Equipment

NuForce HAP-100 Headphone Amplifier

Over the past couple of years, there have been two principle driving forces within the hi-fi industry.  The first is the maturation of digital technology in the form of DACs and streaming-related systems; the second has revolved around headphones.  The latter is partly the result of the plastic-coated biscuit tins overtaking the ears of MP3-centric teenagers.  Whatever the impetus, the current headphone boom is one that the hi-fi world has welcomed.  NuForce distinguishes itself from the pack by offering such idiosyncratically designed products as the HAP-100, which is based around a single-ended class-A stage and, at $595, is priced reasonably.

At the front of the HAP-100’s low-profile box is a volume control that uses the same switched-resistor ladder network as the company’s flagship P-20 preamp, which provides low noise, a thin-film resistor array and a total of 100 steps in gain.  The HAP-100 also promises low distortion, being backed by a toroidal power supply with large capacitor reserves and high-speed regulation.  The front panel is complete with a full-size 1/4-inch socket, plus a display indicating the number of the selected input and the volume level, from zero to 99.

You can select the input and turn the unit on and off via its dinky remote control.  From the chassis, you turn on the HAP-100 by pressing in the volume knob, and turn it off by holding the knob for three seconds, and you select the input by pressing this hard-working knob from one to four times.  These functions are not immediately obvious without the instruction booklet.  On the rear are four sets of inputs that allow the unit to be used as a preamp, plus a pair of outputs with a rocker power switch and power socket.

Say What?

Spinning the Beatles’ “Free As A Bird,” via my Densen B-475 CD player and Sennheiser HD 800s (and an Icon HP8 MKII valve-based headphone amp as a reference), I’m not surprised to hear tighter bass frequencies from the solid-state HAP-100.  Ringo Starr’s percussion, from his trusty Ludwig drum kit, is snappy, taught and sharp.  In fact, transients are fast and pacey throughout the entire song.

This particular track, from the Anthology 1 collection, has a midrange that is rather elevated, and the NuForce does nothing to rein that in.  It keeps the midrange right up there and even gives it a forward feel—nothing too bright, mind you; just a feeling that the mids have all been pushed slightly toward the front of the soundstage.

George Harrison’s solo, on his Fender, is detailed and informative while flirting with brightness but never becoming uncomfortable.  Similarly, John Lennon’s spiritual presence—the song was produced posthumously from takes he recorded before his death—is accented to emphasize his role in the mix, and the NuForce retains that effect, sometimes reacting to Lennon’s crescendos with a slight harshness.  Paul McCartney’s bass is successfully enhanced within this environment, honed and full of character, while his work on the analog Oberheim synthesizer becomes more prominent within the mix and his vocals are clean and concise.

I switch to Bing Crosby’s “At the Jazz Band Ball,” from Bing in Dixieland, on which the brass backing is noticeably forceful and rather clinical in its approach.  Again, the HAP-100 does not cross any lines to make this section unattractive; the brass adopts an almost textural position, allowing for extreme examination.  The piano on “Sometimes I’m Happy” is bouncy, nimble and almost frisky. A set of keys on amphetamines, the piano is sunny and perky, almost to the extreme.  Crosby’s vocals are warm, smooth and focused.  With the help of the NuForce, Crosby doesn’t just sing; he climbs inside my head.

Onto Analog

Spinning the original release of Colin Blunstone’s Ennismore, I find the introductory acoustic guitar work to be nothing short of sublime.  The NuForce tweaks the warmth of the vinyl reproduction by providing a much-needed dash of extra focus that allows it to spring to life.  And the waterfall of upper-mid information is a pure delight.  Similarly, the lower frequencies from the bass guitar and percussion provide a new grounding for the entire track, giving it both structure and drive.  The bass especially gives the song new depth and richness that also expand the soundstage.  Through the HAP-100, Blunstone’s vocals are emotionally enhanced, revealing a new fragility, along with new lyrical meaning and emphasis.  The song’s rhythmic strings also now hold a more important position within the mix, adding a portentous, almost foreboding tone that was not nearly as present before.

It seems that vinyl and the HAP-100 are equally delightful and transparent.  But I’m still not totally convinced, so I reach for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook.  On “Johnny One Note,” the brass in the big band is delicately textured, evoking a similar feeling as when you run your hand over an embossed piece of lettered card.  Thanks to the NuForce, the ear hears the orchestra in a similar way, with each instrument raised from the soundstage, stimulating and tickling the senses beautifully.  Fitzgerald gives a serene performance that is smooth but with an impassioned glow that surrounds the song like a large sonic umbrella.  Her sense of timing and emphasis provides a delivery that the NuForce tracks perfectly.

Home Stretch

I try other headphones with the NuForce that have much lower price points, just to see how it responds to lesser hardware.  The $200 B&W P3s offer good value for the money while still being able to provide bass emphasis, but with these headphones the NuForce doesn’t play ball.  The HAP-100 seems to take great delight in highlighting what the P3s do badly rather than what they do well.  Bass is all I receive with the P3-NuForce combo, and detail is nowhere to be found.  Upper mids? What upper mids?  I then take a gulp and plug in a pair of roughly $50 Sennheiser PX 100s, which are brilliant for their price.  They usually hold their own, but with the NuForce I find myself yawning.  There is apparently no point in using this amp with budget phones.

But don’t let that sway your opinion of the HAP-100 too much, for it is indeed an intriguing headphone amplifier.  It will provide the truth, but it will spare no blushes while doing so—this is an amp that sees itself as the center of the universe.

In many respects, the HAP-100 demands that you build your interest in music around it and that you do things by its rules.  That means providing it with the highest-resolution source possible and the best headphones that you can afford.  If you do, it will provide a blissful musical experience.  -Paul Rigby

NuForce HAP-100 headphone amplifier

MSRP: $595

www.nuforce.com

Peripherals

Analog Source Avid Acutus turntable    SME IV tonearm    Benz Glider cartridge
Digital Source Densen B-475 CD player
Headphones Sennheiser HD 800    B&W P3    Sennheiser PX 100
Headphone Amplifier Icon HP8 MKII
Preamplifier Aesthetix Calypso
Power Isotek Super Titan conditioner    Isotek Power cords
Cables Tellurium Q Blue/Black