REVIEW: NuForce Primo 8
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Thursday, April 24th, 2014
by Michael Mercer & Kevin Venable
"Walking the stretch from Sunset to Baxter on Echo Park Avenue, with Assemblage 23 marking time from my trusty lime green ipod mini, I reflect on a day that is probably best left behind. I plan on playing Lullaby and closing it out as I have many a night as a DJ. Hopefully the door is unlocked. I forgot my keys this morning...
'And if ever fate should choose to smite you Stand your ground, never walk away Please don't ever let the world defeat you Don't get buried in its decay...'
From Lullaby by Assemblage 23"
Taken from the closing remarks of a Myspace blog post that Kevin thumbed out sometime in 2006, that serves as a reminder of how important portable audio is for so many people. Music fuels the soul. It is not something to be left behind when we leave the house. It's not furniture. And Kevin knew that. Bro forgot his fuckin' keys, but somehow remembered his iPod. We grew up in the golden age of the Sony Walkman and the portable CD player. We got used to having our music with us, and once the iPod came out - it got even crazier for us music addicts...
The ability to have a constant musical lifeline with you wasn't new at the time, but the iPod made it work more easily than ever before. After all, as opposed to one CD in a player or one mixed cassette - you could carry your entire music collection with you wherever you roamed! It was a pocketable musical escape pod; a way to avoid getting buried in the surrounding decay of life's madness. Sure, we might've been learning to tune the world out at a relatively early age. Who needs to get caught up in more than our own dramas! Our music is healing, its grounding, and think what you want, but for us, having our favorite music with us at all times was like carrying a sonic refuge. We engaged when we needed to, but other than that, we took advantage of all that time to soak up our music!
There was just one problem: it sounded like ass.
Actually, that's not very fair, asses sound better. You see, any signal chain is only as strong as it's weakest link. And the weak link in this signal chain was Apple's iPod earphone. It was shite. We're not trying to take potshots at Apple or anybody currently using those earbuds today. And if we're honest, they have improved over the years. However, if you genuinely love your music, then you deserve to experience its sound in the most engaging, transcendent way possible for you. After all, is it just background noise for you? If you rock tunes while you run, walk on the treadmill, ride you bike, or walk to work, guess what: your music is a bigger factor in your life then you may know. There's simply no reason to settle any longer...
Luckily, other manufacturers with more sense and better ears stepped up to the plate, releasing IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) that sounded far better than anything Apple had to offer. Ultimate Ears, Westone, Etymotic and others released a string of hits year after year. Even Apple jumped back onto it's own bandwagon with their ADDIEM (Apple Dual Driver In-Ear Monitor), and later their Ear Pod.
These days, much of the playing field has become crowded. This is especially true of the $300~$500 range, where a host of favorites dominate the standings. Ultimate Ears has the UE900. Westone has the W4. Shure's got their SE535. And Etymotic ER-4S and ER-4PT fans still roam the land. The mid-tier, multi-driver IEM market is filled with strong competition... and it's not a very easy nut to crack.
So when NuForce first showed us their Primo 8 - a new quad-BA priced at $499 - we looked at it rather curiously... the way one would look at a prospective son-in-law. We weren't trying to give it a hard time, but we knew full well that it had something to prove.
And after months of poking and prodding, we're ready to say "Primo, welcome to the family son." In fact, with the Primo 8, NuForce might have even usurped several fan favorites right out of the gate.
Hey Shure SE846, better check your six.
The Devil Is In The Details (a.k.a. crossover)
The Primo 8 is a quad balanced armature design, with two drivers working in tandem for the bass frequencies, and single balanced armature drivers for the mids and highs. While this is intuitively easy to understand, it's also devilishly tricky to get right... especially with regards to the crossover network that is used.
A crossover is an EQ filter designed to attenuate the frequencies not allowed through a particular speaker. The frequency range that is allowed to pass is called the passbands.
A poorly designed crossover leads to grainyness and sometimes frequency drop out. As opposed to a wall of sound, or sounds having natural decay and layering, a poor crossover will tell your brain where a mid-range driver cuts off and where that tweeter picks it up, etc.
Your brain tells you immediately that it's not actual instruments and artists performing this music in front of you. It can kill the liquidity of the sound - making things translate as artificial. It sounds like poor hi-fi trickery, and un-natural.
In the Primo 8 NuForce decided to use a first-order Butterworth filter. This type of filter is preferred in the recording industry for mixing and mastering as it reduces the ripple effect in the passbands providing for a less grainy, more natural sound. NuForce's crossover approach, what they call their "Linear Phase Crossover" network, is also patent-pending.
Thankfully for us, NuForce got it right.
There is a magnificent continuity in the low-end, something much more akin to a three-way speaker system rather than a four-way design. The music sounds wonderfully fluid, more natural, which is key in any speaker system: headphone or loudspeaker
Build and Fit
The shell casing is a beautiful blue. We're also glad to see the attention spent on the cable. In a universal IEM like this, when you're stuck with the factory cable, you need to be sure the earphones sound terrific, and capable of withstanding a beating!
NuForce says the cable is a Litz braided design around a Kevlar/silk core, offering great high frequency transmission while maintaining flexibility and strength. Mercer put this to the test on many occasions, and whenever his cable got stuck he wondered if he was gonna have to call NuForce and ask for another pair because if his stupidity. It was refreshing to see how durable they are, especially since he's used to using after-market (Moon Audio.com) IEM cables for his reference JH-13 Freqphase.
Ergonomically Kevin found a few issues, all centering around the non removable ear guides. They tended to get in the way while inserting the IEMs, especially when using the provided Comply foam tips that he preferred. Also, as he wears glasses, the ear guides were pushed outwards by the legs of the glasses, placing some strain on his ear. This made what should be a very comfortable IEM hard for him to wear for extended lengths of time.
Mercer loved their fit without the cable guide so much, that he found the ear guides got in the way a bit. He said the shells fit so well in his ear as-is, and make such an outstanding seal, he'd get rid of the guides right if he could. That said, it looks like he's gonna buy the Primo8 anyway - cable guide or not - as you'll see below.
Overall fit is Mercer's issue when it comes to universal IEMs. Most designs simply don't stay in his ears or make a decent seal: which is everything. Without a good seal, an in-ear-monitor is useless. You lose all sorts of frequency response, amongst other things. It was a thrill for Mercer to hear - in the Primo 8 - a pair of universal IEMs that sound terrific and provide a solid fit. He's gone as far as saying these are his new favorite pair of universal IEMs! Considering the fact that he only uses custom IEMs, that says something about their fit and sonic performance.
If you're thinking about buying a pair of these, know that Mercer hasn't bought a pair of universal IEMs since 2009 (when the JH Audio JH-13 Pro came out). But these have won him over. Makes sense. Since NuForce's roots lie in high end stereo in-room componentry, their top-of-the-line IEM would sound like something a stereo fan might enjoy. On their site, NuForce introduces the Primo 8 - in big, bold lettering - as "Your personal in-ear high-end Speaker System." Sounds about right to us.
Overall, we found the design and build of the Primo 8 excellent, with some minor comfort issues for Kevin and Mercer with regard to the ear-guides. A small price to pay for engaging, dynamic sonics.
One thing we'd like to note is that both of us heard a dramatic difference in the earphones after break-in. We realize many people don't believe in break-in, but we heard it. We're not exactly sure of the hour count, but we'd say about three to four weeks of normal usage sounds about right. Now, this doesn't mean the Primo 8 doesn't sound like music out of the box. They do. But they open-up after sufficient break-in. The midrange opened up for sure - while low end extension settled and control increased. The overall sound was more coherent, almost like cleaning a windshield you didn't even know was dirty! Like we said: They do well out of the box, but wait until it breaks in if you don't like what you hear immediately. It only gets better.
Associated Equipment during listening sessions:
My initial impression of the NuForce Primo 8 was that is was a decent product with a wonderful bass presentation and a detailed yet smooth treble. The mid-range however seemed a bit veiled, hanging around in the back of the mix, like it was quite possibly shy and didn't want to join the party. After a few days of listening the mid-range decided to join the fray, and like a dance floor after the drop, the party erupted.
I passed music to the Primo 8 from a variety of sources over the course of a few weeks, an iPhone 5C, the HRT microStreamer, miniwatt n4, Woo Audio WA7, and the Chord Hugo. Unamped from the iPhone 5C playing Apple lossless files the Primo displayed a musicality and coherence I only dreamed of back in the iPod mini days... performance so good that you can easily get lost in the music as you traverse your day. Wonderful though the simplicity and sound quality of this pairing is the NuForce only gets better as you feed it better sources. It matched exceptionally well with the HRT microStreamer. This small system would make an excellent traveling or office rig along with the laptop you probably already carry. The dynamic, musical presentation is so huge that is hard to fathom that the DAC/amp and headphones could fit together in the breast pocket of a shirt.
The Primo 8 is billed as a top tier IEM and it's performance with both the WA7 and the Hugo made me a believer. The sound signature of these DAC amplifier combos is quite different, yet the NuForce IEM sounded wonderful with both of them. I believe this is due to the Primo 8's neutral and resolving nature.
As I sat down to gather impressions I decided to pay homage to the beautiful blue color of the IEM by scouring my digital library for songs with the word blue in the title. This also got me out of rut of using the same songs for my evaluations and made the process an enjoyable journey into uncharted territory. The playlist was listened to from both the WA7 and the Chord Hugo, and all impressions apply to both amplifiers. I do have to say I did prefer the Hugo with the Primo 8 slightly over the WA7.
The is no other word for the bass impact of the Primo 8 but insane! "Glitch and Blues", a glitch hop track by K Theory, drove into my ear canals like it was propelled by twin rocket launchers. This track is defined by bass slam and it was definitely delivered. There is much more to the bass here than power. Paul Chamber's acoustic bass work on the Coltrane classic "Blue Train" is textured and full. Subtle dynamic shifts are allowed to bubble to the surface, allowing the music to swing properly. Curtis Fuller's trombone solo from the same tune straddles the mid-bass and lower midrange showing off the Primo's crossover technology, remaining a coherent, impactful whole.
The mid-range on the NuForce Primo 8 after break in became one of my favorite parts of the unit. It contained what I like to call the three Ss of mid-range satisfaction. Smoothness, snap, and swagger. The melancholy opening trumpet from Miles Davis's "Blue in Green" is the definition of smoothness. The Primo 8 delivered it dripping with emotion. Coltrane's tenor tone was sweet as honey. The details from the 192 khz mono version from HDTracks was wonderfully reproduced. Similarly, the synths and vocals on Elbow's "This Blue World" from their latest release took me on a journey floating high above the earth looking down at life. The aggressive snap of the snare drum from Billy Idol's "Blue Highway" had a visceral bite to it. Steve Stevens' guitar tone was a flowing ragged saw grinding it's way through the song. This song happened to be on of my favorite moments with the Primo 8. Swagger to me is the undefinable thing that can happen when listening to music. Jazz musicians called this magic "swing" and a lot of it has to do with a great sense of timing. Most audiophiles would call it PRaT. It is the magic. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong definitely made some magic in "Under a Blanket of Blue". The phrasing and impeccable sense of timing are well displayed through the Primo 8. Now I have heard better, but never at this price point.
The high frequency range of the Primo 8 was best shown by the intricate ride cymbal work on the Dave Brubeck classic "Blue Rondo al a Turk". Shifts in stick placement were easily discerned, while rhythmic variations never ran together in that over ringing way so often heard. The ride cymbal is the backbone of the song, guiding it through the meter changes. The backbone was strong, yet supple through the NuForce Primo 8.
Full range response, the coherence between all the ranges is best displayed for me by solo piano work. Luckily I had a few in my playlist. Both "Light Blue and Dark Blue" from Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations proved to be a wonderfully full bodied listen. Indeed a beautiful presentation.
Associated Equipment during listening sessions:
I have to admit I'm not a big fan of IEMs. When I was working at Atlantic Records, they were merely a better tool for artists to hear themselves and others on-stage. We referred to them as in-ear-monitors because - before the advent of coherent in-ear monitoring - artists used to rely on large loudspeaker monitors placed in front of them on-stage. We called these loudspeakers "wedges", as they were often built with a wedge-shaped enclosure so they could be placed on their side on-stage, so that views of the artist weren't obstructed. I didn't even consider IEMs for every-day listening. They were a tool for concerts and events, nothing more. When the iPod came out I felt the same way about earbuds. I always used my trusty Grado SR-60s or Sennheiser HD 25-1 IIs with my iPod. Those were the headphones I DJ'd with. It was either those or my Sony MDR-7506. Those were also popular in recording studios years ago.
During my time at Atlantic Records I ended up dealing with Jerry Harvey (of JH Audio fame - and before that Ultimate Ears). Jerry and I connected again by chance at Head-Fi.org's CanJam at RMAF in 2009. He asked me to try the (then new) JH-13 Pro custom multi-driver IEM. This was before the JH-13 Freqphase treatment; though mine have since been updated. Those earphones blew my mind! I'd never heard an in-ear with the dynamics, air, and dimensionality of the JH-13 Pro. Ironically, I was honored to pen the first review of the JH-13 Pro for Positive Feedback! I felt intimidated, as I was no IEM expert, but their musical performance astounded me. I had to write about 'em! But those were custom IEMs. They're molded to fit in my ear perfectly. They're like putting in earplugs and hearing wonderful, full-bodied sound with no noise floor (except whatever's in the recording itself).
Since then the only IEM I've heard (and wanted) was the JH Audio Roxanne! That ain't cheap. Well, with the NuForce Primo 8, I'll be able to afford a great musical performer, a universal IEM that fits terrifically! No universal IEMs have offered me a great fit except Etymotic until now. Typically, they don't fit quite right: too big or too small for my ears, and I rarely achieve a good seal with universal IEMs. For a time, I gave up trying and settled on my Etymotic HF5, while my wifey Alexandra loves her HF3. Again: I prefer over-ear headphones over everything, and on-ear designs after that, so I didn't see a need for another IEM in my headphone collection - especially a universal-fit IEM - until now! Enter the NuForce Primo 8... a universal IEM for the disenfranchised.
An outstanding sonic characteristic of these IEMs is their ability to play well with all sorts of amp/DAC combos and DAPs. That's important, as I find many IEMS to be very particular with regard to finding the right system match in order to achieve musicality and realism. So like I said - the Primo 8 performed beautifully with all the associated equipment listed above. But I did end up with a favorite pairing. Not admitting this would've been deceitful to say the least.
Now, I need to point out, as I often do in my reviews, that my favorite rig may not be yours, and yours may be eons away from what I enjoy. That's great, and it's human nature - which means it doesn't matter how crowded the personal audio space gets with all these iDevice/Andriod DAC/amp combos, headphone amps (both desktop and portable) and DACs - because all of these things contribute something.
That leaves us users with a plethora of choices!
We can find a rig we love for electronic and experimental tunes, a combo we dig for jazz, or we can embark on the ultimate quest: Finding a rig to fill all those shoes, on-the-go and on the desktop! During this review process I found a rig that does it all for me. It could easily rock harder with more amplifier power, for playback of underground drum-n-bass, dubstep, or experimental electronic music. Using the Primo 8 with the CEntrance HiFi-M8 gave me that experience.
The sound of the NuForce Primo 8 with the HiFi-M8 was stunningly dynamic and powerful, considering the size of these damn earphones (compared to my over-ear and on-ear headphones). I realize there are smaller, sleeker designs in the IEM realm. But the authority, the overall gestalt of the music was so tight and hard-hitting, it was a pleasant surprise to hear how well the system handled nuance as well! So HiFi-M8 owners take notice if you're in the market for a universal IEM.
Not to be outdone, the ALO Island also made a certain magic with the Primo 8. The area where I thought the ALO Island and Primo 8 rig outshined the HiFi-M8 is something that I often refer to as un-quantifiable: The soul of the music, the heart, the grit, the thing that gets you in the gut. The system just had more sparkle to it, more light, and dark; the fine details that concoct that special musical potion that grabs ya.
When I played Beacons' "Bring You Back", a head-bobbin' piece of atmospheric tech house, dancey and dark, the low end was like a series of ocean waves splashing through me with a natural rhythm. The bass sound is liquid and flowing, the hits of the hi-hat and other drum beats seem a bit laid back, almost behind the beat for like a millisecond. Then I realized it was right on the money - the sounds of the lower-midrange and bottom end was hypnotic. I loved it so much I've played that song over and over - which is what I usually do when a song strikes my present mood so exactly! But it takes a nice system to make this happen. I'm not bull-shitting you either. I'm not using this as some recurring theme in my sonic commentary as a cop-out: quite the contrary. I'm still trying to understand the true magic, the wholehearted transcendence of the music: When it hits me in a way where I could give a shit about right and wrong, medical problems, the bills, and everything fucked up in my life! That's something beyond the test bench. "A Moment of Clarity" of Boards of Canada's The Campfire Headphase was superbly reproduced. It was cosmic. The crazy guitar sounds and synthy madness, which is also freakin' beautiful, made me feel like I did when I first heard it. It sounded like the perfect post-rave chill-out music. It's also very visual, the sonics of The Campfire Headphase, and the ALO Island + NuForce Primo 8 combo captured that with elegance and some balls. The subtle and strong elements were both given plenty of space to breath.
Shlohmo's "Places" on his Bad Vibes LP is one of my favorite electronic/dubby/experimental tracks of the last decade and its so simple. But when I hear how well he fills empty spaces with minimal sounds, and how its full-bodied nonetheless. His music includes varying influences, but the R&B influence seems to touch almost everything he's done. There's swagger to the beat, this finger-snappin', head-tilted back swagger that's gritty R&B - stripped down to the basics and tough. But also smooth as silk. That's why his music, and this track in particular, is amongst my favorites. It gets you in the nuts: Pardon the crudeness.
Shigeto is another favorite, and similar to Shlohmo is many ways, but his music can often get far deeper ethnically. Shigeto infuses simple electronic dub and stripped-down, underground neo-soul, with European flare, Latin, or even straight-up Detroit-style sways. He's groovy and gritty. His albums usually sound fantastic, and are nicely varied, especially No Better Time Than Now. At times they have this classic acid jazz vibe, peppered with modern underground electronic aesthetics. "Detroit Part I" is a drummy, drivey, heavy-clap thumpin' number with space-invader-type samples filling the soundstage. Actually, I can't figure out what video game he's sampling here - but someone will. During the breakdown, these xylophone-like pings and stabs echo and reverberate throughout the stage, and atop the heavy, minimal drumming. The effect makes for a gloriously open soundstage and the Primo 8 - with ALO's Island as its amplifier - handled this track with ease and snap. It was fast when it needed to be, and laid-back when called for. It captured the essence of the music, and did a magnificent job of translating it's spacey, yet smartly composed sonic journey.
I also tried the Primo 8 with my iPod Touch and iPod Classic, as well as my Astell & Kern AK100 and AK120 DAPs (digital audio players) as that's where many end users will utilize them, including me! Both iPods did OK (the Touch slightly more musical and open than the iPod Classic). But I mostly used (and use) the iPod Classic as a hard-drive/player only with my CEntrance HiFi-M8. I just tried it with the Primo 8s to see what happened. It's not a DAP I use by itself usually. The 8s were splendid companions to my AK100 and 120 DAP! The AK120, with its dual-DACs out-detailed the AK100, and the bass was tighter and more extended. However, given both of those advantages, I preferred the pairing with my AK100!
I know, it doesn't make much sense. But this is also why I stress system synergy so often. You never know what's going to work well together until you try it. Though the AK100 lacked the power and detail of the 120 - I preferred the resulting sound of the combination of the Primo 8 and AK100. It just seemed easier to connect with the emotive power of the music through this pairing. That's what it came down to. Now, remember I said the AK120 and Primo 8 was a more powerful and detailed system... for all you AK120 owners out there.
The NuForce Primo 8 is a musical powerhouse with seductive mids, tight bass and airy highs. This IEM acted more like an on-ear design than an in-ear one! The sound was magnificently full-bodied and spacious. I can (and do) recommend these IEMs with ease to any music lover in the market for a significant upgrade to their existing earbuds without breaking the bank.
Most highly recommended.
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