Getting Started: Two Versatile Desktop Amp/DACs

Integrated amplifiers,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Peachtree Audio Decco
Getting Started: Two Versatile Desktop Amp/DACs

As most Playback readers well know, a lot of working assumptions about how hi-fi systems can or should be structured have been radically redefined over the past four or five years. Where once we thought of turntables, tuners, or CD players as our musical “source components” of choice, it’s now commonplace to think of PCs, Macs, the Internet itself, or of Apple’s ubiquitous iPod/iPhone/iPad trio as among the sources we’re most likely to enjoy. And with this huge paradigm shift have come other changes, particularly in the way we think about the amplifiers upon which many of us base our listening systems.

Back in the day, amplifiers pretty much had two easy-to-understand jobs: first, they acted as switching devices that let us choose which of several possible source components we wanted to listen to, and second, they amplified audio signals so as to power our loudspeakers (no great surprise there!). Ahh, it was such a simple time…

With the rise of computer-based audio systems, and the explosion in popularity of both desktop and headphone based listening systems, the role of the amplifier has become more versatile—and complex. These days, we’ve come to expect amplifiers should not only amplify (and be able to select among source components), but that they should also serve as highly competent DACs (digital-to-analog-converters, for those of you who don’t speak “Geek”). We also expect, at least in some circumstances, that modern amplifiers should not only be able to power loudspeaker, but also headphones (and not, let me emphatically state, as an afterthought).

The truth is that we now live in a brave new world where amps are no longer just amps, but rather serve in an expanded capacity that has earned them the hybrid name “amp/DAC”. We’d like to take a moment, then, to focus on two of the coolest, most versatile, and most sensibly priced amp/DACs that Playback has thus far encountered.

Peachtree Audio iDecco Integrated Amp/DAC/Headphone Amp/Digital iPod Dock ($999)

To read the full review:

What it is: Actually, Peachtree’s iDecco is so crazy-versatile that it would probably be easier to tell you what it doesn’t do. But just for the record, let us provide a bullet-point list of the functions this multi-purpose product provides. The Peachtree iDecco can serve as:

  • A 40 Wpc hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amplifier that incorporates both analog and digital audio inputs.
    A class A tube powered headphone amplifier.
    A high-performance DAC with switch-selectable inputs (USB, coaxial and optical S/PDIF, and a digital iPod Dock).
    A digital iPod dock (that is, a dock that can receive and play digital audio files directly from an iPod, thus bypassing the iPod’s only average-sounding analog audio electronics.

The iDecco can do so many different things that it some listeners would gladly pay its asking price to enjoy only a subset of its full functionality. The cool part, though, is that iDecco is the sort of product that, in a sense, anticipates (and thus provides) functions you may not even think you need (yet).

What’s the Draw? As you can easily imagine, versatility with a capital “V” is a huge part of the iDecco’s appeal. Let’s speak candidly, shall we? Normally, “versatility” is one of those words considered to be a backhanded complement (if that)—kind of like saying the girl next door has a “sweet personality” when what you really mean is that she’s also not terribly attractive. But the iDecco is not like that at all, and the reason why is that it not only does many different things, but does almost all of them at a surprisingly high level (king of like finding a supermodel who—surprise!—actually does have a sweet personality).

iDecco as a Dock: Much like Wadia Digital’s famous iTransport, the iDecco can serve as a true digital iPod dock. Trust us this one: you haven’t heard how good an iPod can really sound until you bypass the little Apple device’s analog electronics and let a first rate external DAC decode the digital audio files stored within.

iDecco as a DAC: The DAC section of the iDecco is based on one of the excellent ESS Sabre DACs, which is not only a fine-sound DAC but—importantly—one that provides on-chip jitter reduction/correction circuitry. Moreover, the digital inputs of the DAC section are galvanically isolated. The upshot of this is that the iDecco is not on—here’s that word again—a versatile DAC, but one that give markedly better results through its USB inputs than other competing USB DACs tend to do.

iDecco as a Preamp: The iDecco makes a very high quality preamp, and one that can be very illuminating, too, in that it allows uses to switch back and forth between tube and solid-state modes (the sounds are, as you would expect, similar but definitely not identical). 

iDecco as Headphone Amp: The iDecco is a delightful headphone amp, and one that offers a much broader range of inputs than most other headphone amps do (not to mention very high quality onboard DAC). For the most part, the iDecco headphone circuit has enough oomph to handle even very difficult to drive headphones.

iDecco as an Integrated Amp: The iDecco integrated amp section is good to very good, but perhaps not as spectacular as other aspects of the product tend to be. But that said, let us point out that the amp offers good natural warmth, and a pleasingly “organic” sound that almost always registers as being musical—not analytical or sterile. With the right speakers, the iDecco amp can really sing, though it would probably not be our first choice for speakers that constitute “difficult” or “problem” loads.

Wadia Digital Model 151 PowerDAC mini Amp/DAC ($1195)

To read the full review:

What it is:  Wadia Digital enjoys a reputation as a legendary innovator in the digital audio world, and over the years the firm has created some of the most impressive DACs and digital disc players the high-end world has yet seen. Lately, however, Wadia has made a strong push to enter the desktop audio/computer audio marketplace—most notably through two very strong product offerings.

The first of these was Wadia’s impressive Model 170 iTransport—the very first digital iPod dock in the world (the original model has since been joined by the updated and improved Model 171 iTransport). Ever since the Model 170 first appeared, listeners couldn’t help but ask, “Will Wadia ever release a DAC or/or amp to serve as a companion product to the iTransport?”

The answer to this question is an unequivocal “Yes” and comes in the form of Wadia’s Model 151 PowerDAC mini. Frankly, the PowerDAC is radically different from any other amp/DAC we have yet seen. Where most such products are integrated amps that just happen to have high-quality DACs onboard, the PowerDAC mini is, in a very real sense, an extremely high quality DAC that just happens to have enough power output to drive loudspeakers (or as Wadia President John Shaffer would put it, “It’s a DAC with gain.”).

In practice this means the PowerDAC mini is a versatile, high-resolution DAC with four inputs: USB (with 96kHz/24-bit resolution), plus two coaxial S/PDIF inputs and one Toslink input (all with 192kHz/24-bit) resolution. There are no analog inputs, meaning that this DAC/amp is very much a product of the digital audio age. The class D amplifier section of the PowerDAC mini puts out a very conservatively rated 25 Wpc at 8 Ohms, or 50 Wpc at 4 Ohms.

One interesting and very cool touch is that the PowerDAC mini has the exact same size, shape, and footprint as the Model 170/171 iTransports, so that the products looks incredibly cool when stacked on top of one another.

What the Draw? For starters, the PowerDAC mini makes a perfect and relatively low-cost introduction to the classic, ultra-high-purity Wadia sound. Indeed, the PowerDAC mini is one the least expensive products in the entire Wadia lineup (hey, these guys are normally reckoned to be among our industry’s ultra high-enders, so it’s a big deal for them to build something in this price range).

In a nutshell, the Wadia sound is exceeding transparent, open, and well-defined, so that the PowerDAC mini tends to make would-be competitors sound a bit smudged or “opaque” by comparison. This is, quite frankly, a sound that will thrill some listeners, but that could conceivably strike others as being a little too revealing for its own good (in the sense that it is a sound that oh-so-honestly will report both the strengths and weaknesses in the recordings you play).

Tonal balance is neutral, though listeners accustomed to warm-sounding amps might initially find the PowerDAC mini seems a bit “cold-sounding” (we think this is an illusion that passes as you become familiar with the Wadia’s sound, but to each his or her own). Bass, in particular, is extremely clear with very good pitch definition, though again, with no height sense of added warmth or punch. Low-level details are very well handled and, perhaps as a result, imaging and soundstaging are good, too.

Power output is adequate, but certainly not overwhelming, so that you’ll want to pick and choose speakers carefully to make sure they’re a good match for an ultra high quality but relatively low-output amp.

Our sense is that the Wadia sound won't be for everyone—especially not for those who favor electronics that offer pleasing (though perhaps not strictly accurate) touches of warmth and a certain tendency to smooth over the flaws in less-than-great recordings.

On the other hand, those who appreciate the terrific purity and clarity the Wadia has on offer will discover that the little PowerDAC mini offers meaningful glimpses of true sonic greatness in ways few other affordable amp/DACs can.

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