“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.
Packaging set the stage for what was to come; Still didn’t prepare us for the sound...
The included booklets were warranty/safety etc.. The Specifications are ‘on the box’.
This magic cat always knows when interests are piqued’. Wants to know what all the fuss is about!
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.
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)
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)
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.
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)