Itty-bitty amplifier gives big sound

August 26, 2008|By Kevin Hunt | Kevin Hunt,Hartford Courant

As digital music drifts further down the audio chain into cellphones, here comes a freaky little desktop amplifier called the Nuforce Icon that'll stop the MP3 generation in its tracks.

The Icon, no bigger than Madonna's little black book (the paperback version), suggests what music in the home might become if we don't devolve into a nation of iPhone or iPod or iTouch speaker-dock addicts. At its best, this $249 device summons something far greater than dock-quality music.

The lowly 12-watt Icon is not out of its league, away from the desktop, paired with $3,000 speakers in a full-blown sound system. I know, because I tried it.

Maybe it shouldn't have been such a shock. The Icon is the first product for the masses from Nuforce of Milpitas, Calif., which helped turn a different kind of amplifier - highly efficient, cool-running featherweights built on a microchip - into a high-end phenomenon. Now Nuforce adds the Icon to a collection of amplifiers that tops off with the $5,000-a-pair Reference 9 SE V2.

The Icon, only a single pound fully dressed in its anodized-aluminum chassis, has a lot more going for it than snob appeal. It's a first-class multi-tasker.

For those with music libraries on a computer, the Icon's USB connection converts digital music (Mac or Windows) into an analog signal that's passed along to your speakers.

As the centerpiece of a desktop audio system, the Icon connects to an iPod or DVD player the traditional, analog way.

I spent a week in a Maine cottage rental with the Icon, a pair of Nuforce's S-1 speakers ($249 a pair), a Macbook and an external hard drive holding more than 7,000 songs in CD-quality digital files. The entire setup took up less room than the cooler on the drive up.

Back at home, I listened to CDs on a PlayStation 3 linked to the Icon, then tried my Nano through the Icon's minijack while listening to PSB bookshelf speakers. Then, later at night, out came the headphones. And, yes, I even connected the Icon-Nano duo to a pair of Gallo Reference speakers - which now go for $3,000.

In every setting, with every speaker, the Icon behaved like an amplifier more powerful than 12 watts and much more refined than the everyday $249 amplifier.

Icon is one of the year's hottest new products. It doesn't matter if you match it with hot-rod or bargain-basement speakers. This little Icon sings.

Nuforce desktop amplifier

PRICE: $249

HOT: Great-sounding, compact amplifier equally suited to computers and traditional stereo systems

NOT: Unusual, Ethernet-type speaker connections

ALTERNATIVE: Trends Audio TA-10 amplifier ($150,, but no USB connection



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