NuForce Cube Compact Portable Speaker

When NuForce sent over their Cube (MSRP $119) for evaluation, I had not yet heard a single thing about it. Once I got a look at it I can't say that it inspired confidence. It came packed in a nifty clear plastic container, and looked absolutely tiny. I immediately presumed it to be a mere toy---at this sizehow could it be anything else? I opened the case and was surprised to feel the enclosure---what I had assumed was textured plastic, actually wasn't. The top and sides are actually molded from a single piece of relatively thick aluminum. This was my first clue that I needed to take the Cube a little more seriously.

What is it?
NuForce bills the Cube as an "all-in-one mobile audio center". Translated: the Cube is a battery-powered portable speaker, a USB DAC, and a headphone amp, all in one very compact device. Lots of speakers claim to be "compact" but this is a whole other level. It truly is small enough to throw in the pocket of your cargo pants. The fairly rugged construction means you won't have to worry about scratching the finish during transport. It comes in several colors, mine being silver.

Used as a basic speaker, the Cube can be fed by the 1/8th inch input and taken on the go. Connection is made with the included mini-mini cable, and it can be paired with almost anything that has a headphone jack. A fully charged battery gives a claimed 8 hours of playback though mine routinely lasted just over 9. There is no volume control so that aspect must be handled by the device that feeds it.

The Cube can also connect via USB using its integrated DAC. It handles signals up to 16-bit/48kHz and does not require drivers. The premise here is that most laptops have poor integrated speakers that are limited in both clarity and volume, and the onboard soundcard is likely pretty bad as well. The Cube aims to improve both of those aspects.

The third facet of the design is the headphone amp. Using the 1/8th inch headphone jack automatically disables the speaker output, and should theoretically be an improvement over the crummy onboard headphone jack on your laptop.

Design
When I said the Cube was tiny, I wasn't kidding. It measures less than 2.5 inches in all dimensions. Picture the smallest satellite speakers you've ever seen---the Cube is likely smaller than that. Make a fist---unless you're a child, the Cube is smaller than that too. It's small enough to easily fit into a laptop case, backpack, glovebox, or pretty much anywhere else you might want to store it. The UFI uCubes are supposedly portable, but the gloss finish seems like a liability if used in that capacity (hence Tyll's patented Sock Transportation System). NuForce was wise to use anodized aluminum which resists scratches and smudging. I've been deliberately rough with the review unit and have nothing but very light scuffing to show for it.

Externally, the Cube is very simple. It has the previously mentioned metal piece for the top and sides. The front grill is held on by pegs. Remove it and you can see the 1 inch "full range" driver with aluminum cone and rubber surround. The front also has a red LED indicating power or charging status. The back and rear are plastic but seem sturdy enough. The rear panel has the mini-USB input and 1/8 inch jacks for input and headphone out. There is no power switch---inserting a cable into either one of the inputs will automatically power it up.

NuForce_Cube_Photo_inside

Removing the bottom panel gives a nice view of the electronics. You can also slide the entire aluminum shell off, revealing that the speaker is actually encased in a plastic enclosure that is sealed except for a tiny port in the front. The battery must be underneath the PCB and I couldn't get to it without potentially damaging the unit. In terms of electronics, the key ingredients here are a C-Media CM108AH USB unit, a TI TPA3113 chip amp, and a mystery headphone driver chip. I suspect it to be in the TI TPA6120/6130 family but I'm not positive, and Nuforce would prefer to keep it confidential. Fair enough. As a DAC, the C-Media chip certainly isn't world class, but it stands a good chance of being superior to some of the audio "solutions" I've seen used in netbooks and other small laptops. Which is really the name of the game with this entire device.

Now on to the sound.

COMPANY INFO
Nuforce, Inc.
382 South Abbott Ave
Milpitas, CA 95035
iconsupport@nuforce.com
(408) 518-0626
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COMMENTS
mward's picture

The picture with the grill removed shows a driver that looks a lot like the Harman-Kardon Odyssey—these were used in most of Apple's CRT iMac models, some of the company's computer speakers (notably the Soundsticks and the ones that looked like champagne flutes), iPod docks, and maybe some car audio and full-size speaker designs. 

 

They always sounded surprisingly good in my old iMac, and had a frequency response similar to what you describe. If this is what NuForce is using, I'm not surprised it sounds great for the size. 

dalethorn's picture

I read this several times to see if there was a comparison of the cube's DAC plus headphone amp output from a computer USB, versus plugging directly into the headphone jack of the computer, for sound quality. Is the cube DAC-plus-headphone amp generally better than a typical laptop's headphone jack?

Edit: The phrase about bringing no improvement to the iPad would seem to be bypassing the DAC anyway, so it makes sense that not using the DAC you would lose some of that advantage.

John Grandberg's picture

I apologize that there isn't a completely straight answer to this. If I listed every combination I tried, the article would be very long, very boring, and still wouldn't give you the info you need unless you are using the same hardware as me. 

For my Acer Aspire One, the headphone jack is poor. The Cube is significantly better driving headphones. For my custom built desktop PC which uses a quality soundcard, the Cube isn't an improvement. It goes the same way for tablets (Nook Color improves, iPad2 doesn't) and phones (LG Optimus improves, Meizu MX doesn't). So as a headphone amp it is potentially an upgrade depending on your device.

As for your specific question - no, the Cube doesn't sound much different when used from my Acer USB port rather than from the headphone out. That means my Acer has a decent DAC that is hampered by a high output impedance. Using the Cube, even via the analog connection, fixes that problem. USB might have a slightly lower noise floor but it isn't a major difference (both ways are pretty quiet). 

I had an HP laptop prior to this Acer, and it definitely had a poor internal DAC. There was some severe rolloff in places, and some obvious boosting in others. With something like that, the Cube would be at its best over USB. 

dalethorn's picture

Thanks much for that reply - it answers several questions actually. I have the Headstreamer, Audioengine D1, and Dragonfly - all mini-DACs with headphone outputs, and it seems like more of these mini-DACs as I call them are popping up everywhere.

John Grandberg's picture

I agree, there's lots of them popping up. I'd say the Cube is unique due to the speaker aspect, though it probably can't compete with those others that are more specific in purpose.

funkmeister's picture

This reminds me of the JBL On Tour Micro speaker which I got for my daughter and she loves. The JBL has no DAC, but it is a great little amp/speaker package... and the battery lasts forever. Sounds are surprisingly full and well detailed within the operating range, which I think is 150Hz on up.

NuForce is an interesting company and I don't hold a lot of stake in them, but they have a great product with their Icon HD. It works very nicely with my two AKG headphones.

Armaegis's picture

I put a review for this interesting little device up on head-fi a few weeks ago:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/618638/review-nuforce-cube-portable-speaker-usb...

Overall I think my impressions mesh more or less with yours.

John Grandberg's picture

That's a great write-up, and it appears we do hear pretty much the same thing from the Cube. Thanks for the link.

Armaegis's picture

For the headphone driver chip, I don't think it could be the TPA6120 since usb doesn't provide enough power for that (I think). 

John Grandberg's picture

It is more likely to be the TPA6130 or one of those variants. Those take less power.

I've got a device which uses a pair of 6130s in dual mono configuration, off USB power, so I know it's possible.

The markings on the chip in the Cube are similar but not identical to the 6130s I've seen. 

HeadphoneAddict's picture

   I've had the Cube for a while, and I completely agree with your impresisons.  I use mine most as a portable speaker, whether via 3.5mm audio jack from iPad and iPhone or via USB from an old Macbook with terrible speakers.  The headphone amp is respectable, and it's more of an upgrade in power output and impedance matching than as a DAC "sound quality" upgrade.  The DAC is not a downgrade at all, but it's also not the same upgrade one gets from the uDAC-2 SE or an Audioengine D1. The amp is a bit more powerful than the iPod or Macbook headphone jack, which is more useful with full-size headphones than earphones.  

   I also have the Nuforce Podio speaker, and I was impressed with that when it first came out, although the Cube improves on that with more features and better sound.  I prefer the Cube because I can use it via USB and not run the battery down, where the Podio used the 3.5mm jack to charge or to play music, but not both at the same time.  However, if you don't need the USB the Podio is much cheaper.

HeadphoneAddict's picture

Well, I bought the Zooka stereo Bluetooth soundbar through a kickstarter pre-order, and it sits unused because it doesn't sound as full and "big speaker-like" as the cube.  If only I could easily set the cube at the top center of my laptop screen it would be perfect.  But I'm working on that.

I'm still using the cube as my preferred portable travel speaker, instead of the Podio or Zooka.  My Big Jawbone Bluetooth speaker is way too big to be packing along, and remains in the kitchen for listening while cooking, visiting, and dining.  At Christmas I'll be able to compare the cube to my daughter's new mini Jambox, but I expect it will be close, and still smaller.  I use a Motorola S-705 Bluetooth pendant when I need the cube to be wireless, but that need isn't often.

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