Although Surround Sound is the "Big Thing"
these days, two-channel music (Stereo) is still alive and well.
There are a lot of reasons for this, not the
least of which is that there are several million of us old geezers out there
who grew up on stereo music. Remember, Surround Sound is only a couple of
decades old. Hi-Fi, which was basically all two-channel music, has been
around since the 1950's, and of course, mono - in 78 RPM records and radio -
has been here since nearly the beginning of the 20th century, and even a few
of those listeners are still alive.
That does not mean we oldies but goodies don't
like surround sound, because we do. In fact, we love it. But, stereo is
still king when it comes to music, at least in terms of the available albums
and what we hear on the radio.
Assuming that most of us have a surround sound
system in our homes for watching movies, why not just play the CDs on that
system and switch the front panel of our SSP or receiver to "Stereo"? After
all, couldn't we just use the two preamp channels and two amplifier
channels, along with the front two speakers?
Well, yes, of course we can.
However, purists will say that all that
additional circuitry in the surround sound processor can contaminate the two
channels that we are listening to. And, it does to a small extent. The
adjacent circuits emit electromagnetic fields that cause small voltages to
be induced in the circuits for the stereo listening. Granted, it is a tiny
amount, but to a purist, that is too much.
Also, the design and build quality that
aficionados like to have in two-channel listening, would cost a real bundle
if that level of quality were extended to the seven-channel processors that
are available now. The
Mark Levinson No 40 SSP is a good example. Superb
quality bar none. $32,000.
So, bottom line: two-channel products are
still out there, and are still being purchased. And some of them are
incredible . . . like the NuForce P-9.
NuForce, located in Northern California,
markets Surround Sound Processors, if you want one. But, looking at the
specifications page, you would be more amazed at the preamplifier, called
the P-9. It is made in Taiwan to specifications designed by Demian Martin,
who co-founded Spectral Audio years ago. Many consumers might still be
suspicious of the quality of hi-fi components built in that part of the
world, but that is what everyone thought of Japanese electronics when they
first started building them, and look what happened over time. Some of the
best on the planet.
The P-9 is a stereo preamplifier that is housed
in two chassis. One contains the power supply and control circuitry (the
bottom chassis in the photo), and the other has all of the analog stages for
the preamplifier's operation, including an Alps potentiometer (top chassis
in the photo).
The reason that the control circuits are
separate from the other parts is the very reason I mentioned above: to keep
out extraneous noise generated by other circuits, in this case, such items
as the circuit board that adjusts the volume. And speaking of that, the
digital volume control circuit in the bottom chassis actually does not
control the volume. It controls the analog Alps potentiometer in the top
chassis. When you adjust the volume using the lower right dial, it sends a
signal to the motor in the top chassis, and that moves the potentiometer.
The selected input as well as the volume are
read out on an LCD front panel. Note that the panel is in the "Dimmed" mode
default from the factory. You have to put batteries (AAA) in the remote
control and turn it on from the remote in order to get the panel lit up.
The rear panel has five sets of RCA inputs,
one set of RCA outputs, and one set of XLR outputs. The XLR outputs are for
convenience. They are not balanced. RCA set 5 is a pass-through. You can see
the VGA-like sockets that are used to connect the two chassis together. The
cable is supplied, and you can't use a conventional VGA cable because of the
The chassis are made of ribbed aluminum all
the way around (except the rear panel which is steel for grounding purposes), and are narrower than most components, because half of the
electronics are in each chassis. So, this is not a rack mount product. It
has sort of an industrial look about it. Some will like that, and others
won't. I am not that crazy about it, but I would put up with it to get this
kind of performance for such a reasonable price. Besides, if you don't like
the shiny silver color, you can get it in black or rose copper.
The remote control is very elegant in shape,
and you don't really need backlighting with it because the buttons are large
and are in stark contrast to the black body of the remote. The input
selection buttons are on the left side, with the volume and mute buttons on
the right. Like many remotes for high end products these days, this one has
a screw on the back that has to be removed to change the batteries.
As I mentioned, the top chassis has the analog
circuits that produce the music. That includes JFETs, VMOS FETs, and hFE
bipolar transistors. Each is selected for a specific task in the signal
path. It's all discrete (no ICs as part of the preamplification), and there
are no capacitors in the gain circuit signal path. The control box sends only DC
to relays or to the potentiometer motor in the analog chassis.
So, what does all this get you? Well, very low
distortion throughout a large bandwidth. As you will see in the graphs,
NuForce is not kidding.
I listened to the P-9 using a McIntosh MCD201 SACD/CD player, McIntosh MC1201 power amplifiers, and Final Sound 1000i
electrostatic speakers. Cables were Nordost and Legenburg.
Well, how can I put it?
Detail, detail, and more detail . . . yet
That pretty much sums up the sound of the P-9.
I listened to a ton of discs with the NuForce
and . . . well, let me put it this way: preamplifiers - and all audio
components for that matter - don't sound good on their own. They don't
improve the sound. The idea is to not subtract from the signal
passing through them. So, when a product is stated to sound terrific, what
is meant is that the product does not change the sound from the source. And
that characterizes the P-9.
Take this new Telarc SACD Masters and
Commanders - Music from Seafaring Film Classics (Telarc SACD-60682), for
example. It has music from such films as Pirates of the Caribbean,
The Sea Hawk, and Captains Courageous.
The selections on this disc have a wonderful
full bodied orchestral sound not only to test products with, but just to
The P-9 delivered these very complex sounds
without any apparent loss of detail. Of course, there is always some loss
with any circuit. That's the nature of resistance, capacitance, and
inductance that occur in the flow of current in a conductor. But, with a
good component, the amount of loss is minimal, and that seems to be the
basis of the P-9's performance.
Besides the great detail, the P-9 is also
characterized by neutrality, meaning that it does not sound bright. Violins
and brass sound very natural. The edges of the brass were there, but they
were the correct edges, not the irritating, artificial edges that occur when
there are a lot of high frequency harmonics. And even when the full
orchestra was playing, violins still sounded sweet and distinguishable, not
buried in a mass of other sounds. Even the dainty triangle could be
distinguished in the background. You will see why in the bench tests.
Note that this disc is a multi-channel SACD,
but like most such discs, there is a two-channel track for . . . you guessed
it: two-channel audio systems. It is unfortunate that SACD and DVD-A high
resolution music is suffering from a lack of an audience. These days MP3s
seem to be what everyone wants. Everyone except those who search for the
best sound possible. And I have to tell you, it is not MP3. If you have not
heard SACD or DVD-A on a good system, you have missed a lot. And they shine
on a product like the P-9.
Go to Part II.