Optoma NuForce DDA120 Direct Digital Integrated Amplifier-DAC

June 2015

Reviewers' ChoiceNuForce, the California-based audio brand best known for their proprietary class-D power amplifiers, was recently acquired by Optoma Technology, known to many as a major maker of DLP projectors. Also recently, the high-end division of NuForce was spun off as a new company, NuPrime, which will manufacture more expensive products, such as the amplifiers based on NuForce’s high-end, class-D amplifier modules with Cross Matrix Array (CMA) capacitor boards.

NuForce itself will continue to manufacture less costly products, but gone from their product line are many of the very small models -- e.g., the Icon integrated amplifiers -- which were popular for use with desktop systems. However, NuForce continues to offer compact stereo and home-theater components, and high-quality earphones. Thankfully, my favorite NuForce product, the DDA-100 Direct Digital integrated amplifier (discontinued), now lives on as the DDA120, which adds some key new features and a slight increase in price, from $549 to $699 USD.

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Phiaton MS 100 BA Earphones

Phiaton MS 100 BA measurements can be found by clicking this link.

May 2015

The new MS 100 BAs -- Phiaton’s first earphones with balanced-armature drivers -- make me wonder once again why there’s not more controversy or disagreement about balanced armatures. Look at all the stuff audiophiles do disagree about: tubes vs. transistors, the benefits (or lack thereof) of high-resolution audio, whether or not cables make a difference. Well, the audible difference between using balanced-armature and conventional dynamic drivers in earphones is much more significant than the differences you’d hear in any of the pairings just mentioned.

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Marshall Headphones Mode EQ Earphones

Marshall Headphones Mode EQ measurements can be found by clicking this link.

May 2015

How many new consumer-audio brands have emerged in the last seven years or so? I doubt anyone’s counted, but I bet the number has at least doubled, and perhaps tripled. With so many new marques emerging, the entry of the legendary guitar-amp brand Marshall Amplification into consumer audio didn’t get as much attention as it probably would have 15 years ago. That’s sad, because it deserves better.

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NAD Masters Series M17 Surround-Sound Processor

April 2015

Having established, over the past 40 years, an excellent reputation for manufacturing affordable yet high-quality audio gear, NAD has recently gained the attention of audiophiles with their Masters Series models, most of them priced at a few thousand dollars -- relatively expensive for NAD models, but not when compared to gear from many specialty-audio makers. And, like other NAD products, the Masters Series models have already become known among audiophiles for providing excellent performance and value, even at their higher prices.

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NAD Masters Series M27 Seven-Channel Amplifier

April 2014

Reviewers' ChoiceRecently, my attention has been captured by some Direct Digital integrated amplifier-DACs: NAD’s Masters Series M2 and C 390DD. My own budget reference, the NuForce DDA-100, is of similar design. Each of these models sounds fantastic for its price, and I like the idea of keeping the signal entirely in the digital domain, right up until the speaker outputs.

When NAD announced the newest power amplifiers in their top line, the Masters Series, I was surprised to learn that they would be class-D amps with conventional analog inputs, not Direct Digital designs. Also offered are the matching Masters Series M12 stereo digital preamplifier-DAC and M17 surround processor, but these link to the new Masters Series power amps only via analog RCA or XLR connections.

NAD Masters Series M27

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Moon by Simaudio Neo 430HA Headphone Amplifier

March 2015

Traditionally, headphone amps have been afterthoughts -- relatively low-cost circuits built into receivers, computers, portable media players, etc. After all, even with relatively insensitive headphones, the amp usually needs to put out no more than 50mW -- 0.05W -- to drive headphones to loud volumes with no audible distortion. But with headphones’ recent surge in popularity, and the concomitant growth in the number of hardcore headphone enthusiasts, many manufacturers have been putting serious design effort and resources into their headphone amps.

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Oppo Digital PM-2 Headphones

Oppo Digital PM-2 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

March 2015

Reviewers' ChoiceLuxury has never much appealed to me. The word can mean an indulgence, something inessential. Both latter terms are anathema to me, which is probably why my audio-reviewing beat has largely been gear that scores highly on the scale of performance per dollar spent. S. Andrea Sundaram recently reviewed Oppo Digital’s PM-1 headphones ($1099 USD), and was so taken with them that they ended up being named a SoundStage! Product of the Year. Andrea not only has discerning ears; he’s a fastidious critic. When it was suggested that I review Oppo’s PM-2, a model for which nearly identical sound quality is claimed (provided the synthetic earpads are used for both models) for a price $400 lower ($699), I jumped.

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Onkyo TX-NR838 Network Audio/Video Receiver

February 2015

Founded in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, Japanese electronics firm Onkyo began by manufacturing phonograph pickups. By the 1970s, Onkyo had established global distribution of a wide range of audio products. Onkyo models are some of the most rich in features for their price points, and the company has the reputation of being among the first to implement certain features -- the world’s first THX-certified audio/video receiver was an Onkyo, in 1994. While today Onkyo makes a full range of products, from Blu-ray players to speakers, they’re best known for their AVRs and amplifiers -- their website currently lists 19 AVRs, from $279 to $2999. These range in power from 60 to 145Wpc, but even more widely in their feature sets: input/output options, processing capabilities, and five, seven, nine, or 11 channels. In terms of processing, the spec sheet for the TX-NR838 A/V receiver ($1199 USD) reproduces no fewer than 31 logos, representing those technologies Onkyo has licensed for this product.

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Bluesound Pulse Wireless Loudspeaker System, Powernode Streaming Receiver, Duo Sub/Sat Loudspeaker System, and Vault CD Ripper and Storage Device

February 2015

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” I’m reminded of the old adage even when encountering apparently daring new products from old, familiar companies. Bluesound is a new line of innovative audio equipment from the Lenbrook Group, longtime owners of NAD and PSB, whose pedigree and ability to make great, affordable audio equipment are the stuff of legend. But even after poring over Bluesound’s website, I still had only a vague idea of what their products actually did. So I said, “Send ’em all.”

Turns out they’re simple, elegant turns on products you’ve used and read about for years.

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Calyx Audio M Portable Media Player

January 2015

Calyx Audio M2014 seemed to be the year of the portable high-resolution music player. Pono was finally released, Astell&Kern released the magnificent AK240, and then came the M, from South Korean manufacturer Calyx Audio.

I was asked to compare the M with A&K’s AK240. No way. The AK240 has many functions absent from the M -- though each might be the best in its price category, the price difference is significant. At $999 USD, the Calyx M costs a lot less than the AK240 at $2499, and you get less: no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, thus no wireless connection to music stored on your computer -- and no form-fitting protective case. But what you do get with the Calyx M is very good, and makes it a reasonably good value . . . once the bugs are worked out.

In the box

The Calyx M comes with a soft carrying pouch and two USB-to-USB Micro charging cables, one short, one long. Its gorgeous copper color is matched by the cables. There’s no quick-start guide -- you download the instruction manual.

At 5.25” x 2.75” x 0.5”, the Calyx M is large -- about the size of a new iPhone 6 or Samsung phone, but thicker. Its 7.7 ounces felt a bit heavy in my hand over long periods of use. The front is almost all screen -- a handsome, 4.65”, high-definition (1280x720) OLED display covered with Gorilla Glass. On a tiny strip below the screen is an “M.” The rear panel is all smooth metal, with Calyx’s engraved treble-clef logo and manufacturing information -- the fine print. Along the top edge are a 3.5mm jack, slots for SD and MicroSD cards, and an On/Off button. On the bottom is the USB Micro jack for charging.

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