One of my more treasured personal pastimes is reading reviews in the high-end audio press. From the time I first began taking notice of the field of loudspeaker design, the soaring language and subjective impressions of golden-eared audiophile reviews have intrigued me – could the megabuck audio systems they wrote about possibly deliver the sort of near-religious experience the described?
Music and its reproduction are still things that human beings struggle to describe, and we’ve evolved a certain set of terminology to describe what we hear. Loudspeaker design remains as much an art as a science, due to the set of compromises that must invariably be made in any audio system’s design and integration.
These high-end audio publications, be they online or in print form, also showcase an amazing breadth of technology for connecting the listener to their music, from single-driver speakers whose technology has remained largely unchanged since the olden days of the console ‘hi-fi’ unit to multi-way speakers that employ novel electronic, electromechanical, structural, and material technologies, and price tags that rival many supercars. While I myself can’t fathom being able to afford the vast majority of high-end audio gear, the pictures and the reviewers’ impressions in these magazines do tend to fuel my dreamer’s disease to some extent.
It was in one of these golden-eared audiophile magazines that I was first introduced to photos of the NuForce Icon-1/S-1 system, which at the time was being demonstrated at a high-end audio convention. If you’ve never heard of NuForce, that’s entirely forgivable – unlike companies such as Audioengine, who made their name by producing high-quality audio products exclusively for PC audio, NuForce has built their reputation on a line of loudspeakers and amplifiers targeted at the audio high-end – the ‘golden-ears’ that I’ve been speaking of. The Icon-1 amplifier and the S-1 speaker are the company’s first foray into desktop audio, however, promising to bring a bit of the audiophile experience to your PC.
The NuForce Icon-1 is a stereo ‘integrated amplifier’ (a term that means that amplification for more than one audio channel is ‘integrated’ into its chassis) with a built-in USB DAC. Here at Techgage, we’ve often discussed the importance of a PC’s sound card in producing high-quality sound, but by relocating the functionality of the sound card into the amplifier’s chassis, NuForce can ensure that the quality of the amplifier circuitry and the quality of the digital-to-analog conversion complement each other nicely. The Icon-1 uses a “Class-D” amplification stage, which borrows its technology from NuForce’s highly-regarded Class-D integrated amplifiers in the high-end category.
Complementing the NuForce Icon-1 amplifier is the company’s S-1 speaker, which is first most notable for its striking industrial design, due in large part to the round ‘waveguide’ that dominates its face. That waveguide has an effect on the speakers’ sound that I’ll discuss in detail later on. It’s also notable for its single 3″ wideband driver, with a titanium cone and a copper ‘beak’ that also serves as much of a sonic purpose as an aesthetic one. Like the Icon-1 amplifier, the S-1 speaker is also available in a variety of color combinations.
While NuForce isn’t the first company to produce high-end audio products for the desktop listener (hacker-fi?), its approach is one of the more intriguing ones. Other companies that produce high-end audio products for the desktop include Audioengine, Hi-Vi Research (Swans Speaker), JohnBlue Audio Art, Sonic Impact, KingRex, and SilverStone (a name that owes its familiarity to the company’s incredible PC cases). I’m excited to have a complete NuForce Icon-1/S-1 system on my desk for review. Will it fulfill its promise to deliver a little slice of audiophilia on the desktop? Read on.