PERSONAL STEREO REVIEW – THE ENCORE mDSD By NUPRIME USB DAC/HEADPHONE AMP


April 09, 2016

VITAL STATS

 Sampling rates  Up to 384 kHz (PCM), up to 11,2 MHz (DSD64/128/256)
Bit depth Up to 24-bit
Inputs Asynchronous USB
Outputs Stereo RCA, coaxial digital, headphone output
Headphone amp output 2x 140 mW max (32 ohms)
Line output 2V RMS
Signal-to-noise ratio 112 dB
Weight 150 g
Dimensions (WxDxH) 56 x 101 x 22 mm
PRICE $99.00 USD

VERDICT

Don’t be fooled by the small form factor: this USB DAC/headphone amp looks, feels and sounds the top-quality part. Punches well above its weight – literally!

REVIEW 

NuPrime … isn’t that the company that used to be called NuForce? No, NuForce is now owned by projector maker Optoma, and focuses on a range of desktop and portable components.

Meanwhile the high-end part of what used to be NuForce has re-emerged as NuPrime, still under the auspices of the original founder Jason Lim. NuPrime’s priority is creating high-tech, high-quality and high-value products with the emphasis on innovation and performance. 

The mDSD is a good example of the kind of gear we’re talking about. Nominally, it’s a compact USB DAC/headphone amplifier that small enough to be truly portable, yet exudes a chunky robustness that looks and feels, well high-end.

The classy, extruded aluminium casing features bevelled edges and an etched, silver NuPrime logo. The front panel is home to a rotary volume control that also serves as the on/off switch, and a 3,5 mm headphone output. A set of tiny LEDs indicates whether the incoming digital audio signal is PCM or DSD.

That signal is delivered via a Type B USB input that, oddly, is mounted on the side of the enclosure – although there isn’t really anywhere else to accommodate it. The rear panel has three gold-plated RCA outputs – a stereo analogue output set, and a coaxial digital output.

The latter suggests that the mDSD could operate as a compact, cost-effective, DSD-compatible DAC, or as a USB-to-PCM bridge, allowing a sonically superior DAC to be connected via the SPDIF output.

As you will have gathered by now, the mDSD offers full native playback compatibility of DSD64, DSD128 and even DSD256 files. Of course, it’s also happy decoding high-res PCM files up to 348 kHz/24-bit.

In the case of the coaxial digital output, DSD-over-PCM (DOP) still allows DSD files to be played back, albeit not natively. Still, it does add to the already considerable versatility of the little giant killer.

I’d suggest that most buyers of the mDSD would start out with the intention of using it as a desktop companion in conjunction with a Windows or Mac computer, a library of high-res digital music, and a decent set of headphones.

But as they would soon find out, it’s worth exploring the little box of musical magic’s broader range of capabilities. And besides, as much as there’s a lot to be said for the sheer fidelity and privacy of a good headphone set-up, not too many of us can spend hour upon hour with a set of cans clamped over their ears.

My listening sessions initially revolved around the mDSD in its headphone amp/DAC role, using my faithful 13-inch MacBook Pro and a Synology NAS as the primary source of FLAC, WAV and DSD music files, played via Audirvana Plus 1.5.12 software. 

Headphones were the musical and amp-friendly Sennheiser Momentum on-ears, as well as the rather more taxing and revealing Sennheiser HD800 flagships, while I also tried the Sonus Faber Pryma and my B&W P3 travel companions.

Later, I hooked up the mDSD’s analogue outputs to my Ayre AX-5 integrated amplifier, while the digital feed from its coaxial output was relayed to my regular PS Audio DirectStream DAC, which happens to be DOP-compatible. Source files were now provided from the same NAS, but via a headless Mac Mini running Audirvana 2.3.2. 

Starting off with a 44,1/24 FLAC version of Norah Jones’ <Little Broken Hearts>, I was immediately struck by the compelling sense of space and staging that allowed the music to flow free, without the apparent physical constraints of the headphones.

On the intimate ‘Travelin’ On’, the mDSD created plenty of air and space for the sparse but impactful instrumentation, with Jones’ sweetly soaring vocals powerfully and confidently projected.

The delicate acoustic guitar provided a filigreed sonic backdrop for the rich cello, and the sweet but never syrupy vocals, while the unexpectedly powerful bass was as much felt as it was heard felt, but never to an overwhelming extent.

Tonally, the sound was smooth and full, with perhaps a little too much bias on the lower registers, but without compromising pace or control: the bass was full, yes, but never flabby. 

Listening to Leonard Cohen’s live-recorded <Can’t Forget: A Souvenir Of A Grand Tour>, the fully populated soundstage was presented with a real sense of cohesion and dimension, yet the mDSD never allowed the density of the recording to overshadow clarity – even subtler details were afforded close attention.

On ‘Got A Little Secret’ the entire image was projected with a fine, gloriously revealing focus. The subtleties of the various strings, the boisterous riffs of the organ, the hypnotic repetition of the backing vocals – all of these were boldly and succinctly delivered, with such vitality and energy that the listening experience was immediately compelling. 

Despite the richness and complexity of the arrangement, the gravelly gravitas of Cohen’s vocals remained regally commanding. The percussion was allowed to flex its muscle, with the deep-chested kick drum, snappy snare and delicately accented high-hat all truthfully, believably delivered. As a result, I found myself right in the centre of the sonic action, and felt all the more privileged for it.

The NuPrime consistently recognised and played back DSD files – the Bassface Swing Trio’s renditions of Gershwin classics on DSD64 sounded rich and wholesome, with a gleam and smoothness that made listening a pleasure.

Indeed, this little NuPrime box might be tiny, but the sound was always huge, warm, inviting and immersive, regardless of the material on offer. It withstood the closer, more critical scrutiny of the HD800s with ease, and also had no trouble driving the Sennheiser’s large transducers, nor coping with its taxing 300 ohm impedance.

The sound always remained accessible, beguiling and ultimately entertaining – and that’s always going to be more important than extracting and analysing the finest strands of the sonic fabric. The mDSD delivers loads of detail, but never loses sight of the music’s emotion or intention in the process.

Those sonic traits remained very much in place when I used the mDSD as a standalone DAC: great pace, loads of dynamic range, a generously dimensioned soundstage, and a rich harvest of detail, all contextualised by a real sense of musical integrity.

No, it couldn’t match the PS Audio DirectStream for outright resolution, dynamic excitement and sonic scale, but then, it costs a whole lot less. And its musical message remained both clear and compelling.

The NuPrime mDSD punches well above its weight in every respect. It excels as a USB DAC/headphone amp, but it’s not intimidated when asked to tackle the role of a standalone USB DAC. This is a small box with a big, musical heart!

Deon Schoeman

 

 

 



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