Call me a dinosaur, anachronistic, or snatch a bon mot from one of the uncharitable cranks who sound off on some online forums, but listening to vinyl records on a decent-quality, properly set-up turntable still provides the best approximation of real music that I have heard. There’s just something intrinsically right or more real about it: LPs sound more open, fluid, textured, detailed, dimensional, and -- this is where the magic is -- effortless than their digital counterparts.
Our number-centric brethren may point to measurements as proof of my stupidity, while others may point out that I’m just a self-deluded, middle-aged freak trying desperately to hold on to the brass pole of my youth. Be that as it may, I am not proclaiming some kind of neo-Kantian universal maxim of analog. I here state my personal bias not to start yet another donnybrook of analog vs. digital, but to provide some context for what I heard in my time with NuForce’s DAC-9 digital-to-analog converter.
The guts and the glory
With its narrow, softly glowing red display and deeply beveled front panel, the NuForce DAC-9 ($1695 USD) embodies a certain late-1970s/early-’80s aesthetic of digital design. If you owned a digital watch, an LED alarm clock, or a Citroën Maserati of that period, or if you know what a Ceylon is, you’ll know what I’m talking about. My review sample came in a satiny aluminum case whose fit and finish were exemplary. The manual was straightforward and concise, and symbiotic with the DAC-9’s easy setup.
The DAC-9 measures an unconventional 8.5"W x 2.4"H x 16"D -- it will easily fit into most equipment racks or, perhaps more to the point, on many desktops, where its headphone facilities will be within easy reach. These include, on the front panel, 6.3 and 3.5mm jacks and a "digitally controlled analog volume control" that can be operated manually or with the supplied remote control (with which you can also select an input and dim the display). To use the DAC-9 strictly as a digital converter requires setting it to Fixed-Mode Output, which is straightforward and completely removes the volume control from the audio signal path. Though I briefly tried the headphone amp and found the sound quite fine, and decided that NuForce has been shrewd in addressing the demands of a rapidly expanding market of computer/desktop audiophiles, I mostly used the DAC-9 as a D/A converter, its volume control defeated.
Around back, the five digital inputs cover pretty much everything an audiophile heart could wish for: AES/EBU on XLR, S/PDIF on coaxial or BNC, another S/PDIF on RCA, another on optical TosLink (another optical S/PDIF input is available via the 3.5mm phone jack on the front), and, last but not least, USB. The last is limited to a maximum resolution of 24-bit/96kHz, but NuForce has incorporated "a small plug-in module that allows for future upgradeability to a higher-bit-rate USB interface card." Both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog outputs are provided, as well as an IEC power inlet and cord and a toggle power switch. Everything on the rear panel is easily accessible, and easily selected via the front panel’s touch-sensitive display.
The DAC-9 does no sample-rate conversion or upsampling of any kind, nor is there any negative feedback in its digital section or analog preamplifier stage. Attention has been paid to keeping the signal paths as short as possible, and the power supply is shunt-regulated, with multiple regulation stages. The DAC-9 will process any 16- or 24-bit file, and any sample rate from 44.1 right on through to 192kHz. I never had a hiccup with the NuForce DAC, and it never failed to lock to and play anything from my music collection, regardless of bit depth or sample rate. The front panel displays the volume level -- important if you’re using the preamp section -- and sample rate, so you know at a glance which resolution you’re listening to.
I gave the DAC-9 my requisite 100 hours of break-in by playing a broad range of music, and found that enough to really bring the unit on song. I can’t reliably say that the sound improved noticeably over the rest of my listening sessions, so I won’t (though I did keep the DAC-9 continuously powered up, as is my practice with digital sources). I found it more difficult than usual to distinguish between the USB and S/PDIF inputs, which is both a testament to the NuForce engineering team and a good thing for users of either or both. After switching back and forth between them for a little while, I formed a preference for the S/PDIF connection -- and as I wanted to listen to music at higher resolutions than 24/96, I used the S/PDIF interface for most of my listening.
I began my serious listening with a variety of piano recordings, including pianist Joachim Kwetzinsky’s Polyphonic Dances, a superb recording of excerpts from each of Shostakovich’s and Shchedrin’s sets of 24 preludes and fugues for solo piano (24/192 FLAC, 2L/HDtracks). Not only are Kwetzinsky’s technique and touch superb, navigating with equal aplomb the near-bombastic percussive fireworks of the more outré compositions and the delicate and fragile playing needed for the hauntingly beautiful slower pieces; the recording is a model of pristine clarity suffused with ambience and endowed with a simply stunning dynamic range. The NuForce DAC-9 just ate this recording up, communicating the intensity and impact of the piano’s lower range while remaining fleet of foot, clearly describing and timing each note to perfection. Impressed by this thunder down under, I thought I’d push further and threw in some acoustic bass in the form of recordings by Christian McBride and Ray Brown, including that old audiophile chestnut, Brown’s Soular Energy (CD, Concord CCD-4268-25). The result in all cases was deep, rich, resonant bass with pop and pace; the hallmark sounds of these two players, big and meaty, were front and center.
Things sounded equally fine up in the higher regions. Among my many jazz recordings, I often turn to trumpeter Red Rodney’s 1957 (24/96 FLAC, Xanadu/Classic). This superb-sounding golden-age classic, recorded in November 1957, has tons of top-end energy, with Rodney’s high register in particular possessed of a plenitude of brassy texture and bite. Not only did the DAC-9 capture all of this textural nuance, but the top end was admirably extended and, among other things, easily described the splash, sparkle, and full dynamic spectrum of the cymbal work of both Joneses (Philly Joe and Elvin appear). I never had the feeling that the NuForce was restricting the flow and energy of any instrument in the upper to uppermost treble, or spotlighting them in any way. In symphonic recordings, the brasses and violins had a startling immediacy and bracing crispness that never turned icy or hard as the intensity increased. This was a constant also with recordings of string quartets -- violins seemed of a piece with the viola and cello, fully integrated components of the music’s organic ebb and flow.
The DAC-9’s midrange performance was just as impressive. Here it pulled off the rather nifty trick of combining an amazing amount of clarity and microdetail with a tonally full, almost warm sound. Without too much hyperbole, I could almost cut and paste in here the thoughts expressed in my very first paragraph about what makes vinyl special -- the DAC-9 seemed to do the very same things right, if not, in the end, to quite the same degree. It had a certain liquidity and tonal rightness that ultimately made music more enjoyable. Pop and rock, or any recordings that live in the middle of the dynamic spectrum, generally sounded fantastic, alive, and vital. There seemed to be a new "energy" there -- an energy that is, I think, possible only with components that bring all the sometimes-disparate sonic elements together as a cohesive whole.
I tend to like a good-sized soundstage with clearly defined images -- in fact, I probably place too much emphasis on it -- but the NuForce DAC-9 did damn fine at meeting even that elevated standard. Soundstage width was first class, spreading well beyond the outer edges of my speakers. The depth and height of the soundstage were both phenomenal, and my collection of Water Lily Acoustics recordings (24/88.2 FLAC, HDtracks), recorded in the ample ambience of a church in Santa Barbara, California, sounded sublime. I have many of these on vinyl, and am always floored by engineer Kavi Alexander’s ability to capture what seems like the entire acoustic space with his purist recording techniques. The DAC-9 conjured up the sanctuary before me -- I marveled as the sound bounced around the room and off walls and swirled around performers, who were locked distinctly into physical space. Again, even though my vinyl rig still does it better, I got a little queasy considering how good the DAC-9 sounded -- at $6000 less than my full analog setup.
Downsides? I can always stand more of a good thing, and that’s just because sometimes I’m more Friar Tuck than Robin Hood. If the love of good analog recordings doesn’t course through your veins, you may find the NuForce DAC-9 a bit too warm or fulsome. Many listeners gravitate toward or need precision above all else, lusting for all the detail a recording can muster. This often goes hand in hand with a strong desire for jump factor -- an edge-of-the-seat experience that’s all about sheer thrust, grip, and the speedy leading edges of transients. The DAC-9 isn’t inclined that way, and some may find its pace too sedate, its overall sound a little too laid-back and, dare I say, soft. I’ve heard some of the higher-end digital gear from companies like Esoteric and MSB, and the DAC-9 simply didn’t deliver the amount of detail those machines can. Nor did it have their dynamic grip, or their ability drive the music relentlessly forward. The DAC-9 isn’t perhaps as immediately gripping as some other DACs, but it’s still a partner for the long haul. The longer I listened to it, the deeper I fell in love with it.
I pitted the NuForce DAC-9 against my old Cary 303/200 CD player-processor via the latter’s S/PDIF input, in an effort to compare new with old and for the benefit of those of you who use some type of input converter to squeeze more life out of your older digital products. But the sonic gulf between the two, even playing 24/88.2 and 24/96 material, was just too vast -- the DAC-9 beat the Cary like a rented mule in every category that matters, and made the shoot-out a bit pointless.
The NuForce DAC-9 is one of those all-too-infrequent products that is a true giant-killer, and whose performance must have put a collective smile on the faces of those who designed and built it. At its full retail price of $1695, I think NuForce offers consumers a stonking good deal. Even if its headphone amp, volume control, and upgradeable USB input weren’t part of the package, I’d still think the DAC-9 a killer D/A converter that sounds absolutely great, and that I could easily put in my rack long-term. I found myself jotting "sounds like analog" in my trusty Moleskin more times than I would have thought possible. The DAC-9, born at a very reasonable price into a world of ever-increasing, high-quality downloadable music, may have many manufacturers of mid-level turntables looking over their shoulders.
Don’t let that price lead you down the road to audiophile snobbery, especially if you’re shopping in a higher price range -- you need to dip a toe in here to confirm that the extra rhino you’re about to spend is worth it. I don’t make every component I listen to a Select Component, but the NuForce DAC-9 gets that endorsement. I had to struggle to find any fault with it, and never played music through it without enjoying it immensely. Welcome to the Pleasure Dome!
. . . Graham Abbott
- Analog source -- Nottingham Spacedeck turntable with Heavy Kit, Wave Mechanic power supply, and Space tonearm; Ortofon Jubilee MC cartridge; Holfi Battria SE phono stage
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/200 CD player-processor; Apple MacBook Pro with internal SSD, 8GB RAM, external 1TB FireWire hard drive; Amarra 2.2 player; Wavelength Wavelink USB-to-S/PDIF 24-bit/192kHz converter
- Integrated amplifier -- Cary SLI-80
- Speakers -- Red Rose Rosebud 2
- Power cables and conditioners -- Shunyata Research Guardian power conditioner; Harmonic Technology Fantasy, Yamamura Churchill Series 5000 (phono stage only) AC cords
- Speaker cables and interconnects -- Harmonic Technology Magic, Kimber Kable Hero interconnects; PS Audio Extreme Reference speaker cables
- Accessories -- 70-pound custom speaker stands, Stillpoints and Risers isolation devices, Final Labs ball-bearing isolators, Quantum Resonant Technology power conditioner, Lovan foam-filled equipment rack
NuForce DAC-9 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $1695 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
382 S. Abbott Ave.
Milpitas, CA 95035
Phone: (408) 890-6840