NuForce Icon-1 Amplifier and S-1 Speakers

by Rory Buszka on October 23, 2008 in Audio & Media

NuForce isn’t the first company to bring high-end audio to the desktop, but their first complete PC audio system blends trendsetting aesthetics and audiophile-quality performance to form one of the most intriguing new PC audio systems we’ve yet seen. Do the Icon-1 and S-1 provide a little slice of audiophilia on your desktop?

Setup, Listening Tests

Assembling the NuForce Icon-1 and S-1 into a complete audio system is easy and intuitive – simply connect a USB cable between the host PC and the Icon-1, and then snap the speaker cables into the left and right speakers, then into the corresponding speaker output jacks on the Icon-1. Upon connecting the Icon-1, my PC instantly recognized the device as a generic USB audio codec. Convenient, yes, but it can prove to be a bit of an annoyance at times.

I’ll explain. Whenever you turn off the Icon-1 using its volume control, the host PC ceases to recognize it. So if you happen to switch it off while music is playing, you’ll need to exit your media player program and open it again before your PC will send audio to the Icon-1 again.

The simple workaround is to leave the Icon-1 powered on at all times – its amplifier circuit is so efficient that it wastes very little power when no music is playing. But if you’re the obsessive-compulsive type, be aware that if you shut the Icon-1 off every time you leave your workstation, but leave the media player program running, you may encounter this issue.

Aside from that tiny hiccup, the Icon-1 was a joy to use. I tested the Icon-1 and S-1 using lossless FLAC-encoded audio files, played back using Foobar2000, which is one of the best-sounding player applications that I’ve encountered. That’s right, ‘best-sounding’ – some media players will continue to carry out DSP processing on all audio passing through them, and what arrives at the sound card isn’t always a bit-perfect manifestation of what was recorded in the audio file.

The test system for this review was a Gateway laptop PC from 2006 that I use for monitoring email, instant messaging, and chat. The NuForce Icon-1 handles all digital-to-analog conversion, so any other audio hardware that the host PC may possess will have no bearing on the final overall sound of the Icon-1 – which in the case of my laptop is a very good thing.

One of the first things I discovered about the S-1 speakers is that they are very placement-sensitive. Their lack of large bass drivers or reflex venting means that they’ll be hard-pressed to reproduce low-frequency material, so it came as no major surprise that the S-1 speakers were characteristically bass-shy.

For some, this may be a deal-breaker straight away – though the speakers’ lack of bass is no reason to simply dismiss them out-of-hand, since the Icon-1 amplifier features a line-output jack for connecting a powered subwoofer, if desired. However, I did find that a fuller bass response could be achieved by placing the S-1 speakers closer to a wall. If your computer desk isn’t set against a wall, however, then you’ll need to consider adding a subwoofer – and if hip-hop, desktop theater, or earth-shaking bass effects are your thing, man…then consider an additional subwoofer an absolute necessity.

Listening Tests

Throughout my time with NuForce’s Icon-1 and S-1, I listened to music spanning my entire collection, covering genres from rock to classical, to country, to bluegrass. Eventually, for my critical listening, I settled upon the Barenaked Ladies’ Barenaked Ladies Are Me album, which blends acoustic rock with rootsy bluegrass. It’s been a favorite of mine for quite some time, thanks to its musical variety and the fact that a broad assortment of instrumental sounds appear within its cleverly-written songs.

The goal of any high-end audio system that claims to be ‘high fidelity’ is to connect you with the recording in a way that removes the audio system itself from your consciousness as you listen. And if you close your eyes as you’re listening to the NuForce Icon S-1, you might just forget that you’re sitting at your PC – these speakers have an uncanny ability to construct precise sonic images with both width and depth, as though you could walk into their sound – a rare and thrilling effect to experience on the desktop. In the second track, “Bank Job”, instruments inhabited their own acoustic ‘spaces’ nicely, even during complex vocal harmonies. Drums and cymbals had both immediacy and realistic decay characteristics – with the S-1 speakers, timing is truly everything.

On the sixth track, “Bull in a China Shop”, the S-1 speakers had a little trouble with the complex harmonic structures of multiple electric guitars playing simultaneously, something that single-driver speakers traditionally don’t do as well with. However, these do far better than many other single-driver speakers that I’ve heard. The S-1s also imparted a bit of a bright, ‘splashy’ coloration on this track, a side-effect of using a metal cone in a full-range driver. Remember, though, that these criticisms are relative – these speakers wear their high-end nameplates well, and embarrass many other contenders for ‘high-end’ PC speakers with their clarity and poise.

As the cello plumbed the bottom end of its range in track 7, “Everything Had Changed”, the S-1 speakers preserved the instrument’s woody fullness, and as the cello’s player switched from a bowed to a plucked style of play, the sound of fingers on the strings was clearly audible along with the cello’s own round, full tone. There’s a spot where the accordion expands, drawing an audible ‘breath’ that I’d never noticed before. I had to go back and listen to this track on my reference headphones, just to confirm what I’d heard – it’s rare that a speaker will call attention to this nuance.

At extreme volumes, the S-1s’ midbass performance could take on a ‘chesty’ character, but they didn’t show any hint of real distress until I was wringing the last few drops of juice out of the Icon-1, even on the Barenaked Ladies aptly-named, rocking final track, “Wind It Up”. By that point, however, my ears had already begun to complain, so it’s safe to say that the Icon-1/S-1 combination can do ‘loud’ — if that’s what you happen to feel like listening to.

Overall, the S-1 speakers made a great showing on the album, proving that they’re versatile enough to sound great with a variety of material. One more thing to note here is that if the music you’re listening to is compressed, you’ll hear it through the Icon-1 and S-1 system.

To put the Icon-1’s bass response to the test, I connected a set of larger speakers, with over four times the cone area of the S-1’s tiny wideband drivers, and discovered that the amplifier still maintained tight control over larger woofers, providing taut, firm low end. So if you’d prefer to pair the Icon-1 with larger speakers, it won’t complain.

Next, let’s wrap things up with my final thoughts.