HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



November
2006

Reviewed by
Jeff Van Dyne
REVIEWERS' CHOICE


NuForce
AVP 16 Surround-Sound
Processor

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: AVP 16

Price: $999 USD
Dimensions: 17"W x 3.54"H x 18"D
Weight: 17.5 pounds

Warranty: Three years parts and labor

Features

  • Supports Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6

Features (cont'd)
  • 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/192kHz PCM D/A conversion
  • Video connections: two composite, two S-video, three component
  • Component-video support up to 1080i
  • Digital audio input: two coaxial/optical, one CD coaxial (video circuit off when CD input is selected)
  • Analog audio input: one set of 7.1 analog inputs for SACD/DVD-Audio, five analog inputs, one analog record out
  • 7.1 RCA outputs
  • Four XLR outputs for L, R, C, SW
  • Aluminum faceplate

There are few enough inexpensive surround-sound processors out there that any new ones require at least a look. When such a product hits the market from a company with bona fide high-end credentials, such as NuForce, it commands special attention. NuForce’s amplifiers have caused quite a stir within the audiophile community, and recently in my own home theater. When a high-end company decides to build an inexpensive component, especially something as complex and challenging to design as a surround-sound processor, you can be assured the outcome won’t be something that looks like everything else on the market.

The NuForce AVP 16 ($999), a no-frills surround-sound processor whose design focuses heavily on sound quality, perfectly fits this description. In comparison to every other such product I’ve seen in recent years, the AVP 16 is simplicity itself. In an age of gargantuan receivers and surround-sound processors, it’s a much-needed breath of fresh air that I think will appeal to an entirely different type of consumer. As a reviewer, I’m frequently faced with the daunting task of configuring surround-sound processors, and each time I fondly think back to the early days of home theater. That’s when I used a Fosgate Model 4, which was as straightforward to set up and use as any surround processor I’ve seen since. The NuForce AVP 16 reminds me of the Fosgate.

Description

The AVP 16 is also similar in size to the Fosgate Model 4, but its dimensions (17"W x 3.54"H x 18"D) enclose a vastly more complex and capable suite of electronics. The NuForce’s small size is particularly remarkable in direct comparison to the Outlaw Model 990, which I reviewed a while back. It was all I could do to squeeze the Outlaw into my equipment rack -- with the AVP, enough air space was left over to accommodate an Air Force base. The AVP 16’s thick front panel of anodized aluminum is finished in an unusual shade of blue that I found attractive and refreshingly different. And anyway, who decided that all electronic components should be made available in any color, so long as it’s black or silver? However, all the extra space around the NuForce means you’ll likely be able to see its top cover, which on my sample was white. The AVP 16 can be ordered with a black case, which, unless the preamp is to be bolted into an enclosed rack, would probably be preferable. The NuForce also ships with a rack-mount faceplate that I thought detracted from its natural good looks. However, this is a minor cosmetic quibble; custom installers will welcome the option with open arms.

Less is more: The AVP 16’s front panel is adorned with only a power switch, volume control, function knob, a small display, and a handful of lights indicating the chosen surround mode. The function knob is used to access the setup menu and make settings, which means the AVP 16 can be set up and programmed with or without the remote control. The display is generally readable from 10’ away, which fewer and fewer displays are these days (though this is almost certainly a need for stronger corrective lenses on my part). The rear panel is as crowded as the front panel is empty: finding a way to cram all the connections required of a surround processor into this small a space has got to be something of a designer’s nightmare. Everything does fit, though the connectors are packed pretty tightly -- this, combined with fat audiophile interconnects, may elicit a few strings of four-letter words from those with less than nimble fingers. But once the task of hooking up the AVP 16 has been completed, this, too, will have passed.

Simplicity remains the name of the game: the inputs are all hardwired, which reduces flexibility from assignable inputs but simplifies setup. There seem to be plenty of inputs to go around, so I see little problem with the inability to assign such things as the digital inputs. In a nod to NuForce’s high-end roots, the AVP 16’s designers somehow found space on the rear panel to shoehorn in XLR outputs to feed the left, right, center, and subwoofer amplifiers -- an unexpected touch on a relatively inexpensive product. HDMI and DVI switching are not supported, but these connections are still more the exceptions than the rules, and are not to be expected on a $1000 processor. Inexpensive external HDMI switchers, such as the Monoprice HDX-501 I use, are readily available, so I don’t consider this much of a drawback.

I take issue with two aspects of the AVP 16’s design. First is NuForce’s use of a mechanical power switch, which precludes remote control of turn-on/off. This will be a minor inconvenience for most installations -- and, in fairness, NuForce does recommend that it be left on all the time -- but it’s an odd choice in today’s marketplace. Second is the remote control itself, which holds the dubious distinction of being marginally worse than the one accompanying Toshiba’s HD-A1 HD DVD player. The AVP 16’s remote is solidly built and pretty to look at, but its lack of backlighting and its daunting array of row after row of small chrome buttons make it virtually useless as a home-theater remote. The fact that you have to remove two small screws to gain access to the battery compartment only adds insult to injury. I’ve long urged my friends to buy good universal remotes, such as the Harmony 880, but in this case investing in a learning remote of some sort is less a suggestion than a requirement.

I installed the AVP 16 in my home theater along with the three NuForce Reference 8.5 monoblock amps I reviewed in October. A Rotel RB-976 multichannel amp pulled surround duty. After all the cables had been hooked up, initial setup went incredibly fast -- with the AVP 16, not all that many parameters are adjustable. After that, there was little left to do but sit back and listen. I thought the speaker-level adjustment increment of 1dB was a bit coarse for optimum adjustment, but otherwise there were no major misses or unwelcome surprises.

Listening

From the outset, the AVP 16 struck me as a music lover’s surround processor, so that’s where I started. First up was Patricia Barber’s Night Club [CD, Blue Note 27290], and I was very surprised to hear Barber’s voice sounding nearly as rich and lustrous on "Autumn Leaves" as it does through my tubed system. I switched back and forth between the analog and digital outputs of my Adcom GCD-600 CD player, and concluded that the AVP 16 is one of the few budget surround-sound processors I’ve heard through which the Adcom sounded as good from its digital output as it did through its own Burr-Brown DACs. This is high praise for a surround processor that costs only a few hundred more than the Adcom did more than a few years ago.

Next up was the Blue Man Group’s The Complex [CD, Atlantic 83631]. The spatial imaging maintained by the AVP 16 and NuForce’s own amplifiers on "Time to Start" was at least as good as with my own Anthem AVM 20 preamp-processor in the system. Furthermore, during the course of this review I was playing around with a pair of low-cost Infinity Primus 150s, and the electronics were able to help this respectable set of budget loudspeakers attain a certain level of audiophile performance in both soundstaging and imaging. If you ever doubt how much electronics matter, take a speaker with known shortcomings and see what quality electronics can do for it. You might be surprised.

Finally, I put in the Fry Street Quartet’s recording of Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor, Op.9 No.4 [Fry Street Quartet FSQCD4]. Ray Kimber of Kimber Kable was the recording engineer, and he used IsoMike baffles to isolate the four microphones from each other. The result is a very clear and lifelike reproduction of the ambience of the auditorium it was recorded in. The NuForce AVP 16 let every last nuance of this very detailed recording shine through with flying colors. The violins never sounded etched or fatiguing, but warm, involving, and pleasurable at all times. I’ve heard two-channel preamps costing this much and more that could take a few lessons from the NuForce.

I then switched to movies. A lot of new review fodder is lying around the house in the form of HD DVDs, most bought for their capabilities in showcasing hi-rez video. But these discs also come with hi-rez soundtracks as well. Aeon Flux has an astonishingly good picture and also features a pretty decent Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. Though the movie itself isn’t as horrible as some reviewers have suggested, it didn’t live up to its potential. At least it keeps up a decent pace, and the soundtrack hums right along with the action, which provides plenty of material for surround-sound demonstrations. I found Aeon’s quiet attack on the surveillance system to be most revealing: The subtle noise of water dripping into the pool and the detailed voices coming from all around are the sonic keys to this scene. Great surround sound is all about subtleties and detail, and the AVP 16 didn’t miss a beat.

So far, one of my favorite movies to have come out on HD DVD is Ray. The film, a moving peek into the life of one of music’s legends, exposes both his genius and his flaws, and it’s Jamie Foxx’s outstanding portrayal that makes it work as well as it does. Though I would have loved it had Universal seen fit to include a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, the Dolby Digital Plus version on this disc is absolutely stunning and kicks some serious behind. The AVP 16 kicked right along with it, blending the foreground music and the background crowd noises into a cohesive whole. Plenty of other processors can do this, but few surround-sound processors at this price perform this well and are musical at the same time.

Comparison

Pitting the NuForce AVP 16 against the Anthem AVM 20, which at $3399 costs almost three-and-a-half times as much, can’t be considered fair in anybody’s playbook, but that’s just what I did. What made the comparison all the more interesting was that these two surround processors are the results of two radically different design philosophies. The relatively simple and inexpensive NuForce seems to have been designed with the assumption that when new audio standards are established, you can keep your existing power amps and buy a new processor as needed. With the AVM 20, on the other hand, Anthem has tried to provide everything any customer could possibly want, as well as an upgrade path to accommodate any future developments.

But even in such an unfair fight, the NuForce held up surprisingly well. Playing two-channel recordings, the AVP 16 was every bit the AVM 20’s sonic equal, which I found a bit shocking. Musically, the NuForce is one of the better surround processors I’ve heard in a while. When it came to surround sound, the more flexible Anthem began to pull ahead, if only for its ability to let the user fine-tune a system by optimally adjusting a large number of parameters. Many of the Anthem’s features are designed to accommodate various unusual circumstances -- something the NuForce doesn’t even attempt. Some will find these special features useful, others will not. If you fall into the latter camp, then the NuForce AVP 16 may be all the surround-sound processor you’ll ever need.

Conclusion

The NuForce AVP 16 is a well-designed processor with only a few, relatively minor operational quirks to detract from its otherwise stellar performance -- quirks that can be easily overcome or mostly ignored. The tradeoff is an exceptionally musical surround-sound processor at an extremely reasonable price. While there are certainly more flexible products on the market, none that I know of sounds this good at anywhere near this price. The AVP 16 would be an extraordinarily good choice for the music lover who needs a reasonably priced preamplifier that can also act as a surround-sound processor when the need arises. All in all, the AVP 16 is quite a deal.

Review System
Speakers - Silverline Sonatina (mains), PSB Stratus C5 (center), PSB Alpha AV Mite (surrounds)
Preamplifier-Processors - Anthem AVM 20, Monoprice HDX-501
Amplifiers - Rotel RB-976, Chiro C-300, NuForce Reference 8.5
Sources - Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player, Oppo OPDV971H DVD player, Sony SAT-HD200 DirecTV receiver, Adcom GCD-600 CD player
Display Device - Panasonic PT-AE900 LCD projector
Cables - Analysis Plus, Audio Magic, Straight Wire, Monster Cable
 

Manufacturer contact information:

NuForce
356 South Abbott Avenue
Milpitas, CA 95035
Phone: (408) 627-7859
Fax: (408) 262-6877

E-mail: info@nuforce.com
Website: www.nuforce.com


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