NuPrime Evolution DAC Review
Rafael Todes samples this super-sounding mid-price digital-to-analogue converter…
USD $3,495 | CAD $4,550
Some readers may recall the name NuForce, an early mover and shaker in the fast-developing world of Class D amplification, back in the first few years of the new millennium. It made quite a name for itself as a purveyor of fine sounding, compact integrated and monoblock power amps, preamps and desktop DACs. Well, meet its successor – NuPrime is the latest venture of NuForce cofounder Jason Lim. In 2014 he teamed up with NuForce's OEM factory to buy its assets, and NuPrime was born…
This Evolution DAC is striking for several reasons. Firstly it is most elegantly constructed in silver, or black anodised aluminium, with a blue LED dot matrix display. Secondly, it gives the impression of great solidity. Picking it up surprises me, as it's heavier than it looks – which in audio terms, is often a good sign. Glancing through the specification sheet, it's clear that a great deal of attention has been paid to the quality of the power supplies feeding the DAC. Indeed the AC supply is filtered, which reduces the AC high-frequency distortion by 20dB in the 100Hz to 5MHz region, the manufacturer says.
This supply makes its way to C-Core transformers, which are said to have less stray magnetic flux than traditional El transformers, and this minimises the impact on surrounding components. They are also more expensive than traditional transformers. A large bank of capacitors then supplies clean and stable power to the digital and analogue circuitry. It's interesting to note that one of the very best DACs on the market – Chord Electronics' superb DAVE – uses a switch mode power supply, which is an easier and cheaper option. Considering that the Chord is three times the price of the Evolution, this is food for thought and shows that NuPrime hasn't cut corners in the design of this product.
On the chip front, unlike the DAVE, NuPrime's Evolution DAC doesn't offer a bespoke solution but instead squeezes the very best performance it can from off-the-shelf silicon – in this case, an ESS Sabre ES9038PRO chip, along with NuPrime's own PSRC IC chip to decode and upsample. The user is given the option to upsample to PCM (44.1 to 768kHz, and DSD64 to DSD512), should they so wish.
High-quality discrete components are used for the power supply, and fascinatingly the analogue section sports socketed op-amps, meaning they can be substituted for other, (presumably) higher performance types in due course should the user so wish. I suspect that few will start swapping them in the name of audio curiosity. Nevertheless, it's an interesting and somewhat rare feature.
The unit boasts a host of other interesting features – such as seven different inputs, seven switchable digital filters, the ability to set fixed or variable output, memory of the last output/volume level utilised and a non-linear volume curve to give a more intelligent volume control action. On the output side, there is a choice between single-ended or balanced analogue. Mechanical isolation of the case is via vibration-reducing conical feet – which is another nice touch at this price range. Oh, and by the way, it fully decodes MQA on the USB input. There is also an HDMI input, but this is not for video but rather for a proprietary NuPrime system coming from other components – so you'd best not feed it with a video signal!
To gild the lily, there is a high-quality remote control unit that's lavishly finished in metal – rather than the usual cheap plastic – and this offers all the necessary controls. Even its buttons are on metal ball bearings and give a satisfying click when pressed. By way of context, the aforementioned and far more expensive Chord DAVE comes with a cheap plasticky thing. So to me, at least, it's abundantly clear that much time and effort has gone into the planning and execution of this product. However, as someone once said, “it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing”!
For the purposes of auditioning the NuPrime Evolution DAC, I fed it with the best quality digital signal I was able to muster – which is that of my reference Esoteric K-05 CD player via a Chord Sarum T digital cable. An Auralic G1 supplied me with streamed music when needed, too. The rest of my system comprised a VAC Signature mk2 preamplifier, a pair of Trilogy Audio EL34 power amps, and a pair of Magneplanar 3.7i speakers with Townshend Isolda Speaker cable.
As the owner of a Chord DAVE DAC with matching M Scaler, I am used to the concept of upsampling and particularly enjoy and value what it does. To my ears, it pushes out and better delineates the soundstage in an appealing and realistic way. So in the case of a naturally recorded symphony orchestra, it's more like the authentic concert experience with the space between players that comes with it – rather than the entire orchestra being squashed into a lunchbox, so to speak.
With upsampling switched on, I found that the Evolution DAC delivered this lovely, spacious effect in spades – it was particularly noticeable. For example, listening to Barenboim playing Mozart's Piano Concertos on CD was not very far from my idea of audio paradise. This DAC has a warmth and roundness to its musical presentation yet doesn't sacrifice any detail. There are some beautiful orchestral colours – for example, the piano was particularly well reproduced. It sounded fast and percussive, but at the same time subtle and lyrical too.
Mozart's 14th Piano Concerto, in particular, proved hugely musically appealing. This DAC took me to the heart of the performance, thanks to its ability to convey the intricacies of the subtle phrasing. Indeed it seemed to be doing a great deal of what the mighty Chord DAVE can do, although there was a slight metallic edge of the sound, and not quite the plethora of space that the more expensive DAC creates. All the same, it was immensely impressive nonetheless – especially considering its price.
Being a self-confessed classical music fan, I can confidently report that the little NuPrime thrives on the accurate reproduction of the recorded acoustic in space – rather than prioritising low or high-frequency accuracy. Classical is more melody-driven, so the tightness of the bass attack is less critical. That's why it's important to try a musical genre with a different set of priorities, such as jazz – where you need a more distinct sense of rhythmic snap to it, plus great bass weight…
Kenny Burrell's Chitlins Con Carne is a case in point; my version is an MQA remaster, taken, I presume, from the original mastertape. When played through the Evolution DAC, I was interested to hear that the music had more 'snap' when the upsampling was switched off. The downside was that the cavernous soundstage got that bit smaller too. With upsampling switched in, I didn't like the way that the leading edges of the woodblock playing were softened, and I also missed the lack of drive. This is par for the course with upsampling, and no doubt why the Evolution lets you turn it on and off to suit your taste or the music being played.
Further experimentation, this time with streamed sources from the Auralic, underlined to me just how good this DAC is at the price. A blast of Kraftwerk's The Robots reminded me again how it majors on physical scale, with a wonderfully capacious soundstage – and its upsampling functionality also helped here too.
By comparison, a Chord Electronics Hugo 2 - (which doesn’t upscale without a Chord M-Scaler) I also had to hand sounded enclosed by comparison. There was something tonally that the latter was doing better, in terms of its ability to produce a wider colour palette, yet still, I came out in favour of the NuPrime as the better all-rounder. That really is an achievement, considering the undeniable quality of the British opposition.
Don't be fooled by the relatively obscure name – NuPrime's new Evolution DAC is an exceptional product considering its price. It really is something to behold and has been designed and executed with oodles of thought and attention to detail, which is immediately apparent when you listen to it. Of course, there are better digital converters, but they cost multiples of the Evolution's price point. Getting this level of performance at this price is, to my ears, a new thing. Despite its dinky dimensions, this little DAC has great gravitas; it is a really intelligent reproducer of music. As such, it comes highly recommended to anyone wanting to up their digital game at a relatively accessible price.
Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.
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