NuPrime DAC-10H Digital to Analog Converter with Headphone Amp
NuPrime. While initially conjuring thoughts of a mortgage lending company, the name actually makes sense considering the company history. You see, NuPrime is a "new" firm made using tech and talent from what used to be NuForce. That brand was bought out by Optoma, a company best known for their video projectors, but the high-end line was passed on to NuPrime. So it could be said NuPrime is just NuForce focusing on their "Prime" market as they did back in 2005. Make sense?
Readers who haven't been around a while probably don't remember a time when NuForce was solely focused on more serious gear. Their first offering, the Ref 9 monoblock amps, used proprietary Class D technology and went for $2400 a pair. By the time it evolved to version 3 several years later, MRSP had climbed to $5k. Various other amps, preamps, and integrated amplifiers in their catalog all had 4 figure price tags. They even had a $5500 pair of speakers, the rare yet well received S9. NuForce was at the time considered high-value high-end, approaching state-of-the-art sound without costing the equivalent of a BMW as many competitors did.
A few years after their debut, NuForce did break their typical pattern by launching the Icon DAC/integrated amplifier and S-1 speakers. This was a small system, aimed at desktop listeners and costing a mere $500 for the complete setup. The S-1 speakers received a few decent reviews but the little Icon amp really got the lion's share of attentionI saw favorable write ups all over the place, including Stereophile.
There weren't all that many USB DACs on the market as that time, so that aspect probably worked in its favor. Not to mention the recession that was just then hitting its stride, meaning affordable gear was far more likely to sell than expensive stuff. But whatever the case, it seems NuForce sold quite a few of the little Icons...enough where it made financial sense for them to launch an expanded selection of small, affordable products in the Icon range. In time, it seemed NuForce became better known for things like the Icon HDP and uDAC budget models rather than their big amps.
Fast forward to late 2014 when, out of the blue, I get an email containing a press release. Optoma has purchased NuForce. I didn't see that coming at all! I assume their plan is to offer a semi-complete package of audio-video products, lacking only speakers (for the moment at least). Which makes sense on some level, at least from a marketing angle. However, the highest models in the existing NuForce linea preamp, an integrated, and two different monoblock amplifierswent over to NuPrime, making for a slightly confusing scenario where NuPrime handles NuForce products, and NuForce (Optoma) handles different NuForce products. I anticipate this will be straightened out soon enough as refreshed designs cycle through for each company.
While there isn't a ton of NuPrime gear in the catalog as of yet, one of the very first models launched did strike me as something worth checking out. The DAC-10H ($1,795) is their all-in-one DAC, preamp, and headphone amp, designed to sit at the heart of even a fairly complex setup thanks to having more inputs than we usually see on a device of this type. What really got my attention is the balanced headphone output on front using the 4-pin XLR connectorthe standard which all balanced connections should use in my humble opinion. Plenty of DACs and integrated amps have a headphone jack on front, but very few have a true balanced output. I feel it indicates a certain level of headphone-credibility, as if to say "We take this headphone thing seriously". The DAC-10H also has a standard 1/4" jack for unbalanced headphones, which is always good to fall back on. This somewhat unusual feature set, combined with my high regard for the last NuForce DAC I tried, was enough to prompt me to arrange for a review sample. And I have to say I'm glad I did.
The first thing that struck me about the DAC-10H was its size. Not the width, which is a mere 8.5 inches or "half-width" as it is sometimes known. Nor the height which is a rather manageable 2.3 inches. No, what got me was the depth: a full 15 inches. Many full-sized high-end CD players and preamps are only in the 13 inch range, yet this half-width component is deeper and almost extends the entire depth of my Salamander Archetype 5.0 rack. Not a big deal in most cases but I could see this being problematic for desktop use. Despite the unusual depth, this is still a visually striking component that looks very nice mixed in with my other gear. A weight of over 10 pounds lets you know NuPrime isn't messing around on build quality.
The next thing that caught my eye was the interesting front panel design. All angular and industrial looking, it certainly looks different from most anything else that's come through my audio rack lately. And yet, I notice the old NuForce DAC-9, which I didn't really care for in terms of sound quality, had a lot of visual similarities. Unlike that model with its rather obvious LCD display, the DAC-10H has discrete LED "dots" which show input selection, volume, incoming sample rate, etc. When the unit is off you can hardly tell there's anything there. In this respect the design is reminiscent of the "Home" series I reviewed a while back. I think it's quite handsome overall, unique but not outlandish, and suitable to match with gear from other brands (though I'm sure NuPrime would prefer we use their own matching products).
One potentially polarizing aspect of the DAC-10H is the array of buttons spanning the front panel. Where the Home series models were all about minimalismjust one multi-function knob and four buttons for input selectionthis new design has a discrete button for everything. This is both aesthetically busy and less intuitive to the touch. And yet, with so many features on board, I can't necessarily think of a better way to handle all the necessary controls. Still, I often find myself not quite sure which button I'm looking forsome differentiation in shape or feel between buttons might help, but then it might also throw off the clean look. Also, the included remote is a bit...unusual looking. It took me some time to get accustomed to the layout. After a day or two I had it mastered so we aren't talking rocket science.
Prior DACs from NuForce didn't seem to follow any particular script in terms of chip selection. Their DAC-9 used dual-mono Burr Brown PCM1798 DAC chips, while the DAC-100 came out of left field with the somewhat rare AKM AK4390. NuPrime goes what I'd call a bit more mainstream with their choice of a top ESS Sabre DAC paired with an XMOS asynchronous USB input. This is a popular combo, and for good reasonthe ESS DACs are found in some VERY high-end designs, while the XMOS chipset is probably the most reliable USB solution I've encountered. It's got very mature drivers making for a hassle-free experience. And it allows the DAC-10H to accept signals as high as 384kHz for PCM or quad rate for DSD, aka DSD256. Not that you'll find much in the way of material recorded in those lofty formats, but it's nice to have all the bases covered for future-proofing.
One possible discrepancy I spotted: NuPrime's literature mentions the ES9018 chip being used. When I see that, I take it to mean the original ES9018S which is an 8-channel DAC typically summed to quad-mono (or four DACs per channel if that makes sense). But I checked under the hood and discovered the chip actually in play is the ES9018K2M. This is a newer chip designed for two channel applications and using a smaller, more power efficient form factor. Dynamic range is a step down but still excellent at 127dB, while the ES9018S hits 133dB which is indeed the number listed in the DAC-10H description. I just assume this is caused by the marketing and design teams not being on the same page. After all, the ES9018K2M is a newer chip which is showing up rather often in newer DACs, while the ES9018S seems less commonly used. Not that it likely makes a huge difference either way.
Did I mention the plethora of input and output options? On the input side, we get USB, two Toslink, two coaxial, and a pair of analog RCA inputs. For outputs, the previously mentioned balanced and single-ended headphone outs, plus RCA and XLR outputs to feed an external amp. In total, this is a more robust feature set than most other DACs I've encounteredespecially those using this same half-width format. NuPrime wanted to accommodate all users, even those with complex systemsgot a turntable or maybe an AM/FM tuner? Cable box, game console, and various other boxes with digital outs? No problem, it should all fit just fine. Most modern DACs play the preamp card just because they have volume control, but most don't have enough inputs to support anything more than a basic setup.
Speaking of preamp duties: among the most interesting aspects of the device is the volume control. Where many DACs in this price class rely on the (lossy) digital volume control implementation built into the DAC chip itself, NuPrime takes their own route by using a switched resistor ladder network borrowed from their expensive P-20 preamp. At the heart of this volume control scheme is the Muses 72320 chip from New Japan Radio Co as also found in the $16k Pass Labs XP-30. The result is just a single resistor in the signal path at any given volume, throughout a range of 99 steps in .5dB increments. Output can go as high as 8V on the XLR or 4V on RCA making this a true preamp in every sense of the word. Analog inputs do not require digitization as they would in other designs that lack analog volume control. Four different gain setting allow for ideal system matching. In short, NuPrime has all the required bases covered for use in most any situation.