No Music: Audio Gd NFB-12

audiogd_nfb12_01

I have mixed feelings about this entry level DAC/Amp box from Audio-Gd. In contrast to the Ref 7.1 flagship model which I absolutely love, this Audio Gd NFB-12 isn’t quite as lovable as the big brother. You may say that should be obvious, given the price difference, but that’s not what I’m talking about. This is not about the price, as there are products sold at entry level prices that I absolutely love, such as the $60 JDSLabs Cmoy, the $145 HRT Music Streamer II, the $189 Audinst HUD-Mx1, and the $250 Schiit Asgard comes to mind. Those products are all relatively entry level, and yet they manage to pull out such an incredible sounding performance that I really makes me forget about their price tag. This entry level Audio-Gd, however, is just not it.

I am going to talk about the sound a little bit so you know why I’m feeling this way about this product. Plug in the AC power, plug in the USB cable, choose the TE7022 audio output, and start playing some basic songs in my playlist. I started with a Beyerdynamic T1 initially. The Audio Gd had a nice weighty bass body, but that’s just about it. The sound was grainy and rough in the treble and mids, and somewhat felt sucked in (as in the opposite of feeling spacious or full). No good, for sure. If you’ve heard me talk about the Audio-Gd Compass, then let me tell you, I think I may be having a déjà vu right now.

Maybe the Beyerdynamic T1 is too revealing, too high-end, and so I switched to the Superlux HD661. The sound somewhat improved, perhaps due to the $50 Superlux not being as revealing as the $1,400 T1. The grain is gone, but something about the sound is still not right. The treble is dry and thin, the midrange seems to have conflicting opinions with itself. On one hand vocals can be good and present with a solid midbass supporting the beats. But between the vocals and the midbass, there seem to be a small blackhole sucking out midrange body. Clearly, I don’t quite understand how to explain this “conflicting midrange” phenomenon, except to put it simply, “it sounds bad”. I don’t mean to offend NFB-12 owners there, but I just want to tell the others what I really feel about the product.

The build quality is actually very good. Knob and switches, features, are all very good.

I decided to pull out the Audinst HUD-MX1 that I borrowed from my friend Peter and do an A-B. Certainly that tiny, USB powered Audinst, full of SMD components can’t possibly sound better than the  well-engineered Audio-Gd? Well, here is what I heard: The Audio Gd has a cleaner background, most probably due to the much better power supply regulation section versus the Audinst’s USB power. Soundstage was half an inch wider on the Audio-Gd, bass weightier, but the advantage stops there. The Audinst had an overall deeper soundstage, though less clear separation. The Audinst had a more proper tonal balance with a fuller sounding, sweeter sounding midrange (proper tonal balance and midrange: those are the words you should be paying attention to). Yes the Audinst comes a bit short on the technicalities, but to my ears, midrange body and overall tonal balance is far more important than a tiny bit improvement in instrument separation. Overall, music just sound better and more coherent on the Audinst.

I did a quick google on NFB-12 and found out that this device is based on the WM8741 wolfson DAC, and the TE7022L USB receiver chip. Funny since I’m also working on the review of the Fiio E10, which is based on the same DAC and USB receiver chip. Although the NFB-12 is superior on the technicalities (looking at the size I would expect it to), but the tonality is totally dry whereas the Fiio is nice and full sounding. Somehow Audio-Gd had tuned the NFB-12 to carry a similar signature to the PCM1704 based Ref7.1. The sound is dark and with weighty lows, but the similarity stops there. Where the Ref7.1 sounds amazing even compared to other DACs in its price bracket, the NFB-12 feels dry and sucked out. I certainly don’t feel the signature WM8740 smooth sound that makes the WM8740/1 so lovable on other DACs say the Cambridge Audio Dacmagic.

I actually like how the Audio-Gd has a weightier bass section than the Audinst (regular readers probably know that by now), but given how things sound as a whole, sorry I just can’t take what the Audio-Gd throws at me, whereas the Audinst still sounds very sweet, almost two years since I first listened to it. This is not about the price, as I’ve been making recommendations for the Audinst to a lot of people, and will continue to do so. And this is not about anti-China either, as I have given the Ref7.1 Audio-Gd one of the best praises I’ve written so far (people who reads my twitter feeds know that very well). But the way this Audio-Gd is behaving just makes it hard for me to like it.

It is quite a pity that the sound ends up to be like that since this box had a lot of potential to be a very strong performer in the $200 range. Dual Wolfson WM8741 chips, Tenor TE7022 receiver chip, WM8805 S/PDIF receiver chip, USB, Coaxial, and Toslink inputs, a discrete solid state headphone section out. This box had it all, and for $200 I don’t think I can find a more full-featured DAC as the NFB-12. But at the end what matters is the sound, where all those additional features really comes second.

The back panel is also loaded with interface connectors: Analog out, Optical, Coaxial, and USB input.

 

The Tenor TE7022L USB receiver chip is starting to become the standard solution for many 24/96 USB DACs.

Two WM8741 chip on the right side.

 

The WM8805 S/PDIF receiver chip.

 

I tried spending a few more days with the NFB-12, but my feelings toward it doesn’t seem to change, and so I think I should stop writing right here.

Thanks to Yaska for the Audio-Gd loaner. Yep, you’re welcome dude, you deserve something better.

 

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  • Austin@AudioExcursions

    That doesn’t sound too good, and I thought all of audio-gd looked nice. Weighty bass is the only thing likable?

    • Anonymous

      Yes weighty bass is really nice.

  • P. J.

    Thanks for your thoughts Mike. I am still considering of getting it but with the DIR9001 spdif receiver as it sounds much better or so its said. How many hours has that NFB12 clocked so far? Because from my experience Audio GD gear needs a lot of hours before it becomes appealing.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know how it would sound with the DIR9001 SPDIF but it sounded the same with USB so I think that’s not where the problem is.
      And likewise about the burn in, the unit has had plenty of burn in time. You know I know that caps need burn in and stuff (and the Ref 7.1 that I reviewed changes with burn in too), but most of the changes happen in a relatively short amount of time 24-48 hours. None of that 3000+ hours some people say before they suddenly turn to a totally different sound.

      • P. J.

        I know you know Mike, I was just interested if this was a newer device or well used.
        Does this device have opamps, replaceable?

        • Anonymous

          Lol sorry I think my writing was not very smooth there. I just read it again and I was like “What was I thinking when I wrote that?”
          Anyway, the device is well used, and no I don’t see any replaceable opamps.

          • P. J.

            No problem, I’m the same sometimes.

            I ordered some Audio GD discrete opamps for Auditor and thought I might use them with the NFB12 if I decide to get it. I would only use it for PC, TV and movies but I guess there are cheaper products out there that offer the same functionality.

            • Anonymous

              Can you use the discrete opamps for the Auditor? I thought the Auditor runs at 120V which is higher than conventional opamps.
              Also, my friends who’ve tried the discrete opamps from Audio Gd said they were pretty bad. The Burson discrete opamp is much better.

  • Jellybean

    Thank you for your review! Almost made a mistake in buying it! Back to Audinst mx1 I guess. I had high hopes for this with everything they had inside… Bummer ahaha.
    Makes me wonder why head-fiers recommend this highly

    • Anonymous

      Well this is just my take on the NFB-12, other people may have a different opinion. :)

  • Arashi

    Could you try out the Style Audio Carat Ruby2? 

    • Anonymous

      I really enjoyed their entry level UD-1 model, but as for the Ruby2, I don’t know, will have to find one first and they’re not that popular around here so that may be difficult to do.

      • Arashi

         That’d be good, I’ll like to see how it fares against the Audinst, since I got my Ruby2 at roughly the same price a Audinst costs…

        • Anonymous

          Yes nice. They have a lot of models, and from my experience with the entry level UD-1, I have strong feelings that the higher up model is going to be good.

  • CapTouch

    Hi Mike,

    A couple of things, since I have this DAC/AMP myself.

    This unit has digital filter settings and some do sound subpar. Based on your picture (2nd one from bottom showing the two 8741’s), your in the 8x linear phase half-band setting, which I found to really have a lack of detail and it blends/blurs way too much. If you remove the bottom jumper to the immediate left of the bottom big cap, you’re in 8x minimum phase apodising mode, which I found to restore the detail. That’s one big thing that would love to get your impressions on.

    Second, the unit sounds pretty bad on the Low gain setting. Having it on High is important.

    Third, I found the headphone out to be subpar and perhaps an afterthought compared to the DAC. I only use it as a DAC as my other amp options sound much better.

    If you still have the unit, can you try to switch the digital filter setting as mentioned above, verify High gain is set, and see what you think using as a DAC only going into something like the EF5 or any other good amp?

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Captouch.

      You know I don’t think the different phase settings make any difference to the sound. It’s standard feature on WM8740/1s and I don’t think I’ve yet found one DAC where I can consistently identify blindly, the effect of the filters on the WM8740/1. The effect is just way too subtle.
      Low gain and High gain normally have these effects: lower noise floor on low gain, blacker background. More forward, slightly livelier sound on high gain, higher noise floor and less clean background. Other than that the effects are pretty minimal.
      I think I tried it with a few other amps including the three Apex amplifiers among others, and I still couldn’t bring myself to like it.

      • CapTouch

        Based on my listening tests it wasn’t subtle – I wasn’t expecting to hear a noticeable difference either.  The difference between the 2x oversampling filters I tried were indeed very subtle/non-discernable via blind testing.  But surprisingly, there was a clear difference between the 8x min apodising and 8x linear half-band.

        Anyway, understand you can’t retest for every request that comes in.  Thanks for your review, I really enjoy your site.

  • no one

    Recommended on Head-Fi every 5 minutes. . . 

    • http://twitter.com/Lieven_V Lieven V

      Lots of things on headfi get recommended every 5 minutes by people who actually never heared it :)

    • Anonymous

      Very nice.

  • Evan

    I actually felt the same way you do about the NFB-12 and compass when I first heard them, but recently I got the chance to listen to the newer NFB10SE (obviously not in the same price bracket) and it blew me away.

    • Anonymous

      Sounds good, Evan.

  • Anonymous

    You know Yaska who owns the NFB-12 here actually told me that he felt that there was something weird and dry about the midrange too. 

  • Eclipes1127

    exaggerated review…

  • P. J.

    Some people used Burson opamps with it so I assumed it should also work with Audio GD opamps. They are cheap opposed to the very expensive Bursons, will see how they perform.

    • Anonymous

      Yes the Burson costs double (or triple?) the cost of the Audio-Gd opamps. But trust me, all the DIYer I know who have experimented with the Moon/Sun/Earth opamps 2-3 years ago when they were just released, all went back to the usual DIP opamps.
      It’s not that the dark/neutral/bright signature doesn’t fit them, they say, but it’s the other issues with the sound.

  • quasio

    Hi Mike,
    Love your reviews, I have the NFB-5,  I assume it will sound similar.  The biggest difference with the NFB-5 is that it has the opamp swapping option and a slightly better power supply. 

    I’ve also felt similar, I wasn’t blown away when i first heard it, but then i dont have that much of an experience with this stuff. But comparing to my computer/flavors/ PA2V2 etc.. the differences were all so subtle. (i have HD650 now)

    Couple of questions:
    1. Did you happen to try the optical or Coax with this guy? i’ve found i can’t listen to the USB for very long and go straight back to optical/coax. not sure what it is but the dynamic range doesn’t seem as full as optical, would love your opinion on that.

    2. Are you able to try the DAC Out (pre outs) to an Asgard or another well regarded amp? to see if the DAC section is good or bad? i.e. should I sell or if the dac section is good i could get another good amp.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Quasio,
      Well as you can see I’m getting a lot of bashing with this article as a lot of people seem to like them and as they also say it’s recommended every 5 minutes in Head-Fi. One guy even said that I’m exaggerating it.
      Maybe I’m more sensitive to these small things than the majority of listeners are, and when there is something unpleasant in the sound I can pick it up right away. To some people it may not be so obvious, but again I suppose I’m just writing what other people think about the product then there is no use to these reviews I’ve been doing. And it’s not that the NFB-12 under-performed. Technically, I think it’s a proper $200 DAC (and I said that in the article as well), but the tuning on the sound is just not too optimal. This is where cheaper gears can “beat” the bigger gears as even though they have less technicalities, but they score very well on the overall tonal balance, and to most people that’s going to be more important than having a tiny bit of extra separation between the instruments. So by that logic I think that the NFB-12 doesn’t quite deliver.
      Now for your questions:
      1. Yes coax and USB. The USB is dryer but it’s more detailed than the Coax. 2. I tried the NFB-12 with the Apex Amps including the $2000 Peak and still the issue is there, so I think it’s more on the DAC section.

      • quasio

        Ok cool thanks for your response.

        I notice most of your recommendations are just USB units, do you have any recommendations for a DAC/Amp all in one, with at least 1 optical and 1 USB/Opt/ or Coax (PS3 and Computer) inputs  for < $500 USD mark? Desktop is preferable.
        Whatever has the best synergy with the HD650.

        • Anonymous

          Yes a lot of people has been looking for a relatively affordable DAC with USB and S/PDIF inputs but they’re really rare these days and the last one that had those features was the Cambridge DacMagic. It happens to sound pretty good with the HD650 too.
          http://www.headfonia.com/cambridge-dacmagic-review/

  • Mast3r_5ega

    LOL Mike, the title of your article makes me think that the unit doesn’t work on your desk…

  • Guest

    hey mike, good write up. Well, it’s good to see that there’s something to read about whenever I visit :) bookmarked.

  • joe

    mike..thanks for your impressions.. i have heard the nfb-12 myself and although my opinion is slightly different than yours.. i really appreciate your boldness in publishing your pure opinion.. audio is subjective anyway, and i prefer reading something that is purely one’s personal perception and opinion than reading reviews that are coated with sugars everytime to prevent people from bashing it.. 
    looking forward to your next writing..

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Joe.

  • Donunus

    I never liked the sound of the Audio GD stuff. I hated my C2C at first listen and didn’t have any love for the NFB-11 either. Now this review comes along…

    It’s safe to say I will never be buying any Audio GD products ever again.

    • Anonymous
      • Donunus

        I saw that review. Well, I am really a bang for the buck kind of guy. I believe a company should be able to make good products in all price ranges. From reading your recent review, I think the apex butte is one of those products for example that makes me gain respect for a company.

    • P. J.

      I didn’t like HD800 at first either. But now I love them. Nothing ever sounds really good at first, after a while you adjust to the signature and start liking or don’t. But do give the equipment a chance. I usually need 2 weeks to start liking anything audio related. When I got HE-300 I couldn’t listen to it. But now I only listen to them for the past month.
      I’ve seen so many “for sale threads” where people sell headphones “only listened for 30 mins”. That’s the most stupid thing you can do.

  • Anonymous

    Do you feel it is the DAC section or the amp section that is not to your liking? Have you tried isolating the DAC to see how that performs separately?

    • Anonymous

      Hi,
      Yes I’ve tried it with the Apex amplifiers.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_B76DOAHACTRQF5ROFQ6VSEPKRI smithj33

    Nice to see your review matched my impressions. I actually enjoyed this amp with the M50 and KSC75 of all things. It was terrible with the HD580.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Smith,
      Interesting how you find it to be a good match with the M-50. I think the NFB-12 overall has a good potential, but they messed up the sound in a place where it’s very critical on the frequency reproduction (midrange, vocals) hence the not so favorable review from me.

  • http://twitter.com/DodgersKings323 DodgersKings323

    Hmmm….yes it’s the tidiest build quality out of all of them, they advertise the Wolfson thingymajig all over the place too, guess the “Synergy” just isn’t there in the end? Specs don’t tell the whole story.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, the NFB-12 had a really good potential, looking at the components they use.

  • Leeperry

    yes, I briefly heard this thing…terrible SQ.

  • 2N3055

    While I respect Mike’s experience with this DAC/headamp, I have a totally opposite opinion about it. My doubt is that Mr Mike either did not make an adequate break in or he  tested an “unlucky” child of Audio-gd. I actually have two NFB-12 and both don’t match in any way with Mike’s evaluation.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Actually the owner expressed the same thing about the NFB-12.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Greene/100000223526842 Robert Greene

    Hi,
      I have  the new NFB 12.1 and I’m very happy with the SQ using spdif .I don’t like the usb for computer play use the Musiland 02 US coax .A very good DAC NFB 12.1               

  • http://www.facebook.com/eyal1983 Eyal Sade

    how does it compare to the Fiio E17 ?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Technically, of course the NFB-12 is better by a big margin.

  • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

    I don’t know about the new 11.32 Peter. Sorry can’t help you there.

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  • Magos Péter

    Hy Mike, how would you compare NFB12 to Matrix M-stage DAC?
    http://www.headfonia.com/matrix-m-stage-dac/

  • David Chappell

    Hi Mike,
    I just bought this device but am not sure if it can be connected to an iPhone5?

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Probably not, maybe with a CCK. You’d have to check