Thursday, 13 September 2012

Nuforce Cube Review

Nuforce Cube Review

Thanks to Nuforce for the sample

First Impressions:  This thing is small.  It is really small and has quite a bit of weight to it.  It’s very solid feeling and I must say is rather pretty.  Disappointingly though the back of it’s black rather than silver so I now rather wish I’d gone for black but hey ho.  It’s not like you should normally see the back anyway.  Plugging the thing into my phone, the notoriously quiet Galaxy Nexus and there is a vast difference in volume.  Oh my, this little tiny thing can really fire out noise!  Hmm, black cable.  Totally wishing I’d got the black one again.  I don’t like this connecting cable but I suppose it’s necessary.  Immediately my nephew insists on putting a film on (Cloudy With Meatballs) and proceeds to sit and watch it on the phone with the cube plugged in, propping up the phone from behind.  Hmmm, audio making phone stand.  I am asked by a parental unit if could be plugged into a TV and commented that it would be good for that.  Certainly it would be a big step up on most TV speakers.

Okay I better go charge the thing properly and let it run in a bit.  Must try to beg borrow or steal a 6G Ipod Nano.

Source varies vostro 3350 when using the DAC and otherwise whatever DAP was appropriate, I’ll specify as I use them.

Lows:  Here I have somewhat mixed feelings.  The speaker is pretty tiny, being just a 2 inch driver in there so I don’t think it will came as any surprise that this does not have the same low end abilities as a 15 inch sub.  I note that Nuforce don’t give frequency range in the specification on their web site and I can understand why.  If you want the floor to shake you will have to look for much bigger things.  That’s not what this is for though, it’s the kind of thing you reach for when you want portable and you want to use your DAP (let’s be honest, it’s going to be a phone) or maybe a tablet when you are out and need to get some more volume out of it.  So in that respect it does a pretty fair old stab at doing a low end.  It gives you enough to know what should be going on, it’s a got a bit of punch and while it rolls off rather early it’s not half bad.  Of course if you want uber bass heavy music its maybe not the thing for you, you need something with bigger drivers.

Firing up Jurassic Park and all its rip roaring, thunderous sounds, well is it perfect? No.  It does however beat the living snot out of my Ipad and my phone.  While I don’t have kids to entertain nor am I much of a road warrior this could really go a long way to providing the audio for such things.  Let’s face it phones, tablets and laptops do not cut it in the lows, often they sound tinny and a bit poo generally.  They are often so small they make the 2 inch driver look colossal in comparison and it shows.  My little Vostro 3350, it’s a great little machine, it has an SSD in it, I whipped out the optical drive and replaced it with a conventional HDD.  It has a decent GPU in there too and all things considered it’s a little beast of a machine.  Little here is a key word as it’s only a 13 inch machine.  So one of the compromises Dell made is in the speaker, and no that’s not a typo, speaker.  There is just one in there and search the net and you’ll see many people complain, not that its mono (as the Cube is too) but that it’s so quiet.  You certainly get next to no low end information, like many laptops.  So if you were to try to use the machine as a portable media device it might work for just one person if you are silent.  Not something small kids are likely to do.

Mids:  Here the Cube somewhat shines.  It’s really not bad at all!  It’s actually really impressive for something so small, vocals are where a driver of this size should do best and it really does.  Vocals are clean and very transparent, it really suits vocal heavy music.  It’s pretty even handed in its handling of both male and female vocals, it does miss a bit in the lowest vocals, not quite giving the scale and depth to some but with a the girlies it is pretty faultless.  It’s good enough to make me smile.  For me the best test of things is does it make me want to sing along and this does, it’s really fun and lively.  I know its missing a bunch of bits but for something this price and this size it’s really good.  Impressively loud too and no distortion at all.

The vocals here are really enjoyable, maybe a little out in front for some tastes but I like it.  The quality cannot be faulted and this means that not only is it very capable at music it also suits very well TV and films.  In fact it’s the first thing that was commented, how well it would work as a replacement for the speakers on a TV.  I’m not saying I’d buy one for that as clearly it its mono and runs off a battery, it’s just not meant for that.  But…… I think if you’re on holiday and have a tablet or laptop, or even a phone and want to watch stuff then plugging this in makes it a real option.

Highs:  Fairly good, clearly there is no dedicated tweeter so you won’t be using this as your dedicated audio monitoring speaker but its gives a pretty good rendition.  It can get a teeny weeny bit rough and uncomposed when you max the volume with songs with a lot of splashy treble.  It can show a little bit of a rough edge but this is quite directional.  So unless you’re being directly faced by it then that actually works in its favour, you know like it being behind a tablet.  That little bit of bright is mellowed and if it wasn’t there would make it sound like there wasn’t enough treble.  Still if it’s in your face I’d maybe want to take it a little easy with the really treble heavy stuff.

Soundstage:  It varied on where it was faced.  When it was pointed directly at you it was rather small and the speaker rather directional but face it away from you (so the back is facing you) it sounded much larger.  I say much larger but it’s still not huge,  room filling sound is not the order of the day.

Dynamics:  This little beast could make itself admirably loud, impressively loud.  Its dynamic range wasn’t quite as wide but particularly in the mids is really good.  Julie London sounds sultry and delicate and all round great.  In movies too vocals have some range to move about in and it’s a vast jump up on inbuilt speakers.  The highs and lows are less so, both clearly beginning to stress the boundaries of that the tiny driver can do.  The lows are more convincing at lower volume and as you max the volume the lows can’t quite rise in response. 

Power:  Great.  Okay that needs a caveat, it’s great for its size.  The cube is not going to give you room filling, room shaking, “wooo beach party!!!!!” type of volume.  For a nice picnic, watch a film in a hotel room that it does very well.  Think grace and poise rather than party party.

Aesthetics:  The Cube comes in a bunch of colours, red, blue, black and silver.  As you can see I went with silver (of course I now wish I’d got black but no doubt if I had I’d now wish silver) and it’s a really nice looking little thing.  It is really petty but I wish the back was also silver.  For the aluminium top and side, if you have seen something made by Apple then you know the drill. Its aluminium, it is pretty, it is sleek and minimalist.  For me the other colour ones aren’t my thing but if you like colours they are there and why not get one to match your phone or Ipod Nano.  I’ve said it before about a Nuforce product but this ought to live in an Apple store, it is the very same sleek, minimalist industrial aesthetic.

Build and Durability:  Without throwing across the room or dropping it, which I have no plan to deliberately do, all I can say is it looks and feels good.  That it’s made of aluminium (okay I can’t find Nuforce actually specifying that it is aluminium but my eyes think it is, it’s certainly metal of some sort!)  It looks like it would stand up well to being carted about in a travel bag.  What I’d love to know is how water and sand resistant it is.  Yes I’m thinking beach use.  Also I’m thinking I live in the UK and the weather here on the whole is carp.  This year especially has been beyond terrible so I’d love to know how rain resistant it is.

DAC and Headphone Amp:  First, you obviously can’t separate the two so they shall be tested as one.  Plugging in the GR01’s (I meant to use the 7’s but got fed up hunting for them in the IEM storage tub) I immediately am thankful I paused the music.  When using as a speaker I had it more or less running near max volume, connecting the IEM’s and I could instantly hear a lot of hiss and turned the volume right down.  I think if I had just plugged them in I’d have either blown the IEM’s or my eardrums.  So be warned.  Quality seems rather good.  Swapping over to the HD600’s and I’m rather less impressed.  I get the immediate impression the little amp inside is like having a good but small engine trying to drive a Rolls Royce.  It can make it move but don’t expect it to perform at its fullest.  Still this clearly isn’t intended to replace a proper desktop headphone amp.  It’s about being markedly better than the rubbish laptop maker’s use and at that it succeeds well.  The amp drove the GR01’s well and that’s much more the sort of thing it’s meant for.

Value:  If you live in the US it can be yours for US$119 exactly from amazon.  If you live in the UK I found one place that has them, for £109 exactly.  Hmm so at today’s exchange rate that equals just over US$173.  That is quite the jump but this seems the norm, Nuforce stuff just is not widely available in the UK so you pay more.  At that price I’m hard pressed to say I’d buy one if for no other reason than the hike in price irks me.  If you are in the US then it’s a lot better, especially if you’re going to use more of its functions.  I think the killer use would be if you travel a lot or travel with kids.  A tablet, Netflix and this and boom! Instant little media set up. 

Conclusion:  I have very mixed feelings about the Cube.  It does certain things really well and for some things its perfect.  I loved it for TV and film use, that it’s a mid centric in its acoustic abilities worked superbly for this.  Vocals shone forth and on stuff like “The Corpse Bride” it worked wonders over built in speakers.  The music and vocals were leagues ahead of the built in one in my laptop.  I realise that my laptop is one of the less good ones in terms of built in sound but it’s not something any thin, portable device does well.  Just have a try watching a film on your phone and you’ll see what I mean.  Sure you can do it but it is not a great experience.  The addition of the Cube transforms the experience to one that’s actually good.  Clarity and transparency are both very impressive given its size.  The mid range in particular is very good being subtle and detailed and above all clear.  You can really hear vocals and not have to strain to make out what’s being said. 

Another use I think is for living in a kitchen.  Should this be paired up with something particularly a 6G Nano then it would make for a great little kitchen audio player.  This is a pairing Nuforce clearly thought of as they offer a little adapter that pairs up with it.  I have one but try as I might I couldn’t track down a Nano to borrow to try it out with.  It seems no one I know uses a Nano. 

As I sit right now I’ve basically let the whole of “The Corpse Bride” play out and while I wish the Cube was a pair and had some stereo separation I cannot in any way fault its clarity.  Vocals on what is pretty much a musical are very enjoyable on this little wonder.  There isn’t a vast amount of low end in the film so it lacking somewhat isn’t really noticeable.  In the opening sequence of “Lord of the Rings 1” when Sauron goes boom, that sound, its just not there.  No hint, just not there at all and if that’s a problem for you then be aware but I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect something this size to do so.  What I felt was stand out as I have mentioned was the clarity.  These are a great giant leap over what your phone can do.

Nuforce, were quite keen that I played a bit with these outside and  unfortunately the weather more or less made that not happen.  It has been worse than terrible this year in Edinburgh but if I’m honest I’m a touch relieved.  Perhaps its more of an American thing with vast houses, gardens measured in hectares, that thing called sunshine, that means using speakers outside is something you can do.   Here erm, well  I’m not sure I could see myself doing but then I don’t have a garden, actually I don’t know anyone in Edinburgh, socially, that has their own garden outside of block gardens which no one ever uses.  It’s what parks are for isn’t it?  Still you can’t buy the Cube here anyway. 

So is the Cube for me, well I do like it, it’s a really pretty and fun little do dah.  I wish I’d been able to borrow a Nano and I could see I’d find it super handy to use in my kitchen or bathroom.  Well if I didn’t have things set up there already.  I would have liked it too have an off switch and Bluetooth would have been handy too.  Still the quality of the device I can’t fault.  It was tremendously good watching stuff on the Ipad, a truly vast improvement and compared with phones the Ipad has pretty credible sound.  Do you ever use your phone to play music or watch TV via its speaker?  If you do the Cube likely to be a really nifty thing.  Its certainly the best looking of the mini portable speakers I’ve seen.  The Cube is really pretty and it really does look like it belongs in an Apple store.  The Nano adapter clearly shows it’s really aimed at just that Apple buying crowd.  It’s a product that’s there to be convenient, small and attractive.  It’s not going to replace a proper audio set up but for travellers I think it’s perfect, the Cube would easily fit in your bag and add your phone, Ipod etc etc and there you have a holiday music system and mini AV system.  For me that is where it shone and that you can make use of its square shape to prop things up was just gravy.

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