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NuForce Primo-8 in-ear headphones review: an incredible piece of technological architecture!

Par Barry Moore |

The progress made in the development of in-ear headphones, intended for audio experts and the general public alike, has been astounding…assuming that you’re willing to splash the cash of course, because the development of these little ear accessories is slowly becoming an art form in itself. Qobuz Hi-Fi Guide turns its attentions to a product that is generating quite a (Qo)buzz: NuForce Primo-8 (499 Euros).

Without going as far as to declare that NuForce has set the standards for the in-ear headphone market, we’d happily declare that the pricey M8 model is not like all others, strictly speaking, largely explaining our shock when we reached the checkout…

To set the scene, it’s worth remembering that NuForce is far from being a newcomer in the audiophile world. The brand has been around for a while and has not given its customers any reasons to be disappointed – for instance, we gave its HA 200 model a ‘Qobuzified’ thumbs-up a few months ago.

Very invested in amplifiers and quality DACs, NuForce also offers audiophile headphones and accessible in-ear headphones; however, to our knowledge, this is the first time that the American company has really focused its efforts on the conception of in-ear headphones that are set to revolutionise the market.

The authors of the Qobuz Hi-Fi Guide want to be clear about this product: it targets people who are looking for something at the higher end of the market that’ll give better than average audio signal. We’re talking here neither about balancing MP3 with 128k, nor AAC from goodness knows where. On the contrary, the M8 model’s strengths lie in its 98 and non-compressed 16-bit or 24-bit, matching one of our favourites, the Astell&Kern AK120.

An atypical conception that performs a balancing act!
The Primo-8 in-ear headphones are supposed to be inserted in the auditory canal and are, truthfully, expertly crafted maelstroms of miniaturised technology. Before detailing its every aspect, remember NuForce’s selling points: to offer the experts and the general public a balanced, bass-driven sound that doesn’t compromise on frequency.

In short, the brand has constructed its business model around the concept of multi speakers, ingeniously all inserted in the product’s core. There are no fewer than 4 drivers in each earphone. These models are known by audiophiles as quad balancing armature in-ear headphones. Interestingly, this type of transducer, originally used in the conception of hearing aids, is a small box with a bar enclosed that in turn moves a coil.

In the Primo-8, there are two drivers working in tandem for the bass, with a single driver for the mid-range and treble respectively. We’re not going to disguise the fact that the conception of this type of architecture requires a fine balancing act, and to get things right, it’s essential that they all synchronise. If even one of the drivers were faulty, this would completely ruin the listening experience.

It’s not the first time that a brand’s tried to revolutionise in-ear headphone architecture. To our knowledge, Shure more or less did this six or seven years ago (and quite successfully too), in the same way as Westone or Ultimate Ears. Following our tests, we at Qobuz Hi-Fi Guide were ready to declare the product a ‘make-or-break’, so tricky the attempts are for this technology. NuForce hasn’t gone for the easy option by choosing a quad balanced armature design. In passing it’s worth noting that the tandem for the bass punches well above its weight, provided that it doesn’t overpower the decibels of the other parts of the spectrum.

Things worth noting:
NuForce has overloaded the cable with a Kevlar core, an inner layer silver wire and a thick layer of insolation.
The product is delivered with multiple silicon ear tips, a sleeve and a cloth for cleaning.
The product’s insulation has been well-thought through, as the silicon ear tips show.

Testing Ground!
Once you’ve placed the headphones in your ear, the Primo-8 quickly kicks into mode – you’d think we were reviewing Ferrari test cars instead of high-end audio products! – so effectively that you simply won’t be content with just wearing them, you’ll end up losing yourself in the music…

As with the 24-bit/192 kHz Astell&Kern AK120 Player, the Primo-8 was tested by a member of the Qobuz team over a week during a trip to China. We combined our audio tests with our holiday to-do list, listening to the device everywhere we went from inside the aeroplane, to the hustle and bustle of the streets, to the calmer ambiance of the hotel. We listened to different types of music in 16-bit and 24-bit.

Our first impressions: at the risk of sounding banal, Qobuz Hi-Fi Guide is just going to say that the Primo-8 really packs a punch! Its dynamic has little to do with the (too numerous) in-ear headphones, as intricate as their design may be, enabling their insertion into the auditory canal. The NuForce also does a good job of contrasting pianissimo et fortissimo. Here's a breakdown of what our team thought, point by point.

Bass: absolutely superb! Rarely do we get to hear such a convincing bass without distortion or lagging, or worse a sensation of ‘stuffing’ decibels. The intro of Björk’s “Hunter” literally knocked us out with the delivery of its fully rounded, lasting bass.

Mid-range: difficult to miss it! Both a strong and weak point of the whole, it is strongly supported and very much at the forefront. All vocals sound perfect and extremely present, supporting the rest of the spectrum by outmanoeuvring a little the low and high frequencies of the audio spectrum (we really do mean ‘a little’). That being said, there is zero distortion, no aggressive over-saturation and a general sense that the dynamics are to be reckoned with. You immediately get the impression that the sound is ‘full-bodied’ and not at all hollow, thanks to the wonderful mid-range. It even sounds louder when you turn up the volume, if you need further proof!

Treble: don’t ask too much from it! We tested the transcription of the treble several times in our analysis; in order to reach the following conclusions: NuForce does not overdo the treble, more or less leaving it as it is. This means you need to actively ‘look for it’ whilst listening, compared to other products that offer a dithyramb in this section of the spectrum. In any case the treble, measured, never thrusted to the forefront, shows a level of restraint, always nuanced… Yet we feel that it lacks a defined presence; that ‘little bit extra’.

Sound Dimensions: outstanding. Not a lot of add except that it’s splendid in its general opening, in its placement of sounds and its positioning of instruments (percussion, synths etc.). The listener is instantly drawn in by the music and finds himself at its core.

Overall verdict: the least we can say is that the NuForce Primo-8 goes all out to put on a real show! It’s difficult to stay composed when confronted with this conception based on 2 x 4 quad balancing armature transducers. The result? A generally excellent balance, a mind-blowing bass, a mid-range that takes precedence over everything else, a treble that doesn’t overdo things, and, in particular, terrific dynamic and stereo.

Good points
Expert conception!
Quality of the materials and cable
Earphones fit nicely in the ear and are insulated
A superb, lively bass!
Very present mid-range
A moderated treble, never too aggressive
A wicked dynamic
Surprisingly good stereo

Bad points
The price!
A treble that’s ‘not present enough’
A mid-range that often takes over the rest of the spectrum

In-ear headphones, enclosed, 4 quad balancing armature transducers
Frequency range: from 20 to 20,000 Hz
3-way / 4-driver system: 2 x bass, 1 x mid-range, 1 x treble
NuForce cable with Kevlar core
Strong insulation
Comes with several silicon ear tips, protective sleeve, cleaning cloths and a mini-Jack/Jack adaptor
Price: 499 € www.nuforce.com

PP Garcia pour Qobuz
Twitter @ppgarcia75

Translated for Qobuz by Amy Clarke