NuForce Icon uDAC-2 Review

The NuForce uDAC-2 is a well-built, super portable, great sounding accessory for any laptop or desktop computer owner...
The NuForce uDAC-2 is a well-built, super portable, great sounding accessory for any laptop or desktop computer owner...
The NuForce uDAC-2 is a well-built, super portable, great sounding accessory for any laptop or desktop computer owner...

Highs

  • Low noise and great sounding output
  • Plenty of output power
  • Runs off USB power
  • Extremely portable and well-built

Lows

  • Not friendly with extreme sensitivity headphones
  • Some channel balance issues at extremely low volume settings
  • RCA output is variable, not fixed

I’ve been familiar with NuForce for some time now and first noticed the company about five years ago when it turned out a bright orange amplifier called the Reference 9SE, which I was able to listen to at an audio show. I was impressed by how natural and powerful the amp sounded and pleased at how down-to-earth the NuForce crew seemed to be.

Cut to 4 months ago when NuForce’s uDAC-2 finally made it to my desk. I say “finally” because, apparently, the piece had arrived several weeks earlier but hadn’t been passed on to me because my editor was still digging into some conspicuously negative feedback that had been posted on someone’s blog.

It turns out that the only press the uDAC-2 seemed to have garnered at the time was from a blogger that had measured the living daylights out of the device, confronted NuForce about his observations, then blasted the manufacturer not only for its response to his ascertions but also for its general approach to engineering. Yikes!

So, I took the uDAC-2 back to my desk, connected it to my laptop, plugged in the Sennheiser HD598 headphones I was working with at the time and started listening. While I did so, I looked up this guy’s blog. As I read, I felt my brain slowly being torn to shreds. In through my ears poured some very satisfying sound while through my eyes raged a tidal wave of technical measurements and disgruntled commentary explaining why it is that what I was listening to could not possibly sound good.

Shortly after finishing the glut of pages dedicated to disparaging the uDAC-2, it occurred to me that the writer had totally missed the mark. It’s a shame too because, for some reason, his piece remains one of the few “reviews” of the uDAC-2, which really comes off as more of a personal row between he and NuForce.

From that point on I dismissed the blogger’s observations and continued my work, all the while using the NuForce Icon uDAC-2 as a test bench piece in several of my headphone reviews. Over time I’ve come to understand what is truly great about this little DAC/headphone amp and what could stand some improvement. I feel it is time to issue my opinion on this little piece of personal audio equipment.

In this review of the uDAC-2, I aim to explain how great this device sounds, who will benefit from using it and why it is I feel the blogger-in-question’s assessment is off-base.

Out of the box

The NuForce Icon uDAC-2 is packaged in a somewhat cheesy plastic box. I just feel that the packaging ought to reflect the solid build quality that is evident once you hold the piece in your hands. While the uDAC-2 is not heavy by any means, there is an apparent solidity to it that lets you know it is filled with some quality components, well constructed and durable.

Along with the uDAC-2 I found a short USB-A to-USB-B cable and some basic operating instructions.

Features and Design

The uDAC-2 is a hybrid mix of a digital analog converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. For those not familiar, a DAC converts a digital audio signal to an analog signal that can be amplified and, ultimately sent to headphones or speakers.

The uDAC-2 can handle audio files with sampling rates up to 96 kHz and a bit depth of up to 24 bits (aka 96/24). This makes it a useful tool for those that like to enjoy high quality audio files such as FLAC.

nuforce-icon-udac-2-front-volume

On the front of the uDAC-2 are a ⅛-inch headphone jack and a volume control that doubles as an on/off switch. On the rear of the unit is a stereo pair of RCA output jacks, a coaxial digital output jack and a USB-B input.

The uDAC-2 is intended to be used with desktop or laptop computers to provide superior audio. The sad truth is that computers are often built with very low quality DACs and audio amplifiers. Using the uDAC-2 takes those poor quality components out of the loop and does the job itself by taking the digital audio signal from your computer, converting it then amplifying it. Since the device operates on power provided through a USB connection, no additional power cord is necessary. That being the case, it can be used with a laptop, even if a power supply isn’t available, be it on a plane, train or automobile.

nuforce-icon-udac-2-back-inputs

Oddly enough, the uDAC-2’s RCA outputs are variable rather than fixed. This means that the volume control affects the level of the signal being sent out the RCA jacks. Typically, RCA jacks carry a fixed, “line-level” signal. With the uDAC-2 it would seem connecting to the RCA cables is tantamount to connecting a ⅛-inch to RCA adapter to the headphone output but without all the extra connections.

Performance

To test the NuForce Icon uDAC-2 we used a Dell N5110 Laptop, Lenovo ideacentre desktop, an assortment of headphones, Paradigm A2 active speakers and an Anthem Integrated 225 driving a pair of Aperion Audio Verus Grand speakers. For comparison, we kept our HeadRoom Micro Amp and Micro DAC handy.

My Dell laptop is an excellent example of why the world needs a device like the uDAC-2. While I appreciate the computer for its speed, reliability, battery life and great feel, it must have one of the lousiest audio outputs ever built into a device. It’s way worse than the iPhone, which I spend no small amount of time bashing, mind you. Combine my laptop’s dismal audio performance with the fact that I review well over 50 pair of headphones a year while travelling frequently, and I begin to look like the poster child for the uDAC-2.

And, yet, I’m not really the intended audience for the uDAC-2. I’m a [slightly ashamed sigh]…audiophile. I love and obsess over sound – so much so, in fact, that I’ve managed to turn my obsession into a job. No, the uDAC-2 seems intended for more recreational or “passive” listeners who want better sound from their computer, be that at the office or on the go. If I had to guess, I’d say NuForce set out to make a DAC and headphone amp that sounded really good, not necessarily great with the uDAC-2; especially considering they’ve got much more expensive and elaborate pieces for persnickety fellas like me.

nuforce-icon-udac-2-top

Here’s the thing, though. When used with popular, commercially available headphones, the uDAC-2 does sound great. It takes almost all of your computer’s noise out of the equation and provides a clear, detailed, sweet sounding signal with plenty of power to support quick, dynamic, engaging sound with defined instrument separation.

For instance, I listened to Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation Orchestra’s Live at the Royal Festival Hall recording on the Sennheiser HD598 paired with the uDAC-2. With the combo I was treated to percussion instruments with precise attack and natural sounding decay. I could clearly hear the distinctive sound of a fleshy hand as it smacked the tightly stretched head of a conga drum, not just the impression of a pop with a little bit of tone; the resolution was deep. With brass instruments, I could clearly hear overtones that were missing when I listened to the same piece directly from my iPhone or laptop.

While the uDAC-2 doesn’t offer some of the more refined attributes of the Headroom Micro DAC and Micro Amp, it got close enough to be a little scary. Considering the Headroom duo is over 8 times the size, far heavier (they use brick-sized power supplies) and around four times as expensive as the uDAC-2, it really says something that the little USB driven dynamo was able to hold its own.

nuforce-icon-udac-2-front-angle

Sure, the uDAC-2 does have a few problems. Its output impedance makes it a less-than-ideal choice for extremely difficult-to-drive headphones and when I ran a signal to my Anthem integrated via the RCA outputs, the result didn’t come across with the same sense of dimension and space as we experienced with headphones. Also, when turned down to extremely low volumes with very sensitive headphones, it is apparent there is a channel balancing issue as one side is clearly louder than the other.

But these knocks won’t apply to over 90% of the people who could really stand to use something like the uDAC-2. The fact of the matter is that all the technical measurements in the world don’t make a bit of difference when most of the folks who will use and listen to the uDAC-2 will find it an extremely convenient and great sounding piece of equipment. Based on my experience with this piece, I think that will most certainly be the case.

Conclusion

The people’s reaction to Steve Jobs’ death exposed a telling truth: We don’t just use technology like tools anymore. We are now emotionally connected to it. These days, how well a computer scores on a benchmark speed test isn’t as important as it once was. Instead, people want to enjoy using their device. They want to feel good about their gear. Proud, even.

The same can be said for audio gear. Measurements have never told the whole story, but now they mean even less to the average consumer. What seems to sway buyers one way or another is an immeasurable factor based on an interactive experience. The NuForce uDAC-2 is a well-built, super portable, great sounding accessory for any laptop or desktop computer owner that delivers that feel-good vibe while sounding great as well.

Highs:

  • Low noise and great sounding output
  • Plenty of output power
  • Runs off USB power
  • Extremely portable and well-built

Lows:

  • Not friendly with extreme sensitivity headphones
  • Some channel balance issues at extremely low volume settings
  • RCA output is variable, not fixed
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