Moving from integrated to separates can be a big deal. My first experience of this was back in 1999 switching from a Yamaha surround receiver to a processor by Lexicon (DC-1) and a multichannel power amplifier by Musical Fidelity (HT600). The resulting sound was no small leap in overall performance, but one that also yielded an upgrade in speakers to fully justify the investment. Times changed and integrated solutions started to sound more convincing so I eventually sold those units prior to the introduction of HD-audio and Blu-ray and bought myself a Denon receiver (the AVR-3808A). But over the last few years basically all integrated solutions have become so stuffed with excessive features that somewhere along the line the primary focus on performance have kind of gotten lost.
Wanting something simple and straight-forward of good quality I instantly fell for this NuForce combo. The amplifier series MCH have been a hot commodity in my country for a number of years among audiophiles and I've always been fascinated by their compact size, powerful delivery and efficiency. For a processor to mate with I was initially looking at the much praised Marantz AV8801, primarily because I wanted to continue to use Audyssey. But due to limited cabinet space for electronics and having no need for all those legacy inputs and excessive features the back-to-basic approach of the NuForce AVP-18 made more sense.
If an amplifier is the “heart” of the system the processor is the “brain” that controls it all. It’s a daring and refreshing approach by NuForce to release a processor offering nothing more than digital inputs, HD decoders, DAC, input switching, volume control and EQ. That’s it. I admire simplicity over anything else and that’s exactly what you get with this little baby. If one has a somewhat limited (or shall we say ‘normal’) budget for a/v gear I think the smarter approach might be to go for a sensibly affordable processor and mate with capable high-end amplification, seeing as the former category of product so quickly becomes obsolete these days. NuForce themselves figure you are better off this way and cost-effectiveness of such a solution is more easily justified. I mean, why should I spend three times the price on a piece of equipment with features I’ll never use that will be passé in just a few years as soon as new codecs and specifications arise only to have to make the same investment again? So, in theory, when NuForce releases a new updated processor my wallet won’t suffer as much (hopefully). That said, higher-end processors could of course outperform the AVP-18, but still, in the multichannel arena I wouldn’t be surprised if it could hold it’s own against somewhat costlier alternatives. I say this because in terms of the AVP-18 you simply don’t pay for features, legacy inputs, ethernet connections and expensive licences etc - you pay for basics and only that, whereas with many other solutions you have to pay for everything included in the unit and many of those things may have nothing to do with actual performance.
Build quality of the AVP-18 is decent; the feel is nice and sturdy. It’s not the prettiest processor I’ve seen but it gets by with its unique “stealth design”. The chassis thankfully stays rather cool, luke-warm at the most after hours of use, which is good. In contrast, I demoed the Marantz AV8801 at a dealer and even though it was placed in open space the chassis got pretty hot. One would expect something like that from an integrated receiver but perhaps not a mere processor? I suspect it must have been due to the advanced video board within the Marantz and possibly all the other things stuffed into it. The dot-matrix display here is good and easily read from a distance, and it only shows you the bare necessities. Thankfully the AVP-18 will allow you to do most settings via the display without the need for the OSD, which in itself though is plain and basic enough and there’s little risk of getting lost in there. It isn’t flashy or filled with graphics - just simple easy-to-read text. I find the backside placement of the microphone and USB inputs rather unfortunate but I understand why they made that decision in order to keep the sleek design intact. True balanced XLR outputs to mate with the amplifier would have been a nice touch but seeing as the unit is so compact and affordable that too is understandable. Although placed a bit too close to each other the analogue RCA-outputs are at least of decent quality. One just need to make sure the RCA-connectors of the cables aren’t too wide in diameter or they’ll be difficult to fit. My Supra EFF-ISL cables have a locking feature which I was partially unable to utilize here, since I could not get my fingers to grip and twist all the connectors.
To utilize the AutoEQ calibration one naturally need a measuring microphone and the one supplied with the AVP-18 seems of good quality. It feels a tad more solid than the standard Audyssey equivalent, and the cable that connects it feels of better quality too. The microphone is certainly not comparable to Anthem’s ARC or Audyssey Pro equivalents though. There is rumor of NuForce releasing an after-market calibrated microphone to complement the processor for even more accurate measuring, so that'll be interesting to see. The supplied remote is simple and comfortable enough to use and the feel of the buttons is rather nice. I have however programmed my Harmony 900 which does a better job overall (at present the AVP-18 does not exist in Logitech’s database so I had to utilize the old fashioned method of manually transferring infra red signals). The user manual is embarrassingly lacklustre as it’s more like a quick-start guide. Seems that NuForce didn’t have time to finish a proper manual with all the required information on the unit and so they rushed this one out. There is far more in-depth detail surrounding the EQ (for example) that needs to be given a proper amount of description. As far as I understand it though Emotiva and their EMO-EQ Gen2 is similar (if not even identical) to NuForce equivalent EQ and they have done a brilliant job of detailing everything in their documentation. This aspect is rather poorly handled by NuForce, I must say, but I hope they will get a proper user manual completed and posted on their website soon. That’s not to say the AVP-18 is difficult to master without a manual, not at all, it’s intuitive in fact, but by sheer principal a thorough manual is mandatory as far as I am concerned.
Input switching is fair but not as remarkably fast as NuForce marketing texts may have you believe. In fact, to lock audio via HDMI and coaxial digital is a tad sluggish at times no matter what source I used. Also, the switching between different codec’s encoded on most blu-ray discs and TV transmissions these days can prove irritating as it can take 2-3 seconds for the unit to lock on, identify and decode the audio stream. This is quite common on many such electronics though, but surprisingly seldom on cheap receivers. Go figure. I’m not passing any video through my AVP-18 at all, audio only, as I believe in feeding video signals directly to the display. After the first firmware update was completed via USB I haven’t detected any specific bugs or issues at all, other than the aforementioned issue which I assume is firmware related. The unit has been working glitch-free in everyday use.
Multichannel amplifier MCH-300SEC7
This compact powerhouse is not a conventional class D-design, as far as I understand it, but an analogue switching design. Certainly nothing like anything I’ve encountered before. There is so much complicated tech surrounding these amplifiers but as I am no expert on such things I will leave that alone. My particular sample is the ‘installer version’ of the finer Special Edition of the MCH-range (no fancy top-plate, LED-display or remote). This amplifier is similar to NuForce highly regarded mono block Reference 9V3 SE. In essence you get 7 monoblocks in one chassis, each with their own dedicated power supply. One feature I believe is somewhat unique with these designs is that you can control which amplifier section to use at any given time, and switch off the others, and thereby feed the unused power to the active channels. In my case I use 5 speakers constantly (no longer listen in stereo) so I have simply not turned on the remaining 2 channels. This is a clever solution I must say. Where most amplifiers are constantly switched on, drawing current regardless of you using them or not, the MCH give the user a choice depending on requirements. The MCH also appear rather power-conservative, feeding necessary current when and where it is actually demanded to by the source. In essence this baby have power reserves of up to 1200 watts total. That ought to be enough to control most speakers, and make them sing.
Build quality is superb. The sturdy feel and fine finish is unmistakable. I just wish I could have gotten a black one though, but only silver was available. The plastic buttons that control the amplifier sections feel rather cheap however and lessen the otherwise excellent impression. The speaker binding posts are fairly standard ones I believe, which also lessen the impression a bit, although definitely not bad. I’ve seem better binding posts on lower priced amplifiers though so for a product of this price range I would have expected more.
I took for granted this amplifier would stay cool and not generate heat, but I was wrong. Even if I don’t have demanding speakers that present a difficult load the chassis gets pretty warm, but I wouldn’t categorise it as hot, in contrast to many other amplifiers out there (some of which you can fry en egg on - no joke!). This might simply be a result of the massive capacitance array in the power supply. One should make sure to allow proper airflow, which in my case is a bit tricky as it’s tucked away inside a cabinet with a closed front door. However, the cabinet is completely open in the back and with 20 cm free space above the unit I’m sure it’ll be fine. Something worth considering for spectators though. I also noticed this baby sounds best if always left switched on. In fact, talking to NuForce support and my dealer they both claim that MCH perform their best if left on, as oppose to coming out cold from stand-by mode. The difference isn’t huge by any means, but it’s there. The good news is these amplifiers apparently don’t draw more current idle than they do in stand-by mode, as they only draw actual current while feeding signals to the speakers during playback. Again – clever!
After connecting the required cables and my 5.2 speaker system I let the units warm up for a few hours. As I turned them on for the first time I noticed how “silent” they were - there was nearly a hint of background noise transmitted through my speakers - I had to put my ear up close to the tweeters to detect a slight (normal) hissing noise. No hum or other issues either, which was nice. Since I have two subwoofers placed in opposite corners of my room and the AVP-18 only provides connection and calibration of one subwoofer I daisy-chained the second to the first. This is a bit of a trade-off since individual calibration of two separate subwoofers would be ideal. But, luckily, as it turned out I had little reason for concern. I connected the AVP-18 via HDMI to my display to run the AutoEQ and make other settings. NuForce FAQ recommends setting speaker size and cut-off frequency prior to running AutoEQ and so I did. As mentioned earlier the OSD is simplicity itself and I appreciate that. I placed the microphone on a tripod, made sure the room was dead-quiet and ran the calibration procedure which took about 10 minutes. I was actually quite relieved I didn’t have 7 more measuring points, as in the case with Audyssey’s total of 8 points. I was a tad worried about the result though since there was no way the processor could have collected much acoustic ‘information’ about my room at just one measuring point, but as it turned out it worked pretty well. When checking the automated settings the AVP-18 had set levels and distance to the speakers correctly but the cut-off frequencies were a bit ‘off’ (set too high) so I simply adjusted them later on while letting my ears guide me to what sounded best (I landed at the common reference point of 80Hz). After this first calibration I have re-run the procedure a few times and apart from cut-off frequencies everything else is basically spot-on.
For anyone interested in NuForce gear reading this now or down the pipe - make sure to keep this in mind - these units require a seriously long break-in period until they start to deliver the goods. I’m assuming this was especially true of the MCH-300SEC7 amplifier whose internal parts and wiring apparently needs a substantial amount of signal pumped through them before they settle and perform optimally. Thanks to feedback from other owners and NuForce support I was prepared for this. I have no technological explanation as to how or why this is but it seems a fact, nonetheless. Also, this phenomenon is nothing uniquely tied to NuForce gear, so don’t get me wrong - it’s not unheard of by any means. Mostly it seems common with speakers I believe. Right off the bat I could tell there was potential, but overall the sound out-of-the-box was stale and flat. It's not every day you bring home electronics costing this much then start listening with utter disappointment, contemplating whether or not you should return them to the dealer and plug your receiver back in because the performance didn't live up to the investment. But in the case of NuForce patience pays off!
As such, I set the units to run music and movies pretty much non-stop for about 14 days straight. During the first 200 hours or so the sound kept improving. What happens is it slowly starts to mellow out and become balanced - more smooth, open and vivid. As I’m writing this review the units have had more than 400 hours of constant playback and are now sounding optimal I believe. It’s fascinating to notice them change during break-in, and it’s very much real, hardly imaginary. I wish NuForce themselves would update the recommended break-in period in the user manual of the MCH-300SEC7 from approximately 75 hours to at least double that, as to not frighten new owners off who are unaware of this requirement. Who knows, some might even take their new kit for defective, given how uninspiring the units sound before break-in is complete. Maybe I would have done that myself had I not been warned prior to purchase, but I’m glad I didn’t.
Listening impressions (after break-in) - MOVIES
Playing some favourite and familiar Blu-ray discs I was instantly impressed by the unified way my speakers all performed together, including the subwoofers. What I thought was brilliantly seamless prior through Denon and Audyssey reached new heights with NuForce. Panning effects, image steering and voices travelling between channels were cohesive in a manner of which I had not quite experienced in my home theatre before. Everything simply hung together very convincingly. What struck me next was the dimension of the soundstage because apart from keeping everything together so nicely NuForce is rather expansive; both in terms of depth and width and at times even in height. I'm not gonna claim it sounded as if I had just installed height or width speakers, but on certain soundtracks the generous bubble of audio gave the impression of an expanded system. Everything just sounded bigger, more engrossing. I’m limited by where I can place my front trio of speakers (directly on top my a/v cabinet) and because of that the front soundstage is not as wide as it could be initially, but that limit now felt like less of an issue. With NuForce at the helm the generous expansion showed me how well my speakers were actually able to image. They just needed the 'right' set of electronics driving them. Multiple times during the first month of listening I was pretty bowled over by the level of detail and sheer size of the sound. This was promising! But everything wasn't smooth sailing... Though I could certainly sense the potential of excellent tonal balance there were occasional moments of sibilance with certain soundtracks. And although bass was kept solid and transition between satellite-subwoofer near seamless the low frequencies were kept in too tight of a grip, as if overly controlled and held back. There was no boominess to distract my enjoyment thanks to this however, which was a plus, but I did miss some of that ‘punch’ that add so much to the movie-watching experience. I re-ran a few calibrations with the supplied microphone but was unable to rid these minor quibbles.
During the first 5 weeks of listening I kept AutoEQ engaged in the processor and never thought of switching it off. Then something interesting happened - a bit of a revelation for me in fact. I decided to re-set the AVP-18 and ignore running another EQ measurement and simply set the processor to ‘direct’ mode (bypass, essentially). This meant feeding the amplifier a non-equalized and minimally processed signal. The only task for the AVP-18 became decoding, D/A-conversion, general speaker management and volume control. It’s been a long while since I’ve been convinced by the result of running in ‘direct’ mode, particularly with receivers. For many years I depended on equalizers to tame room modes and bring about the engrossing sound I was looking for, and with receivers it seemed almost a necessity. Perhaps that was a fact because those units relied on EQ in order to sound good? I therefor foolishly assumed bypassing wouldn’t impress me with NuForce either. But I was wrong. Everything that was good about the sound with EQ engaged was bettered in every sense when set to bypass. Minor reservations on sibilance and subdued low frequencies vanished. The sound broke free from the speakers more prominently than before, as if they were suddenly able to 'breathe’. Spatiality became unmistakably more palpable and life-like. The ease, smoothness and fluidity of everything projected throughout the soundstage simply enchanced with this pure unaltered signal. Vocals became a tad more realistic as well. The subwoofers, liberated from restraint, now offered that previously missing 'punch'. The dynamics of the entire system seemed to grow several notches, as if the EQ, as capable as it was, were holding back some of the fidelity of the signal. Apparently the acoustics of my room (though far from perfect) and placement of speakers within it weren't as much of a catastrophe as I assumed. Suddenly I felt no need for EQ-correction and that was as surprising as it was liberating.
By contrast, my previous Denon receiver sounded downright awful without Audyssey and Dynamic EQ engaged. To me the sound was unlistenable in bypass-mode. Interestingly I had the exact same experience testing two top-of-the-line Onkyo units (the TX-NR5009 and 5010). It’s almost as if they were constructed with Audyssey in mind and you weren’t supposed to switch it off. With NuForce it was the opposite to this experience. I guess the purity of an unaltered signal fed to the powerful amplifier made my speakers perform without restriction. With no filters and artificial loudness to hinder their natural characteristics they now sounded more like themselves. While Audyssey is great I've found it can alter the characteristics of your speakers. Sometimes that might be a good thing, other times not. Switching to NuForce with no EQ feels as though I've now heard my speaker system the way it was meant to sound. It must be said though that using no EQ in a multi channel set-up can present its own set of problems, particularly in the bass region. This was no exception in my case as the interaction of the subwoofers within the room occasionally produced slight boominess with the deepest frequencies. This was to be expected though with no EQ taming them. Like most rooms mine is obviously in need of bass-trap treatment.
The NuForce combo have a ‘quick’ and ‘immediate’ sound to them, without ever being aggressive. Power reserves and transient attack is stellar and they provide razor-sharp accuracy without being strenuous. Set to bypass, in particular, I find movie sound beautifully balanced where virtually nothing grates on the ear - there’s no overhang, distortion or muddiness of any kind. The sound doesn’t come off processed or artificial either. Resolution and detail retrieval is another strength - everything from whispered dialogue to ambient atmospherics exhibit a natural spatiality that is unmistakably pleasing. And when the going gets tough the duo handles hefty dynamic shifts in the soundtrack effortlessly. The wonderful sense of being served every ounce of high- and low-level detail that exists within the soundtrack (that my speakers are able to reproduce anyway) is quite staggering. You might even say eerie, because the feeling of not knowing whether certain audio cues are coming from the speakers or somewhere in or around my home is an odd yet exciting sensation that only quality equipment can accomplish. Worth a mention is also how wonderful instrumental scores of a movie now sweeps across my speakers with a level of clarity and musicality I’m frankly not use to hearing. All of this of course adds to the excitement. No integrated solution I've heard, with or without Audyssey, ever came close to this.
Interesting to note is I find no need to play at reference level with this combo - NuForce is good at maintaining a decent sense of impact and clarity at modest, apartment friendly, levels. The clean nature of the sound does beg for high volumes though which is not a problem either. Granted, it might have been nice to have a feature like Dolby Volume or Dynamic Volume on hand here but I honestly don’t miss that. One feature I was for certain I'd miss though was Audyssey's excellent Dynamic EQ loudness, but that too went out the window completely. This NuForce combo just doesn’t seem to need enhancements of this sort - the sound is just as clear, enveloping and rich in virtually all speakers at basically any volume level. Truly impressive!
In terms of utmost ‘weight’ and ‘fullness’ NuForce may appear a tad light-footed at first, as if that ultimate home cinema ‘grunt’ and explosive bass extension is lacking. Truth is they simply present a very honest, transparent, controlled sound that doesn’t seem to add or subtract anything. These may not be the kind of electronics that necessarily wow everybody right off the bat, and even though that instant impressiveness factor may not be evident at first they do grab hold of your attention and easily draw you into the movie. I think the more you listen the more you appreciate their virtues. Fact is, many solutions that give you that instantaneous bombastic impression can sometimes prove tedious in the long-run, or they sound ‘right’ on some material but ‘wrong’ on others. I think the best aspect is I experience virtually no listening fatigue enjoying high resolution soundtracks because just about everything simply sound ‘right’ through these units, which is very good praise. Granted, it needs to be said that due to the upfrontness and neutrality NuForce can be somewhat unforgiving of poor source material, which is exactly as it should be if you think about it - crap in, crap out. And also, even though my compact sub/sat system is a capable one (best of breed in its price range, I believe) there is more performance to discover from NuForce. Especially if one considers that the MCH-300SEC7 alone costs almost twice the price of my entire speaker system. I’m confident I’ll get to discover new virtues of NuForce with higher capability speakers.
Listening impressions (after break-in) - MUSIC
While enjoying music is certainly good over the NuForce (better than my previous Denon receiver) this is where my personal experience takes a slightly different turn. But I must make clear that there are several factors at play – first, plain 2-channel stereo bore me these days and as good as the Monitor Audio Apex speakers are they don’t manage to satisfy me completely during stereo reproduction (be it 2.0 or 2.1). Instead the entire speaker system needs to play together in unison to fully impress. And because I am so spoiled with multichannel content traditional 2-channel music must be played back through some kind of DSP, as far as I’m concerned, in order to fill my room with music. Basically it’s the same stereo signal front and back, plus subwoofer. And if one has identical speakers front and back (like I do) this can sound really awesome if done right. The AVP-18 does have an All Channel Stereo mode for this purpose but that’s where the problem lies, I think. It’s simply not as great of a DSP mode as other similar ones I’ve heard. It’s still enjoyable, no question, as music is reproduced with abundance of detail and voices have a nice ‘airy’ feel to them. There is however a slight sibilance every so often, particularly with female voices. The overall sound is a bit lacking in midrange warmth too for my taste and that beautiful balance I experience with movies on Blu-ray is not quite evident here. Also, I do believe due to the transparency and neutrality of the NuForce music isn’t quite as organic and rhythmic as I would prefer. Two years ago I tested the integrated a/v amplifier Primare SPA22 with music in All Channel Stereo and it had a fantastically engrossing sound that was very impressive in every aspect. No hint of sibilance as far as my hearing could reach. It made you wanna listen to cd after cd and not stop. A somewhat different animal compared to the same via the NuForce duo. In a way it became my point of reference for music through a/v gear. It was that good! The sad thing was it sounded rather lacklustre with movies so I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too, otherwise I probably would have kept it and been happy with it.
Still, I admit I have been discovering details in old favourite cd’s that I never noticed before. That expression is a cliché, I know, but it’s true. And the expansive nature is really nice here as well. And high resolution multichannel music (including live concert material on Blu-ray) do improve upon things so the potential is there. It’s simply the combination of my current speakers, the lacklustre All Channel Stereo mode of the AVP-18 and perhaps the neutrality of the NuForce that makes music less appealing that it could be to my ears. I think though that with ‘proper’ left and right speakers more capable with music I might be inclined to run the NuForce duo in 2-channel mode with traditionally recorded music and be completely satisfied. Again, I’m not disappointed – I simply expected different. Then again, I spend more time enjoying Blu-ray movies than I do music these days so until I have new speakers this won’t be an issue.
There is something to be said about installing high quality electronics in a home entertainment system – immediately they make you wanna rush out to audition new speakers, cables and all kinds of tweaks and whatnot. In a way that’s a good sign for the future and another reason to invest in separates as they are bound to get the most out of any surrounding upgrade you might make, particularly speakers. And in my case when technology changes I will simply get a new affordable processor while keeping the costly amplifier. Pretty smart.
In many ways NuForce have not only enhanced my enjoyment of multichannel content but also changed the way I look at a/v gear. They’ve made me realise what I'm in need of and what I can do without. The big surprise was how effective the seemingly simple AutoEQ calibration was and how well it seemed to work with my speakers in my room. I could happily have lived with it seeing how comparable the result was to Audyssey. However, the biggest surprise came the moment I bypassed the EQ processing - everything enchanced further. For me, as a former EQ-junkie, to be able to enjoy a system without any form of equalization to determine the overall outcome of the performance was a shock. It was as if the limitations of my room didn't have as much of a negative impact as I feared, and EQ-filtering did things that simply weren't needed. The already generous soundstage grew larger, the amount of detail heightened and dynamic contrast became considerably stronger. As it stands the AVP-18 processor is a joy to use, offers good value for money and great performance, with or without EQ. Due to it's asking price (five times that of the processor) the amplifier MCH-300SEC7 may not be considered a "bargain", but it is an excellent high-end solution which is a terrific match. Sure enough it’s got the kind of composed approach that easily grab hold of your attention without going too far. The way it effortlessly feeds current to my speakers and unify the soundstage is rather amazing. Refinement, dimensionality and iron-fist control are words I'd like to use to summarize it. Can’t imagine this amplifier running out of steam too easily and the neutral character is likely to suit many different speakers.
Enjoying movies and music through a good combo of separates is quite special. My previous Denon receiver was a damn good piece to be sure, it even triumphed more expensive units I demoed during its 5 year residence in my home. It couldn’t hold a candle to NuForce though, and at this price the NuForce combo should of course own the crown. So, is everything about these separates perfect? Of course not - there are shortcomings, there always are. Certain things could, and should, have been done better or differently, but those issues are mostly compensated for by the very thing I was looking for: a fully engaging listen that captivates me. In other words; NuForce is a keeper!
+ clean, transparent, musical sound with bags of resolution and detail
+ generous soundstage with impressive effects placement and steering
+ excellent smooth balance between high- and low-level information
+ adept at reproduction of both movies and music
+ compact, easy to install units with straightforward day-to-day use
+ energy efficient amplification
- could do with a touch more ‘warmth’ with plain music
- buttons and binding posts on the MCH-300SEC7 could have been of better quality
- the AVP-18 not quick enough to lock/decode digital audio signals
- the MCH-300SEC7 gets warm, adequate ventilation needed
- user manual of the AVP-18 leaves a lot to be desired
- seriously long break-in period
Associated audio equipment
Speakers: Monitor Audio Apex 5.2
Blu-ray player: Denon DBT-3313
Music server: Naim UnitiServe HDD
Powerdistribution/filter: Supra LoRad
Resonance isolation: Nordost Pulsar Points
This review is based on personal experience and opinions only, and should be judged accordingly. I am basing this on how the NuForce units perform in my specific circumstance; using my associated equipment, in my particular listening room. And with my ears. Anyone else’s experiences of these units could very well differ from my own.
Edited by RickyDeg - 10/24/13 at 4:32am