NuForce AVP-18 and MCH-300SEC7 (with Apex) personal review
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 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 sounding more convincing so I eventually sold those units prior to the introduction of HD-audio and Blu-ray and bought myself a Denon receiver (AVR-3808A). But over the last few years basically all receivers and integrated solutions have become so stuffed with excessive features that somewhere along the line pure focus on performance have kind of gotten lost.
Wanting something simple and straight-forward with priority on quality over anything else I instantly fell for this NuForce combo. The multichannel amplifier-series MCH have been a hot commodity in my country for quite a few years now among enthusiasts and 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, 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 is to go for an affordable, more sensible processor and mate with capable high-end amplification, seeing as the former category of product so quickly becomes obsolete. NuForce themselves figure you are better off this way, and cost-effectiveness of such a solution can be 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 a few short 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 really hot. One would expect something like that with an integrated receiver but perhaps not a mere processor? I suspect it’s due to the advanced video board within the Marantz and possibly all the other things they’ve stuffed into it. The dot-matrix display here is good and easily read from a distance. Thankfully the AVP-18 will allow you to do most settings without the need for the OSD, mirroring the simplistic approach of the entire processor. The OSD in itself though is plain and basic enough, and there’s little risk of getting lost in there or doing things you’re not suppose to by mistake. It isn’t flashy or filled with graphics, none of that at all as a matter of fact, just simple easy-to-read text. I find the backside placement of the microphone and USB inputs rather irritating but I understand why they made that choice 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 one another its analogue RCA-outputs are at least good. One just needs 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. One problem I had however was fastening it to my tripod screw (industry standard diameter) because it just wouldn’t fit. I simply had to place it carefully on top, making sure it was as steady as could be. The supplied remote is simple and comfortable enough to use and the feel of the buttons is nice. I have however programmed my Harmony 900 which does a better job overall (at current 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 to me 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 text. As far as I understand it though Emotiva and their EMO-EQ Gen2 is similar (if not 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 doable 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. 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 to worry. 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 the 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 concerned about the result though since there was no way the processor could have collected much acoustic ‘information’ about my room with just one measuring point, but as it turned out I didn’t have much to worry about in that regard either. 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 (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 just NuForce gear, so don’t get me wrong - it’s not unheard of by any means. Mostly this is common with speakers though, I believe. Right off the bat I could tell there was a lot of potential to the sound, but other than that there was so much missing. I will admit I was a bit worried initially even though I was prepared for this. It's not every day you bring home electronics costing this much, start to listen only to feel 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 150 hours or so the sound overall was rather flat, bright and stale, for a lack of better words. Not all that enjoyable. 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 slowly change during break-in, but it’s very much real. 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’s the thing that struck me first with this NuForce combo in charge was the pleasingly unified way my speakers all performed together, including the subwoofers. What I thought was good prior with my Denon receiver and Audyssey reached new heights. Panning effects, image steering and voices that travel from one speaker to the next are wonderfully cohesive in a manner of which I have not quite experienced in my home theatre before. Bass is kept very solid, and the transition between satellites and subwoofers is seamless. The ease and fluidity of which everything is projected throughout the soundstage is quite impressive. Which brings up what struck me next - the dimension of the soundstage. Apart from keeping everything together so nicely NuForce can be rather expansive; both in terms of depth and width and at times even in height. I’m not gonna claim it sounds as though I’ve installed height or width speakers, but low and behold - on certain soundtracks the generous bubble of audio almost makes me feel as though I have expanded my speaker system, which in fact I have not. I’m limited by where I can place my front trio of speakers (quite low on top my a/v cabinet) and so the front soundstage is not as expansive as it could be initially, but that limit now feels like less of an issue.
This NuForce combo have a ‘quick’ and ‘immediate’ sound to them, without being aggressive. Though its not brittle or harsh they do provide razor-sharp accuracy but without being strenuous. In fact, movie sound overall is so nicely balanced I find that nothing grates at my ear. There’s no overhang, distortion or muddiness of any kind. Most importantly it doesn’t come off processed or artificial, nor bloated or overdone. Toggling between AutoEQ and ‘direct’ (bypass essentially) revealed the latter to be rather dull and somewhat flat, where upper frequencies came off subdued and closed-in, alongside a loss of soundstage definition and seamlessness. The difference is not night-and-day but definitely enough to make me wanna keep AutoEQ engaged. Obviously it’s doing something worth while without going too far. Apart from the EQ at work here there are no enhancements at play, just pure signal processing and refined amplification. Resolution is another strength - everything from spoken dialogue to whispers and ambient atmosphere have a detailed spatiality that is unmistakably pleasing. And when the going gets tough the duo handles hefty dynamic shifts in the soundtrack with utter ease and control. 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) can be staggering at times. Even eerie, because the feeling of not knowing whether certain audio cues are coming from the speakers or around my house is an odd yet exciting sensation that only good equipment can accomplish. Never before have I experienced my Bly-ray’s of “Sunshine”, “Avatar” or “Hellboy” so layered with detail and atmosphere that just washes over me, only to completely blow me over with sheer impact when the action picks up. Watching “Prometheus”, “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Moulin Rouge” made me realise how wonderful the instumental scores of a movie can sweep across my speakers with a clarity I’m fankly not use to hearing. All of this of course adds to the excitement.
In terms of volume, I find there is no need to play at reference level with this combo - NuForce is good at maintaining a decent sense of impact and clarity even 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 Dolby Volume on hand here but I honestly don’t miss it. Something I did expect to miss though was a feature I been addicted to for years - Audyssey’s Dynamic EQ; an active loudness feature. None of the other solutions I’ve tested from the likes of Anthem, Yamaha, Primare, Pioneer featured anything similar and I always felt something was lacking because of that and so they never fully pleased me. This NuForce combo simply doesn’t need enhancements of that kind - the sound is just as enveloping, just as rich and engrossing in virtually all speakers at basically any volume level, if not even more so. Truly impressive.
In terms of overall ‘weight’ and ‘fullness’ this NuForce combo may appear a bit 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. Bass is definitely present, just very quick and taut as it starts and stops when it’s suppose to. These may not be the kind of electronics that necessarily wow you 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 draw you into the movie. And the more you listen the more you appreciate its virtues. The fact is many solutions that give you that instantaneous wow 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 about the NuForce combo is that I experience virtually no listening fatigue enjoying high resolution multichannel movie soundtracks because just about everything sounds ‘right’. And that’s good praise. Granted, it needs to be said that due to the upfrontness of the NuForce they can be somewhat unforgiving of poor source material, which in a way is exactly as it should be when you think about it - rubbish in, rubbish 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 squeeze out of the NuForce, I have no doubts about that. Especially if one considers that the MCH-300SEC7 alone costs almost twice the price of my entire speaker system. I am confident that performance overall will bloom even further 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 singal 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.
In a way this NuForce combo have transformed my way of thinking about a/v gear and enhanced the way I enjoy multichannel movie content. What initially surprised me is how effective and accurate the seemingly simple Auto EQ calibration in the AVP-18 was and how well it works in my room with my speakers. The downside might be the single measuring point and the one subwoofer calibration. In actual listening though I didn’t find much to complain about, but perhaps that is due to the fact that I have a small listening room. Even though I’ve turned into a bit of a ‘purist’ with these NuForce units there’s no way I’d want to switch the EQ off. Perhaps that will change once I treat my room with acoustic panels, something I’m looking forward to doing soon. As it stands the AutoEQ system do a good job of evening out peaks and audible troubles within my room. It also doesn’t seem to impart much coloration or alteration of the character of my speakers, the way Audyssey seemed to do, because transparency is rather intact. Subtle, yet effective. So overall I’m pleased with this processor – it’s a joy to use and the simplicity is great. Not much more can be said about the MCH-300SEC7 amplifier other than it feels like a good match with the AVP-18, and sure enough it’s got the kind of clean power and precise soundstaging that hold your attention throughout the entire movie. I can’t imagine this one running out of steam and it definitely squeezes good things out of my current speakers.
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 higher end speakers, cables, 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 the surrounding upgrades 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. That’s pretty smart. Granted, I expected a little bit of a different result with music playback, but that doesn’t mean to imply the NuForce gear are musically incapable because they are. For me, regardless, this NuForce duo is a definite keeper!
+ clean, transparent sound with bags of resolution and detail
+ generous soundstage with impressive effects steering and panning
+ good balance between high- and low-level information with movies
+ compact, easy to install units with straightforward day-to-day use
+ effective Auto EQ calibration system
- could do with a touch more midrange warmth and 'body’ 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
- no ability to save individual speaker levels per input/soundmode
- 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
Speakers: Monitor Audio Apex 5.2
Blu-ray player: Denon DBT-3313
Music server: Naim UnitiServe HDD
Power distributor/ filter: Supra
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.