NuForce S3-BT Wireless Speaker System
The promise was enticing: A compact wireless speaker system offering “exceptional” performance with the option of using an outboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to achieve a “much needed, audiophile-grade alternative to mediocre wireless sound.” Amen. The last thing the world needs is another pair of bad-sounding wireless speakers.
When I pulled the NuForce S3-BT speakers ($299/pair) out of the box, I was immediately struck by their heft and handsome leatherette finish. The right speaker houses the wireless receiver and a Class D amplifier that brings to life the soft-dome tweeter and small woofer in each ported box. Plug in the power cord, run the supplied cable between the speakers’ binding posts to shuttle audio to the left speaker, and you’re ready for wireless action.
Aiming for the best possible sound quality, NuForce equipped the S3-BTs with the latest generation of aptX and AAC audio codecs instead of the lower-quality SBC compression technology used in many Bluetooth-enabled speakers. Several wireless scenarios are possible. You can stream music directly from a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone/tablet or add NuForce’s Air DAC Receiver ($149) to bypass the Bluetooth connection and open the door to more options.
You can stream music from an iPhone/iPad/iPod using the tiny iTX transmitter ($79) that connects via Apple’s 30-pin connector. To stream from a Mac or Windows computer, you need a uTX USB transmitter ($59). NuForce sells iWireless ($199) and uWireless ($179) packages with an Air DAC plus an iTX or uTX transmitter. The Air DAC receiver and transmitters use the SKAA wireless audio standard developed by Eleven Engineering, which is said to offer better reliability than Bluetooth and a range that extends beyond 30 feet.
Finally, you can set up a multiroom system with multiple Air DACs; each transmitter can stream to up to four receivers. (With only one Air DAC on hand, I was unable to test a multiroom setup.)
For the first stop on my wireless journey, I streamed music from Samsung’s iPhone-killing Galaxy SIII direct to the speakers. Pairing was a simple process: I made sure Bluetooth was on, selected NuForce S3-BT from the phone’s device list, and cued up “This Never Happened Before” from Paul McCartney’s 2006 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. The sound was robust, conveying the dynamic yet full-bodied character of McCartney’s Hofner bass, the delicate piano lines, and of course, that mellifluous voice. The speakers, which are only 7 inches tall, also deftly handled the slow build of Weezer’s “Heart Songs” (Weezer, aka the Red Album)—from the opening acoustic guitar to the vocal harmonies and bells in the second verse to the band’s signature wall of guitars. These speakers sound much bigger than they look.
The Galaxy maintained a solid connection with the speakers for about 40 feet before dropouts occurred. I was also able to start/stop/pause playback and skip tracks from the mini control panel embedded in the top of the right speaker, a feature that works only with devices that support Bluetooth’s Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP).
Next stop was to check out an Air DAC set up using those tiny transmitters. The Air DAC is a nondescript, 3 x 1 x 3–inch module with one button (for pairing and cycling through up to 10 devices), an AC power input, and a pair of analog RCA jacks for connecting to an audio system or a set of powered speakers. I grabbed a set of RCA cables, plugged in its power cord, and connected the little black box to the S3-BT’s stereo input.
I popped the uTX transmitter into the USB port on a late-model Dell laptop, and it worked like a charm. The NuForce duo came to life as I sampled my way through iTunes—from Kenny Chesney to Matthew Sweet to Fall Out Boy and ultimately back to the Weezer and McCartney songs I started with—impressed once again by the quality of the sound and the utter lack of background noise. I did a series of casual listening comparisons using the S3-BT’s source button to switch between the Galaxy SIII direct stream and the same song playing on iTunes through the Air DAC. Volume levels weren’t perfectly matched, and instantaneous switching wasn’t possible, but I thought the McCartney track sounded a tad fuller and smoother through the Air DAC. I had the same impression listening to the Weezer track but, again, the difference was subtle.
Shifting gears, I plugged the tiny iTX into my first-generation nano and immediately noticed a low-level buzz when the system was sitting idle. The noise disappeared when I switched to my wife’s third-gen nano, suggesting a problem with the iPod, not the Air DAC. The clean, open feel of Jack Johnson’s acoustic-guitar-driven In Between Dreams album filled the room. Johnson’s happy-go-lucky vocal delivery on “Good People” shone through, punctuated by the crisp snare drum and gently thumping bass.
All in all, the system could play plenty loud with a wireless range of at least 40 feet whether I was streaming direct to the speakers or through the Air DAC (results will vary, depending on construction materials and the environment).
The NuForce S3-BT system performed admirably in a variety of scenarios, delivering articulate, full-bodied sound at reasonable volume levels with and without the Air DAC. If you’re looking for an easy and relatively affordable way to bring good sound to secondary spaces that might have a cheesy sound dock or no music system at all, the S3-BT is worth a listen.