Need to juice up your desktop music scene? Nuforce has just the thing. Its new Icon is a miniature, multi-threat amplifier that can be used to pump music from a computer or audio player to your speakers and headphones. Nuforce builds high-performance Class D digital amps that put pricey competitors to shame, and the Icon is an insane hi-fi bargain at $250.
The Icon itself has a slick brushed aluminum enclosure, and given its size you could almost mistake it for a router, if not for the oversized volume and input knobs on the front.
Around back there’s inputs for 3.5-mm and RCA cables, a USB connection, a line out to power a subwoofer, and RJ-45 (Ethernet) speaker cable ports.
Although it’s only 12 watts per channel, the Icon is powerful enough to act as a pre-amp to full-fledged stereos, and on its own can drive most bookshelf speakers, producing a wide, spacious soundstage. I drag-raced it against beefier amps (at 50-60 watts), and the Icon’s sound quality in the mid and high ranges — vocals, cymbals and keys, for instance — was every bit as smooth and detailed. The bigger amps could produce slightly deeper bass and cranked higher without distortion, but the Icon’s overall dynamics were every bit as impressive.
I don’t bother listening to music on my laptop because the sound quality from the headphone jack is thin and distorted, not to mention the occasional pops and crackles. But when I hooked up the Icon via the USB port and patched in my Grado SR80 cans, it was a revelation. The Icon uses a high-quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to convert the computer’s digital signal to sweet-sounding analog, and alla sudden the music was crystal clear, the bass cleaner and deeper, and the overall sound infinitely better. The only downside here may be that you’ll realize how crummy some of those downloaded MP3s actually sound.
The Icon is also a solid headphone amp, and will improve the sound from an iPod or any other audio player’s output. If you’ve never tried out a headphone amp before, the difference can be striking, assuming you have a decent set of cans. In the end, the beauty of the Icon is that it can be used in so many different ways – I’ve got it powering some outdoor speakers on my patio – and it excels wherever you rig it.