Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ultra Budget Stereo - NuForce Icon uDAC + Topping TP20 + Cambridge Audio S30

While consumer-grade stereo systems as we have known them (2400w PMPO etc.,) are inexorably moving towards extinction, they are being replaced by an even more lamentable invention known as the 'home theater in a box' (HTIB).  HTIBs, while serviceable for films, do such an awful job of reproducing music that one wonders if humankind is collectively going deaf.  But when Joe Consumer sets out to buy a sound system with 15,000 rupees in his wallet, chances are that he'll come home with an HTIB and feel utterly satisfied because he has acquired a minimum of 6 speakers and a right mess of wires.  Surely something so elaborate and complicated can't sound bad.

One can't blame Joe Consumer entirely.  When he walks into a big-box retailer, he has very few options.  If he wants audio, an HTIB is what will be thrust in his face.  Even if he were to be particularly enterprising, he would at best come home with one of a mere handful of stereo systems from companies like Sony or LG.  Poor Mr. Consumer would have almost certainly missed out on a much better use of his Rs. 15,000, namely the setup that is under review here.

Readers of Play It Clear (all two of you...hi mom) will be familiar with the Topping TP20 amplifier.  This 80 USD giant-killer has been reviewed extensively and has also become quite a rage among the users of HiFiVision. With its frankly ridiculous price-performance ratio, you'd really have to think of a reason NOT to spend about Rs. 3600 on this pint-sized performer.

The challenge was to find a source and speakers that could come close to the Topping in terms of value, and match with the Topping to make a cohesive and good-sounding stereo system.  Enter the Cambridge Audio Sirocco S30 speakers and the NuForce Icon uDAC.  The S30 retails for Rs. 8000, while the uDAC retails for Rs. 3500. That totals to just a touch over the magic Rs. 15,000 figure.  But does this ultra-cheap combination cut the mustard? It was always going to be fun finding out.  

Brief Descriptions and Specs     

The Topping has been described in detail in the original review. But in short it is a digital amplifier using the Tripath TA2020 chip and putting out about 7 clean watts of power (13W maximum continuous power). With a single pair of RCA inputs and no remote, this is very much a no-frills amplifier.    

The Cambridge Audio S30 are easily the cheapest pair of speakers available off-the-shelf from a reputed hi fi brand.  At Rs. 8,000 they really have no competition, with its closest rivals being the entry level Wharfedale Diamonds that go for about Rs. 12,000.   The S30s are rated to handle up to 100 watts but have a sensitivity of 90dB making them suited for pairing with low power amplifiers like the Topping.  The fact that its impedance varies between 4 Ohms and 8 Ohms is however a matter of concern when you're looking to pair it with amps that don't put out gobs of current.  The woofer is a 4.5" woven composite cone, and the tweeter is of the soft-dome variety. The S30s are deeper than they are tall and feature a port at the rear, so one would be well advised to give it as much distance from the rear wall as possible.  

The uDAC is available in India for less than its US RSP of USD 99.  For Rs. 3,500 this diminutive black box (and the pictures can't truly convey how tiny this thing is) will take the digital audio out of your laptop or other computer/device with a USB output, bypassing the computer's analogue stage entirely, and carrying out the Digital to Analog conversion within itself using a Texas Instruments PCM 2706 chip as a USB receiver and an ESS Sabre chip as the DAC. It offers a pair of RCA outputs and a headphone out, with a volume control that affects the output of both (there are no line-level outputs).

Build Quality etc.,

The S30s feature a build quality that belie their bargain-basement price.  They are beautifully finished with a wood-veneer MDF enclosure and a silver-grey baffle (They are also available in black).  Gold-plated bi-wire binding posts finish up the rear of this smart looking pair of speakers.  Knocking on the enclosure provides a reassuring thump.  

The uDAC appears to be solidly built in spite of its light weight and features an all-metal construction with no flex at all.  Gold plated RCAs and a minuscule volume knob round off the unit.  While this little black box is not going to win any beauty contests, its unremarkable appearance will blend in with its surroundings with ease.  


The uDAC was hooked up to my Dell Inspiron 1420 laptop with the supplied USB cable.  Bandridge RCA interconnects were used to hook up the uDAC to the Topping TP20, and Usher/Rapport speaker wire was used to connect the TP20 to the S30s.  Except for one FLAC file, all the other music was played off the DVD-RW drive of the Inspiron using foobar2000.  The laptop was running on battery without mains power connected.


After warming the speakers up with some music for some time, I kicked off the serious listening with Yodhakaa's debut album.  Yodhakaa is a Chennai based band that describes its music as "contemporary Indian music."  Singing in Sanskrit and combining strains of Indian music with elements of blues and jazz, topped off with eclectic percussion and guitarwork, Yodhakaa is easily the finest new musical act to come out of India in some time.  In addition to their great music, Yodhakaa has achieved something that few Indian bands can boast of, a record that is well recorded and produced.

The vocals and guitars on Shri Hari Vallabhe come out full and strong from this combination.  While one would perhaps need to look elsewhere for the last word in detail and separation, the combination dug out enough of the nuances of this delicately recorded track for it to be immersive and enjoyable.  Voices and guitar have beautiful realism and texture in the slow and sensuous Mudaakaraatta.  The percussion is tight and well-defined, and the combination digs deep to do justice to the upright bass on Poorvam, albeit without all of the nuances that a much more expensive setup would have conveyed.

Morph the Cat

Moving on to an old favourite, I slipped in Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat.  The sheer quantity of bass that these speakers dig out is commendable, considering how small they are.  The kick drums and bass on the intro to the title track throb with energy and immediately tell you that this system has the right ideas about sound reproduction.  Snare hits are crisp and the the tone and texture of the horns and electric guitars would befit speakers much more expensive than these.  In fact, it's the middle of the audio-spectrum where these speakers truly shine.  Voices and melodic instruments shine with convincing texture and tremendous coherence.

Love over Gold

The Dire Straits classic, as with other Dire Straits records, is fabulously recorded and the title track is one of my favourite Dire Straits songs and once again this combination did a commendable job of reproducing this track.  The tom hits sounded substantial and realistic, the guitars crackled with life and Mark Knopfler's low rumble was authentic.  However, this track did bring to the fore one of the chief areas of weakness with this setup (which I would primarily blame the speakers for), which is its inability to separate the various instruments and sounds in a mix as well as more expensive setups can.  While the sound is always clean and enjoyable, each instrument is not etched in stone.  But we're talking not about speakers costing Rs. 25,000 here, in fact we're not even talking about speakers costing Rs. 15,000, we're talking of an entire system that costs Rs. 15,000 and when viewed in this light, the failing appears somewhat minor.

Usher Demo CD (v. 1)              

This is one of my favourite audiophile test discs because in addition to featuring some superb recordings, it also features some great music that I truly love. (All tracks on the disc appear to be version recordings of the original songs). The opening track is a version of Cai Qing’s Bei Yi Wang De Shi Guang, made immortal by the hi fi shop scene in Infernal Affairs.  This and others songs on the recording including versions of Astrid Gilberto's "So Nice", Danielle Messia's De La Main Gauche and a couple of songs whose origins I have not been able to trace ("Night in the Moscow Suburbs" and "My Heart and I") all feature exquisite vocal performances and superlative recording.  This ultra-budget setup rises to the occasion so magnificently that I almost felt like applauding during some of the passages.  As mentioned earlier voices and melodic instruments are treated with immense care by this combination, resulting in a very emotional connect with the music.  Especially with small and spare arrangements this combination dazzles and can easily rival combinations costing several times their price.  

G3 - Live  

If you thought live hard rock cannot be recorded well then you haven't heard this record.  Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai come together to put out one of the finest live recordings I've ever heard.  My favourite track off the record is Eric Johnson's 'Manhattan.'  The combination puts out this up-tempo track with great gusto, with tight, precise drums and a faithful reproduction of Eric Johnson's liquid guitar tone.  This is a combination that seems to be as comfortable with rock music as it is with jazz and blues.  

Stimela - Hugh Masekela    

This was the only FLAC that I used during this review.  Hugh Masekela's Stimela is a glorious roller-coaster ride of folk-jazz that features the raspy voice of Masekela himself accompanied by an accomplished jazz band , in a performance of simply staggering verve and scale.  The dynamic swings on this track are immense and are usually a stern test of the dynamic ability of any system.  Our ultra-budget combination while serving up an immersive and convincing version of this classic, did lose some steam in the dynamics department.  Both macro and micro-dynamics are slightly compromised, but it is to the combination's credit that in spite of this the song sounds immensely enjoyable.


So is this Rs. 15,000 combination the true answer for good sound on the cheap? I would have to answer in the affirmative.  It may lack the last word in detail or separation and might lose out in terms of dynamic ability to its (much) more expensive competitors, but it punches well above its weight when it comes to the tone and texture of the mid-range, the even tonality across the frequency spectrum and the sheer brio with which it tackles any music that is thrown at it.  Even aspects like detail only suffer in comparison to combinations that would easily cost double the amount of cash you would shell out for this one.      This combination does so many things right that these failings appear to be relatively minor on an absolute scale and utterly irrelevant at this price.  This is a combination that offers excellent sound reproduction, tremendous coherence and musicality and an ability to draw you into the music. It also manages to avoids the brightness and harshness that budget sound systems typically tend to suffer from.  The overall sound is refined and sophisticated and you could easily fool your blindfolded friends into believing you spent Rs. 40,000 on this combination.