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Once fully charged, we used a Sony MDR F1, an Ultrasone iCube or Sennheiser HD-600 headphone. We first hitched up an iPod with the provided generic interconnect using the headphone output of the Apple mini. As expected, the sound was different from the iPod direct. Bass was stronger and so were the midrange frequencies. This emphasis weakened after we let things play on until the iPod's battery went flat. This only took 4 hours since our 80GB iPod Classic stores WAV files and the player's buffer runs out quite often so the hard disk needs to spin up to reload it which consumes precious juice.

Next we used the line out of the recharged iPod with a Qables Gold interconnect. This bypasses the iPod's amplifier. Unfortunately the cable jack did not fit well. The Icon Mobile sports a recess around its 3-jack bay which isn't spacious enough to accommodate larger plugs though generic el cheapo fare goes in well. The good news? The current production Icon Mobile enlarged its recessed area for a better fit. We persuaded our connectors to stay put but moving about with either iPod or amp became impossible without suffering disconnects. Using the Qables Gold interconnect was admittedly over the top but it did allow us to assess the Icon Mobile.

NuForce is known for their Class-D implementations but has not included this technology in their portable amp. Instead they run a simple Class B stage which works great. Listening through the headphones is no chore whatever. The amp is capable of transferring detail, openness and attack without breaking up or getting sharp and tinny. This is remarkable and proves that NuForce did not settle for a me-too gizmo with added trimmings. During work, we used the little amplifier for two battery charges of iPod time before another 'serious' listening session began. The specified 13 hours of battery life is easily doubled in practice.

For a look beneath the covers, proceed to SideBar I.

The extra time we gave the little amplifier proved beneficial for its sound quality especially in musical coherence. Things fit together better over time. Switching to the iQube or Predator made a difference of course. These machines excel at spaciousness and control but as often, the big differences are in the little details. Because the Predator was the only other small amp with DAC, we compared the two fed from a laptop via Foobar. We again confirmed that NuForce did not just add a feature because they could. Their DAC is a really nice implementation and a good match for the following amplifier stage. The sound is neither edgy nor sharp and the DAC beats the iPod's converter many times over. This begs everyone to find a tweak to bypass the iPod converter.

Compared one on one to the bigger and heavier iQube, the NuForce portable lacks its cost 'n' space no issue advantage when endless parts tweaking is on the menu. The Dutch amp saves space by using class-D chips but uses up extra real estate on the bits necessary to tame the ultrasonic switching noise. As it is an amp-only design, all additional efforts were put into tuning and voicing. This led to ultra-low distortion figures with fantastic control over an extended frequency range and an ability to size up any soundstage. The Icon Mobile proved insufficiently powerful to match these accomplishments and lacked the power reserves which render transients like drum whacks so life-like. Where the iQube's low distortion and high output could run it as a driver for our 300B output stages, this (ab)use was beyond the little NuForce.

Compared to the Ray Samuels unit, the NuForce as DAC/amp wasn't too far behind and actually great for its intended use while you're busy doing other things. By the way, when USB-connected to a computer, the battery will be charged as necessary to further extend the charge's life span. Just like the iQube, the Predator owes a lot of its performance capabilities to the higher energy reserves when called upon. In voicing, the Predator is a little more aggressive -- hence the name perhaps? -- than the gentler iQube. Used as preamp driver to a power amplifier, the Predator really rocks. Due to its limited headroom and lower max output, the Icon Mobile sat somewhere in the middle of the voicing arena. While its frequency coverage was adequate, when real power was needed, the lightweight amp was indeed lightweight.

For the asking price however, the Icon Mobile is a great portable amplifier that offers musical enjoyment wherever and whenever from either a portable player or computer. The overall sound quality makes it certainly worthwhile to shop for the best in-ear or standard headphone your budget allows.

Quality of packing: Double boxed in a showcase carton.
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Brand new.
Completeness of delivery: USB cable, min-to-mini link, screwdriver and manual.
Quality of owner's manual: Simple and efficient in English.
Website comments: Focused on sales.
Warranty: Lifetime(!).
Human interactions: Professional and courteous.
Pricing: A bargain for an amp with DAC of this quality.
Application conditions: Plug & play.
Final comments & suggestions: Though meant for real portable use, the case is not truly rugged nor water resistant. The aluminium top came off too easy and its locking mechanisms needed readjustment.
NuForce website