NuForce Reference 8 follow up

NuForce Reference 8 follow up
“Reference” Is Not an Overstatement!


March 2006


My first encounter with the NuForce Reference 8s was in Clement Perry’s smaller, relatively more modest downstairs system. I remember being struck by the liquidity of that rig’s musical presentation and in some ways was more taken with it than his larger system. There was a sense of ease and completeness that I tucked away into my auditory memory hoping that someday I might have a taste of that in my own system. So when I was given the assignment to do a follow-up on Frank Alles’ excellent review of the NuForce Reference 8 Monoblocks (read hereI jumped on it.

Though the NuForce Reference 8s were discontinued and replaced by the new 8.5 model during the time of my review, I feel compelled to share my experiences with what I feel to be revolutionary amps.

Setting up the Reference 8s in my system was pretty straight forward for the most part. In addition to my regular cables I used Soundstring Cable Technologies’ Power Cables (which Perry had loaned to me) on both amps which were plugged into a PS Audio Ultimate Outlet. The PS Audio Ultimate Outlet was plugged into the wall via an Analysis Plus Power Oval cable.

I did encounter one ergonomic shortcoming while fitting my rather stiff Straightwire Black Silc speaker cables on the Cardas Rotary Knob binding posts. The rotary knob simultaneously tightened both the positive and negative terminals down on the cables. This is a welcome benefit and I salute Cardas for this design, but the orientation on the Reference 8’s may present an obstacle for users of heavier and stiffer cables. 

Ergonomically it would have allowed for more rack placement options if NuForce had situated the binding posts to allow connecting the cables laterally rather than up and down as is required by their position on the amp. This forced me to position the monoblocks at the very rear of my rack and higher than I would have preferred. It’s physically clear that this orientation is necessitated by the 1.75” height of the amps and I would speculate that this might also contribute to keeping costs lower. Furthermore, a smaller chassis might also mean less opportunity for mechanical vibrations to enter the amps. Nonetheless it did present a bit of a hurdle for me during setup.

The last time I brought home a pair of switch-mode amps they were Flying Mole’s DAD-M100 pro HT monoblocks. Though they admirably drove a pair of 8ohm Polks, they didn’t fair as well on my difficult to drive Thiel 2.2’s. This was without a doubt not the case with the NuForces. 


Five days prior to inserting the NuForces, I had spent three days recording Regina Carter’s upcoming CD and listening to it played back on the best system I’d ever heard in a studio in my 12 years of professional recording. 

The session’s engineer Joe Ferla, brought in his own playback chain, excepting the board, which consisted of Hot House Professional Audio’s Model Six Hundred Contol Amplifier and a pair of PRM 165 Passive Reference Monitors (near field). His cabling was Kimber Cable’s 100% silver stranded speaker cable and Cardas Neutral Reference balanced interconnect. Over the course of three days time, I had become accustomed to this system’s exemplary qualities while playing back the 24/96 rough mixes of the session. 

After the session, I had taken home the down converted rough mix and enjoyed a couple of day’s worth of listening to it on my “pre-NuForce” rig. Being familiar with this I used it as my introduction to the NuForces in my system. 

After the first few minutes of listening to the 16 bit/44.1 Khz down-converted rough mix of the session as played back via the NuForces, I managed to get my jaw of the floor and jot down a few notes. My notes included phrases like “stunning clarity and ease”, “virtually ALL edginess gone” and “astoundingly deep, taut, supple, clean, clear bass!” I’d rather not sound corny here but I’m going to let honesty direct me – this was the most exciting, musically capable, dynamic, quick and relaxing sound I’ve ever heard in my system. 

On the Regina Carter recording, the song “Bei Mir Bist du Schon”, features a guest appearance by Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals, Paquito de Riveira on clarinet, and Gil Goldstein on accordion. This medium up-tempo romper involves a tremendous amount of textural complexity, a wide breadth of dynamics and varying layers of instruments and soloists within the ensemble. The ensemble on this track consists of seven musicians, including Regina on violin and her core rhythm section of piano, bass violin and drums. In addition to recreating all of the instruments and their respective attributes far better than I’ve ever heard in my system, the NuForces also resolved Dee Dee’s voice with superb clarity, focus, and subtlety in such a way that it made her already excellent diction all the more coherent and enjoyable. 

The Reference 8’s did not romanticize, add extra air, weight or warmth to her voice or any of the other instruments, but at the same time, the sound I was hearing was richer and more palpable than ever before. A touch extra of warmth might have sweetened the pot but I’m none to sure if it would have been altogether faithful to her voice. Some might enjoy the extra warmth but I greatly enjoyed and appreciated the accuracy with which the Reference 8’s performed.

The one area that I initially felt the NuForces were ever so slightly lacking was in their presentation of upper end air and detail, but as my listening sessions continued I never felt as though this caused a musical compromise. This trait was most noticeable in listening to playback of some 16/44.1 WAVE files that I had made of the rehearsals for Regina’s record date using my iRiver iHP-140 Multi-Codec Digital Jukebox/Recorder and a Core Sound Binaural microphone set.

As played back through the Audio Research D200 amp, the sound of a WAVE file of the live rehearsal contained an abundance of ambient room cues as players played, turned pages, spoke, moved themselves along with their music stands and other objects through out the room. The high end whirr of the bass amplifier’s internal fan and the practice room’s forced-air heating system could be heard so well during quiet points without any musicians playing that I felt as if I were back again in that same Manhattan rehearsal studio. With the NuForces replacing the Audio Research D200 in my system, this effect was not as pronounced but now the sound of Regina’s violin, Matt Parrish’s bass violin and my cymbals sounded considerably more lifelike. The foundation of the sonic spectrum was noticeably more solid as heard via the Reference 8’s. 

The room cues were not as evident but at the same time I felt it was a much more musical and enjoyable experience as played back through the NuForces. This even made the former highlighting all of those room cues seem to be more of an audiophile gimmick than a true musical recreation of the live event. Without the NuForces the sound of this live recording was relatively harsh and fatiguing.

With the NuForces I wasn’t caught up with the room cues and the all-too-typical audiophile things that we tend to listen FOR. Instead, I was able to sit back, enjoy, and listen TO the music without my system getting in the way. Then when and if I chose to, I can hear past the electronics to critique my playing while at the same time being able to enjoy the recording’s sonics.

After already being so impressed with the NuForces’ stunning, and dare I say, shocking ability to reproduce bass with an astounding amount of assuredness and ease, I decided to turn to some more punishing bass heavy music. Enter Hip-Hop and R & B – Mary J Blige’s “i can love you” off of Share My World [MCAD 11606] was rendered with an authority and gut-pumping funk like I’d never heard before. Her voice, though not the ultimate in holographic imaging, shone in a full-bodied glory without a hint of distortion all the while the synth-bass and other electronic instruments churned around her with incredible pace and timing. Even with all of the electronic instruments and slick production, this once again, sounded like music unencumbered by the electronics of my system.

Listening to “No Blues” off of the Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ At The Half Note, [Verve 829 578-2], was a sonic treat of the cleanest, clearest, most palpable, and easiest presentation of this record that I had ever heard in my system. A veil of edginess, grunge and distortion disappeared with the NuForces in the chain, while at the same time this was the most toe-tappin’ this CD has ever sounded in my system. What was once, I thought, a relatively bass-shy and bright sounding CD, was given its full swingin’ glory and was now balanced, effortless, well weighted and visceral unlike ever before.

The NuForces offered plenty for the left brain listener too. Turning to Elvin Jones’ – Elvin![Riverside OJCCD-259-2], I heard the varying recording qualities of the different session times throughout the record, but I was (back to right-brain) NEVER distracted from my musical enjoyment. Regardless of the recorded quality the music just sounded RIGHT! This is not to say the NuForces smoothed over the sound of every record because relative brightness was still there if the recording was bright.

Even with the muffled nature of some of the tracks there was still a tremendous amount of “musical intent” being conveyed. Full dynamics, rhythmic shading, touch, texture and accents were presented properly as never before. 

On “Lady Luck” I had always previously heard the difference between the tips of Elvin’s brushes vs. the “meat” of them being smacked flat on snare head. But with the NuForces in place these textures were presented more realistically and that drew me more into the music. 

The comparative ring after Elvin’s snare taps, vs. that after the accents were noticeably distinctive. The resonance of his bass drum and how that varied depending on volume and/or whether he left his bass drum pedal’s beater on or off the head after each stroke was reproduced the best it’s ever been on my system. Listening sessions I initially intended to serve as time-conscious moments for note taking turned into multi-hour marathons that sometimes ended as the sun was rising.

The clarity, pace and ease from top to bottom of the audio spectrum allowed me to more easily enjoy, appreciate and respect even more how Elvin’s cymbal beat hooked up with, danced on top of, and around Art Davis’ bass. 

Listening to the SACD of Copland Conducts Copland [SS 09041], I lavished in the startling, almost shocking dynamics throughout the recording but never with a want to turn the system down for avoiding distortion. When I would turn it down was simply when I felt the dynamics might be damaging to my ears. 

I was, and am still amazed at the amount of music I own that I haven’t really listened to and because of the NuForces I’ve come to know and love more of it. Grammy nominated Carla Cook’s “Weak For The Man,” from her CD Simply Natural, [Max Jazz 115], is a tour de force ballad performance that I discovered while in one of my extended listening sessions. While I had listened briefly to this CD I wasn’t previously enthralled with the playback quality of Carla’s voice on my system. This all changed with the Reference 8s.

Listening via the NuForces was so improved that I was able to finally and properly enjoy this brilliant, virtuosic performance of Carla’s. This recording’s quality was beguiling without any loss of detail and was not overly bright and in my face. Carla’s voice was believably fleshed out with just the right amount of detail. Their was a delicious lack of grain all the way from the sizzle of Billy Kilson’s riveted cymbals, through the warmth of Cyrus Chestnut’s (my former boss) chords, down to the depths of Kenny Davis’ acoustic bass. 

I could even hear the noticeable harmonic of Kilson’s riveted cymbal at an A flat above middle C that sings out in a subtle manner when he gently crashed it with his brushes. This color is most noticeable at 1:14”. On this recording his cymbals actually have some “sonic weight” which I’ve found to be an extreme rarity in digital audio! My hat is off to the engineer! On top of that I could easily distinguish his flat ride cymbal from his riveted ride cymbal and hear, relative to these, the thicker weight of his hi-hats.

On this ballad, the NuForces allowed gobs of inner detail to ooze out without sounding etched. I could hear Cyrus’ use of the soft pedal on his solo, and his characteristically delicate, luscious touch, along with his signature of mournful and soulful singing on piano beginning @ 4:15 with upper register cries crescendoing and the appropriately piercing nature of piano at this point relative to ensemble.

Miss Cooke’s already perfect enunciation was made all the more enjoyable through the Reference 8s but without a hint of sibilance. An incredible amount of subtle variation in vocal color, dynamics and inflection were reproduced throughout and I was treated to a goose bump ending. On my second listen, which was entirely for pure PLEASURE I had goose bumps throughout. (Thanks NuForce!) 

I find it fair to say that I could not have in any way come near to the level of appreciation and enjoyment of this spellbinding performance on my system without the NuForces. These amps have given me greater appreciation for her and other’s artistry.

“Like Never Before”
The Nuforce 8s represent an audio paradox – exciting, yet relaxing, deep and forceful, yet delicately serene. These amps do all of this and, as far as I can tell, exactly when the music calls for it. 

With the NuForces I’ve done my longest listening sessions since back in college when I would dub Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Monk and Bird records off of vinyl and CD’s onto tape at Virginia Commonwealth University’s library in my passion for music study, practice and plain old enjoyment. Back then, I could and would listen for hours and I’m sure it was aided by the analogue nature of tape. 

Admittedly, digital has been, and I figure always will be, controversial as it relates to audio playback. However, with my recent upgrade to the Marantz SA 8260, I felt I was getting, for the money, the best sounding SACD player I could afford for my digital front end. Finally, with the NuForce Reference 8s in my system, I have amplification to allow me to truly hear how great my system can be.

NEVER BEFORE HAVE I BEEN MORE ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT LISTENING ON MY MAIN RIG. I feel that the technology behind the NuForce name represents a dramatic step forward in amplifier performance and musicality. I hope and suspect that many others will eventually feel the same.

If it were only about the sound, I’d be so content with the NuForces in my system that if I wanted better performance I’d be inclined to either A: try to get my hands on a pair of their more recent 8.5 or the more powerful Reference 9 models or B: upgrade to some better speakers. My Auditory memory reminds me that the Thiel 3.6’s (soon to be supplanted by the upcoming 3.7 models) offer transparency more upper end air and detail and might be a good choice for me to attain better performance. 

The only obstacle restraining me from declaring the Reference 8’s a no-questions-asked knockout is their High Frequency switching noise. The interference created by this characteristic rendered my Fanfare FT-1A useless while the NuForces were on and for me this is a considerable problem. 

But still, if you are in the market for any kind of amp, you owe it to yourself to hear a pair of these babies. The Reference 8 monoblocks have been discontinued. They’ve been replaced with the reportedly better performing 8.5 monoblocks that along with a special edition Reference 9 model is mentioned on NuForce’s web site as being available by the time you see this review. 

At $1600 a pair this was a tremendous value relative to their astounding performance. If one is willing to accept the interference caused by the high frequency switch-mode power supply, I’d even consider a used pair as a great purchase. However, with the knowledge that a model is coming or already has arrived that doesn’t have this limitation, I’m willing to wait. The chance of hearing the Reference 9’s in my system already has me dreaming.

Alvester Garnett


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