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.
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.
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.