NuForce Cube Compact Portable Speaker Page 2

Expectations
To be honest, I did not have very high hopes for the sound quality of the Cube. Although it had already surprised me with its build quality and attention to detail, I remained skeptical about just how good this tiny thing could possibly sound. Now that I've spent a lot of time with it, I admit that I was wrong. It's actually a fairly capable sounding little device, assuming ones expectations are kept to appropriate levels.

My initial testing of the Cube was done with my Acer Aspire One. It's either a really small notebook or a large netbook depending on your perspective---the 11.6" screen straddles the middle between the two categories. It's definitely closer to a netbook when it comes to audio performance. The speakers are on the bottom front lip of the case. That means the sound fires straight down into the surface where the computer rests. If the thing is sitting on your lap, then the sound is aimed straight at your crotch. Either way is bad. The speakers themselves are tiny, even by tweeter standards, and they have practically zero open space behind them. Is it any wonder they sound horrible?

Adding the Cube has the immediate benefit of pointing the sound more towards the ears. That's half the battle already. The Cube also has a comparably massive driver, as well as far more enclosure to work with. The result is a surprisingly clean, clear sounding presentation with a good amount of articulation. Though it obviously can't do much in terms of bass, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, especially with the right kind of music.

The bass limitation is definitely worth exploring further. It seems like every review of a compact speaker contains some hyperbole about how surprisingly great the lows are. My favorite is when the reviewer supposedly has to look around for the hidden subwoofer, only to be told that there isn't one. Groan. I certainly won't be making any of those claims with regards to the Cube.

Nuforce doesn't list the frequency response, but using test tones it sounds like output starts falling off around 200Hz. At 150Hz things are pretty quiet, and below 100Hz is essentially silent. Some things aren't really effected by this---Violin, flute, trumpet, female vocals, all sound more or less complete. Male vocals are missing a bit of fullness but remain convincing for the most part. Other instruments don't fare as well---there's just no way the Cube can be expected to do full range tuba or pipe organ, and kick drums don't have much punch to them either. There's still enough to let you follow the beat, though it's more implied than actually heard or felt as it would be on a larger speaker.

Considering the limitations involved, I think Nuforce did a good job overall. They might have been tempted to do a mid-bass boost a la AudioEngine A2 to create the illusion of better low end extension. I don't think that would have worked out very well in this case so I'm pleased that Nuforce avoided any attempt at trickery. It simply plays what it can, and omits what it can't.

The rest of the spectrum is also handled pretty well, again considering the limitations of such a device. Vocals come through with a good amount of accuracy---I could easily tell the nuances in Livingston Taylor's voice that differentiate him from his brother James. Individual notes are fairly well defined too---the Cube keeps pace admirably with Hiromi Uehara's spirited piano playing, while the average computer speaker or "boombox" renders it mushy and indistinct. Some music does better than others---vocal tracks from Lucia Minetti, Dejan Lazik playing Bethoven Concerto No 2, guitar by John Fahey, all sounded great. The overall presentation is lively and engaging. If you were looking for mere background music, watch out, because you may find yourself distracted. Just don't expect heavier music to have the same impact and dynamics that it normally would from headphones or larger speakers. Nuforce is working with the same laws of physics as everyone else.

There is a bit of a tendency towards brightness but I find it excusable for several reasons. First is the fact that overall volume is somewhat limited. This makes for a less fatiguing scenario than it otherwise would. Second, I tended to set the Cube down during use so it was generally facing me but not pointed directly at my head. As usual, off-axis listening leads to reduced treble overall. It seems likely that the Cube would end up positioned this way during the majority of use. I did notice that the Cube is less directional than the average speaker, so this effect is not huge.

Speaking of volume levels: the Cube is capable of a surprisingly high level of output. I call it surprising not necessarily due to the sheer volume alone, but also the way it maintains its composure even at maximum levels. That's an area where most cell phones, netbooks, and tablets will stumble, even if they may sound decent at lower volumes. The Cube is capable of playing into the mid-80dB levels as measured by my SPL meter. To put that in perspective---a normal conversation between my wife and I measures in the low 60dB range. So the Cube is capable of drowning out your family or coworkers if you so desire.

The headphone jack on the Cube is decent but it won't blow you away. It has an output of 5.6 ohms, meaning that impedance related interactions shouldn't be much of a problem. I did use various IEMs featuring multiple balanced armature drivers---a torture test for impedance problems, with some dipping into the 10 ohm range at certain frequencies. I noted a few minor issues---a frequency slightly boosted here, and another rolled off there, but it was very mild and tended to be pleasing just as often as not. Again, this was a very minor issue and most headphones have impedance high enough where it won't matter at all. To my ears it sounds about on the same level as the 3rd gen iPod Touch (which happens to have a similar output impedance), meaning good but not spectacular. It gives a relatively clean sound free from background noise or hiss. In this respect it is a big improvement over my LG Optimus V Android phone and my Acer laptop, but it brings no improvement to my iPad 2 or Sansa Clip+. The Cube is powerful enough to drive most headphones to satisfying levels. Even my Thunderpants planars were able to get pretty loud, though of course I've heard them sound better from stand alone headphone amps.

Impedance on the AUX input is around 3.9k ohms. This means it should be easy to drive from practically any headphone jack or line out. The simple act of switching to the Cube from a laptop or tablet headphone jack with high output impedance is potentially a big improvement---more so than the benefits given by the DAC or headphone amp, although those are welcome too.

NuForce_Cube_Photo_table

Is It Worth It?
I ended up using the Cube with a variety of different devices. Everything I tried worked without issue, and in most cases gave an appreciably better sound than the stock speakers. I didn't notice any significant difference when using USB versus the analog input, which means the computers I used had acceptable quality integrated audio. But there certainly could be some laptops where that is not the case.

Obviously the improvement over your stock speakers will change based on what device you are using. There was a time when many 15 and 17 inch laptops had reasonably decent sound but that seems to have changed as the average price dropped over the years. It is my experience that decreasing the size of the laptop generally results in a corresponding decrease in sound quality. With the rise of netbooks and Ultrabooks, good sounding laptops are becoming a rarity, though of course there are some exceptions. Tablets are similarly poor sounding which is understandable due to their thin form factor and the fact that their speakers usually fire away from the listener. Some, like the iPad, are decent enough, and at least make it possible to understand movie dialogue. But that doesn't mean they don't benefit from a better sound solution. At that point it would be important to evaluate what sort of upgrade you might want---you can get better sound from a larger non-portable system if that fits your needs, though it will also cost more.

Nuforce has done a good job with the Cube though---it's a unique device that is durable, attractive, and sounds pretty nice. No, it isn't the most exciting piece of audio gear you'll ever run across, and I realize that for many people it will probably be irrelevant. I can't give it a universal recommendation simply because it is so specific in purpose. But in terms of adding respectable sound to an underperforming device, it actually works as advertised, and there really aren't many serious alternatives on the market. So sure, I like and recommend the NuForce Cube for the right application.

COMPANY INFO
Nuforce, Inc.
382 South Abbott Ave
Milpitas, CA 95035
iconsupport@nuforce.com
(408) 518-0626
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
mward's picture

The picture with the grill removed shows a driver that looks a lot like the Harman-Kardon Odyssey—these were used in most of Apple's CRT iMac models, some of the company's computer speakers (notably the Soundsticks and the ones that looked like champagne flutes), iPod docks, and maybe some car audio and full-size speaker designs. 

 

They always sounded surprisingly good in my old iMac, and had a frequency response similar to what you describe. If this is what NuForce is using, I'm not surprised it sounds great for the size. 

dalethorn's picture

I read this several times to see if there was a comparison of the cube's DAC plus headphone amp output from a computer USB, versus plugging directly into the headphone jack of the computer, for sound quality. Is the cube DAC-plus-headphone amp generally better than a typical laptop's headphone jack?

Edit: The phrase about bringing no improvement to the iPad would seem to be bypassing the DAC anyway, so it makes sense that not using the DAC you would lose some of that advantage.

John Grandberg's picture

I apologize that there isn't a completely straight answer to this. If I listed every combination I tried, the article would be very long, very boring, and still wouldn't give you the info you need unless you are using the same hardware as me. 

For my Acer Aspire One, the headphone jack is poor. The Cube is significantly better driving headphones. For my custom built desktop PC which uses a quality soundcard, the Cube isn't an improvement. It goes the same way for tablets (Nook Color improves, iPad2 doesn't) and phones (LG Optimus improves, Meizu MX doesn't). So as a headphone amp it is potentially an upgrade depending on your device.

As for your specific question - no, the Cube doesn't sound much different when used from my Acer USB port rather than from the headphone out. That means my Acer has a decent DAC that is hampered by a high output impedance. Using the Cube, even via the analog connection, fixes that problem. USB might have a slightly lower noise floor but it isn't a major difference (both ways are pretty quiet). 

I had an HP laptop prior to this Acer, and it definitely had a poor internal DAC. There was some severe rolloff in places, and some obvious boosting in others. With something like that, the Cube would be at its best over USB. 

dalethorn's picture

Thanks much for that reply - it answers several questions actually. I have the Headstreamer, Audioengine D1, and Dragonfly - all mini-DACs with headphone outputs, and it seems like more of these mini-DACs as I call them are popping up everywhere.

John Grandberg's picture

I agree, there's lots of them popping up. I'd say the Cube is unique due to the speaker aspect, though it probably can't compete with those others that are more specific in purpose.

funkmeister's picture

This reminds me of the JBL On Tour Micro speaker which I got for my daughter and she loves. The JBL has no DAC, but it is a great little amp/speaker package... and the battery lasts forever. Sounds are surprisingly full and well detailed within the operating range, which I think is 150Hz on up.

NuForce is an interesting company and I don't hold a lot of stake in them, but they have a great product with their Icon HD. It works very nicely with my two AKG headphones.

Armaegis's picture

I put a review for this interesting little device up on head-fi a few weeks ago:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/618638/review-nuforce-cube-portable-speaker-usb...

Overall I think my impressions mesh more or less with yours.

John Grandberg's picture

That's a great write-up, and it appears we do hear pretty much the same thing from the Cube. Thanks for the link.

Armaegis's picture

For the headphone driver chip, I don't think it could be the TPA6120 since usb doesn't provide enough power for that (I think). 

John Grandberg's picture

It is more likely to be the TPA6130 or one of those variants. Those take less power.

I've got a device which uses a pair of 6130s in dual mono configuration, off USB power, so I know it's possible.

The markings on the chip in the Cube are similar but not identical to the 6130s I've seen. 

HeadphoneAddict's picture

   I've had the Cube for a while, and I completely agree with your impresisons.  I use mine most as a portable speaker, whether via 3.5mm audio jack from iPad and iPhone or via USB from an old Macbook with terrible speakers.  The headphone amp is respectable, and it's more of an upgrade in power output and impedance matching than as a DAC "sound quality" upgrade.  The DAC is not a downgrade at all, but it's also not the same upgrade one gets from the uDAC-2 SE or an Audioengine D1. The amp is a bit more powerful than the iPod or Macbook headphone jack, which is more useful with full-size headphones than earphones.  

   I also have the Nuforce Podio speaker, and I was impressed with that when it first came out, although the Cube improves on that with more features and better sound.  I prefer the Cube because I can use it via USB and not run the battery down, where the Podio used the 3.5mm jack to charge or to play music, but not both at the same time.  However, if you don't need the USB the Podio is much cheaper.

HeadphoneAddict's picture

Well, I bought the Zooka stereo Bluetooth soundbar through a kickstarter pre-order, and it sits unused because it doesn't sound as full and "big speaker-like" as the cube.  If only I could easily set the cube at the top center of my laptop screen it would be perfect.  But I'm working on that.

I'm still using the cube as my preferred portable travel speaker, instead of the Podio or Zooka.  My Big Jawbone Bluetooth speaker is way too big to be packing along, and remains in the kitchen for listening while cooking, visiting, and dining.  At Christmas I'll be able to compare the cube to my daughter's new mini Jambox, but I expect it will be close, and still smaller.  I use a Motorola S-705 Bluetooth pendant when I need the cube to be wireless, but that need isn't often.

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