NuForce is a pretty young company with only six years of product design under their belt. Still, since their inception they have been committed to high quality sound. Some of their first products were high-end reference amplifiers. Since we've been recently covering some high-end portable audio equipment, our readers have been eager to hear about other types of accessories to use with high end headphones and monitors. This will be the first of a few high-end audio accessory reviews. Others coming up are the NuForce uDac2, HiFiMan's HM601, Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones, Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro, and Beyerdynamic's famous DT880 reference monitors.
The NuForce Icon Mobile is a portable headphone amplifier and DAC. It's self-powered by a lithium ion battery (I opened it up and it appeared to be from a common cell phone– good if you ever need to replace it!), has a gain switch, and two headphone outputs. This is great as it allows you to share with another person.
Another excellent feature is the included DAC. This makes it similar to the Total Bithead amplifier/DAC by allowing you to plug it into a computer via USB and have an external sound card with great quality. Additionally, it has a feature not found on any other DAC amp I have seen: 4 pin Headset input. Yes, that's right, the Total Bithead is compatible with your iPhone headsets. That includes Ultimate Ears Triple.fi 10vi and the Bowers and Wilkins P5 headset. You can use the built in microphones through the Icon Mobile. Totally awesome!
As for sound quality, the Icon Mobile does a great job of transparently boosting volume. This really came in handy with a few sets such as the Beyerdynamic DT880 I was trying to power. They just wouldn't get loud enough out of my iPhone but with the Icon Mobile, it was plenty loud. If you don't know, amplification can make some pretty interesting and significant changes to music. Some headphones really "turn on" when driven with enough power. They will allow you to explore the song's full detail and really start to hear what's going on. The Icon Mobile does this beautifully.
I think that the Icon Mobile is the best portable amplifier I have ever used. The only feature I wish was included was a bass boost feature. This would be very helpful when listening to a neutral set of headphones and you want just a little extra bass. Otherwise, it's packed with features, includes its own USB-rechargeable battery, and is quite good looking. Every audio enthusiast should give it a try.