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Review and Measurements of NuForce DAC80

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Optoma NuForce DAC80 DAC. It is on kind loan from a member who has been patiently waiting for it from November of last year! :) This a rather older DAC (in "DAC years") having been introduced back in 2016 with a retail cost of USD $549. Massdrop put this up for sale in 2017 for USD $331 which is how the owner acquired it.

The box is decent enough from the outside:

Optoma NuForce DAC80 USB DAC review.jpg

To turn on the unit you have to push the volume control in. Doing the same while on selects the input. Turning off requires holding down the button. All standard methods but not the indicator of which input. As you see, there is some attempt at using an array of LEDs to indicate the input by a letter. Alas, these are pretty dim and hard to see in bright light. It is a bit of differentiation which I don't think is worth the cost.

The volume control is rather strange feeling. It has limits so it is an analog control but has a loose feeling at the same time. It is certainly something that doesn't inspire confidence or say this is an expensive product.

At this price range I expect to see balanced/XLR outputs but there are none. You only have RCA output and the standard USB, S/PDIF and Toslink optical inputs.

Power supply is inside the unit which is nice with respect to removing clutter and wires coming out of the unit.

I plugged the unit into my Windows 10 post Creators Edition and it was recognized but when I tried to use it with ASIO4ALL ASIO wrapper, it showed clear sign of data being truncated to 16 bits (SINAD limited to 96 dB and 100 Hz spikes in spectrum). Downloaded the drivers which nice had an ASIO interface and control panel. Alas, things went downhill from there. SINAD shrunk down to 80 dB and at every move, I would get a different FFT spectrum display with very strange noise and distortion products. No amount of messing with the settings in the control panel did anything useful to remedy this.

So I fired up Roon media player and told it to use the WSAPI bit-exact interface to DAC80. To my pleasant surprise, that worked and SINAD shot way up (see measurement section). Testing with Roon as the output program though is very limiting to I tried ASIO4ALL again in Audio Precision interface and bam, it worked too generating the same good results!

Clearly the ASIO driver as provided is broken. And possibly some other things seeing how I could not get good performance initially out of it.

More issues await us as we get into measurements....

Measurements
The output from DAC80 is variable and goes up to 3.5 volts or so. Nominal output of unbalanced/RCA DACs should be 2 volts so for fairness, I tried to set that using the volume control. This proved very challenging. The volume control would either make no difference or all of a sudden jump past the 2 volt level. Clearly the control is either implemented wrong or is broken in my sample unit. After much playing, we got lucky and got the 2 volt output. Here is what the dashboard looked like then:
NuForce DAC80 DAC Measurements.png


Note that the THD+N results are much better than what NuForce itself advertises! The number they have is what you get when the signal is truncated to 16 bits. Seems like they were testing the unit incorrectly themselves!

The SINAD (signal over noise and distortion) puts the DAC80 at the bottom of our tier 2 performance with respect to distortion and noise:

1548616523192.png


Dynamic range measurements show the same mistaken specification:

NuForce DAC80 DAC Dynamic Range Measurements.png


I ran the linearity test but by mistake, I selected the DAC80's own ASIO interface (in red) before running it again with ASIO4ALL wrapper:

NuForce DAC80 DAC Linearity 'Measurements.png


You can see that the native ASIO driver is doing major damage to the bits. Fortunately the ASIO4ALL does much better, showing near transparency for CD's 16-bit music.

Jitter test didn't show anything upsetting:
NuForce DAC80 DAC Jitter Measurements.png


Yes there are some power supply components causing jitter sidebands hugging our main tone at 12 kHz but those are perceptually "masked."

Noise level is higher though and that shows up in IMD test:
NuForce DAC80 DAC IMD Measurements.png


My template for the test happened to have the results of its spin-off company, NuPrime's uDSD. As we see the performance is essentially the same except that the DAC80 starts to distortion more. Considering that uDSD costs just $179s, that is very poor showing on behalf of DAC80. Clearly much better performance can be had as shown by Topping DX3 Pro in red.

I usually tell you all that the multi-tone test doesn't show anything we don't already see in other tests but here, I had to eat my words:

NuForce DAC80 DAC Multitone Measurements.png


What the heck is going on here??? Noise floor (bottoms of the curves) has risen a whopping 60 dB! This is stunning amount of "noise modulation."

Worst yet, the test would NOT run with USB. Selecting 192 kHz sampling as required for this test would generate no signal. S/PDIF however worked and gave us the above measurements. This is kind of amusing because the manual says to set the rate permanently to 192 kHz in Windows:

1548617040471.png


Tried to troubleshoot this a bit by measuring the spectrum of a 1 kHz tone at 48.1 kHz and 192 kHz and got these strange results:
NuForce DAC80 DAC 1 kHz Spectrum Measurements.png


There are those tall spikes in blue but they are only there at the lower sampling rate of 48 kHz. They vanish at 192 kHz.

Conclusions
The NuForce DAC80 has produced some of the strangest measurements and experiences I have had with a DAC. The owner likewise had complained about strange problems such as distortion during initial power on. Clearly the DAC80 has not been put through any proper design/engineering verification. The buggy ASIO driver issues are readily apparent even with the most rudimentary measurement system. What is going on with much elevated noise floor by playing 32-tones at 192 kHz is hard to explain. Why USB does not work 192 Khz should have been another obvious problem.

Yes, there are vagaries with connecting DACs to Windows machines but these problems well exceed that.

I went and searched for reviews of DAC80 and found a couple. Both were subjective reviews even though the first comes a place that is objectively oriented (audioholics) but apparently not with DACs: https://www.audioholics.com/gadget-reviews/optoma-nuforce-dac80-review/sound-quality

1548617607055.png


His summary is such:

1548617727877.png


How wrong we can be when just performing ad-hoc listening tests without proper control and objective data. Very wrong in this case.

Needless to say, there is no way I can recommend the Optoma NuForce DAC80. Even if it performed perfectly, it is very feature poor at this price range let alone with the array of software and hardware design issues/bugs. Clearly the company doesn't believe in design and engineering verification to have let this product in the wild in this manner. A product like SMSL SU-8 (version 2) runs circles around it for half the price.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

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Veri

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#6
How wrong we can be when just performing ad-hoc listening tests without proper control and objective data. Very wrong in this case.
That last bit was hilarious really.

Pro: it produces sound
Con: it is expensive device for sound!

OK?? :facepalm: Good we have @amirm for actual testing worth something !!!!!
 

jcbenten

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#12
Hmmm....I use a NuForce HDP and have been for years...I guess it is time to change. I have several portables (xDSD, Nano BL DSD, NX4, Fiio Q5, SMSL IQ, Sony PHA3). I would plug in the Sony (too large for portable) but it does not charge while playing...perhaps the xDSD.
 
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#13
I want to thank Amir for testing this device. I lived with it for over a year, and it was a strange experience. At the time the primary selling point was the remote pre-amp functionality at the price massdrop was selling this.

The remote is literally the cheapest remote I've ever seen, cheaper than eBay kit remotes. It's one of those small, membrane style remotes about 1.5" x 3". Beyond general build quality, the remote could only issue 1-3 commands before the IR emitter would just get stuck on (viewed through cell phone camera). I managed to train a Sony learning remote, but I very quickly regretted not returning it immediately.

This poor UX defined my experience with the device as a whole. From the extremely odd distortion on power-on, to inconsistent behavior over USB.

As soon as I saw how well the SU-8 performed, I replaced the NuForce and sent it in to quantify the insanity I'd been living with.

These results do not surprise me at all, and this is a testament to the value of this site. I really appreciate the ability to compare unbiased, objective performance.
 

Headphonaholic

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#14
We've seen some poor performers before but this sounds like it's actually broken. Schiit and NuForce have a lot in common it seems. The sad thing is that NuForce seems relatively popular with a few of their products. It's comical that their specs are based on measurements with broken drivers. Furthermore how did they not know something is wrong? Or did they just not care?
 

DWPress

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#15
I've got an old NuForce U192s (before Optoma takeover) which is merely a USB to coax/tos converter from 2012 that does 16 & 24 bits up to 192kHz. Curiously, it has the exact same display for showing sample rate as the DAC80. It came with Windows drivers and also a Mac driver (weird enough in itself) but the unit works with Mac without the now long gone support from Nuforce. Wasn't cheap at the time. I still use it for various tasks on occasion but wonder now if there might be some reason I shouldn't at all!
 

graz_lag

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#17
... The sad thing is that NuForce seems relatively popular with a few of their products ... Or did they just not care?
There was a big fight here in France some 8 or 10 years ago between two distributing organizations abt. which one of the two had been importing in the country the first units of this innovating HiFi company from California with the name of NuForce ...
The brand has got and still have a quite strong reputation, each country distributor has a budget to keep if he does not want to lose the dealership ...
Supposing each one of these dealers orders a couple of dozen of units as first order at the launch of a new item, and NuForce has a dealer in - say, 60/80 countries ...
You are already looking at 1,000 units sold to the dealers network only at the new item launching stage ...
It would not take a big effort for each dealer to distribute the first batch of units to his network of shops in his country ...
Reordering/restocking the same units after the first batch, that is a totally different scenario for each one of the country dealers, depending on how well, so and so, or bad, the first batch sales went ...
 

Jimster480

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#18
Nuforce, Audio GD, Schiit have been ripped by NWAVGUY due to poor objective design several years ago. It appears nothing has changed.
It was easier to silence him I think.
This forum is growing and there is nothing that mfg's can do to stop the honest truth from coming out this time around.

These mfg's just buy whatever designs they find and throw them in boxes and market the hell out of them...
Its a sad day to see a couple previously unknown Chinese companies spanking all these "big names"...
 

Blumlein 88

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#19
It was easier to silence him I think.
This forum is growing and there is nothing that mfg's can do to stop the honest truth from coming out this time around.

These mfg's just buy whatever designs they find and throw them in boxes and market the hell out of them...
Its a sad day to see a couple previously unknown Chinese companies spanking all these "big names"...
It is not just sad, those companies should be embarrassed.

It partly stems from the change over to subjective evaluation of high end goods. Once that started it left the door open for anyone with a good story, and some catchy though sketchy theory to peddle and profit. The items didn't have to be good just good enough to barely work. Stereophile does lots of measuring, but then they'll just pass it off with an excuse like "item XYZ portrayed poor results in measurements, but apparently it didn't bother the reviewer who never mentioned a problem".

I'm glad this forum is serving the purpose Amir and Thomas had in mind. To shine the light of truth and let chips fall where they may.
 

Jimster480

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#20
It is not just sad, those companies should be embarrassed.

It partly stems from the change over to subjective evaluation of high end goods. Once that started it left the door open for anyone with a good story, and some catchy though sketchy theory to peddle and profit. The items didn't have to be good just good enough to barely work. Stereophile does lots of measuring, but then they'll just pass it off with an excuse like "item XYZ portrayed poor results in measurements, but apparently it didn't bother the reviewer who never mentioned a problem".

I'm glad this forum is serving the purpose Amir and Thomas had in mind. To shine the light of truth and let chips fall where they may.
I agree, lots of things today are designed with "good enough" or "does it work? Fine, ship it out" mentalities.

We have all the tech and mfg prowess and lower quality goods then were previously available to the masses :/
 
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