Showing 1 of 19 reviews about:
Whitedragem
175
Oct 4, 2019
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“Upgrade any HiFi system for pennies”; DAC upgrades musicality, most genres’ are perfect.
Some initial thoughts discerned ‘straight out of the box’; (product PREVIEW) Just a quick preview as to the capabilities and ‘sound quality’ of this product, the NUFORCE/Optoma Icon HDP, when used as a DAC into hifi stereo systems comprised of real world components. This Icon HDP was bought as a DAC, knowing we were getting a ‘class A’ headphone amplifier and a basic source switch box/‘pre-amp’ included. Due to the three tasks that the Icon HDP does exceptionally well, every Icon HDP user may have some pretty distinct and very different ways to integrate them into their home audio system. I had read on the net that the Icon HDP favours Optical (TosLink) input over the Electrical (Coax) Digital input. I had hoped this was selected based on signal, but found in real world usage, just like putting a headphone plug into the front head phone port cuts out the analogue output from the rear of the Icon HDP (typically standard action for these type products), plugging into the 3.5mm jack on the back, seems to give priority to the port and ‘cuts out’ the other digital input. This has inspired a usage scenario for the ‘second stereo’ to now include my old parasound preamp as a ‘digital switchbox’; to allow running all digital components through the Icon HDPs wonderful DAC circuit.
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Packaging set the stage for what was to come; Still didn’t prepare us for the sound...
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The included booklets were warranty/safety etc.. The Specifications are ‘on the box’.
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This magic cat always knows when interests are piqued’. Wants to know what all the fuss is about!
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A mini stereo system; a Cambridge Audio ‘the one’. An award winning stereo receiver featuring a nice toroidal power supply and offering 30Watts of Stereo power to two speakers, featuring a line level subwoofer output. Feeding some Castle Acoustics ‘Kendal’ speakers paired with a Yamaha subwoofer.
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Reference system(2): A marantz stereo integrated amplifier feeding some Bowers & Wilkins studio monitors. For testing purposes two sets of identical Kordz Master interconnects (20AWG heavily silver coated)were used on both the analogue outputs from the source and from the Icon HDP. Digital cables used were of sufficient quality for this pricepoint or greater. Output levels were volume matched using a SoundPressureLevel (SPL) meter (as human bias is to prefer a louder source, and the Icon HDP outputs >2Vrms, which might give it a huge advantage). This setup allowed for instantaneous switching between the analogue output from a ‘well regarded’ Blu-ray player, and the analogue output from the Icon HDP. Reviewers bias ranged from expecting a possible extra bit of detail in some nuanced aspects of well recorded master recordings, to expecting a better front to back soundfield and a few extra instruments to gain weight in more complex music genre’s. We believed that the Blu-ray player would sound nearly equal on 24bit and 96-192khz recordings, but that the CDs (16bit 44khz) and 2 channel dolby digital stuff would gain the most. Oh the joy of being proven sooooooo wrong! What became obvious, instantly: the analogue output from massmarket/mainstream ‘high quality’ components is vastly outranked by a DAC of modest means and pricepoint, like this Icon HDP creates. Whilst pressing a button on the remote allowed easy, instantaneous switching, it was evident within ten seconds ‘why bother?’, which after around four switches between units, became ‘please don’t!’. In an evening of listening, where the Icon HDP, fresh out of box, had started to warm up and give vastly better sound (cymbal crashes started to sound organic around four hours into listening, and sub-bass started to be present, and the control of bass notes vastly improved after a ‘little warmup’); even the ‘fresh out of box’ sound was so many tiers of audio better than the default audio experienced by most consumers who are ‘without a dedicated DAC’, that any notion of having review words to share of practical import becomes easy: “stop reading this and get yourself a (dedicated) DAC!” This isn’t a spec sheet comparison game about numbers. This isn’t about formats that are supported- The Blu-ray unit was several models up the lineup, by a major company, and even had a dedicated sound circuit design, the cheapest unit in the lineup to offer ‘better than mainstream’ audio. It was absolutely destroyed in output sound comparison. Basically ‘unlistenable’ vs the (true) analogue output that the ICON HDP creates with its’ clever DAC circuit. The night/day difference is easily summed up as “sounded flat, now sounds MUSICAL”. Brief testing tracks; Starting with 16bit 44khz (using a well regarded Bluray player with a ‘dedicated’ audio design) Van Halen Tracey Chapman Hawaiian guitar music (slack keyed) Moving into other formats eg Dolby Digital 2.0 @ 48khz Supertramp - Live in Paris Then into proper HiRes (24bit 96-192khz) Peter Gabriel Sting Joe Bonamassa Everything played back so well and so significantly better than the ‘regular’ sound by regular kit, that upgrading to even a ‘budget’ DAC like the Icon HDP is ESSENTIAL for anyone who wants to enjoy music, and not just ‘sound’. At several points during the evening, mostly as the Icon HDP warmed up and started to deliver noticably more musical performance, more nuanced and emotive delivery, did we stop and ‘smell the roses’. The reflection was the stereo system had ‘become breathtaking’; which we reasoned was the minimalist audio cues, the subtle echoes, that recreated room ambiance of the recorded space/venue perfectly. It was mentally daunting at the crossover point of having to close eyes as the ‘small room space’ that the equipment was set up in became a concert hall or intimate zone depending on the source played. At one point around the four hour mark (very noticable point where the equipment had ‘opened up’) I could accurately place crowd cheers distance from the stage. The Icon HDP is capable of transparent musical playback. In previous years I would measure DAC / transport quality using ‘a panel’ comprising conductors and opera stars whose ears are ‘spot on’ for figuring out ‘which row of the venue’ we are sitting in that any given audio piece would recreate. It was how we conducted testing for what level of sound quality a $3000 DVD player could achieve (~$600 CD player), and was handy for comparing multiple Laserdisc players/top tier DVD players, including DVD Audio and Super Audio CD etc, vs CD players for listening to two channel audio. The ‘take away’ from previous benchmark tests was that a dedicated player was generally worth owning (ie a CD player for CD playback etc),.. This Icon HDP rewrites the book a little. In the modern world we ran out of CD playback parts years ago. (Meridian solved this by modifying DVD transports to get around a few issues that CD players used to have, and make them viable for ongoing CD support). CD playback support is on the way out (eg a Playstation 4 doesn’t do it!), and many people are moving to digital catalogues stored via a computer or even on a DigitalAudioPlayer (DAP). A great DAC in the house as a way to make everything from Netflix to 4K Ultra /future format digital sound great. Weaknesses?: Sure- I could list a couple; but this needs to be read ‘with context’. Having owned a few top tier DACs worth $xxxx (serious dollars), I did notice three or four points that this ‘as yet’ unbroken-in Icon DAC was lacking. When large scale bands (say eight musicians on stage in a live venue) all kicked in together, the weight, or ‘power’ in individual instruments can recede. The same piano that started a concert where every key could be ‘felt’, not just in their decay, but with a weightyness that a nice DAC gives, would ‘drop off’ when more than five musicians were ‘joining in’. Whilst I didn’t experiment (preview) whether jacking up the Icons’ output power, would fix this, it came across, having experienced the same ‘last measure of excellence’ missing only when things were ‘beyond hectic’ - that unless critically listening, on a very accurate resolving hifi, that most would not notice this. Not in everyday obvious ways. For those whose catalogues are filled with Classical music and large bands? Consider a DAC with higher quality in mind, such as the R2R DACs’ that Drop offer. Some music would benefit from a class tier up from this one as a daily driver. Is four times the money for the last 10% of sound worthwhile? I would say ‘yes, absolutuely’ as this is the last jump in price to tier performance that still nets major improvements for ‘little money’. This is the best bang for buck part, no doubt, but a R2R DAC might give a noticable boost in quality if listening tastes are complex. As an example; Mumford and Sons (Artist)- Sigh No More (CD); Dust Bowl Dance (track 11) starts off perfect. Towards the end of the track when it gets powerful/becomes a wall of sound, the Icon HDP would be hitting its’ limits during the ‘rock out’ part of the song. I would predict there would be subtle improvements, to the average audio enthusiast, jumping to an R2R DAC for this type of music, and the moments of benefit would be occaisional. Where as full scale orchestric pieces, well recorded, would make an obvious playback improvement on an R2R DAC. In fairness, classical music is pretty hard to get right,.. and I wholeheartedly confirm that the Icon HDP gets rock right with the last little bits missing, unoticable unless A/B testing. It is sort of like a ‘five instrument’ cap. Some genres might be improved with a better DAC, if listening critically (classical, rock groups with more than 4-5 artists). In context, this DAC slays 95% of what we are all listening too, and be it from the TVs digital output (the gaming consoles/netflix/DVDs and Blurays) to CDs and ANY digital files that can be sourced into the Icon HDP, as a DAC is a five star piece of kit. Not much hifi equipment charges so little for the cost of entry. A well regarded DAC like this Nuforce (Optoma) Icon HDP is an essential upgrade to majority of audio setups all around the world. It is good enough I would suggest buy without concern, at least five family members will want to borrow this from you, and everyone of them will either buy one, or consider a better DAC to meet their needs. The Icon resolutely reveals why we all need ‘seperates’ and why a DAC is so important to modern world audio playback.
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Here showing a FiiO X5 (as a transport) feeding into the Icon HDP via the COAX (digital) output. This combination makes for a sound recreation long forgotten in the ‘modern world’. Music is analogue and has emotion featuring all the nuances that a lifetime of playing musical instruments garner in the worlds best musicians. Five minutes, ahem, thirty seconds with this DAC, reveals what ‘normal’ ‘HiFi’ sound gives us... (it doesn’t). This DAC was such a massive sound upgrade that I highly recommend EVERYONE to get one and ‘take the Pepsi challenge’; by all means pass the unit on to family and relatives until everyone ‘sees the light’. Based on the quality of output experienced from the Icon HDP, I would happily recommend ‘building a HiFi’ around it. Either active speakers, or a power amp and speakers, or some headphones, or, as I will be doing... for ongoing system integration I will use my existing ‘pre amp’ as a switch box, due to having four-five digital sources I would dearly love to pass through the Icon HDP. For my setup - Using the Digital Out from my pre-amp to the Icon HDP, allows remote selection of my front end electronics, and then feeding the Icon HDP into outboard power amplifiers. I find the Icon HDP to be of sufficient quality to go to the effort to include this DAC in the main stereo rig. (consisting of a THX Ultra flagship receiver, which actually benefits from this budget DACs superior ‘musical’ sound)
Oct 4, 2019
Whitedragem
175
Oct 5, 2019
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(3 days of usage) Listening sessions: The first couple of hours of use, fresh from ‘the box’ had bass fuzziness (lacked ultimate control of bass notes, which affected their localisation) and treble issues with the highest frequencies (generally the echos of a cymbal crash etc), taking around four hours before cymbals became properly ‘metallic’. (and bass drive became masterful) That being noted; the first time we switched sources, around ten seconds into a rock song, the change was so obvious that it had me questioning ‘which piece is doing this wrong’? The tone of the singers voice had a different timbre via the Icon HDP. Otherwise the first source switch didn’t reveal massive soundstage differences (it was still the first ten seconds and the music hadn’t fully kicked in yet). The increased micro cues; the ‘echos on what instruments were playing’ was subtly reinforced via the Icon HDP, and the switchup was ‘instantly pleasurable’ to hear the Icon HDP render the source. Which was not my expectation, being fresh out of box I expected a hard sound filled with grain and a lack of nuanced delivery. Switch back to the Bluray analogues and ‘Yuck!’. By now the music was kicking in. The soundstage went two dimensional and ‘flat’ lost four metres of extension to EACH side, and lost all sense of nuanced power in the delivery, the stuff that each musician brings with them from a lifetime of learning their trade. Literally ‘the musical’ part of the music, the little inflections that a certain wrist movement or breath control might make... were totally lost on the regular disc spinner, that the same player; fed into the Icon HDP, was instantly transformed to musical and engaging. -=Switching BACK to the Icon HDP: Brilliant! It is all there again. Phew. (Don’t switch it again was the look the other ‘panelist’ was giving me, as if there were some risk it might break, or we might get stuck with the default ‘blu-ray’ player sound).=- We worked through a few faithful recordings after the Van Halen double disc. Albums that we would have liked to give full spins to were hurried off the transport to hear how other recordings might faire with the Icon DACs superlative performance. Everything we threw at the Icon HDP sounded so far superior to the two channel audio from the well built/mid-high pricepoint Bluray player that I felt confident placing this preview up quickly, even before the Icon HDP was fully ‘broken in’. Music, didn’t always sound night/day different when swapping one direction, but if listened to for a few seconds, the switch again would make the difference obvious. By the time Chapman had the centre stage, it was evident what we had been missing in vocal subtleties, the rasp, the breath, the air around a ‘short sharp inhalation’, songs I had heard many times before were starting to make me question if I had interpreted their meaning correctly (was that an ‘ironic tone’, songs with call /recall style stories where one vocalist would give both parts, now had very distinct tonal differences to each voice, being conveyed in a masterful ‘story teller’ approach), now I was hearing nuances that the artists intended. Phase shifts on electric guitars rolled out across the listening space, and could ‘swing back’ even before the echos had died down. The visceral nature of sounds that on lesser equipment are confused into a ‘wall of sound’, have heft and push when experienced via a nice DAC like the Icon HDP offers. The best bits were yet to come- moving onto Dolby digital two channel recordings (that can technically offer a richer sound through specific frequency bands) had none of the compression that we had learned to associate with the format (easily discernable once the monitors became the 24/7 speakers on the reference system). Supertramp Live in Paris was definately the best I had heard it (of special note given I had borrowed this recording previously to give serious audition on my ‘bedroom system’ (an eclectic two channel system built over decades)). Rolling onto the high resolution discs that we didn’t expect to be so ‘different’ from the blu-rays internal DACs- and we once again had to reevaluate ‘audio bang for buck’. They were massively improved with having equipment that allowed nuanced delivery. The opening grand piano ‘roll’ on (Joe) Bonamassas’ curated stage, featuring musicians at the top of their fields from ‘quite a few walks’, was so impressive that 24 bit 192khz was actually delivering a substantial audio improvement, enough to justify rebuying old faithful recordings in a High Resolution state. E v e r y P i a n o K e y H a d W e i g h t & A i r s p a c e (sorry non english readers using a translate). This was so impressive that it made Tori Amos my first playback after equipment warm up when playing into the other reference system. Amos? sure- Boys for Pele - Blood Roses features some clever vocal layering towards the end of the track; and this isn’t a pretty track, (but it is a legendary album!), ++the musical delivery from the Icon HDP means surviving with a music system without a dedicated DAC wouldn’t be an option for anyone who’s had the joy of experiencing something like this; the Icon HDP playing back rock and ‘hard to recreate’ genres, ahem, Tori freeqin’ Amos gravelling and whispering her emotive vocals whilst playing a range of keyed instruments paired with amazing bands and ‘acoustic spaces’. I do believe that each decade since the nineties seems to offer less and less equipment that can play back rock correctly, generally requires a two channel system, and is perhaps the reason why most people are moving certain music genres ‘to the car’. Learned: What was obvious was three major things when it comes to music reproduction: a) we were now transported to a very definate soundspace unique to each recording b) we were now entitled to be close enough to the performers to hear the emotional inflections as performed c) not hitting transparency makes a playback system a massive case of ‘why bother’ The last point is the one that might best convey what I am trying to share here- if low bitrate MP3s stole the ‘air around the instruments’ and killed the life of a recording, and people are willing to argue this: how then do people go on blindly listening to and believing that their present ‘audio’ system is musical? What I have experienced first hand is that great playback electronics WILL make a compressed sound file sound exceptionally musical (and better music files even more so), and that the feeling most people have of ‘high res audio sounding better’ approaches what a 16bit/44khz (aka a song from a CD) would sound like on this. “Beyond Hi Res” as the dirt under Claptons’ fingers can definately be heard through this device, even with a midrange transport, like a typical blu-ray player and thirty year old compact discs have to offer. There was not one instance where the blu-rays analogue output ‘sounded right’, even via $500 interconnects, into a nice amp running in Class A mode, into studio reference speakers via cables that could kill the terminator... (this was a serious setup), and the sound that we were accustomed to ‘enjoying’; had just proven itself UNLISTENABLE. The musical delivery of the Icon HDP was so authorative and definitive over mainstream audio parts that the Icon HDP should be an ‘inexpensive’ (at Drops price) test of YOUR audio system, and your musical playback chain. If you cannot hear a difference when swapping to the Icon HDP, then change the music. If listening to something mildly complex doesn’t reveal a night/day difference in playback experience, then I will just take for granted that you have a last gen top tier Oppo unit, with the Crown DAC chips, feeding into some relatively esoteric amplifier. If you have an audio system that can be found on the shelf of any non dedicated hifi store, then YOU WILL MASSIVELY BENEFIT from adding the Icon HDP to your playback chain. This is like the first 70% of decent DAC sound in a ‘night out on the town’ pricepoint. For three-four times more cash, the ‘next step up’ will get to the 90% sound margin.. The next step up? Too much for this reviewers target audience, and generally people scoff when audio kit costs the same as most households’ car/transport. The Icon HDPmakes music from mainstream electronics boxes -think ‘good pioneer/panasonic/sony etc’ Bluray players.. and by ‘good’ I do not mean the bottom three-five models in the bluray lineup by these manufacturers. How is this so? NuForce/Optomo do not make money by selling ‘step up’ parts. They give what their knowledge allows and don’t charge extra for decades of essential and well curated design philosophy. The DAC design in the Icon will happpily flog the DAC circuits in most mainstream electronics unless going to silly pricepoints. (Suggestion: start with this Icon HDP and figure out if you need more/better sound!) Watching familiar TV series gave an exceptional wide soundfield that enveloped the listener is ‘psuedo surround’; we didn’t need to use any ‘surround processing’, just kept the headunit to two channel stereo and let the very revealing DACs and preamp power delivery give ‘great audio’. Watching ‘My Name is Earl’ and ‘Community’, series recently benchmarked by our household for audio cues given by different source equipment variations; the playback felt perfect; definately the best from a variety of configs, variations including a flagship surround receiver, an expensive blu-ray player, and a surround ‘pre-amp’ by a reputable hifi brand. The Icon HDP revealed its definitive playback strength, when the TV shows had music playing in the background of a scene- the Icon could make the difference between Music in scene, mixed to be physically played back as if it were coming from a stereo ‘on screen’, and Music mixed into the soundtrack of the show.. the headroom the Icon HDP has made it seem effortless to place all sounds correctly in the TV space, as well as having enough resolve power to make music 10ft deeper than the TV screen have its own playback space, as if a band on a small stage was recorded into the mix.. All the playback equipment could playback music, and music mixed to be background, but only the Icon HDP felt like the playback had ‘height’ information and distinguished the sources of sound so clearly. The cymbals on the Community intro jingle was always a sore point for me on the other equipment, mostly sounding lethargic, or sleepy. Not quite ‘metallic’. The Icon HDP made the Cymbals sound alive. I had started to question whether the Dolby source was ever GOING to give the sound that the Icon HDP so easily recreated. Stand up accolades to Nuforce/Optoma on this one, thankyou! I’d want heart medication if watching the Ozarks via the Icon HDP due to the pacing and mood conjured by the sound engineers on that show. The Icon HDP reminded me of times when a great two channel system was the preference for many (audiofools) vs a surround system. I would happily watch most genres via the Icon HDP rather than having a surround sound mix. Action movies from a Bluray would be the exception, where I ‘might’ prefer the audio cues in surround for a car chase scene, or if the director gives confusing screen imagery that a soundtrack may straighten out. Those movies wouldn’t make 5% of my watching experience, so I’d take exceptional two channel over great surround sound any day. Of note: Netflix via the TV app is in wrong digital sound format (even when selecting stereo vs surround sound track); Netflix from the console allows forcing two channel output. I suffered an incompatible digital stream when feeding Netflix from the TV; when I fed it from the console, ‘via the TV’, I had no issues. (The console was set to two channel audio, and TVs generally strip Dolby Digital down to two channel digital when outputting via Toslink(optical digital)). The two negatives for the Icon HDP are: no such thing as a ‘small listening session’ (you will want to go on spinning more and more tracks to hear the emotive differences) It might be outclassed by higher pricepoint units that would give better renderings to exceptionally complex genres’ (eg classical music). The Icon HDP had three ‘trip-ups’ over the last few days where I exclaimed to the other panelist ‘I bet an R2R DAC would have got that right’. Happy to update my thoughts once I have a chance to compare. The walk away from this review: If you haven’t bought a dedicated DAC, and you do enjoy ‘musicianship’, seriously consider if your present playback chain is giving you 100%. I will bet that an Icon HDP, ‘as a DAC’, will give proof that not all upgrades have to cost the earth, and that the big manufacturers are not giving us this level of sound in mainstream products as users voted with their wallets, decades ago, that “we want features” and “don’t know what sound quality really is”. If you want to know what sound quality is, here is the doorway. Door is open,.. welcome to ‘step inside’ :-)
Oct 5, 2019
Whitedragem
175
Oct 7, 2019
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As a DAC: Having given the device a ‘few days’ to warm up and having listened to the output on a range of amplifiers (Marantz stereo integrated, Rotel stereo integrated, Cambridge Audio stereo receiver, Parasound pre amp, and a flagship Onkyo surround receiver), I can make some further comments, especially as to the DAC performance and ‘tiers’ of equipment that it can bring improvements too... The DAC sound vs typical disc spinners (eg blu-ray players); an obvious and immediate step up. The DAC vs a high quality CD player (from years prior); a noticable step up. Icon HDP vs an older digital preamp by a reputable ‘hifi seperates’ company; clear win to the HDP as a DAC. The DAC vs a flagship amp with handselected parts for the best available audio in a surround receiver (without going to lexicon /meridian and ‘esoteric stuff’); finally I had to do some ‘back and forward switching!’... with the victory going to the Nuforce product! Given the cost of the DAC chips in that flagship receiver are more than a third of the cost of the Icon HDP bought here from Drop, that last victory is impressive. Sure ‘by the spec sheet’ the THX Ultra receiver has some pretty nice digital section, and reason to be a ‘contender’, and truth be told I am glad it was... the fact that the Icon HDP held its own and even increased ‘nuanced delivery’ and appreciation for the musicality given, against parts with ten times the asking cost, showed that Nuforce(Optoma) make products that are well received and worthwhile as upgrades to the majority of homes and hifis’ out there in the ‘real world’. Real world hifi? absolutely this is important to understand the ‘synergy’ that parts need to create great music. With every situation I have placed the Icon HDP in I have found Nuforces’ cheapest component delivering performance ‘beyond commensurate’ with any system that they are likely to be added to. I would wholeheartedly recommend an ICON HDP even just as a DAC, for more than just ‘computer audio’ or small desktop audio systems. Paired with a range of HiFi seperates, well curated for their sound quality and performance, I found the HDP delivered a range of practical use, and a performance that made consideration an easy ‘insta-buy’. If you have a modern flagship receiver built in the last few years, or a flagship disc spinner (weighing more than 5kgs) then you may have a setup that would receive no benefit from adding an Icon (maybe as a headphone amp?!). Most people eschew flagship parts, justifying that ‘bang for buck’ is usually best three or four, or five or more models DOWN the lineup. For anyone who has drooled over the concept of flagship sound, a DAC upgrade might be an easy step towards making that dream a reality. At Drops price on the Icon HDP, we bought it ‘for testing purposes’. Our takeaway is that maybe even a sub <$100 DAC would provide a very noticable improvement to the stereo output of even a well regarded modern Blu-ray player. Given most people do not own the level of kit we have been toying with together with the Icon HDP, I feel ‘very safe’ to recommend the Icon HDP as an upgrade path available to mostly everyone. Having auditioned quite a few DACs and lived through some of the best days of stereo sound’, typically A/B testing a DAC is a subtle process that takes weeks to ascertain which kit does ‘which music’ best. Normally building a HiFi system for a specific genre of music or ‘quality of recording’ (with even flagship receivers being relegated to ‘mainstream ‘compressed for radio’ music volumes, seldom would a surround setup playback GOOD two channel), the Icon HDP says ‘hello good quality surround receiver, I am here to help you sound musical with all recordings!’. For people with a pleasing sound (musical?) system to begin with, then a DAC upgrade might pay major dividends for the investment in time and money. The Icon HDP is so easy to insert anywhere, and the sound benefit was instantly night/day improvement in over 80% of the places I tested it. (I have rarely seen a DAC perform so noticably better than everything I could pair it up with). Makes my FiiO X5(III) sound basic and nasal by comparison; but I will have to write something seperate about the Headphone Amplifier function that the IconHDP offers as I need to invest some serious time listening under cans’. (And I am still breaking the unit in!!)
Oct 7, 2019
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