The Audio-gd NFB-27 is by far the most transparent and revealing piece of source gear I have heard to date, and manages this feat while sounding absolutely effortless. It is an integrated DAC and amplifier, with the famed Sabre ESS9018 as the DAC, and pure class A goodness for the amp section. I contacted Stars Picker, a Malaysia based distributor for Audio-gd among other brands, about getting a unit in for review, and they managed to help get one to me extraordinarily fast. Big thanks to them!
The NFB-27 has a beautiful glossy black casing, which shows finger print marks quite well, but nonetheless looks serious and professional. Build is of course, excellent, and the sheer heft to the setup matches this. Weighing about 13kg, it is in a similar size/weight category to the Schiit Ragnarok. Again, the weight mostly comes from the power supply transformers. The NFB-27 uses three of these, one per amp channel and one for the DAC. This allows for clean power for all circuitry in the NFB-27, and it certainly sounds exceedingly clean as well. Also contributing to both the weight and its clean sound, would be its pure class-A, non-feedback design. Suffice to say, the NFB-27 readily conforms to both aspects of this stereotype.
Functionally, it has fewer connectivity options than the Oppo HA-1, but has all of the connection points which I would see most users utilise regularly. With balanced and unbalanced analog inputs, pre-amp outputs, headphone outputs, as well as five digital inputs including USB (up to 32 bit), optical and coaxial, the NFB-27 has its bases well covered. All that is missing from it are Bluetooth Aptx connectivity and mobile device USB input, compared to the HA-1. I do not imagine this would be a deal breaker to most users, but technically it does lose out somewhat in terms of functionality.
The front panel consisted of the headphone outputs (both balanced 4pin XLR and the standard 6.35mm jack), power button, and four buttons. From left to right, they are for switching between headphone-out and pre-amp output, input selection, volume down and volume up. The simple LCD screen is like a backlit calculator display. The volume control is done via switched relays, which is now fairly common in top of the line amplifiers thanks to its perfect channel matching and precise volume control.
To put it simply, the NFB-27 has next to no character of its own. It is an almost perfectly transparent DAC and amp. Distortion is incredibly low, and the sound heard from it is exactly what the source is. It is perfectly revealing of imperfections in both the recording and the headphones used. It is able to perfectly recreate the mood and ambience of recordings effortlessly, and sounds equally natural and at ease with fast paced classical and slow moody tracks. Beats has often advertised their products as being able to reproduce music “the way the artist wants it to be heard”, and so far the NFB-27 is the only DAC/amp which I feel can accomplish that feat.
Treble is perfectly extended, and to my ears, is ruler flat all the way. In this manner, it clearly highlights any frequency bumps, both from the source file and the headphones paired with it. Switching form the Hifiman HE-500 and Sennhesier HD800, I could immediately hear the harsher, more edged treble on the HD800 while also being able to identify that the HE-500 had a mid-treble peak which the HD800 lacked. What was most impressive about this observation, was its sheer immediacy; I could hear that difference even on a track I was not all that familiar with, and without actually trying to identify differences between them.
Listening to my usual treble test track, “Creep” by Radiohead, from the first note, the first pluck of the bass guitar, the overall gloom of the track was made obvious, and while the bass guitar did not have the same detail level as the Schiit Ragnarok, I felt that its presentation was far more natural and realistic in its quantity. Treble exhibited no sibilance with either the HD800 or the HE-500, but instead sounded extremely crisp, and had a wonderfully realistic feel. This applied more to the HD800 than the HE-500, due to the HD800’s better treble resolution.
Staging was beautifully presented, and the NFB-27 had no issues managing the soundstage with consistency despite the track shifting pace from slow-and-moody to fast-and-agitated. This general competency across the frequency was consistent regardless of what I threw at the NFB-27. Its sheerness was reliably stunning, and its transparency left nothing to the imagination. With one of my drum and bass test tracks, “Stank” from Chesky’s “Explorations in Space and Time”, kick drum impact was superbly on point, with perfect levels of both impact and decay. In contrast, I found the Ragnarok had slightly more impact and emphasised decay that felt was natural or realistic.
Like the treble and bass, mids are absolutely transparent. Voices could sound like the sweet chimes in the wind, or the meaty groan of an engine; the harsh edge of a glass shard, or the warm softness of felt. Through it all, however, there tended to be a very slight bright tinge. Alexis Cole’s voice in “Whip-poor-will” was suitably velvet and intimate. Sun Lu’s voice in “Xiao Qing Ge” was both incredibly forward and sweet in the manner Chinese female vocals tend to be recorded. Thom Yorke’s voice came across as a listless lament in “Exit Music (For a Film)”…. I could go on, but the point is that the NFB-27 is consistently able to reproduce both the mood and tone of the recording in a way that is utterly faithful to the recording. Similarly for staging, everything is dependent on the recording and other gear used. Binaurally recorded material was immensely spacious, while conventional recordings lacked the same three dimensionality.
The Audio-gd NFB-27 is near perfect transparent. That is its one and only defining trait. All that prevents it from being absolutely transparent is the hint of a bright tinge to the sound. I am, however nit-picking by mentioning it at all. As a whole, this integrated system is wonderful; provided your source files and headphones are up to scratch.
- Extremely well build
- Supremely transparent
- Unfriendly to poorly recorded tracks
- Enormous size for a DAC / Amp