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On the subject of connections, these amps weigh a mere 3 pounds. Stiff cables will either pull the Ref 8s off your rack or lift them up in the air into a freaky levitating position of advanced Yoga. In addition, the shallow clearance at the speaker binding posts due to low height means you'll need to position the rear of the amps close to the shelf edge or come in from above to attach the speaker cables.

In fact, to a conservative audiophile these minor impracticalities added to the absence of 2" faceplates, massive heat-sinking and 80 lbs transformers may mistakenly and naively lead to a premature and tragic snub-nosed dismissal. I say tragic because such snobbery and conservatism would deprive one of an opportunity to experience musical pleasure incommensurate with mere physical appearance, size and weight.

Got to hear 'em - eventually...
Mechanically and electronically -- as opposed to sonically -- my maiden voyage with the NuForce amps saw me sailing troubled waters far from smooth. The first sample pair arrived with a channel DOA (drowned on arrival). The waters did not calm as a second wave developed hissy fits. I wasn't about to endanger my Wilson tweeters with hissy fitters. This gig don't pay enough. In fact, no audio gig pays that much.

Out of the blue depths, a third pair surfaced! Let's just say that partly due to my ignorance of unique ultra-high damping rate devices and partly due to a somewhat ambiguous owner's manual lacking dots on the i's and crosses on the t's, one channel was in urgent need of mouth-to-mouth resurrection! Whoda thunk you'd have to have a constant speaker load on a solid-state device? Hey, now you know. I'm sure you'll agree better me than you. Aided and abetted by the ever accommodating and busily dispensing distributor Cap'n Pat O'Brien from WAR Audio, Perth/Western Australia, I got to listen to the NuForce Reference 8 monoblock amplifiers as intended - eventually.

Initially I listen to a component on an emotional level. If on first listen, a product is endowed with an inherently overt strength, I allow the sonic trait passage through my filter of discrimination. Within those early stages of auditioning, my focus is not completely but heavily dominated by said feature. Subsequently, I explore attributes and qualities on a more profound level yet never forget that first impression - like love at first sight. With the Reference 8s, the initial sonic coup de grace was bass reproduction. There must be something to that obscenely high damping rate. Though not Krell like in power and abundance, the bass reproduction on my Wilsons was awesome in its tightness, speed and detail.

An extremely demanding CD for its bass prowess is Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker's Duo [Blue Note 91872, 1998]. On "Mean Streak", Charlie's electric bass intro saw itself reproduced with vice-like control and superb detailing of both the transient finger pluck and the full note that follows. In addition, the so-called PRaT factor was here in full strength with power and speed not just in the lower octaves but higher up the range where the percussive onslaught unleashed by Leon Parker propels the music along while urging, no daring, the listener to remain still if he/she can. Music seemed to flow at a propulsive rate that enhanced its rhythmical properties. These miniature monos are fast.

Jackson Browne's The Naked Ride Home [Elektra 62 7932, 2002] is a superbly recorded CD from a masterful wordsmith. "Sergio Leone" is an anecdotal account of the legendary Italian filmmaker's first visit to the States. It's an atmospheric piece with a complex mix of special auditory effects, Jackson's vocals and acoustic and electric instruments. The Ref 8s successfully unraveled the mélange of musical content without rendering things insipid or analytical. The NuForce amps resolved the numerous sonic strands to allow individual discernment while maintaining the musicality and message of the piece. That is no mean feat for any piece of audio kit.

Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" from the Living Stereo Audiophile Sampler is another example of rhythm being preserved and sustained by the Ref 8 monos. The cowbells or clip clops that represent the imaginary horses clanged along with truthful timbre and jumped out from the mix with startling realism and dynamics. The orchestra is spread out in a soundstage that -- although not quite a match to my reference Pass Labs -- still stretches satisfactorily deep and wide. The NuForce Reference 8 monos present images that don't melt the walls away in terms of spaciousness but render them extremely well defined and focused. Vocalists are locked in the center without Belafontian image wander (unless intentionally recorded that way). Similarly, instruments located in positions within the soundstage don't drift and remain firmly allocated even as they span their natural frequency range.

An example of this image precision is Ani DiFranco's Living in Clip [Righteous Babe 11, 1997]. On "Gravel", Ani is front and centre, a romantically slighted and angry woman, guitar in hand in vivid sonic detail, with
drums in support just behind her and the bassist to the left. The Ref 8s did a superb job of reproducing the delicate details of Ani's finger work as she strums and picks. The concert's venue is quite large and the Nuforce amps recreated that uncanny sense of a large space within a small listening room as well as any amp I've heard. In fact, Ani's closed-miked vocals and guitar had a corporal presence that was intimate and communicated with the listener on an almost personal level. Yet the Ref 8s can pull a swiftie on you by also recreating that delayed ambience or echo of a stadium recorded on subsequent tracks.

Dorian's beautiful production of Rachel Burton and Samuel Sander's Homage to Pablo de Sarasate [Dorian DOR-90183, 1994] was a great listen with the Ref 8s. "Habanera' really highlights Rachel Burton's superb skills with her instrument. The 1617 Amati sounded incredibly detailed and dynamic, with a clear rosin sound that displayed none of the hifi-ish sweetening of the transients on the higher notes. Sanders' piano accompaniment was full and again the lower registers stood out as solid and detailed.

With the Reference 8s, there is a definite sense of confidence in the absolute procurement of recorded vocal and instrumental detail. These amps give the impression of retrieving all the information that appears in the recording and present it cleanly, accurately and musically intact.

When it comes to harmonic richness, the Ref 8s cannot match the ultimate purity, delicacy and utter palpability of a good SET or Class A design though they do come extremely close. Stereotypically, SET amps can sound glorious in the midrange where they excel at recreating harmonic texture and finesse that extends into the sweet treble while weaknesses in the lower octaves will affect either extension, weight, control or all of them. What the NuForce amps offer over the just mentioned SET amps is the ability to sound uniform and clean across the whole frequency spectrum. The Ref 8s are so skillfully balanced and transparent that the listener begins to forget about the equipment to become immersed in the music instead.

With well-recorded male or female vocals and if mated with suitably competent components up and downstream, the NuForce monos have the potential to impress the listener with in-the-room presence and virtual tactility. And here is where I would like to stress that often-neglected concept of system synergy. Prior to the NuForce amps, a change in cabling profoundly transformed my system to the best it has ever been. This latest leap is credited to the introduction of the superb Bocchino Audio and Cerious Technologies cables (both to be reviewed). After having dozens of cables of different topologies and materials in my system over the last few years, nothing has been as literally transforming as the Bocchino and Cerious cables. Inserting the NuForce amplifiers into a system that was finally on song could have exposed many pitfalls that potentially might have thrown the whole balance off and sent me back to square one. The fact that the Ref 8s didn't is a testament to their transparency, neutrality and frequency-wide balance.

Now, having said that about cables and component synergy, NuForce recommends the use of Stealth Audio's M21 AC cable specifically designed for use with switching power supplies and the Reference 8s. The Stealth cable can in fact be purchased direct with the Ref 8s from Nuforce but will be sold only with a corresponding amplifier. Conveniently lightweight and flexible, the Stealth cables work very well with the amps indeed. For sonic impressions, just go back to my musical examinations above and add the words "more" and 'better'. But apply those words with levity as there is subtly more bloom around images (especially vocals), slightly fatter yet equally tight and detailed bass and the impression of an effortlessness that belies the amplifier specifications. On
the other hand, a stereo set of dedicated Stealth Audio M21 AC cables will set you back $960, just over the price of one balanced mono amp. When put into contextual perspective, the Stealth ACs are expensive but my ears tell me there are worthwhile sonic gains when compared to standard fare. Then again, you may reap similar gains with your own higher-than-standard AC cable of choice. Your call.

What are the NuForce limitations? Well, the things are so neutral and balanced that weaknesses don't jump in your face. It takes time and effort to eventually ascertain what these minor weaknesses might be. As mentioned above, harmonically they can't match other designs that use methodologies and devices that are definitive in that area like valves. Consequently, the NuForce amps lack ultimate top-end air and image bloom as reproduced by their thermionic and Class A cousins. But it is a close race. Conversely, the NuForce amps don't suffer the frequency extension limitations of many SETs nor the excessive heat and inefficiency of Class A designs.

They might be giants
In spite of the repeat early glitches, I can confidently conclude that the NuForce Reference 8 mono amplifiers are powerful beyond their rating, sonically potent and physically practical to accommodate. Their fast and rhythmic presentation makes them an enjoyable listen while generously granting large dollops of detailed, clean sound, especially when mated to the recommended Stealth Audio power cable. One really can't ask for more for a couple of clams.

Culturally, they may be judged by their appearance and their divergence from established technologies. Physically, they may be dismissed by their size and blunt simplicity. What a mistake that would be. Leave prejudices and stereotypes by the wayside and listen with an open mind. Hail the new era of cool-running miniature amplification!
Manufacturer's response:
It makes us blush to be receiving such wonderful compliments from 6moons. With the recent introduction of our higher power Reference 9, we have further refined both subjective and objective performances. All of us at NuForce look forward to bringing more excitement and surprises to the audio world in the coming years.

Jason Lim
Manufacturer's website