Apr 28 2014, 4:04pm CDT | by Forbes
The NuForce Primo 8 perhaps doesn’t look the part of a $500 headphone. First off, they’re in-ears, when most expensive headphones are over-ears. They’re small, not overtly flashy, and if you can get good fit, are barely noticeable in your ears.
All of these things can be good things, if they sound good. At first glance, the Primo 8 has a lot of potential there, featuring a lot of cutting-edge headphone tech. But that doesn’t mean they will sound good, just that they could.
Here’s our full review.
Before we get going, if you’re curious about the value of high-end headphones, or have questions about headphones in general, first check out Are Expensive Headphones Worth It?, What Are The Best Headphones?, and Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones,
The Primo 8s are an in-ear headphone, but the kind where the wire exits forwards, and loops up and around your ear. The Shure SE846 I reviewed had a similar design. There are pros and cons to this. On one hand, once the buds are secured, you have a solid fit that’s difficult to accidentally dislodge. If you plan on running or moving around with these, they’re unlikely to fall out.
However, getting that good fit takes a bit of doing. Don’t expect to press these in your ears out of the box, and get a good fit. It take a few minutes to bend the end of the cable so it fits snuggly around your ear. Those with smaller ears may have a problem getting a good fit, as the entire earbud sits in the earcup. If you wear glasses, depending on the frame, the cable may push against it.
And even after you get a good fit, putting them in takes a few extra motions than you may be used to. I don’t think that’s a problem for those willing to spend $500 on a high-end headphone, but it’s worth mentioning if these are your first high-end headphones.
Inside is where it gets interesting. The Primo 8’s feature a 3-way balanced armature design with four drivers. I’ve liked most (but not all) of the balanced armature headphones I’ve heard. There’s a smooth, naturalness to the treble that traditional dynamic drivers often lack.
The cables are removable, something more headphones should have.
One last thought on the design. These have a shiny blue-metallic plastic casing. One friend described them as beetle-like in their appearance. They don’t look particularly high-end, to be honest. That may or may not matter to you.
The more I listened to the Primo 8’s the more I liked them, and that’s after several hours of break-in. They have a fairly neutral tonal balance, without too much bass or treble. There’s a bit of a push in the mid-range (think vocals), but it’s not severe. I spent the majority of my listening using my Apple iPod touch as the source, but also listened using a Rane HC 6S headphone amp and the Meridian Audio Explorer.
My first track was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley.” I was immediately struck by amount of space surrounding the cross-sticking of the snare drum and the reverb. Even more impressive was the meaty, lifelike timbre of SRV’s guitar. Both also exhibited fast, precise transients and dynamics./>/>
Another good example would be the glockenspiel at the beginning of “Be Gentle With Me” from Boy Least Likely To. The chimes are delicate, but rich in timbre. Many headphones will make it seem this intro has a synthesized version of the metallic instrument. The Primo 8’s make it quite clear it’s a real one. Yet at the same time, and perhaps more importantly, the chimes aren’t harsh. That’s key, as harsh treble is an instant dealbreaker for me.
So what about bass? The Primo 8s are interesting. They don’t have the bass-heavy character of most modern headphones. Yet they’re also (mercifully) not treble heavy, like many “audiophile” headphones. They never seem like they lack bass either. Songs like “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO definitely gets up, gets down, putting its hands up to the sound, putting its hands up to the sound. I tend to like a little extra bass in my headphones, and never once wished for more bass out of the Primo 8s. It’s that neutral-sounding character again.
A better example of the low-bass prowess of the 8’s would be with “On We March” from Trent Reznor’s The Social Network soundtrack. Deep, low synth sounds that aren’t muffled or strained in any way.
They do get a little crowded when the music is. For example, “Church On Sunday” by Green Day has the instruments and percussion all blending together a bit more than I’ve heard on other headphones. The more dense the music, seemingly the Primo 8s make it denser. I don’t like saying a headphone better or worse at a specific genre of music, but in this case the Primo 8s sounded better with less dense music (everything but hard rock, essentially). Not that Green Day is “hard rock” but you know what i mean.
Overall, what impressed me most about the Primo 8s is how real the timbres of instruments sounded. Any decent headphone can reproduce the music, but with the 8’s there’s more of a “that’s a real instrument” sound to them. Planar magnetic headphones do a similar trick, just sounding more lifelike.
They also are surprisingly efficient. I set the volume control much lower listening to these than with many headphones.
I did most of my listening with the Comply foam tips. I swapped in a pair of the silicone tips, and was given a first hand (ear?) example of the importance of fit (true of all in-ears). With the smallest tips, my usual size, I got no bass (indicative of a bad seal). With the next size up I got a great seal, great bass, but interestingly, the Primo 8’s had a bit more of the mid-range push I’d heard with the Comply tips, and a touch more sibilance. I didn’t dislike them, but I did like them less. If you try these out, make sure you try the different tips (advice I give with all in-ears, but worth mentioning again).
Who Else Likes Them?
Well, I seem to have one of the first reviews up. I’ll update this section when/if there are more reviews.
However, Chris Martens did a “first listen” over at The Absolute Sound. He said, “So what does the Primo 8 offer the listener? Well, it provides pretty much scrupulously neutral tonal balance [and] excellent resolving power and transient speed, plus a truly remarkable, overarching quality of lucidity and focus.”
Similar to what I’ve written in other high-end headphone articles, it’s hard to make a judgement about the price. Do the Primo 8’s sound better than most in-ear headphones I’ve heard? Definitely. Do they sound 2.7x better than the $180 B&W C5s? Maybe. Do they sound as good as the $1,000 Shure SE846? No. Do they sound more than half as good? Yes. So if the SE846 are out of your price range, there’s a lot of similarities in the sound with the Primo 8s (I feel like I’ve written that before).
No question, NuForce’s Primo 8’s are a fantastic headphone. Once you get the fit right, they’re very comfortable. The sound is quite neutral, highlighting the timbre of the instruments without accentuating large swaths of frequencies like many headphones. Definitely worth checking out.
Primo 8: $499
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