It looks like a compact, simple and affordable component . Yet the NuPrime IA-9X analogue integrated amplifier (NZ$2450) is directly derived from far more costly products and also benefits from the economies of scale and manufacture that NuPrime are adept at.
Up until recently NuPrime have pursued higher switching speeds as the way to advance their Class D amplifier designs and this reaches it’s ultimate expression in the STA-9X. But with the Evolution STA flagship power amplifier they have taken a new track with their ‘Only Distortion Cancellation (ODC) circuit for ultra-low distortion for neutral and detailed sound.
While part of NuPrime’s entry level range, the IA-9X has the same circuit at the heart of its design. The IA-9X isn’t a cut down version – it’s a serious component in it’s own right.
Listening to the IA-9X
The IA-9X is an intriguing design and I’ve grown to really like it. NuPrime have been remarkably brave in terms of producing designs with distinct sounds and this little integrated amplifier is unique within the range. It’s the most relaxed and intimate component they have delivered in that you’re invited to listen to a recording rather than having it thrown at you. The sound is a measured and steady presentation that’s without fuss and obvious coloration. While we often have been able to assign a particular character to NuPrime’s designs, with this little amplifier it’s more about what isn’t there…
As we’ve recently found with our adventures in high performance isolation and damping with the Bassocontinuo racks, you can live with a a lot of distortion and not even know it’s there. Until you finally hear your music freed of these artefacts. The IA-9X works in a similar way, peeling back layers of the proverbial onion to allow you to get to the heart of any given performance.
Most other NuPrime models have a tendency to sound bigger than the physical size, with high power ratings, great dynamics, a definite midrange presence and speed. These characteristics are tempered in the IA-9X in favour of a more cerebral approach to the performance.
Because of the obvious connection to the new Evolution STA stereo power amplifier, I not only went back to what others and myself had written, but also listened again side by side with the IA-9X.
‘The Evolution STA sounds marvelously energetic, expressive, and utterly coherent with immense neutrality but without tipping over into leanness or coolness. The amp is also very linear and quite detailed but not revealing to the point of being analytical, let alone clinical. First and foremost, it paints the complete musical picture while sounding nothing like your typical Class-D amplifier.’ Christiaan Punter.
‘From the first time you turn it on there are immediate, obvious qualities. The noise floor is really, really low and even when playing quietly you’ll hear a whole lot of details that simply weren’t there before having being previously obscured. A fuzziness you might have previously accepted as part of the recording disappears and there’s a clarity to each and every note. Stereo imaging gains considerable definition.The Evolution STA is tonally the most neutral design yet from NuPrime, poised and even handed. Sure footed and precise without being analytical, the NuPrime Evolution STA reproduces vocals with exceptional clarity; there’s no sibilance or glare.’ Totally Wired
The Evolution STA is of course a much bigger and substantial stereo power amplifier yet is rated at a comparative (in NuPrime’s world at least), modest 230 watts per channel. The IA-9X is 90w and integrates both preamplifier and power amp in a single 9X series box that’s about 1/4 the size of the Evolution.
However when playing within it’s performance envelope, the sound of the IA-9X is so similar to that of the Evolution STA, you’d be hard pressed to separate them. This tells us a lot about the preamplifier stage.
NuPrime have always designed and built particularly nice analogue preamplifiers. Often these have flown under the radar, but I’ve greatly appreciated what they have done and the AMG PRA is one of the best preamps I’ve enjoyed regardless of cost. It would have been a tall order to expect the IA-9X to work at the same level, but despite including a phono stage among several other extras, the sonics are surprisingly close.
Getting back to the sound – because we can hear such an obvious similarity to the Evolution STA , the only conclusion you can come to is that within the IA-9X, the preamp stage is as close to transparent as to be ideal – neither adding to or subtracting from the sound, just allowing us to control volume and input selection.
The compact form of the IA-9X also means that the physical space in which to house both parts – pre and power, is limited, and NuPrime have clearly decided that when balancing power and quality, it’s the latter that is the priority for this model.
Buried in the specifications is another clue to how the IA-9X works; the gain is 17x – a lot of NuPrime’s other amplifiers are more than this, especially the bridged power amplifiers which get up to 52x. Gain is simply a measure of what goes in and comes out – 1 watt in becomes 17 watts out. So given the same input, the IA-9X doesn’t go as loud as other models, but this is all part of the design and intention. You do still have a full 90 watts on tap (and 145 watt into 4 ohms).
Higher gain can often be less linear (ie different frequencies can have more or less emphasis), and is more prone to picking up extraneous noise and amplifying it. By way of contrast the IA-9X background is absolutely silent and as we’ve already pointed out, it’s only when you hear an amplifier that’s more linear and accurate do you start to understand that what your were previously listening to was actually adding distortion.
So on first listen, the sound doesn’t exactly leap out of the speakers as it does with many other NuPrime amps. With the A-300SE integrated, at 20/100 we’d be rocking along whereas with the IA-9X you have to be at say 40/100 or maybe even more to get the same sound level. What you do find however, is that you end up using more of the total available volume control and it comes on more smoothly. The IA-9X remains composed and even handed when the numbers of the front panels are well up.
The inherent neutrality of the sound will expose the character of the speakers you choose to run. From my own listening I feel the IA-9X is particularly suited to two scenarios; In a small room where you are physically close to the speakers and they will, by practical necessity, also be small – the low noise, super smooth, distortion free top end and well controlled bass will make for a rewarding and relaxing listen. The second scenario is with highly efficient speakers (which can often be quite large); this even handedness translates well to larger rooms where some other NuPrime models could literally take your head off and reveal noise floor issues.
While I certainly appreciate the qualities of the IA-9X, it’s not going to be the amplifier of choice for metal heads and techno fiends – but give it clear vocals, any acoustic instruments playing in real space together, and it absolutely shines, delicately unwinding the threads of the music and allowing you to listen well into the night without fatigue or neighbour complaints. With such genres in mind speakers such as Sonus faber which produce an organic and natural midrange, will highlight the IA-9X’s qualities and add a little extra presence and involvement.
The IA-9X is actually at it’s best with high quality digital sources; matching beautifully with the Lumin network players such as the D3 or T3 via the balanced input. Or a really good CD player. It’s here that the low gain becomes an asset allowing the fine adjustment of volume – there’s never a hint of input overload and the silence between tracks is nothing short of eerie. Then the music just emerges and hangs in space. It’s Evolution level performance on an intimate scale.
While the phono stage appears to be straight out of the PRA-9X, the low gain does mean that cartridge matching does need to be more carefully considered. It’s MM only and you can fine tune this but not alter the gain. The IA-9X will definitely sound a lot better when the cartridge output is on the high side of the MM standard and you’ll want something with a bit of ‘bounce’ like the Nagaoka MP110 or JT80 Blue.
The fact that there is even a built in phono stage is a bonus and it’s perfectly competent by most standards. What’s really happened is that digital, and especially streaming components, have become so good that we need to invest a lot more in vinyl to keep up with them. I never thought we’d get to this point but here we are.
Within the NuPrime ecosystem we’ve new got more options that I’d have ever thought possible when we first started around 10 years ago. Some models have had really broad appeal, some are specialised almost single purpose components that are seriously high end. Which sums up the IA-9X nicely.
The story doesn’t end there. With almost every other amplifier design, the sonic character you get is effectively set. Maybe you have old fashioned tone adjustment or switching for speaker impedance, but this doesn’t fundamentally change anything and often is a step backwards. The IA-9X has a second circuit which works in tandem with ODC – the Harmonic Generation Circuit utilising Class A transistors for a warmer, richer sound similar to that of a vacuum tube amplifier.
In real life the effect of this switching is subtle but worthwhile. I found myself consciously switching to match the genre and it really does seem to work. You get a little more immediacy when you want it, or a slightly more relaxed presentation – this is a far cry from the idea of tone controls, but it illustrates nicely how specific component choices within an amplifier do influence the end sound. In this case you get to have the best of both worlds.
It is possible that you now have too many choices with NuPrime, so let’s try to simplify things and recap on the various models starting with the integrated models:
- The IA-9X is an all analogue amp ideal for critical listeners who value accuracy and simplicity. It’s perfect for smaller rooms and compact speakers. Think of it as a ‘mini Evolution’
- The IDA-8 remains the best all rounder with both digital and analogue inputs.
- The Omnia A-300SE is the weapon of choice for streaming and wifi systems with a Wilde amount of power in small box.
- The new STA-100 is a stereo power amplifier that owes a lot to the A-300SE. The STA-100 means you can build an affordable, extremely high performance pre/power combination with any of the new 9X series preamps and DACs – this is the next step up from the 3 integrated options above.
- Above this the NuPrime AMG and Evolution series are genuinely high end components yet are still reasonably priced.