NuForce, based in Fremont, California, is an interesting company for the audio enthusiast. They first staked their reputation on a patented class-D amplifier design with a switching power supply. Although pricey -- their cheapest monoblocks cost $2500 USD per pair -- they sounded as good as anything I’d heard. NuForce has since made inroads in almost all ranges of sound and price, as I found out when I reviewed their Icon uDAC-2 combo of headphone amp and DAC ($129). The company now has a bunch of models that are extremely affordable, including the DDA-100 Direct Digital amp ($549), which Roger Kanno favorably reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi.
Somewhat in the middle of the road, pricewise, is the subject of this review -- the AVP-18 surround-sound processor ($1095). NuForce has stripped down the feature set of the typically bloated audio/video receiver to provide a minimalist home-theater pre-pro that an audiophile can love.
When I say that NuForce has stripped down the usual AVR feature set, look no farther than the AVP-18’s matte-black front panel. Flanking a central LED display are two knobs, one to each side. Press the right-hand knob and the AVP-18 comes to life. Turn the same knob to adjust the volume. The left-hand knob scrolls through a total of eight source-component inputs. A bank of LEDs displays information about video and audio source signals and volume level. The AVP-18 decodes all the latest audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
The rear panel makes clear NuForce’s commitment to minimalism: no analog inputs, audio or video. There are four HDMI 1.4 video inputs and four digital audio inputs: two coax, two optical. The AVP-18 can be connected to a seven-channel power amp and a subwoofer via its eight analog outputs. Other notable connections are a single HDMI 1.4 out, a 12V trigger out, a USB port (for firmware updates only), and a jack for the setup microphone (included).
By eliminating all analog inputs, NuForce was able to make the AVP-18 small: it measures 17”W x 3.1”H x 13.4”D and weighs only 16 pounds -- it makes my Integra DHC-80.3 pre-pro, at nearly 8”H and 30 pounds, look and feel monstrous. The AVP-18 doesn’t look like any other home-theater gear I’ve seen, which I think is the point -- it’s an optimized all-digital pre-pro for the audio purist. That might sound like an oxymoron, but it does make sense that this model would find a home in a two-channel audiophile system. If you have a two-channel integrated amplifier or preamp with a home-theater bypass input, you could connect all of your digital sources to the AVP-18.
The AVP-18 itself may have only two buttons, but its remote control has dozens, and gives you direct access to each input -- a nice touch. Other notable features are a Direct button for no DSP processing, mode buttons to access DSP processing modes such as Dolby Pro Logic II Movie, and more buttons for the various equalization modes. Alas, one feature I deem necessary for a home-theater remote is not included -- a backlight.
With so few front-panel controls, it was obvious that the AVP-18 would heavily rely on the onscreen display for setup. Compared to my Integra pre-pro and many modern AVRs, the NuForce’s OSD isn’t pretty, with low-resolution fonts and no graphics. It took a bit of time to get used to navigating the menus -- I would accidentally hit Exit or Return instead of the navigation arrows. These arrows are on a raised ring on the remote, but the ring isn’t high enough to prevent me from occasionally hitting an adjacent button.
After plugging the setup mike into the back of the AVP-18, I began the setup routine, which sent the usual blasts of pink noise through each speaker and the subwoofer. It accurately measured the distance of the speakers to my listening seat, but the speaker-to-sub crossover frequencies were set at 120Hz for my full-range Definitive Technology BP-8060ST speakers, which is bizarrely high. I reset this to 40Hz. I found the sound with the auto EQ uneven -- fine with some tracks, poor with others -- and left it off for the rest of my listening sessions. To get more accurate room correction, NuForce sells a calibrated microphone for $99.
The AVP-18 should appeal to tweakers -- it has an 11-band parametric equalizer for each channel, with frequency, Q, and dB all adjustable. Not only that, you can set the crossover, slope, and alignment individually for the front, center, surround, rear surround, and subwoofer channels. Optimally, you’d like to set up these parameters using another room-measurement software installed on a laptop -- such as the free Room EQ Wizard, which can display graphs of your speakers’ in-room response. But kudos to NuForce for providing the adjustable parameters needed to get the best sound possible from the AVP-18.
Updating the firmware
Although my Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player worked flawlessly with the AVP-18 via HDMI, my Western Digital TV Live Plus media player didn’t. Whenever I switched from the Oppo to the Western Digital, video images were displayed only in various shades of green. To make this go away, I had to turn off both sources and the AVP-18 -- only to have it recur soon after. Another problem was random freezing of the AVP-18 when I switched between HDMI inputs, due to the presence of the Western Digital.
I brought my concerns to NuForce’s Casey Ng, who told me that a firmware update was in the works. I patiently waited, and it was finally released a month or so after I’d received the review sample. I downloaded it to a memory stick, then uploaded it to the AVP-18 via the rear-panel USB input. The firmware cured all of the problems I was having, and made switching between HDMI inputs faster.
Performance with movies
The primary reason for buying a NuForce AVP-18 is to watch movies, and this task it performed well. Its strength is in converting a high-resolution digital audio signal, such as DTS-HD Master Audio, to an analog signal to be sent to a multichannel amplifier to drive your speakers. Because it has no analog inputs, the AVP-18 does no A/D conversion, which means that its circuitry is simplified.
To my ears, it sounded much better than its modest price would suggest. The noise floor was low, and the emotion of movie soundtracks was conveyed better, without such distracting artifacts as hiss. This was apparent when I watched and listened to Jurassic Park on Blu-ray, for example. For this edition the soundtrack was remastered in 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio. John Williams’s beautiful score is soaringly cathartic at the end of the film, as the survivors leave the island. Listening through the AVP-18, I felt the same sense of relief that the characters did. With my lower-end Yamaha receiver, my emotional response to this scene was a lot flatter. I can attribute this to the less dynamic sound I get from the cheaper Yamaha.
Although the AVP-18’s audio performance was best exemplified by Williams’s score, it performed admirably throughout the rest of Jurassic Park on BD. The stomps of the Tyrannosaurus rex throughout the movie violently shook my walls, and added palm-sweating tension when I watched the dinosaur tear apart the SUV as if it were made of paper. The bass response from this BD over the AVP-18 was as good as I’ve heard in my room. The AVP-18 exhibited huge dynamic range, from quiet moments in the SUV to the roar of the T. rex. And for surround envelopment, the AVP-18 shone once again. The sound of falling rain at the beginning of this scene enveloped me, the thunder at first sounding farther away, in the background, a layering effect nicely rendered by the NuForce.
For better or for worse, the AVP-18 did not alter signals, whether audio or video. When the video was of high quality, such as on the Hugo BD, the results were spectacular, with deep blacks and fine detail. But this could be a detriment with poorly rendered signals, such as YouTube videos viewed through my Western Digital TV Live Plus. The AVP-18 passed along crushed blacks or video-compression artifacts as recorded, without making them better or worse. In this case, some video processing is desirable in a processor.
Performance with music
When not well implemented, the digital sections of audio/video receivers and preamplifier-processors can sound harsh and fatiguing in the high frequencies. In fact, I’d argue that most home-theater products, at least in the reasonably priced range, put their stamps on the sound, and usually not in a good way. To some extent, that’s OK in a home-theater system -- unless they cost an arm and a leg, I don’t usually demand ultimate audiophile quality from components designed to reproduce film soundtracks. There are other relevant details that a pre-pro must deal with, such as surround envelopment and bass management. This was not the case with the AVP-18. First of all, it costs only around a grand -- the price of a midpriced receiver. Second, it sounded way better with audio recordings than a $1000 model should, especially one made for home theater. The NuForce AVP-18 just seemed to get out of the way of the music and not call attention to itself. I enjoyed listening to it so much that I listened to my best audio recordings well into the early-morning hours.
Listening to 24-bit/96kHz recordings through my Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 music player, I was wowed by the black backgrounds that these recordings seemed to have through the NuForce AVP-18 -- it allowed me to enjoy these hi-rez recordings even more. A good example is Amber Rubarth’s starkly recorded Sessions from the 17th Ward (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks). When I listened to “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” it was easy to hear the ambience of the recording venue (a church), and imagine Rubarth singing front and center, her delicate voice reproduced beautifully by the NuForce. When I closed my eyes, I could picture the cellist to her left and the violinist to her right. The violin sounded particularly natural, with sweet highs. I also liked how realistic the percussion sounded throughout this album, its impact and quickness evident through the AVP-18.
The only drawback with playing audio recordings through the AVP-18 was when I wanted to hear an SACD. The AVP-18 doesn’t natively play DSD -- your disc player will have to convert such signals to PCM. I hear little difference between pure DSD and those signals converted to 24/96 or 24/192 through my Oppo BDP-95 player, but there are some. For example, notes played on long-resonating instruments such as cymbals or bells decay more naturally in pure DSD than in 24/96. Pre-pros that can natively decode DSD sound better with these recordings.
Though not in the same price league, my reference preamplifier-processor, an Integra DHC-80.3 ($2600), provided an interesting comparison to the NuForce AVP-18. There’s no comparison in feature sets -- the Integra wins out, with 4K video upscaling using the well-regarded Marvell chipset, Audyssey MultEQ XT32 room correction, and network audio connectivity, among many other things the AVP-18 lacks. Nor can the Integra’s video quality be beat, especially the upscaling and processing of crappy video sources. The QDEO chip works wonders with my Western Digital media player. My Oppo BDP-95, with its own Marvel QDEO chip, looks superb through the NuForce, but the Western Digital varies widely depending on the source -- washed-out blacks are common.
However, as a two-channel preamp, the NuForce sounded better than the Integra, except for SACD playback (the Integra accepts native DSD signals). My problem with the DHC-80.3 is that you can’t fully turn off all of its processing -- there always seems to be some A/D, D/A, or DSP going on, even in Direct mode. This was illustrated when I listened to a rip of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” from Holly Cole’s Temptation (16/44.1 FLAC, Alert), and the center image of her voice skewed to the right. I checked my distance settings, and sure enough, making the left front and right front distances equal brought her voice back to the center. Through the NuForce AVP-18 in Direct mode, not only was Cole’s voice rock solid between my two front speakers, it emanated from a blacker background, resulting in a more realistic sound.
The NuForce AVP-18 sounds like a preamplifier-processor built by audiophiles for audiophiles. Most audiophiles would agree with me that, when listening to music, you want to hear all of the music, warts included, without the gear getting in the way. That’s why you seek the best recordings of that music, whether 24/192 FLAC downloads or SACDs. The NuForce AVP-18 does this for movies -- because it doesn’t alter video signals in any way, they can look great or poor, depending on the source. It can also sound excellent or poor, depending on the recording. A great two-channel system has no frivolous extras, and the AVP-18 doesn’t -- the only things on its front panel are source-selection and power/volume knobs and the display. If you think of the AVP-18 as a DAC that just happens to decode the hi-rez audio formats found on Blu-rays, then you understand what it is and what it does. For $1095, the NuForce AVP-18 is a bargain for what it offers: excellent home-theater performance that would be perfectly at home in a high-performance system.
. . . Vince Hanada
NuForce AVP-18 Surround-Sound Processor
Price: $1095 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
47685 Fremont Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94538
Phone: (510) 413-2761