, it was just a minor nuisance every now and then.

Obviously, the speakers needed to be properly placed, and our room was not ready for them.  Everything was mostly improvised: one night stand, one small shelf, cables showing all over the place.

We found out we needed to buy into ‘components’ we didn’t think were part of the system when we started out.  We needed a ‘stand’ for the speakers that could also hold the BluRay player and the integrated DAC/AMP.  So we decided to put a drawer inside the room.  The added storage space was much appreciated in our small apartment.

What was not that clear when we first chose it for its aesthetics, functionality and its overall placement of components was that (of course!) it would have an impact on the sound as well.   The speakers were placed directly on top and there was heavy coupling of the speaker to the drawer’s wood.  But this will only become a problem much later, once the system was dynamic enough to bring out these problems.  With the current setup this was not really an issue.

For the time being, this was a quantum-leap improvement over our previous experience in which every sound emanated just from the TV integrated speakers.

Starting System:
– TV integrated Speakers

Components added:
– Totem Rainmaker Speakers
– NuForce DDA-100
– Optical (toslink) connection between TV and DDA-100

Part 2 of 4: Adding sources, and losing the NuForce DDA-100

Now that we were enjoying great TV sound through the new setup, we found ourselves listening to youtube music often in the bedroom rather than in the smaller Sony mini-component in our living room.

We felt it was time to add better music sources to our system.  What was our goal? To be able to remotely control the system from our cell phones.  Since we already have iPhones and our house had already an AirPort Express in our living room, the first logic approach was to add another AirPort Express in the bedroom.

This proved really useful as we now could stream audio from our phones into the bedroom system without having to first locate the youtube file on the TV.  It also allowed a first in our home: multi-room listening experience.  Through the addition of Tune Relay software to the home computer, we were able to broadcast the same sound to both the living room and the bedroom.  It’s a joy to just walk around the apartment and listen to the same music all over the place, all controlled from our cell phones.

At this point, we (or at least I) had been ‘bitten’ by the audiophile bug.  You just know you want to start trying new things, exploring bigger sound, better sources, simpler control, or, at the very least, be able to keep on enjoying sound even if someone decides to call you in the middle of your music listening session.

So, being a software developer, I went down the DIY (do it yourself) route and installed a Raspberry Pi3 Linux computer plugged via USB to the DDA-100 to achieve bit-perfect audio.  If you are into HiFi Digital audio and have no idea what this is, I urge you to read more about the subject.  It really is a fun project and your audio experience will be rewarded.

After testing a few linux distributions specifically designed for the RPi3 and bit-perfect audio: Volumio, Runeadio and Moode, I decided Moode was (at least for me) the best sounding of the three.  Also the one that had more active development and a great community behind it.  With some tweaks I was able to install a Spotify connect client into the RPi3 so that our phones and tablets could control the music, but no longer get interrupted when the phone rings or when other apps make sounds.

Everything was going smoothly and it was a system we truly enjoyed and, within our budget, it was really hard to find any complaint.

And then, during a thunderstorm, the NuForce DDA-100 got damaged and died on us!

Starting System:
– NuForce DDA-100
– TV optically connected
– Totem Rainmaker Speakers

Components added:
– Apple AirPort Express with optical (toslink) connection to DDA-100
– Raspberry Pi3 Moode OS Music server (with custom Spotify connect client) with USB-B connection to DDA-100

Part 3 of 4:  Buying new DAC and AMP

The concept of “single point of failure” (SPOF), has never been so clear to me.  After all the efforts and all the automation that was now available in our system, one single component failure got us from great music to complete silence in the blink of an eye! We were back to TV speakers.

So now we were on the market again for a way to make our digital sources create sound through our speakers.  But this time something had changed: we already have had a taste of what it could sound like if done better.

The options were interesting: some very well regarded brands in the mainstream markets, others from smaller houses and less well known (or at least not universally known), but with raving reviews and fantastic user experiences documented in the online communities.

Perhaps it’s a good time to talk about online communities.  I strongly believe that an article like this called “how to choose your components” may very well be a one-liner that read: “Find the best online communities and ask for advice”.

I did just that: started asking away… some questions went directly into brand-specific forums and others into general audio discussions trying to narrow down our choices.  Local availability was an issue, but finding online people that have had hands-on experience with a particular item was much easier than finding local help.

What we faced was a two-front decision: which model / models to pick and, given our previous experience, if we were going to repeat the one-component-to-rule-them-all approach, or if we were going to separate their responsibilities.

The single DAC / AMP solution is very appealing: very small footprint, a lot easier to manage, less cable clutter.  But you get this benefits sacrificing ultimate sound quality and less amplification power.

The local available options were, as discussed before:

Basic Yamaha and Harman Kardon AV Receivers.
Several Marantz AV Receivers and the option to import the Marantz HD-AMP1
The entire NuPrime and Hegel lines

Unfortunately, the basic Yamaha and Harman Kardon receivers that were available locally only accepted speakers of 6Ω onwards.  For the first time I regretted purchasing the 4Ω speakers.  I knew they would require more niche equipment, but it was too soon after purchase to be having issues with the decision.  Perhaps buying something with more standard specs like 8Ω speakers would have been a better decision? Time will tell.  At any rate, this left the basic AV Receivers out of the race.

Having no way of auditioning the options side by side was a challenge.  Furthermore, the Marantz equipment was only displayed on shelves, we could not audition them, not even in the store.  The NuPrime and Hegel local distributor (Innovaciones Acusticas) on the other hand does have proper acoustic rooms where you can audition the NuPrime top of the line components.  Still, the integrated amps were not available locally, and neither were any of the Hegel models.

Having the option to physically listen to a system adds a value I cannot praise enough. Buying equipment knowing you already enjoy their sound is much easier than taking a blind leap of faith into the unknown. Apparently local distributors don’t think this way.  None except Innovaciones Acústicas.  There we could get a clear feeling of what we would enjoy later on in our home.  The experience was great!

(Innovaciones Acústicas showroom, used with owner’s permission)

This alone should have trumped all other options… that and knowing that the ‘NuPrime sound’ was something we already liked (having evolved from the NuForce line).  We already knew this was the safer bet on our side.  Still, there were strong contenders available.

I turned to the online community once more and, although with expected discrepancies amongst the posters, there was a general consensus that the Marantz equipment will produce less refined sound than those offered by NuPrime or Hegel.

Hegel enjoys a great fan base, and NuPrime has also a very devoted community that stands behind their products.  This was a tougher decision and opinions were divided.

Hegel’s entry level integrated DAC / AMP, the H80, had all the right ingredients: it was more AMP oriented as it featured balanced inputs from external sources, yet included the DAC. The Röst model included streaming options which we had already covered in our system, but still it was a solid candidate (albeit more expensive).

NuPrime range was wider and the entry level IDA-6 lacked the USB-B input for our Linux Music Server, so we quickly ruled that one out.  The IDA-8 on the other hand was a smaller, tighter enclosure when compared to the Hegel H80, much more appealing to the small space we have, but sacrificing a little in future-proof versatility.  What versatility? The fact that, if and when DACs evolve, or there is a new format, we could still use the Hegel H80s balanced analog inputs.  The NuPrime IDA-8 felt less up to the task because it digitizes its (only RCA) analog inputs.  On the other hand, It was half the price of the Hegel.

Of course, these problems were not problems at all… our previous DDA-100 had even less versatility lacking any analog inputs, and we were OK with that.  But I kept feeling that buying into the IDA-8 or H80 got us into the same problem of having a “single point of failure”.  So my wife and I discussed these concerns and she asked a very simple question which I often miss when battling with so many options: “is there a solution to having everything in the same component?”… “yes, of course, we could buy two separate pieces, a DAC and an AMP”.  She just smiled!

Perhaps I was debating myself so hardly because I already knew that that was (for me at least) the better route.

So entered the NuPrime STA-9 and DAC-9 into the mix.  Right from the start, I felt more comfortable with what they offered.  I turned to the online communities again because the reports of the ‘warmth’ that the STA-9 + DAC-9 combo are famous for worried me a bit.  I usually prefer the sound to be really crisp and detailed, and I was unsure if that warmth would take away from those characteristics.  The top-of-the-line NuPrime ST-10 and DAC-10 on the other hand were famous for being much more neutral, albeit considered too ‘clinical’ by some reviewers, who prefered the 9s.

This difference in preferences is a interesting concept that perhaps is less true for the bigger houses: a Yamaha entry-level receiver model X is probably inferior in every way to the higher-level model Y.  In smaller more research-oriented companies like Hegel or NuPrime, where there is a lot of innovation between one product and the next one, you may end up with model X offering some characteristics and model Y offering others, not necessarily one always better than the other.

While this is great for the product line, it poses a challenge when deciding.  Specially in places where you cannot benefit from trying both and just picking the one you prefer, or at least hearing them side by side.

In the end, there was no ‘wrong choice’.  Every option was a little different, and since the debate hung between two products of the same company, I was able to access the full knowledge of the online community without fear of brand advertising or favoritism.  In the end, due to local availability and online discussions, the ST-10 and DAC-10 combo won the battle.

It was the little details that made them more appealing: two optical inputs for the TV and AirPort Express (the DAC-9 only offered one), the option to have the ST-10 remotely started and stopped by the DAC-10 via a standard 3.5mm audio cable and the added bass extension.  Also, the better handling of large orchestras of the ST-10. Finally, the inescapable truth that we were able to physically listen to the 10s and witness personally what they could do.  It was a close call, but the 10s combo had the edge for us.

Also, being already available locally meant that instead of the usual one or two months waiting period, we could leave the store with both products the same day (and with a discount thanks to local stock clearance sale).

The addition of the ST-10 and DAC-10 to our system is nothing short of breathtaking!  The sound is full, spacious, dynamic.  All you could ask from a system. But lets backtrack a bit, as it took some time and further tweaking to reach to that level.

Starting System:
– (non functioning) NuForce DDA-100
– TV optically connected
– Apple AirPort Express optically connected
– Raspberry Pi3 USB connected
– Totem Rainmaker Speakers

Components added:
– NuPrime ST-10
– NuPrime DAC-10

Part 4 of 4: Refining the sound and protecting the system

With all the excitement of having a new DAC and AMP in the house, we made sure we would never again bury another component due to electric failures or storms: we bought a good (albeit inexpensive) Line Regulator / Conditioner for our bedroom.

Upon first hearing the new ST-10 and DAC-10 in the system, it was clear that they were unlike anything we have heard before.  There was a lot of extra detail in the music.  For the first time I understood what people meant when they talked about “sound stage”: music came from everywhere, not just the space between the speakers.  Also, they were capable of a lot more power!  If we were not careful, we could end up damaging the speakers by outputting all the power the AMP is capable of.

But, as was expected, they also revealed deficiencies that were previously hidden and produced sound that was not yet mature:

Components were not yet broken in, and the sound was smaller than what it would turn out to be a few weeks later, specially in the mid-range frequencies.
The added dynamic range and extended frequency response made the coupling of the speakers to the drawer board a problem: there was a lot of sound being absorbed and distorted by the drawer. The greater detail in the music revealed shortcomings depending on the source to a greater extent: the gap between great and poor recordings was much wider, as was the sound difference from low bit-rate mp3 and higher bit-rate files (although I have to admit that 320Kbps mp3 from music streaming systems is ‘good enough’).

Think of this as video played on an HD TV, a Full HD TV and a 4K TV.  In the standard HD TV, you get nice detail, but probably a DVD and a Blu Ray look very similar.  On a Full HD TV, the finer detail is obvious, but you also feel a greater gap between the DVD and the Blu Ray.  Now imagine seeing that nice movie in 4K format in a 4K TV.  It would be oozing with detail and vibrant colors.  But once you put back the DVD of the same movie through the 4K TV, you are probably going to want to cry.

This is an issue that comes with getting better components: you are probably going to need to update your sources to keep up with the quality of your system.  That can be hard, time consuming, and / or expensive.  So, after ensuring good enough source material (24bit / 96Khz Flac tracks in our case), we started listening to the system.

The sound was not as deep as we would have expected (not even as deep as we remembered the old DDA-100).  Bass was less focused and, although the soundstage was wider, the voices had some harshness to them at times, specially in spoken dialog from the TV shows.

I wrote my impressions over at the NuPrime community forum and this is what I felt:

The online community was great at two things: appeasing my anguish and asking the right questions to come up with solutions.  By providing as objective feedback as possible and pictures of my setup, we were able to try a few things and refine the sound.

The first change was to replace the generic RCA cables with good XLR balanced cables (constructed by my father who is an electronical engineer) built with the best connectors available locally. This helped focus the bass a little and I believe it widened the sound a bit.  I must confess that this is really subjective, as are so many things when trying to fine tune audio systems.

One thing was clear though: the drawer was taking a lot of the music ‘away’ from the speakers and transmitting it through its own resonant characteristics, which is obviously less than ideal.  By being directly on top, the speakers were coupled to the drawer and vibrating as if the drawer was part of the speaker’s cabinet. If I pressed my ears to the drawer’s side, it was clear what audio frequencies were being contaminated by the cabinet.

Also, the positioning of the speakers was such that the first sound waves found the drawer’s hard surface far too soon and this was ‘dispersing’ the sound inside the room, making the middles sound less tight and favoring this ‘echo like’ sound I described as reverberation.

The online community suggested many expensive industry-specific solutions (none of which was available locally or within our budget), but also with concepts that allowed me to build a quick DIY isolator which consisted of two layers of cork and one layer of thick foam (cut from camping sleeping pads).  This provided a canvas in which to try and proof the merits of the suggestions.

With some testing, it was clear that this solution plus the continuous breaking-in of the new components was, without doubt, bettering the system overall sound. Pressing my ears against the drawer now showed much less contamination and those frequencies that got through were no longer muffled and boomed, they were clearer (1).

Once we were convinced that isolating the speakers was working, we ordered specifically designed acoustic speaker isolation pads: the Presonus ISPD-4 that were available locally (also found by one of the members of the online community).

With this minor adjustments and enough break-in time, the system has finally reached that mature, deep, full sound I described earlier and for which both the NuPrime components and the Totem speakers are praised for.  It is far better than what we had with the previous NuForce integrated.  With some luck, this system will be with us for a long time and we will now sit back and enjoy the music.

One final piece of advice: break-in is not a gimmick, there is actually physical change on speaker cones and amplifier components as they move air and energy, so be patient and wait until everything has become stable before making decisions or judgments regarding your equipment.

In an ideal testing scenario, I should have waited for the break in period to start doing this tests in order to figure out which problems were solved by the hardware and which by the breaking in of the system.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  So my findings and solutions reflect only the combined process.

Starting System:
– NuPrime ST-10
– NuPrime DAC-10
– TV optically connected
– Apple AirPort Express optically connected
– Raspberry Pi3 USB connected
– Totem Rainmaker Speakers

Components added:
– Tripp-lite Line Regulator / Conditioner
– Balanced XLR cables between DAC-10 and ST-10
– Presonus ISPD-4 Isolation Pads