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Product Review
 

NuForce P-9 Stereo Preamplifier

Part I

August, 2007

John E. Johnson, Jr.

 

Specifications:

● Solid State Stereo (Two-Channel); Two
   Box Design - Power Supply and Control
   Circuitry in One Chassis and Analog
   Circuitry in Second Chassis
● Inputs: Five Sets RCA including One
   Bypass
● MFR: 20 Hz - 20 kHz, + 0.02 dB, - 0 dB
● THD+N: 0.0004%
● Maximum Output: 7 Volts
● Input Impedance: 10 kOhms
● Output Impedance: 100 Ohms
● Remote Control
● Dimensions (Each Chassis): 1.75" H x
   8.5" W x 16" D
● Weight: 13 Pounds Total
● MSRP: $3,150 USA

NuForce

Introduction

Although Surround Sound is the "Big Thing" these days, two-channel music (Stereo) is still alive and well.

There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that there are several million of us old geezers out there who grew up on stereo music. Remember, Surround Sound is only a couple of decades old. Hi-Fi, which was basically all two-channel music, has been around since the 1950's, and of course, mono - in 78 RPM records and radio - has been here since nearly the beginning of the 20th century, and even a few of those listeners are still alive.

That does not mean we oldies but goodies don't like surround sound, because we do. In fact, we love it. But, stereo is still king when it comes to music, at least in terms of the available albums and what we hear on the radio.

Assuming that most of us have a surround sound system in our homes for watching movies, why not just play the CDs on that system and switch the front panel of our SSP or receiver to "Stereo"? After all, couldn't we just use the two preamp channels and two amplifier channels, along with the front two speakers?

Well, yes, of course we can.

However, purists will say that all that additional circuitry in the surround sound processor can contaminate the two channels that we are listening to. And, it does to a small extent. The adjacent circuits emit electromagnetic fields that cause small voltages to be induced in the circuits for the stereo listening. Granted, it is a tiny amount, but to a purist, that is too much.

Also, the design and build quality that aficionados like to have in two-channel listening, would cost a real bundle if that level of quality were extended to the seven-channel processors that are available now. The Mark Levinson No 40 SSP is a good example. Superb quality bar none. $32,000.

So, bottom line: two-channel products are still out there, and are still being purchased. And some of them are incredible . . . like the NuForce P-9.

NuForce

NuForce, located in Northern California, markets Surround Sound Processors, if you want one. But, looking at the specifications page, you would be more amazed at the preamplifier, called the P-9. It is made in Taiwan to specifications designed by Demian Martin, who co-founded Spectral Audio years ago. Many consumers might still be suspicious of the quality of hi-fi components built in that part of the world, but that is what everyone thought of Japanese electronics when they first started building them, and look what happened over time. Some of the best on the planet.

The P-9 is a stereo preamplifier that is housed in two chassis. One contains the power supply and control circuitry (the bottom chassis in the photo), and the other has all of the analog stages for the preamplifier's operation, including an Alps potentiometer (top chassis in the photo).

The reason that the control circuits are separate from the other parts is the very reason I mentioned above: to keep out extraneous noise generated by other circuits, in this case, such items as the circuit board that adjusts the volume. And speaking of that, the digital volume control circuit in the bottom chassis actually does not control the volume. It controls the analog Alps potentiometer in the top chassis. When you adjust the volume using the lower right dial, it sends a signal to the motor in the top chassis, and that moves the potentiometer.

The selected input as well as the volume are read out on an LCD front panel. Note that the panel is in the "Dimmed" mode default from the factory. You have to put batteries (AAA) in the remote control and turn it on from the remote in order to get the panel lit up.

The rear panel has five sets of RCA inputs, one set of RCA outputs, and one set of XLR outputs. The XLR outputs are for convenience. They are not balanced. RCA set 5 is a pass-through. You can see the VGA-like sockets that are used to connect the two chassis together. The cable is supplied, and you can't use a conventional VGA cable because of the pin arrangement.

The chassis are made of ribbed aluminum all the way around (except the rear panel which is steel for grounding purposes), and are narrower than most components, because half of the electronics are in each chassis. So, this is not a rack mount product. It has sort of an industrial look about it. Some will like that, and others won't. I am not that crazy about it, but I would put up with it to get this kind of performance for such a reasonable price. Besides, if you don't like the shiny silver color, you can get it in black or rose copper.

The remote control is very elegant in shape, and you don't really need backlighting with it because the buttons are large and are in stark contrast to the black body of the remote. The input selection buttons are on the left side, with the volume and mute buttons on the right. Like many remotes for high end products these days, this one has a screw on the back that has to be removed to change the batteries.

As I mentioned, the top chassis has the analog circuits that produce the music. That includes JFETs, VMOS FETs, and hFE bipolar transistors. Each is selected for a specific task in the signal path. It's all discrete (no ICs as part of the preamplification), and there are no capacitors in the gain circuit signal path. The control box sends only DC to relays or to the potentiometer motor in the analog chassis.

So, what does all this get you? Well, very low distortion throughout a large bandwidth. As you will see in the graphs, NuForce is not kidding.

The Sound

I listened to the P-9 using a McIntosh MCD201 SACD/CD player, McIntosh MC1201 power amplifiers, and Final Sound 1000i electrostatic speakers. Cables were Nordost and Legenburg.

Well, how can I put it?

Detail, detail, and more detail . . . yet always neutral.

That pretty much sums up the sound of the P-9.

I listened to a ton of discs with the NuForce and  . . . well, let me put it this way: preamplifiers - and all audio components for that matter - don't sound good on their own. They don't improve the sound. The idea is to not subtract from the signal passing through them. So, when a product is stated to sound terrific, what is meant is that the product does not change the sound from the source. And that characterizes the P-9.

Take this new Telarc SACD Masters and Commanders - Music from Seafaring Film Classics (Telarc SACD-60682), for example. It has music from such films as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sea Hawk, and Captains Courageous.

The selections on this disc have a wonderful full bodied orchestral sound not only to test products with, but just to listen to.

The P-9 delivered these very complex sounds without any apparent loss of detail. Of course, there is always some loss with any circuit. That's the nature of resistance, capacitance, and inductance that occur in the flow of current in a conductor. But, with a good component, the amount of loss is minimal, and that seems to be the basis of the P-9's performance.

Besides the great detail, the P-9 is also characterized by neutrality, meaning that it does not sound bright. Violins and brass sound very natural. The edges of the brass were there, but they were the correct edges, not the irritating, artificial edges that occur when there are a lot of high frequency harmonics. And even when the full orchestra was playing, violins still sounded sweet and distinguishable, not buried in a mass of other sounds. Even the dainty triangle could be distinguished in the background. You will see why in the bench tests.

Note that this disc is a multi-channel SACD, but like most such discs, there is a two-channel track for . . . you guessed it: two-channel audio systems. It is unfortunate that SACD and DVD-A high resolution music is suffering from a lack of an audience. These days MP3s seem to be what everyone wants. Everyone except those who search for the best sound possible. And I have to tell you, it is not MP3. If you have not heard SACD or DVD-A on a good system, you have missed a lot. And they shine on a product like the P-9.

Go to Part II.

Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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