NuPrime is certainly bullish about its new DAC-9X. In the owner’s manual, the company describes it as a ‘reference-class DAC designed for studio professionals and high-end audiophiles’, which certainly throws down the gauntlet to established premium contenders such as Chord’s multiple-award-winning Qutest.
The DAC-9X’s specification certainly stands up to scrutiny, being compatible with PCM files up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD 256. Take a look inside the unit and you will find dual ESS Technology ESS9028Q2M DAC chips, one per channel, to optimise performance and reduce noise levels. Elsewhere there are low-noise J-FETs for the input stage and high-grade Vishay capacitors in sound-critical areas.
There is a good range of digital inputs that include the usual trio of USB (Type B), coax and optical as well as two HDMI sockets that only accept DSD and I2S data streams from NuPrime’s digital sources. I2S is a digital format that is usually only used inside a digital circuit. The manual warns that conventional HDMI sources such as Blu-ray, DVD players and set-top boxes should not be connected here.
File compatibility 24-bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256
Digital inputs USB (Type B), coax, optical, I2S (using HDMI) x2
Analogue input Stereo RCA x1
Digital output Optical
Analogue output Balanced XLR/Stereo RCA
Headphone output 6.3mm
Dimensons (hwd) 60 x 235 x 281mm
While it isn’t uncommon to find DACs with both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR analogue outputs, the DAC-9X adds an analogue volume control, a 6.3mm headphone output and an analogue input, which makes it a rather different proposition to the aforementioned Chord. Their inclusion makes the NuPrime an immensely flexible performer that can be put to use in numerous different ways.
It can, of course, perform as a stand-alone DAC plugged into either an integrated or pre/power amplifier. Given the volume control functionality (with remote control) it can also directly feed a power amplifier, or connect to active speakers, making for a beautifully minimalist audio solution. That analogue input opens up access to turntables (provided you connect a phono stage) or other analogue sources. The DAC-9X’s compact dimensions and headphone output make it ideal for desktop use too.
This NuPrime is a beautifully made product that feels good to use. Its casework is solid and crisply finished. The two control dials have a clicked movement which adds to the feeling of well-engineered quality, and the rather basic display is clear enough to read from the other side of our test room.
There is a small toggle switch on the front panel that switches the volume control in and out of the circuit. If you are using the NuPrime in a traditional set up you would typically leave volume control duties to the partnering amplifier. The problem is that if you are using the DAC-9X as a preamp, and that toggle is accidentally switched, then you have maximum volume. Cue all sorts of damage to your speakers.
We think this switch is better positioned on the back panel where it is far less likely to be operated accidentally. Also, while we’re moaning about general usability, it would be nice if the unit preserved the volume level across inputs. As it is, the DAC-9X remembers the volume level per input, which can lead to unwanted surprises if you, like us, tend to switch between sources a lot.
During the test process, we use our resident Naim ND555/555 PS DR music streamer as both a digital and analogue source while our MacBook Pro (loaded with Audirvana music playing software and plenty of high res files) serves to test the USB input. The DAC-9X slots into our Reference set-up feeding the Burmester 088/911 Mk III pre/power and ATC SCM 50 speakers. Chord’s Qutest DAC (£1395 / $2125) is on hand as a comparison. Over the course of the review, we also bypass the Burmester preamp and use the NuPrime directly into the 911 MkIII to see how well it copes.
The comparison with the Chord doesn’t last for long. Given the Qutest’s Award-winning status, higher price and more minimalist feature count it comes as no surprise that we prefer the way it sounds. The Chord’s performance is simply more insightful and expressive. It also delivers rhythmic drive with more conviction. End of story? We think not.
The NuPrime remains a terrific-sounding product. It has a crisp and clean sound that is easy to admire. As we listen to a 24-bit/192kHz recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.4 we are impressed by the control and composure on offer. The DAC-9X still manages to uncover a mass of information and delivers it in an organised and coherent way. Larger-scale dynamic shifts are rendered with conviction while lower-level nuances still come through with clarity.
The soundstage is impressively wide and nicely layered. There is a good impression of depth, and enough insight into the acoustic clues to get a really good feel of the size of the concert venue. Tonally, this DAC is as even as you like, with no sign of undue emphasis in any part of the frequency range. Use the DAC-9X from cold and it has a slightly lean and sterile balance, but this impression fades over time where it becomes a sweeter and more rounded performer.
We spend a great deal of time trying each of the digital inputs and are pleased to report that the performance is equally admirable across the board. It isn’t unusual for the USB input to sound a little worse than the rest, but that doesn’t prove the case here. Each file type is handled well with the DAC-9X having no trouble shifting seamlessly from the DSD of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions to Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight Rises OST (24-bit/192kHz) and then down to A Retrospective by The Unthanks (24-bit/44.1kHz).
The positive news continues to the analogue input. We admit this was unexpected given the relatively poor results we usually hear when a predominantly digital design tries to do analogue. The presentation remains consistent with what we hear through the digital inputs. It delivers a good dose of energy and balance, though in absolute terms there are losses in outright clarity and precision. Even so, we are still enjoying Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way, so the NuPrime is still getting the essentials right. There is a strong sense of drive and attack here, with a chunky, taut bassline to underpin it all.
We are equally pleased to report that the DAC-9X’s preamp section is a good one. Judged by price standards it displays an impressive degree of finesse, delivering a well-resolved and musical performance. This NuPrime displays a pleasing level of agility and articulation that simply allows the listener to shift focus from the hi-fi system to the music being played. Much the same can be said for the headphone output. It is common for manufacturers to treat such outputs as box-ticking exercises and that is not the case here. Over our time with the NuPrime, we use it with open-back headphone designs such as the Yamaha YH-5000SE and Focal Utopia as well as the closed-back Sony MDR-Z1R without issue. It manages to drive all of these to decent levels while retaining composure.
The NuPrime DAC-9X is a talented and versatile product that is capable of delivering pleasing results in a wide range of systems. Match it with the care a product at this level deserves and it won’t disappoint.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Features 5
Read our review of the Chord Qutest