As I sit here bobbin' my head and pumpin' my fist to Pete Rocks' remix of Yo La Tengos' "Here to Fall" I can't believe how much fun I'm having listening to music while my wifey sleeps soundly in the front room. It's crazy because the tune is not just loud; it's bumpin' at four A.M. in the morning and nobody has called the cops on me. Why? I'm rockin' a serious headphone rig! It may be bumpin' – but not for anybody else but me. There's some trickle-down high-end audio to my system, which makes it a sincere pleasure. I'm using monoblock amplifiers to drive my Audeze LCD-2s planar magnetic ‘phones with Fazor at the moment. This is a first for this reviewer at home! I've had the pleasure of hearing a few monoblock systems at shows and Head-Fi meets, but it's a different game when you get to live with the system for an extended period of time. You want to know an equally crazy thing about this monoblock-driven headphone rig? The headphone amplifiers are NuForces' HA-200s and have an MSRP of only $349. Hailing from the wacky world of high-end audio, that price is just silly low. The HA-200 amps are minimal, modern, and slick, without ninety-degree angles. My review sample had smooth silver front panels with matching volume knob. With a rectangular chassis being all matte black, as you can see in the pic approximately half of the top is open for air ventilation. Thank God for that, as these suckers get hot if you stack ’em without giving the bottom amp some ventilation. I know it's obvious to many of us, though I tried it to see how hot they got and in thinking some users could end up leaving them like that. So, if you're going to check into this amplifier, please remember to isolate the amplifiers from one another for permanent use.
The NuForce HA-200 monoblock amplifiers can be used as stereo headphone amps when used individually, but you can also use them as monoblocks by merely splitting the channels between each amp. This produces far more power, headroom, and clarity amongst other things. It is the kind of stuff you're seeking in a more resolutely engaging headphone system. I was especially psyched to try these amps out together because they offer a "Balanced Headphone Mode" as NuForce calls it. I've found recently that when employed well, I've generally experienced deeper, more powerful listening sessions with a balanced power system. Am having the time of my life listening to a fully balanced headphone rig for months with the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold. Gratefully, it is my new main reference! This setup is on another level from the NuForce with regard to music playback, but it should be considering the $3950 price. Regardless, I love the Cavalli, and, as my cousin Kenny said to me, "I've never heard you more excited about an audio product than the Cavalli Liquid Gold, even, maybe, your Audezes!" Am not wholeheartedly sure how much of that can be attributed to the balanced design and execution of the amp, but its dynamic contrasts, insane separation, sharp transient attack, amazingly colorful yet-not-colored timbre, and, simply put "It's soul just grabs me by the gut and spirit". Well, learning that the stack of NuForce HA-200s would/could be balanced, I was eager to cook ‘em up. Not to mention this bit of headphone audio geek bait on the HA-200 webpage:
Unique to the HA-200 is its ability to quadruple output power by simply adding a second unit and operating them together in "Balanced Headphone Mode." For this configuration, all that's needed is to use the XLR inputs and outputs on each HA-200 along with a special cable adaptor for connecting the headphones.
NuForce had me at "quadruple output power". I don't want to mislead you, however, and think that I haven’t previous experienced this with NuForce. I may be a sucker for the right words, yet drawing me in by banter alone isn't gonna happen. Have very positive past experiences with NuForce products, thus had confidence I was getting' the goods... and the goods were comin' packin' serious heat! How bad could this be? I've also been rockin' another solid-state Class A stereo headphone amplifier from NuForce here in the house too. Yes, the HA-200s are both Class A amplifiers. The HAP-100 is a beast at $595! It is also modernly seductive and has a few more classy features – not to mention its own kick-ass stereophonic sound. Something that all these amplifiers share is their uncanny separation and dimensionality (which was defined by Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound as the sense of actual space between instruments – or, now, also the sense of space between triggered sounds). They have the warmth and vibrancy of tube electronics, combined with the precision and clean power of solid-state.
So before I dig into what living with these bad boy NuForce HA-200 monoblock amplifiers was like, I feel obligated to say that for whatever reasons this line, or lines, of headphone amplifiers from NuForce is one of, if not the best-kept-secret of high performance personal audio. I've had a blast listening to the HA-200s and HAP-100, but the 200s as monoblocks is a special experience and I've relished in it. Nothing less.
It isn’t all roses though, as there’s a down-side to this power monster of a headphone amp section when employed as monoblocks. There is no locking mechanism to keep the volume controls synched. I know this isn't a common feature, yet would love it anyway! However, it seems like the HA-200 was designed first as its own product as being a stereo headphone amp – so I can't fault NuForce for not thinking of stacking them into monoblocks when they designed ‘em. But, since they obviously know what a great system this is as Casey at NuForce asked me if I'd like to review these "monoblocks" and Casey's a helluva good guy and knows his stuff, I'm no engineer and I don't know how many units they have. That feature would be a killer addition to a fantastic sub-$1K headphone monoblock amp system! Here's hoping. A testament to the musical attributes of the amps is that their sound so seductive I didn't mind channel-matching when adjusting the volume. Sure, it seems like a royal pain in the arse, yet you’ll get the hang of it. Once operating the amps, gain becomes second nature they're a sincere pleasure to deal with. Simple as apple pie (where that came from I do not know). The bottom-line is it's easy to get over that seemingly big technical hump.
Because that operating aspect of the HA-200s has disappeared from my thoughts when using ‘em, it leaves very little for the technical jargon. Cool with me, I'm not big on it anyway. As am more interested in how the component plays my music, and how I feel about the unit’s capabilities. Beyond that rather dry way of expressing it, I wanna know if my music is gonna make me go "Yeah, love this and more of that until it is 7am". Have missed much of my time for sleep during this review. As I always say, "The gear is the vehicle. I don't say it's "just" the vehicle however because music is a sonically visceral experience when played on a clean system at a decent decibel level. So the music itself and the sound are equally important to me. But, there is music I love that sounds like shit too. We all do, I think. NuForce’s HA-200 in monoblock form pulled off some of the best performances using some of those shitty compressed files too. So this seemingly straight dope-style amplifier worked magic with file types that were far from optimal. Another sonic attribute of this $349 Class A stereo (each) solid-state amplifier stacked up as monoblocks is, at that price, if it nails the music it's golden. That might sound foolish to some, or more likely it will sound foolish to many, because that's always the goal right? Well, not always, with me anyway. At a certain price point a unit’s feature-set, overall build-quality, and other things start to matter as well. But, with something simple like the HA-200, considering the crazy world I hail from (high-end audio) I feel it's worth it if it offers a level of sonic integrity that make NuForce’s asking price sounds downright reasonable!
One of my favorite tunes to play on these amps was Pete Rocks' remix of Yo La Tengos' "Here to Fall". This track had a fierce continuous thump, and these springy metallic synths blasting around the soundstage. The background was dark and this track is a club banger. Have never had the chance to play it at a party, as I no longer DJ, yet if so I would drop this around 5am to 7am. In a club, still rolling from the night before... It thumps but it also bounces, so it is a head-banger (for me anyway). Have found myself bouncing in my office chair whenever I played it and, thus, had to keep myself from hitting the repeat button over and over again hearing that track. While I appreciated the darker, drummy, bass-driven grooviness of Rock's Yo La Tengo remix of "Here To Fall", the NuForce system also sounded lively and more like daylight (not bright and harsh, but a lighter mood) playing "Ohm" off their 2013 release of Fade LP. I love that damn song. It's another song that, for me, the mood is the type that catches me thinking of driving to Jones Beach on Long Island in my teens with some of my closest friends. Then off to the Hamptons in search of some good ol' American debauchery. The first time hearing "Ohm" I thought of a scene out of a movie where I'm walking with some friends on the beach or walking through the city, pushing each other off curbs and messing with each other. This was all back when a bruise didn't take weeks to heal mind you – so it was a really positive vibe for me. I love it when the music cuts through all the technology and it's just me and the music.
In essence, that's what I look for in a stereo component: How much it does its job without imposing so much of itself onto the music. My personal best test for this magical ability in a stereo component? Playing my own tracks, especially our first record ever signed and pressed to vinyl. It's just a lil' underground tech-house late-night tribal chugger of a tune: "Soultek" (our moniker was Seamless Satori – and the record was released on Listen to Reason records). I know that track from front to back, soup to nuts. My friend Josh and I wrote, tracked, mixed, mastered and produced the tune! So when a system is fresh and new plus am enjoying it so much. I end up glued to it for hours on end . Usually play that track during my second long listening sesh, or soon after. Bumpin' it through the 200s using my Audeze LCD-X wired with Nordost Double Helix Cables Complement4 dual XLR. With this combination it was not only a blast, the sound took me back into that tiny-ass Brooklyn apartment we recorded it in! Spatial placement and the sense of three-dimensionality we tried to create was masterfully rendered. I was surprised at that honestly and didn't think of this system as being "accurate" per se, but I loved the sound anyway. When it captured and reproduced our record with such sonic truth (for lack of a better term), it ranked up there with far more expensive gear and exotica that I've auditioned. This stack truly is a music-making machine. Fiona Apples' "Hot Knife" from The Idler Wheel is a minimal song consisting of Apple’s vocal layerings and what sounds like a distant tin drum off in the distance. This has become a recent edition to my sonic acid test list for the reproduction of spaciousness and the emotive power of the female vocal. The NuForce system handled this song like a "hot knife." It cut straight through to the heart of the track and Apple’s energy as she came through. It didn’t matter i It doesn’t matter if I was using my Audeze cans or the Sennheiser HD800s, Audio-Technica ATH-900X, and my Mr. Speakers Mad Dog Pros. That's a big plus for NuForce as well. The translucency of female and male voices are superbly handled.
Trentemoller's brilliant "Morphine" off his Lost LP was delivered with such weight and dynamic thrust it was thrilling to take-in. This track has insane layering, but you might not hear it (I didn't anyway) unless you seriously hit the pause button in your life and wholly listen to it. It's an amazing sonic amusement track. The lower-midrange to the bottom-end is so tightly focused on "Morphine" that it pulsates while these ethereal, subtle synth tones and wide open percussive elements slap and drop from all over the soundstage. It is a fantastic wash of sci-fi sounds mixed with a little tribalism. I can't imagine anybody not enjoying the sound of this record through this system! Naturally we all interpret differently, so my grand experience may not be yours. Fellow Trentemoller fans, the track is so spacey and deep with this lil' audible power-plant of a system that it's captivating. When I switched it up and dropped Snoop Doggs' "The Way Life Used to Be" off Doggumentary the system didn't flinch. The bass banged like I was cruisin' in a low rider laced with 22's and blue halogens shining up the bottom of the whip, low-end rumbling through all the weak points in the cars body. The doors, the sunroof, and the trunk are all vibrating from the dual 18" sub-woofers mounted back there with Snoops' vocal hovering dead-center of the mix. These can handle everything from EDM to hip-hop, to minimal acoustic, singer/songwriters stuff and straight-up rock-n-roll. That's another thing I look for in headphones amps and stereo in-room components. Variety. Can the amplifier work in my system and play all the music I dig? That's why some demos in the high-end audio world eject me from the room at shows. It's the same ol' playlist for twenty years! But I need something to handle new music in all forms as well as the classics.
Lese Majesty from the new Shabbazz Palaces LP on Sub Pop sounds (and pardon this in advance) ...just sounds freakin' amazing. Not very detailed, I know, but I had to say it. The velvety bass-lines dropped and sprung back like a two-channel system with a sweet Nola Thunderbolt or REL subwoofer! It's powerful as the low-end, especially on "...Down 155th in the MCM Snorkel". have bumped this track in my Mini and it knocks. Thankfully, while the bass was overpowering at times, it never clouded or smeared the vocals. I was very impressed by that plus enjoyed the overall sonic signature, the vibe, and the energy of Lese Majesty. It is in my top ten for 2014 right now that's for sure. The NuForce HA-200s were cruising along for that intensely dynamic work-out. Knowing the rest of the signal-chain in this system (obviously) I can say that these amplifiers are dead quiet. I run the full Nordost/Quantum Power devices under the whole system and I know it killed the noise issues because I heard it. The more changes I made to the Quantum Power system, the more I could hear differences. Static-like noises slowly disappear. I'm just sharing that as a reminder, as clean power is everything! So if you do end up with a noise, you need to be sure your power feed is clean before blaming the amp or other components.
This is one of those rare things, as very good audio is sometimes offered at what I feel is at a seriously inexpensive price; with the end user reaping the benefits. For how long? Who knows. We loved their lil' uDAC-3 over at Audio360.com and my time with the NuForce HA200 in monoblock config has been so much damn fun, which is also an under-ratted, and looked-over factor. I love it when something like a new amplifier can help the system reproduce music in a way that grabs me, and thus it is almost automatic that I can't help but move something. Thump my foot, slap my hands against my thighs as I'm layin' back in my office chair. Something has gotta move! Music is powerful that way and a system that is both resolving and soulful in its presentation of my music is what I'm after all the time. Of course I’m always looking to improve upon that. NuForce has built a powerhouse solid-state Class A bitchin' little amplifier in their HA-200, and they have reason to be proud. I hold the NuForce monoblocks responsible for my recent bouts with insomnia, because the music is so infectious with them in the system that the music keeps me going through the night. They've even helped me push through and get some work done when I was ready to fall over. That sounds like a better recommendation than my glowing praise. I just gotta end with this: I'm enjoying Thom Yorke's new album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes so much through these that I'd rather go listen to the music than hope you understand my feelings regarding the NuForce HA-200 monoblock system... because I kinda-liked em'.