TRENDS TA 10.2

VIRTUE AUDIO1

NUFORCE ICON

Review by

John Richards

with

Mike Peshkin & John Fritz

 


This shootout focuses on a trio of small, inexpensive chip-based amplifiers. In a sense, I suppose they are a bit like potato chips… cheap, but awfully good when you are in the mood for them! And you can’t stop with just one…

When we say "chip amps", we refer to the fact that the amplification in these type of products is not accomplished by tubes or transistors. Quite literally, like a computer CPU, the power comes from a computer chip. For example, pictured below is the heart of Nuforce Icon.


Following up on my recent review of the Virtue Audio One class-T amplifier, I thought it might be fun to round up a few other popular chip amps and see how they fared against the One. Even better, I decided to get a couple of my audio buddies together and do an informal “shootout” of the amps. Nothing fancy, just get together, listen to the amps, share impressions, have a beer at the end of the day, and then have each of us independently write a few paragraphs outlining our impressions of each amp.


My choice of guinea pigs, um, I mean friends, was fairly obvious. First was “Muzikmike” Peshkin, a longtime audio nut and frequent reviewer here at Stereomojo. Second was John Fritz, a local attorney and serious audiophile. I figured between Muzikmike and John I had at my disposal a culmination of high-end audio experience equating to the age of a middle-aged man (which I myself am quickly becoming). And both of these guys have ears I trust.


Being a scientist, I wanted to minimize as many variables as I could. I chose a playlist that would be identical for all three trials and I made sure the playback system remained identical to the best extent possible. So on to the details…

THE CONTENDERS


Virtue Audio One integrated amplifier;

30 watts per channel (with stock power supply; two upgrade options)

$250


NuForce Icon integrated amplifier

12 watts per channel with inboard usb DAC and speaker cables

$250


Trends TA 10.1 integrated amplifier

15 watts per channel

$190

 


PLAYBACK SYSTEM


The digital playlist chosen (see below) was stored on an external hard drive (Western Digital) and accessed via a Macintosh Mini computer. The bits were then sent directly to a Benchmark DAC1 USB for conversion to the analog domain; from there, the signal was output directly to the amplifier via a 20-foot run of Signal Cable interconnects. Since each amp had a built-in volume attenuator, my normal preamplifier was bypassed. Each amp was then used to power a pair of Von Schweikert VR-1 monitors interfaced to the amp with a pair of Kimber speaker cables, with the exception of the NuForce Icon which was connected using the cables supplied with it due to its non-standard terminations.


THE PLAYLIST


All music was digital, and at least of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution (in some cases, better) upsampled by the Benchmark DAC1 USB to 24/96 resolution. The playlist utilized is as follows:


1. Rimsky-Korsakov/Pizarro, “Capriccio Espagnol,” Linn Super Audio Surround Collection, Vol 3, 24/96 resolution
2. de Murcia/Carter, “Cumbees,” Linn Super Audio Surround Collection, 24/96 resolution
3. Brio, “Una Tarde de Verano,” HDTracks Ultimate Download Experience, 16/44.1 resolution
4. Mussorgsky/The Minnesota Orchestra, “Baba Yaga,” HDTracks Ultimate Download Experience, 16/44.1 resolution
5. Duke Ellington, “Blues in Orbit,” from “Blues in Orbit,” Classic Records CS8241, ripped from vinyl, 24/44.1 resolution
6. Frank Sinatra, “Dindi,” from “Sinatra and Jobim,” Reprise 1021, ripped from vinyl, 24/44.1 resolution
7. Oliver Nelson, “Stolen Moments,” from “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” Reprise AS-5, ripped from vinyl, 24/44.1 resolution
8. Horner/City of Prague Philharmonic, “Apollo 13,” from “Film Music by James Horner,” Silva Screen, 24/44.1 resolution

 


What follows is a personal summary of the experience that each of us had with these little amplifiers. My section is a bit longer, as I have had the opportunity to live with the three amps for some time, so I added some longer-term impressions when warranted. Read on and enjoy!


FRITZ'S FANCIES

When John Richardson asked me to be part of a listening panel to report on three low powered, digital switching amplifiers, I was frankly skeptical. Having been partial to hefty tube amplification of the Audio Research variety for most of my 30 plus years in this hobby, I was less than sanguine in my expectations. I doubted that these flyweights could conjure up a favorable impression, especially when pressed into yeoman service driving stand-mounts in the form of the Von Schweikert VR-1. Well I can’t say that I was blown away by the experience but I was left with an unexpected appreciation for what these diminutive $250 and under boxes can do. The comments that follow summarize my impressions following an enjoyable afternoon’s listening session at John’s house.


First up was the Virtue Audio One, weighing in at 30 watts/channel, the most powerful of the lot. On initial listen my reaction was one of incredulity: how could that tiny box produce such room filling sound? Once my disbelief wore off, I began critical listening. Contrary to expectations, there was nothing harsh or edgy about the sound. No screeching violins, no over the top brass, no accentuation of sibilants, no sonic artifacts, just a reasonably balanced portrayal of music top to bottom (taking into account the low frequency limitations of the VR-1s). On the other hand, the Virtue Audio rounded off hard transients just slightly, evident as a lack of bite in the upper register of the strings in “Baba Yaga” and “Apollo 13.” Likewise, the guitar picking in “Cumbees” sounded slightly blunted and indistinct. The Virtue Audio threw a reasonably large sound stage that started just slightly behind the plane of the speakers. Instrumental timbres were fairly well resolved (the different saxophones in “Stolen Moments”), but not to the degree found in a quality tube amplifier. Overall, I found the Virtue slightly darker in balance compared to the NuForce, which is probably a good thing when used in an inexpensive desktop system.


The NuForce Icon offered less power (12 watts). Unlike the other amps under review, the NuForce offered an occasional glimpse of reality, along with some quirks. A case in point: “Una Tarde de Verano” – here I thought I was listening to a live microphone feed of a male singer (and I have heard microphone feeds as an amateur recordist). The other amps did not produce this effect, although there seemed to be nothing specifically wrong with their presentation. Likewise, the piano in “Capriccio Espagnol” sounded more lifelike to me, surrounded by a cushion of air that was not nearly as evident on the other amps. Quirks? Interestingly, the soundstage of the NuForce started well behind the plane of the speakers (especially notable on the piano in “Capriccio Espagnol”), yet depth of field was evident from that plane. Timbral distinctions were not as obvious (the saxophones in “Stolen Moments”), and there was the slightest thinning out of textures, notable on the trumpet and brush work in “Stolen Moments.” The Nuforce nudged toward the analytical but remained an enjoyable listen nonetheless. I should note that a variable existed with the NuForce in the form of its own dedicated speaker cable, which we were not able to use with the other amps.


The Trends TA-10.1, a 15 watter, sounded like a less robust version of the Virtue Audio in most respects. It too is a nicely balanced amp with no significant sonic foibles. Although the Trends’ soundstage was not as expansive, it resolved the saxophones and brush work in Stolen Moments on a par with the Virtue Audio. Perhaps it was the difference in power, but the Trends did not engage me quite like the more powerful Virtue Audio, nor did it intrigue me like the 12 watt NuForce.
At their power rating, no one will mistake these amps for giant killers (this is not a case of David and Goliath). Yet they offer a sound far more robust and resolved than what you might expect from amps less than half the size of a shoe box. As “Muzikmike” commented during the session, you don’t get this good of a sound from a $250 receiver. None of these amps will be the limiting factor in any desktop system in which they are likely to be used. The Virtue Audio in particular may find itself jumping off the desk and onto the floor, driving a suitable full range system to good effect. I enjoyed listening to all three, which was an unexpected pleasure. However, it was the NuForce, more so than the others, which made me want to consider further the possibilities of digital amplifiers, small and large[r].

 

MUZIKMIKE'S MUSING


As an audiophile, there can’t be anything more fun than to get together with a couple other serious music lovers and listen to some equipment; enjoy their company and a good beer.


I suppose there are many audiophiles who would feel listening to a $250 amplifier is a waste of time and good music. Let me state this as strongly as I can: IT’S THE MUSIC! Cost is secondary, at best. John Richardson invited me over to listen, along with another friend (John Fritz), to three inexpensive chip-based amplifiers. Was I impressed? You bet! I know there are plenty of people out there who would spend $250 on a cheap receiver and unknowingly listen to music marred by a complete menu of audio errors: smeared notes and transients, absolutely minimal soundstage (what’s a soundstage?). Mere sound, not music!


First up was the Virtue Audio One. There were some things that initially bothered me but I was impressed, nonetheless. Everything was ameliorated when the larger power supply was added (this happened at the end of the listening session). The big-assed piano became the correct size for the room, and we were definitely placed into the correct space for that piano. Listening to another recording, “Cumbees,” the big assed guitar became life-sized. But what really impressed me was the separation of notes, the distinct transient sounds of real instruments making real music.


I had commented on the plinky sound of the high piano notes on the title cut of “Blues in Orbit.” The plinkyness was gone with the larger power supply added; Sinatra’s voice on “Dindi” had been chesty, deeper, as if he’d gained weight. I was surprised that the big power supply helped Frankie lose that unwanted fat. Attack was a bit rolled off, but there!


Imaging and a soundstage from a $250 amp plus the added $119 for the power supply! Live without the power supply for a while if you have to; save the pennies and add it later!

 

 

 


The NuForce Icon (above) was surprisingly good, too. I didn’t care for it as much, but had I not heard the Virtue, I’d have fallen in love with it, too. The piano in “Capriccio Espagnol” and later, the guitar (in “Cumbees”), were properly sized. The castanets in “Una Tarde de Verano” had seemed as if they were in the room with us via the Virtue. The Nu Force couldn’t have fooled me, they just did not have the attack and the slight but nonetheless apparent room fade that I heard with the Virtue. But again this is a $250 amp! We’re speaking of omission, not commission. There was nothing added to the music, nothing to ruin the sound…I knew they were castanets!


Naming a single word description is quite easy. POLITE! The Nu Force wasn’t wrong, per se, it just didn’t have True Grit. There are some very martial-like drums in the beginning of the music from the film Apollo 13. The politeness of the Nu Force almost hides those drums…they’re almost absent.


The Trends TA 10.1 filled the entire room with sound. I found the aural effects to be a bit strange, a bit off. I could not detect any attack with either piano or guitar, laid back and not as lively; yet I liked the high notes in all of the musical excerpts better with the Trends than either of the other two amps.

We decided we’d put all three of them into a large vat, melt them together and then we’d have a perfect amp for $750, still a real bargain.

 

RICHARDSON'S RAMBLINGS

Let me reiterate that this little exercise was fun! There’s nothing better than getting a few audio nerds together to compare gear in a semi-analytical, but fun, listening environment.


We started out (randomly, I might add) with the 30 watt per channel Virtue Audio One. Anyone who has read my review of this amp here at Stereomojo.com knows that I have nothing but praise for this product. This faceoff was interesting and productive, but I can say that it really doesn’t change my opinion of the Virtue. Of the three amps, it was definitely the most lively and engaging. Specifically, it gave the most up-front presentation of music, in terms of harmonic texture, rhythm and pace, and soundstage. In short, the One hooked me quickly and got me more deeply engaged in the listening experience… that’s what it’s all about, right? Compared to both other amps, the Virtue gave a harder, more aggressive overall presentation, but I think that’s what added the excitement and immediacy to the music that I kept referring to in my review.


For example, on “Capriccio Espagnol,” the sustained left-hand work on the piano at the beginning of the piece had a gravity and decay that added real weight to the performance that was missing to a certain degree with the other two amps. Also, the castanets on “Una Tarde de Verano” had a certain presence, in terms of attack and ambience that was impressive, as was the percussion on “Apollo 13.” I also heard more texture (“blattiness and spittiness”) and sheen to Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet in “Stolen Moments.”


Overall, the Virtue is a killer amp for the money that serves up a scary portion of high-end sound for little coin. Keep it between you and me, but we couldn’t restrain ourselves, and at the end of the formal listening session we brought in the bigger 130-watt power supply (optional, to the tune of $119 extra). Suffice it to say that there really was no longer any contest, but that’s cheating, isn’t it? Let’s just say that if you want to get the most out of the Virtue One, do spring for the big supply.


From the Virtue One, we moseyed over to the NuForce Icon. Same price as the Virtue One, but the Icon puts out only 12 watts per channel. However, it does come with its own speaker cables and an internal DAC with a USB input, which makes it great for attaching directly to your computer in a desktop system. This is a really pretty little amp to listen to, and in some ways reminded me of a decent vacuum tube amplifier. More specifically, I found its overall sound to be smooth and a bit less aggressive (at least compared to the Virtue), with a little more distant soundstage presentation. However, I didn’t find it as exciting to listen to, as it seemed a tad too “polite.” Instruments didn’t have the same weight and attack as through the Virtue, but then again that could be due, at least in part, to the power difference. I also noticed what I think was a pronounced “bump” in the lower midrange/upper bass region. While this added some welcome presence, I thought it sounded a bit bloated and artificial.


I must also mention that the Icon seemed to have some noise issues. From time to time, it picked up what sounded like spurious RF and gave off an audible hum or whine that seemed to rise and fade alternately. My quick fix was to turn the amp off and turn it back on again; this approach worked until the hum decided to come back again… and again. I noticed this both in my home system and my work system, where I kept the Icon for a couple of weeks before the faceoff.


Also, while the usb DAC option on the Icon is convenient and sounds fine, I found while at work I much preferred feeding the output of my Scott Nixon USB Chibi DAC directly into the Icon and bypassing its own DAC. Keep in mind, however, that the Nixon DAC alone costs as much as the Icon. I don’t mean to sound overly critical of the Icon, as it would make a really neat-o all-in-one desktop system; it just wasn’t quite up to the overall standard of the Virtue One in my opinion.


Last up was the Trends TA 10.1. While the Trends is the least expensive of the three amps, it is also the smallest and least impressive looking (I lovingly call it the “mouse” because it is small, gray, and has a nose, um, I mean volume knob, in the front). Of the three, it was also the hardest for me to pin down sonically. I really had a hard time finding any sort of attribute (or detriment) that really stuck out. Like the Icon, the Trends was easy on the ears but lacked the attack and dynamics of the Virtue. Again, it sounded quite fine, but just didn’t have the MOJO (sorry, just had to…) of the Virtue One, even with its stock power supply. Maybe the power issue again, as the Trends puts out only 15 watts per channel? Hard to tell, as the Von Schweikerts are an easy load to drive, and we really weren’t listening at volume levels that stressed any of the amplifiers. However, when I returned the Trends to my work system where it normally belongs, it was like putting on a comfortable and broken-in pair of sneakers. I was glad to have it back where it belongs and really have no desire to part with it in that context.


So, was there a clear winner in my mind? Obviously, my first choice was the Virtue One. It’s a really well built and good-looking product that has the power to drive real speakers in real rooms. It could easily serve as the centerpiece in a really good budget stereo system (as it presently does in my home). But what about the other two amps? Again, there were certain things about them both that I really liked, but they also showed their limitations in the context of our listening session. Each would be best used, in my opinion, in a good nearfield desktop system coupled to a pair of small and efficient speakers.


I will say with confidence though, that I am amazed by the degree of refinement and overall quality one can get from an amplifier these days by spending $250 or less. All three of the amps are solid evidence of this; such quality has most likely never before been available at such a relatively low price point. What a wonderful time for budget conscious audiophiles and music lovers!


FINAL THOUGHTS


I took two important things away from this exercise. First, as I stated above, there is a lot of value to be had in the quest for good sound these days. Second, I’m amazed that three experienced listeners/music lovers can be placed into the same room, listen to the same music on the same system, and still focus in on different qualities of a component. Or, even hear different things altogether! For example, I labeled the Virtue One as “harder and more aggressive” in its presentation than its competitors, while John Fritz heard it as “slightly darker in balance.” Somehow, these descriptors seem to be in contrast with one another. I trust my ears, and I trust John’s as well! So who is right? Is that even a question we can ask and reasonably assess? I truly believe that different listeners really do hear things differently and most certainly focus in on different aural qualities of a particular piece of gear.


In our discussion after the session, it was apparent that all three of us were picking up on the main characteristics of each amp; I think that comes through in our individual overviews. It’s the finer stuff in which we differed and I think it’s important that the information come through in our writings as well!

Ultimately, as I have said before and will say again, it’s up to each individual to evaluate gear in his or her own system using his or her own music before a truly educated purchase should be made.

 

Publisher's Comments - An important issue that we have been stressing in review after review is how critical system matching is. As we have stated many times, a less expensive well matched system will outperform a poorly matched megabuck system every time. From matching cartridges to an arm in a turtable to matching speakers to amplfiers (and everything to a room) a system is only as good as its poorest match. Mr. Richardson said the VR-1's are an easy load, but I'm not sure I agree. The Von Schweikert VR-1's the guys used for this shootout is a fine small speaker but it not a very efficient one. Since Albert doesn't make the VR-1 any more, I couldn't verify the published spec and there are at least three different ones published at different sites ranging from 87 to 90db for efficiency - and none of those list what criteria was used to ascertain those numbers. I did see where the minimum solid state recommendation is 50 wpc. Just because a speaker is small does not mean it is easy to drive and will play nicely with a small amp such as these.

We have reviewed a number of large floorstanders that are very efficient and will run you out of your room driven by any of these amps. At CES, the Virtue One was demoed driving a big pair of ClairAudient Line Sources in a large room (see below).

 

But then they are rated somewhere around 96 db. I have had a Virtue One for several months now. In fact, I got the very first one available anywhere. I also own the same model Trends featured in this shootout. Of course, the Trends quite famously won the blind shootout of 14 different "digital" amps we did in 2007 - see link below. I also own a Sonic Super T chip amp as well as a tiny Tecon tube amp ($399) that puts out a whopping 5 wpc. I do not have nor have I heard the Nuforce Icon that was the third participant so I cannot comment on it. Other than the Icon, I have used all of the amps with several speakers but mostly the big Coincident towers - the Super Victory I reviewed recently and the larger Total Victory that is in house now. By the way, I also have a Sensation by Virtue Audio that we will be reporting on soon.

For me, the little Virtue One is better than the Trends or the Super T. The construction and parts quality of the Virtue is superior to either of the others. That is with the standard power supply. When the optional beefier supply is added, the competition for me quickly fades. I will stress that all of these amps benefit greatly from increased isolation such as my Stillpoints rack as well as better quality power cables.

A couple of meat and potato things that the guys didn't mention need to be pointed out:

The Trends and Virtue only have one input. The Icon has RCA's, RCA USB (USB 1.1, 2.0 compatible) and 3.5mm stereo.

Both the Virtue and NuForce have line outs for subwoofers, the Trends does not.

None have remote controls and only the NuForce has a built-in DAC and a headphone jack. Feature-wise, the NuForce is the winner.

Trends does sell a USB adapter as well as a DAC for the TA 10.1.

The guys mentioned using an optional power supply with the Virtue. There are actually two optional supplies that, according to the Virtue website, actually increase the rated output of the amp. The one the guys used effectively double the power to 60 wpc. Big difference. Of course, a better power supply does more than increase watts as the gentlemen observed.

John mentioned that the Icon was noisy at times. I found this on the NuForce website: Caution: If you have high efficiency speakers with sensitivity > 92db, you might hear high frequency switching noise. The Virtue and Trends are dead quiet in my experience.

I might also mention that Trends has just introduced a preamp/headphone amp that we currently have in house with Vince Caponi. The review is coming soon.

Lastly, I could not agree with John more when he reiterates what we consistently say; "It’s up to each individual to evaluate gear in his or her own system using his or her own music before a truly educated purchase should be made."  Amazingly, not all audio journals hold with that advice. An astute reader sent us an email with the following incredibly arrogant quote from Stereophile magazine which I verified. It is on page 24 of the October 2008 issue;

"Auditioning hi-fi gear is more likely to lead to a bum buying decision than a good one. Read and make up your mind before you hear it. Most audiophiles do, anyway. (JA will cut this.) Why bother to audition just to confirm when you already know, from reading (Stereophile), what you'll hear?"

In other words, if you read Stereophile, you are a mind-numbed robot who is obliged to buy everything they recommend without even bothering to listen to it yourself. That would be rather expensive since everything those fine folks review ends up in their "Recommended Components" issue, doesn't it?

We can't dictate what happens in other publications, but as publisher of Stereomojo, I can assure you that if such a statement ever came across my desk from one of our staffers, it would certainly never see print and more than likely it would be the last thing that staffer would ever write for Stereomojo. We respect our readers and believe they have minds and ears of their own. Never take anything you read for granted or as gospel truth, and that includes Stereomojo. Our job is to give you the best advice we can to help you make informed decisions - not to make decisions for you.


VIRTUE ONE REVIEW


14 "DIGITAL" AMPLFIERS SHOOTOUT

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