Review: NuForce Cube

In the last year, we’ve seen lots of super-compact audio systems that sound surprisingly good: the Jawbone Jambox, the Q2 Internet Radio, and the Soundmatters FoxLv2 are three great examples. But the NuForce Cube comes in at just a fraction of their size: The enclosure measures less than 2.5 inches on all its sides. One look at the Cube and it’s hard to imagine you’d want to listen to it for long.

But behind the Cube’s grille hides what may be the most serious attempt at a 1-inch full-range driver I’ve ever seen.

 The rigid, convex aluminum diaphragm has a miniaturized butyl rubber surround about 3mm wide. An aluminum side/top panel stiffens the surprisingly robust enclosure.

There’s even more going on inside, including what NuForce describes as an “audiophile grade” USB digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and a “high quality” headphone amplifier. You can feed it digital signals from a computer via USB, or analog signals through its 3.5mm input jack. No volume control, though — you have to control volume through your connected device. Power on/off is automatic, so there’s no power button, either.

Thus, the Cube serves three purposes: as a tiny powered speaker for use with smartphones and computers; as a headphone amp; and as a high-quality USB DAC for feeding computer audio to a stereo system. Not bad for $119.

But still, how good could a 1-inch full-range driver sound?

Sonic shock

Honestly, I assumed the Cube would sound perhaps one notch better than cheap, low-fi devices like the Veho 360BT. I was hugely wrong. I noticed from the first notes of “Imagination,” from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, that unlikely as it might seem, the Cube is a real high-fidelity system. The midrange (i.e., Pepper’s alto sax) and the treble (i.e., Philly Joe Jones’ snare and cymbals) sounded unbelievably clear and detailed, at least on par with the FoxLv2 and the Jambox.

In fact, the Cube has the same long-term listenability that makes the FoxLv2 and the Jambox such great products. Of course, you’re not going to use the Cube for serious listening, but to call this thing a background music product would be grossly unfair. Like a good conventional hi-fi system, the Cube will sometimes pull your attention away from whatever you’re doing and seduce you into listening more closely — as it just did when I realized it’s actually giving me some impression of depth as jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s ethereal, reverb-drenched version of “If I Should Lose You” (from Deep Song) plays.

The appeal of the Cube will depend on your taste in music, though. For most of what I listen to, it’s great. All the jazz and chamber music cuts I played through it sounded good, as did lighter vocal music like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Hawaiian slack-key guitar master Dennis Kamakahi.

This is no rock speaker, though. When I played the live version of “The Immigrant Song” from Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions, Robert Plant’s vocal seemed to jump right out of the Cube, but the heavy groove laid down by Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham was dialed way back. Of course, “The Immigrant Song” has the heaviest groove ever, but I got the same result with “Drawing Flies” from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger. Complex arrangements like Todd Rundgren and Bobby Womack’s performance of “For the Want of a Nail” (from Rundgren’s Nearly Human) sounded good, but the subtleties of the lush instrumentation were lost. And of course, there’s no real bass, although the upper harmonics of some low notes do at least suggest bass. Overall, the Cube doesn’t sound bad with rock music, just a little out of balance.

One great thing about the Cube’s design, though: You’re not constantly flirting with distortion as you are with most mini audio systems. With the sources I used (my laptop computer and an iPod touch), the Cube was still listenable even when I cranked it all the way up. Yeah, that last click of the volume up button on my iPod did push the distortion up noticeably, but not to where it got annoying. At full crank, the Cube can fill a decent-sized room with music at loud enough levels for background music and maybe a few dB more.

Plugging in the ’phones

Next, I tried using the Cube as a USB headphone amp. NuForce’s website brags that the internal amp delivers “plenty of power to drive even the most power-hungry set of ‘cans’,” so I put them the claim to the test with, yes, a power-hungry set of cans: the HiFiMan HE-500, which can’t be driven to satisfying volume levels with an iPod.

Turns out the HE-500 can’t be driven to satisfying levels with the Cube, either. It was loud enough for light listening, but not loud enough for me to really get into the music. In comparison, the $39 HiFiMan HM-101 USB headphone amp could really get the HE-500 cranking.

So that I could better compare the fidelity of the Cube with the HM-101, I switched headphones to the much-more-sensitive B&W P3. With the P3 hooked in, the Cube actually sounded a little smoother than the HM-101. I got a slightly more extended and natural-sounding treble, and a better sense of the natural ambience in the ECM recording of “I Only Have Eyes for You” by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy (from the CD of the same name).