NuPrime IDA-16 Integrated Digital Amplifier.

Introduced in 2015, the NuPrime IDA-16 extreme resolution digital integrated amplifier is a shot across the bows of every serious hifi designer and manufacturer.

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The NuPrime IDA-16 – don’t let the flames fool you – it runs cool! NZ$3350 including GST.

NuPrime is a new and independent company whose purpose is to carry on in the celebrated tradition of the NuForce high-end product line. NuForce carved out an awesome reputation for smart and affordable compact products like the brilliant little DDA100. But before this, their Reference series pre and power amplifiers have really been what has carried the NuForce name forward in the US. Both the original design and sound quality have prompted voluminous reviews.

So when we heard about a new integrated amplifier with both a state of the art DAC section and a very serious 200 watts of power we immediately wanted to know more. As soon as we saw the first pictures of the NuPrime IDA-16 we knew it was going to be a hit – a beautifully slim and minimalist design – someone is really getting the aesthetics right. You want modern and sleek? Check. Place order.

Without wanting to play numbers games, the IDA-16 sets a benchmark in DAC performance and compatibility. With both 384K & DSD decoding, you get the widest support for the latest High-Resolution music formats.

We’ve now had a good couple of years listening to and selling the IDA-16. How does it stack up given the speed at which digital moves and the introduction of a number of new models from NuPrime both above and below the IDA-16 in price? First let’s get things in context. While the IDA-8 is bother newer and an exceptional value for money product, the IDA-16 aims to be taken seriously at a much higher level but is far from expensive at NZ$3350. The first time we heard it, about 5 seconds elapsed before we worked out the DAC section is considerably better than any of our other contenders. There is resolution to burn and it will unwind complex recordings in a way that you will not heard from any digital product. The clean integration between the DAC, preamp and power amp sections proves to be a huge advantage.

It’s also apparent that the IDA-16 has a long burn in period and unlike analogue products the progression as it ‘warms up’ is neither linear or predictable – it’s not that it doesn’t sound impressive straight out of the box. But the character and presentation changes significantly over at least a few weeks and every time we think we have the measure of it, there are new parts to the picture revealed. We suspect it may take a full month to reach its potential and even then there will be much to be learned in terms of matching it with both sources and speakers that can exploit all of it’s potential. At around the 10 day mark, any reservations we had were gone – the improvements in depth and warmth are major. Not only is it one of the best DACs we’ve heard, it may well be one of the very best amplifiers we have heard at any price.

The IDA-16 in silver at home – the turntable is connected via a phono stage to the analogue input.

One thing we really didn’t expect is how good the analogue input and amplifier section are – this really shouldn’t be such a surprise as NuForce have forged quite a reputation with their Reference series pre and power amplifiers. As much as we’ve come to love our big Italian made Audio Analogue integrated amplifier, it was clear – in many senses – that the NuPrime IDA-16 was annihilating it. There was nothing incremental about the comparison – the NuPrime is at once smoother, more detailed and open. Alarmingly so, given the fact that the NuPrime is substantially less in cost and also has a fully stacked digital section.

So we have come to the conclusion, that much of what we are hearing when listening to digital sources through the IDA-16 is not in fact from the higher resolution promised by the specification of the DAC section, but from the attributes of the amplifier – both pre and power sections. And that the IDA-16 can’t be pigeon-holed as a ‘digital’ product. Regardless of your most favoured format, this is a new amplifier that really demands your attention and offers remarkable value for those who appreciate the best of both analogue and digital.

Originally I felt that the IDA-16 laid bare the differences between digital formats and connections. While makes lossy and lossless completely distinct entities I didn’t really appreciate the job it was doing with unwinding compressed lower rate files. Only with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of other comparisons do I now understand that the IDA-16 makes recordings that I thought of as being a bit ordinary sound a lot better than alternative products – again, I attribute this to the integration and what is quite probably a much more direct digital pathway to the speakers. It’s also the inclusion of the IDA-16 into better sorted systems that have the resolution to show this, rather than just substitution into what I was listening to at the time which was inevitably biased toward analogue.

With 200 very serious watts on board, the IDA-16 is capable of some breathtaking dynamics and volume levels. This isn’t something we’ve explored as much as we might have expected. What I think is happening is rather than having to ramp volume up to engage involvement, the IDA-16 lays out so much new stuff that a system with it becomes easier to listen to at lower volume levels.

The NuPrime is also a very smart product. With just six very subtle control buttons on the front panel, it will do all you want and more. From switching out of standby, it always remembers your last input and volume level. It smoothly and automatically ramps up from zero. Likewise altering the volume from the front panel or remote control is precise and perfectly paced. You can match levels between inputs. The display is all it needs to be – what input you are listening to denoted by letter – ‘A’ for Analogue as an example – and the volume level from 0 to 100. As with all NuForce products it is supremely power efficient, barely creeping above room temperature no matter how you push it.

The IDA-16 works on many levels – it’s both a product to aspire to and something that would be easy to underestimate. If you are looking for a new modern system or upgrading from the entry level it should be right in the centre of your radar. What will confound a lot of people who have accumulated big component systems is that this one slim box, which is likely less in cost any other considered products, will replace a number of components, render cabling superfluous and yet be a leap forwards in all areas of performance. Less really is more.

NuPrime is also going to deal to a lot of peoples preconceptions about the sound of so called class D or digital amplifiers. NuForce and now NuPrime have always been original thinkers in terms of amplifier design and their unconventional approach is now being vindicated. Being tied to a particular type of output device, equating size with quality or playing the features game aren’t strategies for the future. Better to be smart and build great looking, simple products that perform beyond expectation.

Apple TV works brilliantly with the IDA-16 – note the ’48’ on the front denoting the data speed from it.

The NuPrime IDA-16 delivers more sound quality, power and sophistication than any other DAC and integrated amplifier combination, digital or analogue we’ve heard, both at this level and well above. This isn’t a statement we make without a lot of consideration and listening. NuPrime have delivered a remarkable product at a better-than-fair price that you’ll be thrilled to own, both now and for years to come.

Since the inception of the IDA-16, NuPrime have introduced models both above and below. As a combination, the NuPrime DAC-10 and ST-10 do operate at a higher level of performance.This has to be kept in context by both the cost difference of the actual components but also the associated cabling with interconnects and mains cables (plural) often being part of the equation. The recent reduction in price of the IDA-16 has skewed the value for money equation firmly in the favour of the integrated option – the IDA-16 was a winner at its original NZ price but is now effectively unassailable.

Likewise with both the smaller IDA-8 integrated amplifier and the newer 9 series separates components. The IDA-8 is effectively a miniaturised version of the IDA-16. It shares a lot of the same qualities but given any worthwhile pair of speakers, the differences are obvious and the larger amplifier’s power and control become evident. The competition from the 9 series is a little closer. It is possible to put together a 3 piece combination with the DAC-9 and a pair of bridged STA-9s that will out-power the IDA-16 on paper for about the same end cost. The reality of listening shows that the integrated option is still better in every regard. There has been some comment made that the 9 series have a ‘warmer’ sound – my own experience tells me that the better control of the IDA-16 delivers a deeper richer bass with greater dynamics and space. The actual internal topologies are quite different but I suspect that the IDA-16 works effectively as a single unit (i.e. a very powerful DAC) whereas the split of the 9 series between DAC, preamp and power amps introduces both variability and loss due to connection. But again you have to keep this all in context with the price.

Another thing that has changed since the introduction of the NuPrime IDA-16 is the quality of the cables we carry. At the source end, the quality of the IDA-16 means it’s well worthwhile looking at better USB cables such as the Kimber Silver AG model, and the KLEI gZero3 digital coax cable. Paying a little attention here means you’ll gain much more downstream. The new KLEI Purity speaker cables weren’t even a pipe dream in 2015 but now we’re able to listen to them in systems where the IDA-16 is central, it’s clear that I originally underestimated what the NuPrime could do. While the cost of these cables isn’t far short of the amplifier itself, the magnitude of improvement they bring to a system means that you really should at the very least audition them in this context.

But it’s the mains cable that makes the most unexpected improvement. The power supply sections within the IDA-16 are quite different from conventional designs and so I’d not really expected to hear the same things we do in ‘normal’ systems. The standard cable is already of quite a good standard and the high efficiency/low power requirement specification of the IDA-16 suggested that a power cable upgrade might not make that great a difference. Yet it does and while I can’t presently pin down exactly why and how, I’ve embarked upon a serious comparison of the original KLEI power cable and their new Purity level AC model. Because it has become an amplifier I know very well and operates and an unarguable high level of resolution it made sense to use it as a test bed. Only requiring a single mains cable also makes things a lot easier and more affordable. While there will be a comprehensive write up posted shortly, I can tell you I’m suddenly seeing the IDA-16 in a whole new light. If you want the best combination of value and performance in the entire NuPrime range – this is it.

NuPrime IDA-16 Integrated Digital Amplifier – NZ$3350 including GST and delivery.

Reviews

The Absolute Sound April 2015
SoundStage Access January 2015