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Reviewers: David Kan (main review), Frederic Beudot (headphone amp)
Digital Source: Micromega MicroDrive/VarioDac, Deltec Little Bit DAC, Marantz SA6820
Preamp Amp/integrated Amp: KingRex Preamp/T20/T20U, Dared MC-7P, Dared VP-20
Speakers: JM-Lab Micron, Loth-X BS-1, Klipsch Synergy F2, Mark & Daniel Maximus-Mini
Subwoofers: Quest QS8II (pair), Altec Lansing XA3001
Cables: Clearaudio Silver Line interconnect, Deltec Black Slink interconnect, Luscombe LBR-35 interconnect, OCOS speaker cables by Dynaudio, Symphonic Line The Fast speaker cables, Aural Symphonic Digital Standard digital cable
Power Cords: Aural Symphonic Missing Link, Ensemble Powerflux
Power Line Conditioning: Monster Power HTS-1000 Mk II
Room Size: 15' x 13.5' x 8 diagonal setup, 11' x 18' x 7-8' opens to 18' x 19' x 7-8', long wall setup, carpeted concrete slab floor, suspended ceiling and all walls finished with drywall (basement with small window on one side, which is concrete foundation wall with insulation); computer room for desktop audition is 13' 8" x 9' 8" x 8', short wall setup, hardwood suspended floor, suspended ceiling, all walls finished with drywall.
Review component retail: Icon with standard accessories (24w SMPS and 1m Cat5 speaker cables) $249, 45w SMPS $45, 2m Cat6 speaker cables with gold-plated RJ45 and banana terminators $29.99/pair, RJ45CX speaker binding post converter $99, S-1 desktop speakers with 7 ft Cat6 speaker cables with gold-plated RJ45 $249/pair

The icon-smashing Icon
Iconoclasm was here. Iconoclasm is here. From day one, NuForce was determined to challenge the traditional value of high-end audio. Whether you see eye to eye with them or not, they have garnered enough awards, patents and confidence already to carry on with their vision. Now they try to pull their trick one more time, albeit at the other end of the audio spectrum. With their boutique-style Icon, NuForce is pushing the envelope of affordable class D amps.

This marketing novelty is more than skin deep. From product presentation, packaging, pricing to actual application and functions, every aspect synergizes to make the idea bigger than the commodity itself. Srajan was right; it'll create the volume and move by the volume. I just want to add that it's not doing that by tapping into the inexhaustible hi-fi/mid-fi/lo-fi oil wells. It ventures into the unknown, drills off-shore and closes corporate sales by the hundreds if not thousands. You see, if your job requires you to be on constant lookout for high quality, high novelty promotional ideas, the Icon should have your mind switched into business mode. We've seen utility companies give out iPods to customers who sign up for installing a power-saving device on their air-cons. We've seen phone companies, cable companies and Internet service providers give out cordless phones to attract new customers. I won't be surprised to see retail banks, credit card companies, car dealerships, department stores, condo sale centers and of course utility companies hand out this chic stylish box as an incentive to recruit new customers. Needless to say, the Icon shall make a desirable redemption item on the list of Air Miles rewards and the like.

The Icon has the universal appeal and the sticker to sell in bulk. Low-power class D (LPCD) is a guerilla war game now and the Icon has changed the rules of engagement to a free-for-all contest. What can the Icon do that the low-budget Tripath amps cannot? For one, the Icon shakes off the audiophile straight jacket by embracing a household product mentality. It's user-friendly yet versatile enough to offer three inputs (RCA, 3.5mm mini and USB) and three output options (speakers, line out and headphone), which make it the true tri-path amp whereas the Trends TA-10, KingRex T20 and Winsome Labs Mouse are all one-way in, one-way out affairs (the KingRex T20U does offer a second input for USB.) For audiophiles, dedicated circuitry might be the golden standard but for the household, versatility and convenience rule. Locating the power on-off switch on the front and combining it with the volume control makes it so much more convenient than reaching around back. And you won't forget to turn down the volume before you switch off. Second, the Icon comes in four fashionable colors. Third, the Icon looks and feels more like a trendy computer gadget and discreetly marks its turf on the desktop without pissing off other peripherals. It blends in well with my other external hard drives. The fool-proof RJ45 plug is a nice therapeutic touch that neutralizes audiophobia in people who get nausea from telling a banana plug from a spade. The Icon represents anti-audiophobia.

While most products pride themselves as "strictly not for beginners", NuForce reverses the trend by positioning the Icon as "great for beginners'. The one-page A Beginner's Guide to Good Audio says all. By targeting the 'left-outs', NuForce taps into a bigger market populated by consumers (not necessarily just the younger ones) who are keen on trying out new things. While educating them 'loud' is not good but 'clear' is, these rookies will savor and acquire the fine taste for music and grow into serious audiophiles one day. That's the hopeful message I'm getting from the Icon. And it's not just pricing alone that can fulfill the task. It's the total package, the entire approach. Tube amps with USB inputs for instance are doing a half-hearted job of it because newbies are uncomfortable with hot-red vacuum tubes.

So who's the think tank behind all this since the departure of Tranh Nyuen who was very high profile during the initial launch of NuForce? Jason Lim at the helm of navigating the prosperous voyage of the P-9 and V2 projects explained: "I conceived the product idea behind the Icon and S-1 but Casey Ng, our VP of product development, led the project and came out with the high-level concept, design and specifications. We also have Chief Engineer Dalun Yuan based in Taiwan who worked with Casey on the project implementation. Basically what we are doing now has been part of our business plan developed 4 years ago. My role as CEO is to set the strategic direction for the company." By the way, Jason and Casey are originally from Singapore.

Product positioning is half the battle. Pricing is the ammunition. The rest is up to performance. While the presentation is non-audiophile, the sonic performance looks the other way at least initially. The aforementioned Tripath amps dwell on topographic simplicity with through-hole parts and components to open up possibilities for modifications. The Icon hits the high-tech road with surface-mount circuit boards to leave the mod squads scratching their heads. Hi-tech will certainly please the masses but will it alienate stubborn audiophiles? NuForce has put their stakes on hi-tech by bagging four U. S. patents so far (including the latest one for their V2 technology) and numerous accolades and awards from audio magazines. So the tiny Icon shouldn't be sniffed at. Long before the official announcement in fact, it was much talked about and anticipated that NuForce would be launching a "Tripath" amp.