NuPrime Evolution DAC and preamplifier @totallywired.nz

Unknown Pleasures – the NuPrime Evolution DAC and preamplifier

The story of the NuPrime Evolution DAC is very much about unknown pleasures – in what it has revealed so far from recordings we know, to what the future still holds as we further improve the system around it, as the Evolution DAC continues to run in, and as our renewed enthusiasm for new music takes us to places unknown. Are you ready to come with us?

Have you ever wondered just how good recorded sound can be? And can we appreciate it with the realities of our hearing? What will be the cost of a system capable of rendering it?

The  timely arrival of the Nuprime Evolution DAC – NZ$6000 including GST and delivery –  just before the end of the year has brought these questions into focus, and it’s taken us down some unexpected pathways. But this story begins with a speaker…

Just 10 months ago when we first heard a pre-release set of the Monitor Audio Studio stand mount speaker, it was obvious they were special and really like nothing heard before. The speed, definition and detail just blew me away. Shortly afterwards NuPrime dropped the Evolution One mono power amplifiers on us. These took the Studios right to what I thought was their limit.

By the end of 2018 our digital listening had been completely transformed. The arrival of the Nativ Vita touchscreen/server/streamer changed the physical way we store and listen to digital music, and finally gave us a dedicated solution, replacing computers, portable devices and iPhones with a far more user friendly and better sounding device.

So we had 3 new high performance components – source, power amplification and speakers. It was never planned this way but we have saved the best till last.

The NuPrime Evolution DAC and preamplifier is a stunningly good component and after a thoroughly enjoyable 4 weeks of listening, we’re still discovering new depths to its abilities as well as exploring just how much better a digital system can be. By ‘better’ we mean not just sound quality – which is especially good – but also how easy it is to set up and use, and what it brings to the party in terms of allowing the other components around it perform to their full potential. All these considerations factor into deciding on the real value of a product.

Why this is so and how the Evolution DAC might work in your system will be what is important to you, so let’s dig down into the detail…

NuPrime Evolution DAC and preamplifier @totallywired.nz

Understanding the performance

Unlike our recent articles on other components I don’t have a comparably priced digital point of reference on which to base the performance of the Evolution DAC – and I’d suggest very few people do. In the past we have dealt with some seriously high end CD players from Meridian and Linn, and it was obvious that they delivered remarkable sound quality from CD. Yet that in itself was a limitation.

And over a relatively short time I’ve seen a steady stepwise progression of performance from many lower cost DACs – the NuForce and NuPrime models, Cambridge, and many others. In part this is also due the acceptance that it is worth spending a bit more as peoples’ digital libraries expand along with a broadening of options in the market. Yet for the past 3 years, the Nuprime DAC-10 has remained our high water mark.

The NuPrime DAC-10 has been our ‘go-to’ preamplifier and DAC since its inception in 2015. It’s a component that I know like the back of my hand and it’s certainly better than any comparably priced product that has come our way. Of course there is nothing wrong with sticking with a good thing when you find it, and if you go back to the Absolute Sound review of the DAC-10 you’ll see how highly it rates even when compared to much more costly models.

The advent of both the new Evolution One power amplifiers and advances in the DAC chipsets that NuPrime use mean the time is right, not just for an updated version of the DAC-10 but a considerably more ambitious design.

The NuPrime Evolution DAC is a ground-up-design and if you look at NuPrime’s own page you’ll see they are very open in detailing what is actually going on inside.Inside the Nuprime Evolution DAC and preammplifier @totallywired.nz

Key to understanding the performance of the Evolution DAC is that it’s really two components combined – yes, there is the Digital to Analogue Conversion which we’ll look at in detail, but there is also a full preamplifier section, and running both parts is a highly advanced power supply.

This is the NuPrime advantage – understanding that the DAC operates as part of a system so while the flow of digital information going in is important, the flow of power coming in to actually make it work is also critical. And the ability to get the resultant signal out and driving attached amplifiers is just as vital.

So you can quickly understand why there is such a great potential for improvements to be made over existing designs at any level.

In the past, I’ve found differences between DACs to be reasonably subtle – this isn’t surprising for several reasons: The actual DAC chipsets used in almost all brands come from a limited number of suppliers and their functions are effectively standardised. The cost difference between entry level and high end is much smaller than in the analogue world – as an example there are plenty of well regarded DACs that cost less than an entry level MC cartridge. The source material we used was often simply not that great – either because of low bit rates or high jitter of the hardware feeding it in was not of a particularly high standard.

Bearing all this in mind there would be something very wrong if the NuPrime Evolution DAC wasn’t an immediate and obvious improvement. Yet what I’ve been hearing goes several steps beyond this and it has irrevocably changed both my listening habits and expectations of how music can sound for the better.

The NuPrime is a purely digital product with 7 inputs. The ubiquitous Optical, Coax and USB  but also AES-EBU and the new I2S found on the Nuprime DC transports. By opting for a no-compromise digital only design, Nuprime are able to achieve the best possible sound quality. A similarly ambitious NuPrime analogue preamplifier and several other innovative and high quality solutions in the pipeline will provide paths for those of you that want the best of both worlds.

Operationally the Evolution DAC couldn’t be much simpler – source selection on the left, volume control on the right and a  nicely set up IR remote control for the couch bound that can access all the features at a touch of a button. This outward simplicity is underlain by a strong menu driven feature set for fine tuning the performance, along with some serious internal engineering.

The Evolution DAC is centred around one of the world’s highest performing 32-bit audio DACs – you can access the specification and detail here.

While the DAC section and preamplifier are inextricably linked in terms of the music that plays, the latter section is clearly responsible for overall character and end sound of the Evolution, so I’d like to talk more about this with you.

AC power – it’s the raw material

Any audio component needs power to work  – it’s the raw material. Yet the power we get from our mains socket is getting progressively more degraded by interference – wifi, phones, lightning systems, appliances etc. There is also an increasing understanding of what’s going on as evidenced even in the lower end of the market various filter mains boards.

But with better systems we’re able to show clear sonic improvements with mains cables – the KLEI models being an obvious example. If you can accept this then how much of an improvement do you think well executed active filtering and optimisation will make? So there is not just scope, but a necessity to pay particular attention to this.

Nuprime have a great deal of experience in this domain by virtue of their amplifier designs – the ultra high switching speeds, high efficiency and broad bandwidth require not just clean power but immediate flow – so the AC inlet goes right to a filter, which significantly reduces the AC high frequency line noise.

The filtered power is then feed into two physically separated and shielded C-Core transformers which have less stray flux than conventional ring type transformers, thus eliminating noise interference affecting other sensitive circuitry.

This is then fed into a large capacitor bank (around 70,000uF) using specialised capacitors which supplies ample and stable power to the analog and digital circuitry – remember we are talking about a DAC and preamplifier here – yet we’ve got the kind of capacity you could run a power amplifier from.

Are you still with us? I’ve detailed this part of the design because it is directly reflected in the power and quality of the output – the Evolution literally drives and controls any power amplifier and while it sounds simplistic, you very much get out what you put in – so the more and better the signal from the preamp, the better the end result.

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Immersive and Intelligible Sound

How do we adequately describe something that is better in every single way? As I explained initially, we don’t have a bevy of comparably priced DAC/Preamps on hand – although they obviously exist. But we can draw comparisons with the improvements made by other components, the sound of a very good analogue front end for instance, and draw a direct line from Nuprime’s previous best DAC.

So let’s start with that obvious comparison – the NuPrime DAC-10. From the outset there was just more of everything – detail, precision, bass and space around the music. The slight raggedness I’d associated with MP3s was replaced by a fluidity  that bettered the DAC-10 even with m4a files. So far, so good.

If you ever had any doubts as to the validity of the concept of run-in (burn-in if you really want to risk calling it that), the Evolution DAC will settle them once and for all – it sounds vastly better after several weeks. It’s not that there was anything wrong in the first place but I’ve been taken aback by the quantum of improvement – greater and more obvious than any of the products I’ve written about in the last 2 years. Yet this shouldn’t be a surprise – the complexity and component count of the Evolution DAC is far greater than any power amplifier. Which in turn are more complex than speakers. And then seemingly passive components such as cables.

What you’ll hear is this – every part of the music, every word and note becomes more intelligible. Sounds, lines and sometimes whole passages that were previously lost are presented with clarity. The soundstage progressively gains body and definition, expanding from an area around the speakers to fill the room – the scary part is that I’m able to now position sounds, not just in front but literally within my head and behind – it becomes immersive.

With initial listening, the differences between lower bit rate MP3s, lossless CD rips and better 24 bit downloads were laid bare and I did start to think I was turning into a hapless listener concerned more with format than music – but after a while it was obvious that improvements were across the board and there was considerably more information being retrieved from even the humblest MP3s – in many cases these were ‘free’ downloads with vinyl records yet a few weeks in and I was starting to think that even with these there was more going on than the LP.

Over this time, I was juggling around some other components in the system – we dropped from the Evolution One power amplifiers down to the new smaller ST-10M monos which produced a significant conclusion – while there is absolutely no argument as to which power amplifiers are better, as a combination, the new Evolution DAC plus the smaller ST-10Ms outperformed the original DAC-10 with the much more costly Evolution Ones. This illustrates not just the improved resolution of the DAC but also the primacy of the preamp within systems.

This is not just the case with NuPrime – with many of our clients’ systems and across many brands, when a better preamplifier is incorporated into the system there has been not just an improvement in quality but the immediate impression of a much bigger and powerful sound – this difference is both more obvious and satisfying than the alternative of upgrading power amplifiers.

Of course the Evolution DAC with the Evolution Ones are another story again and ultimately evaluation of the Evolution DAC has been through their best amplifiers simply because this has enabled us to fully explore the potential. Together they produce a standard of sound staging and detail which will impress even the most die hard analogue enthusiast but I’m going to take this further…

Remarkable Transparency

We often try to ascribe character and tonality to audio components. This is a valid approach especially when making direct comparisons between components – if you suggest one sounds warmer or more vivid, most people can understand and agree on this assessment. With analogue components I’m pretty sure many designers make conscious choices in this regard but there is a downside – the character can overlay and obscure music.

My listening to the Evolution DAC is telling me that this is the least coloured component I’ve heard  – the level of transparency is nothing short of remarkable – you hear right through the electronics and into the music in microscopic detail yet there are no artefacts that I can identify. To be sure this does mean that some recordings can sound less engaging than others for reasons you’d have to take up with the production engineers. Yet even rips of CDs that I’ve always found bland have come together in a way that has surprised me. While I may not get wildly enthusiastic about these albums, they are nevertheless rendered into something a whole lot more interesting.

The Evolution DAC is never clinical – there is an easy fluidity which I’ve previously associated with the best of Keith Eichmann’s cable designs partnered with an almost theatrical ability to project – which in turn I first encountered with the Audio Research preamplifiers.

On better recordings – specifically 24 bit downloads of NZ bands via Bandcamp – I’ve often got the ability to make comparison with both vinyl and live performance. In this case I’m going out on a limb and say I believe the renditions via the Evolution DAC are at least as good if not better in every parameter – the detail, a lack of background noise especially, sound stage and dynamics all come together in a way that has surprised me. 

I know phono cartridges do sound appreciably different from each other, likewise phono stages and analogue preamplifiers. Then there are turntables and the finer points of set up. With so many variables, you have to ask the questions as to what is it that you are actually hearing?

Fidelity: files and recordings – what you’ll hear

It’s a fair assumption that the 24 bit downloads are in fact identical to the master sent to the record pressing plant. If the NuPrime Evolution DAC is doing a better job than the DAC used for the production of the LP record you can suddenly see where this is going.

I’m going to be posting the results of discussions with some local musicians about this so we can get a better perspective of what we are hearing and how this relates both to the original performance and the artists intentions.

The Evolution DAC is producing a clearer, less coloured and ultimately better sound – there are no resonances associated with the mechanical playback of the record, nor any of the myriad of variables I’ve mentioned above. It really gets you right to the heart and soul of the performance. There is nothing clinical or empty about this – the levels of nuance, the space around the music, the stability of image and sheer fidelity is something quite wonderful.

This is part of what Meridian set out to achieve with their MQA system which the Evolution DAC supports. But rather than being restricted to select recordings or streams, the Evolution works it’s magic on every piece of music for you to enjoy.

As an illustration of what I’m talking about, Tom Scott’s new jazz/hiphop album Avantdale Bowling Club can be downloaded from Bandcamp in many formats with no cost difference. My m4a copy (Apple Lossless) comes through as 24 bit with a rate of 1552 bits per second. That’s around 8x more information than I’m seeing with MP3s. Something would be wrong if this didn’t sound vastly better.

But let’s not tangent off too far. The Evolution DAC obviously loves this stuff but what it does with MP3s is every bit as good – it somehow fleshes them out in a way I’ve not heard before and manages to smooth off a lot of the rough edges I’ve previously ascribed to the format. By this I mean audible distortions – with many DACs and digital amplifiers low bit-rate recordings can seem gritty or flat. This isn’t so much of a problem on a phone but it’s much more obvious in any decent system.

Doing another direct analogue/digital comparison we have Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s live EP Distant Sky – in this case the vinyl is undeniably more detailed, open and musical but this is with the caveat that our complete analogue front end system is considerably more costly, (and you can assume it’s well set up). But the MP3 download via the Evolution DAC comes across more as a different interpretation rather than an inferior rendition – it’s more subtle than you might think and to my mind, not much more than the differences between phono cartridges.

Nativ Vita, Nuprime Evolution DAC/preamplifier @totallywired.nz

What this comes back to is the remarkable fidelity of the Evolution DAC – it is certainly the most unadulterated component I’ve heard and in lacking a specific overlay to music it allows so much more through. Ultimately making it far more enjoyable and involving.

Again – I’ll give you some specific examples – the new Yumi Zouma EP is almost saccharine sweet dream pop. But the Evolution DAC opens this syrup out into a pristine and artfully done production. Alien Weaponry’s album Tū is right at the other end –  a mix of hard driven metal and Te Reo that literally explodes out of your speakers and is really only meant to be listened to loud – yet you can hear every guitar note, drum hit and vocals allowing you to really get in to the visceral nature of this music.

Essentially the Evolution DAC seems to do everything very, very well and regardless of how specific or broad your taste in music is, you’ll appreciate more of what you like and maybe even start to expand your horizons.

Satisfying Listening

There is another issue I want to address that keeps on coming up in conversations with clients – hearing loss. This can be used as an excuse – ie ‘I won’t hear any difference’. But here’s the thing  – none of us are getting any newer but I can tell you without a doubt that I’m hearing things on recordings that I’ve had for years that were simply not there before. It is true that this is because of the overall improvement in the systems I’ve been listening to but it’s also far outstripping any decline in my hearing. This is a continuing source of both amazement and enjoyment, and the Evolution DAC has been one of the greatest steps forward I’ve ever heard in this regard.

Another very strong point is that while the system we have is capable of punishing volume levels, there is so much more coming through with the Evolution DAC that it becomes more satisfying (and better for long term hearing), to listen at lower volume levels. You all know that often speakers don’t seem to come ‘on-song’ till they hit a certain volume level – the Evolution DAC brings this point down. Most of our listening took place with the volume set between 20 and 35 (100 is max).

Yet if you do want to take it up and have some fun, the sound holds together in a way you won’t have heard before – it’s more dynamic, open and expansive.

The sound of the NuPrime Evolution DAC is very much a sum of the parts. While the new ESS DAC chipset at the heart is obviously responsible for the digital workload, Nuprime have created an environment where it can do its job in an unparalleled way. First by supplying clean power to run on, then taking that signal, protecting it from extraneous noise and distortion, and amplifying it with attention to both fidelity and power. In doing so the music is not just detailed but also rich in timbre and able to drive into any associated amplifier.

Features to explore

You’ll note that at this stage I haven’t gone into the upsampling and digital filtering features within the Evolution DAC. At this stage with only a month of listening, it’s obvious that the magnitude of improvement with run-in is greater than anything I’ve dealt with before and so far this seems to dwarf the difference I hear with these setting changes.

So to a large extend we have just gone with the defaults, although I’m very keen to investigate the Apodizing fast filter after previous experience with Meridian. Likewise we found clear advantages with the 192kHz upsampling with NuPrime’s CDP-9 CD player so there is still plenty of room for experimentation and further improvement. But for now I’m just so stoked with the sound we get I’m happy to leave this for later.

Putting it in context

While I’m the first to admit that the world of NZ$6000 DACs is fairly esoteric, I’d like you to note that the vast part of our listening is being done with relatively inexpensive smaller speakers.

For any existing NuForce or NuPrime owners the Evolution DAC is everything you have ever dreamed of – the sonic qualities and value that made you choose NuForce or more latterly NuPrime are all there but taken up to another level again and combined with their best ever engineering. As a company NuPrime don’t just rest on their heritage – they are constantly learning and don’t hold anything back when it comes to building the very best they can.

In another context if we make comparisons between other DACs and preamps the improvement you’ll experience will be greater again. Our previous benchmark – the Nuprime DAC-10 is not suddenly diminished in it’s performance and I know from both reviews, client feedback and my own listening, that this is a remarkably good component bettered by very few others – so for many this will still be a significant upgrade. Yet the Evolution DAC is so obviously better in performance that I can confidently say that while it costs around twice as much, it certainly is at least twice as good.

So if you are going from an older or lower cost preamplifier or DAC this improvement will be further magnified.

The strength and power of output of the preamplifier section means that it will breath new life into virtually any power amplifier. Also note there are a number of menu driven setup choices here to refine the matching of a wide range of power amplifiers.

Also included is a fixed output for use with high end integrated amplifiers. While this obviously defeats the variable volume control that NuPrime have done so much with, it doesn’t negate its remarkable driving ability – and in such cases you’d want to experiment with both options.

Cable contributions

On the input side almost all our listening has been via USB using the Nativ Vita touchscreen/server/streamer as source. In the interests of full disclosure, the USB cable used – the new KLEI QFlow7 from Keith Eichmann has undoubtedly also made a contribution, and has been running in over the same time period so I’m not yet able to define exactly how much of what we hear can be attributed to this, but experience suggests that while the KLEI products are exceptionally transparent they can’t suddenly transmit what isn’t there. The magnitude of the increase in definition suggests by far the greater contribution is from the DAC, but the cable does give it more to work with.

The KLEI interconnects used to the various power amplifiers have been the same throughout but we have re-jigged our mains cables. On the face of it the care put into the power input side of the Evolution DAC with extra filtering, special transformers and a capacitor bank might make a audiophile AC cable redundant yet my listening suggests that the extra transparency afforded by the DAC and overall higher level of performance make the performance gain from a better cable more obvious. So I’ve ended up dropping back on the cables we use with the Evolution One power amplifiers and putting one of our best Purity level AC cables in the DAC – this has again highlighted the primacy of the preamp within the system, as while the overall cost of cabling is lower, by using a smarter configuration, we get better sound.

To Places Unknown: In conclusion – for now

And this is really what the NuPrime Evolution DAC is all about – it’s a smarter means to better sound. By way of the processing power, the abilities of the preamp section to expand the quality signal from any digital source and to properly drive any amplifier, culminates in a component that will transform many systems. It is undeniably a high end product and is accordingly built to that standard, but I would also suggest it is viable in many simpler systems where it will provide an unmatched listening experience.

With our own listening via the little Monitor Audio Studios I could quite easily see that when using an existing laptop or CD player as a transport, a more modest amplifier such as the NuPrime STA-9 you have a system that although small would still deliver unrivaled transparency with the Evolution DAC at the heart. This could take you places that bigger and more costly conventional setups might never approach in terms of straight listening pleasure.

Conversely I’m also still open to the idea that we haven’t heard the full potential of the Evolution DAC because our speakers are not full range and do have a distinct dispersion pattern – to this end we’ll next be looking closely at both the new Monitor Audio 5G Gold 300 floorstanders (which incorporate the same ribbon tweeter but expand greatly on the mid and bass driver arrays), and the Sonus faber Electa Amator 3s. In both cases these speakers would be more in line with the capabilities of the Evolution One power amplifiers.

The Evolution DAC has suddenly unleashed the promised performance of the rest of the system that we’ve been putting together in the last year. The Nativ Vita provides the raw material, the Evolution One monos the power, and the Monitor Audio Studios are the open window and it’s all tied together with the KLEI cables. It was impressive before but the Evolution DAC has lifted the performance far beyond this to a level we are still working on to describe…but certainly love.

All this taken into account, the story of the NuPrime Evolution DAC is very much about unknown pleasures – in what it has revealed so far from recordings we know, to what the future still holds as we further improve the system around it, as the Evolution DAC continues to run in, and as our renewed enthusiasm for new music takes us to places unknown.

Are you ready to come with us?

NuPrime Evolution DAC and preamplifier – NZ$6000 including GST and delivery.

Nuprime Evolution DAC-preamplifier. Choice of black or silver finish @totallywired.nz
Nuprime Evolution DAC-preamplifier. Choice of black or silver finish