NuPrime DAC-9

All about the NuPrime DAC-9 Digital to Analogue Converter and Preamplifier.

The NuPrime DAC-9 control amplifier and DAC – $1250 including GST

The new Nuprime DAC-9 is completely new design and distinct from both the NuPrime integrated amplifiers and the DAC-10 in that it employs a new DAC from Asahi Kasei. As opposed to now ubiquitous Sabre models. While we are of the opinion that it is not the brand of DAC but the quality of the implementation that matters, it’s also clear from what we are hearing that the DAC-9 is unwinding music in a new way from the other NuPrime models. And we very much like what we hear.

Before release, NuPrime did intimate that they felt the DAC-9 would present a ‘warmer’ sound. But this basic description falls far short of explaining the full character of the DAC-9. I’m only really starting to come to grips with it, and every time I listen there is something new going on, so this is very much a work in progress.

All NuPrime products sound much better after running in and I strongly suspect, given the time frame in which we have been listening, that we are no-where near hearing all that the new range can do. While in every case they sound great straight out of the box, the rate of improvement over the first few hours is steep and I’m not hearing any downside – everything just gets better.

Inside the DAC-9

However, let’s look first at the connectivity of the DAC-9. The most important thing to understand about the DAC-9 is that it is a fully featured preamplifier – that is it controls volume and switches inputs – including analogue. This gives it many more applications than any conventional fixed output DAC. The digital connections include USB, optical and coaxial inputs. For the first time, NuPrime have also included an AES balanced input for the connection of serious transports. The second USB slot allows insertion of the included NuPrime BTR-8 Bluetooth receiver – so we have 5 digital inputs in all. The inclusion of a pair of stereo analogue inputs allows the connection of other sources such as a turntable.

On the output side there are both RCA and Balanced outputs – there are both continuously active. The inclusion of balanced inputs and outputs ties in with NuPrime’s description of the DAC-9 as being ‘Designed For Studio Professionals’ we see it as being more a home component that just happens to have some commonalties with studio requirements. Certainly I’d love to see the DAC-9 in use in the studio setting as it could only result in better recordings. For home use there are some arguments for balanced outputs and it’s good that you have the choice so we will take this as a plus.

The rear panel layout of the DAC-9 – balanced and RCA and optical outputs are all active

The DAC-9 is a solidly made little product – if you lift the cover you’ll see a chunky toroid transformer as the power supply. All components are cleanly laid out on a single main PCB with the only cable connections being power in and the front panel display and controls. Despite everything being surface mount and small, the internals take up most of the available space, so the DAC-9 is very much the size it needs to be. The DAC-9 also runs ever so slightly warm – I suspect this is more a function of the preamp stage but it is a departure from some of the icy cold units of the past.

Because the DAC-9 is designed from the ground up as a preamplifier it is more than capable of driving any power amplifier (or Active speakers) with both the balanced and RCA outputs and this would be our recommended setup. But if looking at it as a fixed output device (say with home cinema systems, or an exceptional preamplifier or integrated amplifier) then you just set the volume to 94 – which equates to unity gain and leave it. The DAC-9 handily remembers the volume setting last used for each input which also allows easy matching for different sources.

The DAC-9 also accepts every current digital format and then some, with sampling rates of PCM up to 384kHz & DSD up to DSD256 depending on input so there is no constraint on how far you can go in terms of high resolution.

The front panel and remote control operation is exactly the same as the IDA-8 amplifier which would lead to the conclusion that the DAC-9 is just the front end of the integrated amplifier, but as we have already intimated, the actual DAC is an entirely different beast – and this is where the fun starts.

How it sounds

As with just about every new digital product we take home, our first impression is often how well they work off Carolyn’s iPhone via bluetooth. Well, what can we say – the DAC-9 is exceptional in this regard. It may be the new AK sourced DAC chip or just an excellent implementation but any reservations we might have harboured about this format are now firmly put to bed. There is a real presence to the music, far better sound-staging than with the IDA-8 and an improvement in detail that is rather alarming.

The AK DAC clearly gives a different interpretation of music from the Sabre units previously used – there seems to be an added clarity in the midrange, with vocal passages becoming more intelligible and many instruments more defined. We found that all our music was treated in an even handed way with lower bitrate mp3 down loads being just as greatly improved as our better lossless MP4s. This is very, very good. In fact for our home listen the results were so rewarding with just the iPhone as source that we simply stayed with Bluetooth. You would not be shortchanging yourself with the DAC-9 if this were your only source.

That said, the moment we go further with the technically better connections, the DAC-9 ups the pace accordingly. AirPort Express works perfectly via optical (don’t take this as a given – the best Sabre equipped devices don’t want to know about AE and will often drop out).

The new Cambridge Audio CXU is the ultimate transport to match with the DAC – with a high quality coax connection you’ll make the most of every disc type not to mention copious other input formats.

If you still have a large CD library and aren’t into the idea of computer audio and don’t need the visual tricks of the CXU, Cambridge also have the answer – the new CXC is a dedicated CD transport. This is the definitive dedicated CD player for any system with digital inputs – everything about it is designed to give the cleanest most stable data-stream and the DAC-9 will make the most of this.

The USB connection is the best of all in theory but at this stage we’re so happy with the other options we haven’t actually delved into the possibilities here.

If there is a limitation with the DAC-9 it’s the analogue input. The digital side of the DAC-9 is so damned good that going back to analogue isn’t quite the thing it used to be. The better dynamic range and low noise that was always a selling point for digital is clearly in evidence and the bass just rips along – a basic turntable just isn’t going to keep up with what the DAC-9 can do so if you want to get records sounding as good as your files, then you are going to have to set your sights higher in terms of the quality of the analogue front end. To make this happen a better class of turntable and phono stage are in order, really at about the same price level as something like the Cambridge CXU which would be the best transport for silver discs.

Just to be clear – there is nothing wrong with the analogue input on the DAC-9. But the digital performance is way ahead of anything else at this price level and this is what analogue must now measure up to.

All this has to be kept in the context of the price of the DAC-9. It’s an awesome performer for around half the cost of the flagship DAC-10 and as such will find its way into many more systems. The DAC-10 shows you what the extra investment can achieve – a bigger and more vivd soundstage, even better dynamics and driving ability, and a seriously good line stage that makes the most of the best analogue sources. But without the experience and expertise involved in the NuPrime DAC-10, you’d never be able to get the DAC-9.

So which model is best for you will come down to practical considerations – cost, the system into which you’ll be placing it and the array of input sources. The NuPrime DAC-9 is clearly the best DAC we have ever heard under NZ$2000 – well ahead of any of the previous NuForce products and really only bettered by it’s own big brother. The overall character is exactly as described by NuPrime – it’s a warm sounding DAC relative to other brands, but the level of detail and finesse it delivers is what really stands out for us.

When combined with the STA-9 power amplifier it provides a perfectly balanced system that betters every aspect of the IDA-8 integrated amplifiers performance. And effectively leaves any other combination or single chassis amplifier at this price level gasping.

We’ve got the new DAC-9 in stock now and even have colour choice of black or silver to boot. It comes with the BTR-8 Bluetooth receiver included and a nice little remote control. If this is your first serious DAC you are going to really enjoy just how good digital has become. Should you be looking at this as an upgrade from any other DAC – or even preamplifier – we’re sure you’ll be surprised by just how great the progress has been in digital over a the last few years

NuPrime DAC-9 NZ$1250 including GST and delivery. Enquire now.