You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 41
january/february 2009


A desktop system for everyone... the NuForce Icon integrated and S1 loudspeakers, and then toss in the the  Silverline Minuet loudspeakers to really mix it up
by John Brazier


As with most folks, I spend long hours in front of a computer at work. So, with what little spare time I have in the day, I set out to create a listenable audio set up that fit within my office space and offered decent musical satisfaction. The center of this system became the NuForce Icon integrated amp ($249), and for a while, the NuForce S1 loudspeakers ($224). My source is iTunes or a 12kbps satellite radio feed and for a while, I had the Benchmark USB DAC in the mix and it created really great sound.

The Icon is a small contemporary looking amp that comes in various colors, mine is blue. It can be set to stand upright or can lay flat on your desk. Standing upright at about 6" by 1" wide and 4" deep, it will disappear into the décor of most any small office system. Two knobs are located on one end of the face, one for volume and one for source selection. Power rated at 12w a side, under the hood resides, what I understand to be, a NuForce class "D" chip. I first received an Icon with a standard power supply, but the unit was a no go for launch. NuForce sent me a second which, I was told, had the newest firmware (the earlier version being the reason for the first unit's failure. For the record, I received my unit before the Icon had been released to the masses) and it also came with the optional 42w upgraded power supply which I would recommend. You really need to get what you can out of a small system like this and the power supply added bass and refinement to the overall presentation.

Set up is as simple as can be. Within in an hour of receipt, I was up and running. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the very well thought out and engineered packaging the Icon arrived in, aside from the corrugated brown box, the unit was packaged in a semitransparent plastic case, complete with handle, which had windows displaying the Icon. Of course, such does not affect the performance but it was very cool and Apple-esque. The SB1 speakers are equally as fashionable. Lightweight and with a colored "waveguide" surrounding the 3.5" titanium full range driver which sits within, they can be connected by either standard speaker wire and terminals, or the supplied Cat 5 computer cables. Sensitively is rated at 8homs and the response range is published to be 80Hz to 20Khz. In my case the waveguide area was a nice bright red and stood out on my desktop. According to NuForce, the waveguide for all intents and purposes, appears as a horn design, and does the following:

There are three basic benefits to the waveguide:

  • It controls dispersion thereby reducing the effect of nearby reflective surfaces.

  • It reduces speaker cone excursion and therefore distortion, while increasing dynamic headroom.

  • It reduces power demand from the amplifier and therefore lowers distortion while increasing dynamic headroom.

As the centerpiece, the Icon is without fault in a desktop system. I never play "loud" and only occasionally turn the volume up beyond normal work environment nearfield listening. Even though I have an office and not a cubical, with the speakers placed up against the wall, there is no doubt my neighbor would be disturbed with the bass notes hitting the shared wall.

Regardless, the sound was clear, inviting, reasonably deep, and well defined. Internally, the Icon has its own DAC which really makes the difference. So, when listening via the computer, you are not relying on the sound card to bring you the "music" within the sound. If that were not enough, when you consider its price and the small amount of space it takes, you can hardly go wrong.

To sweeten the deal, the S1 speakers are also an insane bargain. Designed to be used with the Icon, the sound is certainly clear and well defined. The bass is about as deep as you would expect but it has a defined "thump" to it, which I didn't expect. I used them with the Icon for a few months before even considering a change to something a bit more refined. In all honesty, it was more the audiophile in me that knew I could do better that drove the desire to change and not distaste for the sound of the S1s. In my time with them, I found the S1s a fun and startling sound for the price. The vocals were remarkably clear and dynamics impressive. Of course, they have shortcomings, they are not particularly refined and a touch on the bright side, but, again, when you think of all that you get, and for the price, as a match with the Icon you cannot go wrong. In the end, I found them to be just a bit shallow for long term listening, which is more of a personal listening preference than anything else.

So, I began a search for a speaker that I could listen to all day each day I was in the office. Ultimately, I happened upon the Silverline Minuet ($600). Smaller then many, if not most, other bookshelf speakers they fit on my desk corner neatly. Both the S1 and the Silverlines benefited from being raised up 3" to 4" and pushed as close the wall as I could get them.

Generally speaking, the sound of the Silverlines are of true audiophile origins. It very much sounds to me as if the design goal was to create a great loudspeaker first and foremost, and it just happens to be small. These capture the sound that I have heard from speakers costing several times as much—a reviewer cliché, I know, but true. I have been listening to them now for about 3 months and have, at times, tested them with as much volume as I thought I could get away with in the office. Both the Minuets and the Icon did not disappoint. Listening from my chair (2.5' away) or standing up and as far away as I could (5' to 6' feet) the sound was beyond what was expected.

The bass notes were reasonable deep, the soundstage 3 dimensional and the vocals smooth and dynamic. Not in the same way I get my Verity Audio Parsifal Ovations to sing, but much more then you would expect from a $250 amplifier and $600 speakers.

Next I added a Benchmark USB DAC into the mix. With the discs copied into my iTunes (in Apple Lossless) played through the DAC the sound was further refined in all aspects. The vocals became hauntingly good and the soundstage deepened and widened beyond the limitations of my office. I would have to say that my sense was that the DAC was good beyond the inherent limitations of this set up. Whereas the sound, as I was hearing it, was likely to be as good as it possibly can, yet, I believed Benchmark had more to offer. Furthermore, I do not have my full collection of CDs on my office hard drive, so most often, I find myself listening to satellite radio, in which case the Benchmark had no discernable affect. If I was listening to more CDs then radio, I am sure I could not have let the Benchmark go. It made the office set up sound that much better.

At home, I am in the early stages of setting up a computer based source and, if I had the time, would have enjoyed putting the Benchmark in the system and really hearing all that it could do. If you have a large collection of bit perfect media for a desk top system to draw, then the Benchmark is the way to go. So much so, with this DAC in the loop, I found myself drifting off and into the music during work hours. This is nice, but not great for the work load.

Eventually, the Benchmark went back and I returned to my set up of only the Icon, iTunes, and the Silverlines. This, once the separation anxiety had worked itself out, is a very satisfying set up.

Considering all the possible iterations of desk top audio available to the consumer, the Icon has one of the better audiophile pedigrees. NuForce has made a splash in the industry and I use their amps as my reference in my main set up, so selecting their product was a pretty easy option to pick. I am still enjoying it and find it very satisfying. Plus, I can always add a CD player or other source in the future. But for now, I really don't know that I am missing that much and I am sure I would have to spend a lot more money to find out. Everything in the review is recommended.