NuForce is, as many of you know, a fascinating Americo-Asian audio equipment manufacturer perhaps best known as a pioneer in Class D amplifier design. But those who know NuForce well recognise that there are several distinctively different sides to the company.
On the high-end audio side of the equation, NuForce makes aspirational, high-performance monoblock amplifiers, low-distortion preamplifiers, integrated amplifiers, a broad set of DACs and disc players, and once—early on—even made a high-performance loudspeaker system! NuForce also offers a set of purist-minded and thus deliberately minimalist home theatre electronics, including a very well priced multi-channel controller/preamplifier and a versatile, powerful multi-channel amplifier.
But perhaps NuForce’s most up-to-the-minute division is one focused specifically on desktop and personal audio components—a division whose objective is to introduce a new generation of listeners to ‘the good stuff,’ but at prices normal mortals can actually afford. We at Hi-Fi+ are all in favour of this initiative, because we feel that anything that encourages newcomers to enjoy fine music played through good gear is, more or less by definition, a good thing.
Accordingly, NuForce offers an adorable set of compact, specialised desktop audio components (amps, DACs, amp/DACS, and so forth), a desktop 2.1-channel speaker system, plus a full-sized headphone and a range of affordable earphones. Many of NuForce’s personal/desktop components have earned reputations as bargain-priced gems that offer very good sound quality, for the money.
While we all can appreciate those audio bargains that may come our way, there’s a time and place for pursuing even higher levels of performance. Let’s face it: you probably wouldn’t be reading Hi-Fi+ unless, down deep, you were passionate about no-holds-barred sound quality, and you no doubt realise you may have to pay anywhere from a little to a lot more money to enjoy components that deliver top-shelf results. Stated another way, fine Scottish single malt whiskies do not come cheaply; the same is true for top echelon audio gear.
So, what does NuForce have in the way of earphones geared for those who deeply desire to push the performance envelope? I’m glad you asked, because NuForce is just now on the cusp of releasing an all-new, ultra-high-performance earphone called the Primo 8 ($499 in the US, UK pricing TBD), which I’ve been privileged to audition over the past week or so. This blog is to offer my initial findings.
Let me just jump right in and declare, unequivocally, that the Primo 8 is different to, and light years better than, any other earphone NuForce has ever built. I’ll also go even further to suggest that the Primo 8 will very likely prove to be a strong contender against all comers on the worldwide stage. In fact, my preliminary listening experiences lead me to think the Primo 8s may do certain things better than almost any other universal-fit earphones on the market regardless of price.
The Primo 8 is a compact earphone that employs quad balanced armature-type drivers, set up as a three-way array (two bass drivers, one midrange driver, and one high-frequency driver). This configuration alone does not make the Primo 8 unique, in that quad driver arrays have already been seen, first in the Westone 4 and later in the Ultimate Ears UE-900.
But what does make the Primo 8 unique is that it is the first, and to my knowledge the only, multi-driver earphone to promise, “A three-way phase-coherent crossover design (that) achieves near perfect linear phase performance…” (Italics are mine). Granted, the custom-fit in-ear monitor maker JH Audio offers models that use the firm’s proprietary “freq-phase” system to achieve a similar result, but “freq-phase” is a mechanical/acoustical waveguide system, not a crossover-based solution like the one offered in the Primo 8.
As you might expect, NuForce has paid careful attention to all the usual and not-so-usual product details, which could be summarised in a checklist like this:
- Tasteful, upscale packaging: Check.
- Good looks and self-evident built quality: Check.
- Lots of ear tips, including two sets of Comply-brand foam tips: Check.
- Useful array of accessories: Check.
- Detachable, user replaceable signal cables: Check (although as near as I can tell, some Primo 8s will come with a ‘purist’ cable as my review samples did, others will come with a smartphone-ready cable with an inline mic/control module, and still others will come with both cables.
- A first-rate proprietary signal cable design (Kevlar silk core, inner conductors made of silver, outer conductors made of OFC copper): Check.
- Good looking and realistically sized (that is, big but not too big) leather-like carrying case: Check.
All these goodies are expected in a premium-grade, flagship earphone and are greatly appreciated, but at this level of pricing (or really level of pricing) sound is what matters most, and the sound of the Primo 8 does not disappoint.
Let’s be candid. One’s response to the Primo 8 will hinge, I suspect, on one’s appreciation (or lack thereof) for the NuForce’s dead-neutral tonal balance (absolutely no artificial warmth, here), and on one reaction to its linear-phase design. But does linear phase response even make an appreciable, audible difference?
Depending on which purported authority happens to have seized the pulpit nearest you, you might well hear vociferous arguments to the effect that linear phase does/doesn’t make a difference that can/can’t be heard. My advice: Listen carefully to the product and draw your own conclusions based upon what you hear.
In the interest of full and open disclosure, let me state that I personally believe that linear phase response does make a difference and a beneficial one at that, provided one doesn’t screw up other important aspects of a design in order to achieve phase coherency. All I can say is that the majority of the speakers and headphones I tend to admire almost invariably make a point of offering ‘phase coherent’ response. Is this merely a coincidence? I think not. Your mileage, however, may vary.
So what does the Primo 8 offer the listener? Well, it provides pretty much scrupulously neutral tonal balance (more on this in a moment), excellent resolving power and transient speed, plus a truly remarkable, overarching quality of lucidity and focus. I can’t say for certain, but I strongly suspect these pleasing elements of lucidity and focus are both directly attributable to NuForce’s linear-phase design.
What does phase coherency sound like? Well, I can only offer you my personal perceptions, which I will present through the time-honoured audiophile practice of offering a photographic analogy. Imagine that you are looking at a scene through the viewfinder of a very high-resolution, large format camera—think along the lines of something like a Hasselblad.
Now twist the focus ring unit the image is almost, but not quite, optimally in focus. In relative terms, the image you see is fairly sharp, fairly rich in details, fairly good in terms of edge definition, as so forth. Now, go a step further to dial adjust the lens to achieve absolutely bang-on perfectly optimised focus. Suddenly, in a thousand different ways, all the little aspects of image quality got a smidgeon better, and did so in unison. While any one change in the image, viewed in isolation, might seem relatively small, seeing all the elements of the image getter better at once has a huge cumulative impact (or at least that’s how I perceive things).
In my analogy, the look of the optimally focused Hasselblad image is the visual equivalent of the sound of phase coherency as captured, in this instance, by NuForce’s Primo 8. As a result, I found the Primo 8 effortlessly pulled deep into the interior of good recordings, where all the richest of subtle details and musical ‘secrets’ reside. This, to my way of thinking, is why the Primo 8 is likely to win friends and lots of them within the audiophile community.
Candidly, the only sticking point may be the Primo 8’s tonal balance, which—as I mentioned above—seems neutral, almost to a fault. Usually, this is the point where the audio journalist takes a step back to inform you that the product in question sounds “bright and a bit lean,” but that’s actually not what I want you to understand about the Primo 8. What you do need to know, though, is that it absolutely, positively will not add so much as a faint whiff of extra bass energy, if that energy is not in fact present in the recording.” Is the Primo 8, then, ‘bass-shy’? Absolutely not. The earphone can deliver tons of bass, including very low frequency bass, provided that that information is present in the track being played.
I mention this point, then, simply because I find that the majority of earphones (even ones billed as ‘monitoring’ earphones) tend to add at least some measure of bass enrichment—in some instances quite lot of bass enrichment. If, down deep (no pun intended), you need, want, or simply prefer a touch of bass lift, then the Primo 8 might not be the earphone for you. But if you love a pure, ‘all-the-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth’ approach to music reproduction, by all means give the Primo 8 a listen. I think you’ll find it is pretty special.
Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of the Primo 8, and until that time—happy listening to you and yours
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