Peachtree Audio iDecco Integrated Amp/USB DAC/iPod Dock (Playback 27)

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Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
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Peachtree Audio iDecco
Peachtree Audio iDecco Integrated Amp/USB DAC/iPod Dock (Playback 27)

When I reviewed the Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier/USB DAC ($1199) in Playback 21 I was very favorably impressed and called it “a versatile, well-conceived and well-executed product that fulfills a number of roles with astonishing refinement, polish and panache.” Let me begin this review of Peachtree’s new iDecco integrated amp/USB DAC/iPod Dock by telling you that the iDecco incorporates offers much of the flexibility and essentially all of the sonic excellence of its big brother, while adding a digital (not analog) iPod dock and selling for—get this—an even lower price ($999).

To really get what the iDecco is about, it is important to understand that it is really five different products in one:

  • A hybrid solid-state/vacuum tube (6N1P) preamplifier with a Class A output buffer stage.
  • A class A headphone amplifier (when the tube circuit is enabled).
  • A multi-input (USB, SP/DIF, Toslink, iPod) 96kHz/24-bit upsampling DAC with a solid-state output stage.
  • A digital iPod dock with, of course, a built-in integrated amplifier.
  • A 40 Wpc MOSFET-powered, solid-state integrated amplifier.

Now all of the features and functions in the world aren’t worth much unless they are well executed, and happily solid execution is one area where the iDecco really shines. As you’ll see in a moment, the iDecco is a seriously refined audio component that is so good at each of its several roles that you might willingly pay its asking price to enjoy any one or perhaps two of them. But bundle all five functions together, throw in a generous helping of sonic sophistication, and the iDecco’s value proposition skyrockets, pushing it up into “screamin’ good deal” territory.

OVERVIEW

Consider this amplifier/DAC/dock if: you like the idea of getting the sonic refinement and versatility of the Peachtree Nova, plus digital iPod dock functions, but at an even lower price (though you will step down from the Nova’s 80Wpc amp to a smaller 40Wpc amp in the iDecco). The iDecco makes good sense in several contexts. You might use it as a fine standalone DAC, headphone amp, or preamp, or you could employ it is as an incredibly flexible front-end component upon which to base a superb yet sensibly priced high-end audio or computer based music systems. One important note: given its moderate power output, the iDecco shines brightest when driving smaller and/or higher sensitivity loudspeakers.

Look further if: you plan to use power-hungry, low-impedance, or otherwise hard-to-drive speakers (e.g., Magnepans). While the iDecco amplifier section is quite good, it simply does not have the muscle to handle those kinds of workloads. But note: as you’ll see in this review, the iDecco can work beautifully when used as a DAC/preamp for purposes of driving higher-end power amps.

Ratings (relative to comparably priced integrated amps)

  • Treble: 10
  • Midrange: 9
  • Bass: 8
  • Soundstaging: 10
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Value: 10

Ratings (relative to comparably priced DACs)

  • Design & Features: 10
  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Timbral Purity: 10
  • Detail & Resolution: 9
  • Imaging/Soundstaging: 9
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Value: 10

FEATURES

Preamplifier

  • Digital Audio Inputs: the iDecco incorporates an onboard “switching” DAC with four switch selectable digital audio inputs (USB, Coax, Toslink, and the iPod dock), whereas the Nova provides five digital inputs (but no iPod dock).
  •  iPod Controls: the iDecco remote control incorporates dedicated buttons that allow users to control an iPod plugged into the iDecco’s dock.
  • Analog Audio Inputs: the iDecco also provides a single stereo analog input, whereas the Nova provides three sets of inputs.
  • Analog Audio Outputs: the iDecco’s preamp section offers both variable and fixed level analog outputs (the fixed outputs are driven by solid-state circuitry only), making it easy for you to use the Nova to drive an outboard power amplifier or subwoofer, if you wish.
  • Solid-state/vacuum tube switching: the iDecco preamp section is based on a circuit that is virtually identical to the one used in the Nova. QAs with the Nova, the iDecco remote control provides a switch that is simply labeled Tube. When the iDecco is used as a preamp, integrated amp, or headphone amp, you can use the Tube switch to engage a Class A vacuum tube-based output stage. Interestingly, the tube used in the iDecco is a 6N1P rather than the 6922 tube used in the Nova. Jim Spainhour of Peachtree audio explained that the 6N1P is essentially a higher-current version of the 6922, meaning that—if you wished to do so—you could substitute a 6922 tube in place of the iDecco’s standard tube (but note: Spainhour advises that Nova owners cannot substitute a 6N1P tube in place of the Nova’s standard 6922, since the Nova circuit is not set up to handle the 6N1P’s current requirements). A blue LED illuminates the vacuum tube viewing window in the iDecco’s front panel whenever the tube output stage is engaged. One subtle yet significant difference between the Nova and the iDecco is that the latter uses a slow ramp-up circuit whenever the tube is brought into play. This allows you to hear a more gradual transition from the iDecco’s solid-state sound to its tube sound.

Top-mounted digital iPod dock

  • The iDecco incorporates a top-mounted digital iPod dock that is similar in concept to the dock provided in the Wadia Digital Model 170 iTransport. By pressing the iDecco’s iPod input selector button, users can send digital audio data streams from their iPods directly to the iDecco’s built-in 96/24 upsampling DAC. Note that there is no digital audio signal pass-through since Peachtree’s working assumption is that you will want to use the very high quality DAC built in to the iDecco, rather than an outboard DAC.
  • A set of component video outputs is provided on the rear panel of the iDecco, should you wish to play video content through your iPod.

24-bit/96kHz Upsampling DAC

  • Remote controlled input switching (four inputs: USB, Coax, Toslink, and iPod).
  • Features ESS 9006 Sabre DAC chip, which incorporates a patented jitter reduction circuit.
  • 11 regulated power supplies for the DAC.
  • Transformer coupling for all digital inputs for ground isolation.
  • A “galvanically isolated” USB stage.
  • USB input accepts data at 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution, but upsamples to 24-bit/96kHz.
  • Rear panel switch allows users to select “Fast” or “Slow” DAC filter slopes (the “Fast” setting generates better lab measurements, but Peachtree says many audiophiles prefer the sound of the “Slow” setting).
  • Rear panel switch allows users to select “Narrow” or “Wide” jitter adjustments for the SP/DIF (coax) and Toslink (optical) digital inputs. According to Peachtree, the “Narrow” setting sounds better with low-jitter sources, while the “Wide” setting is recommended for use with high-jitter sources.
  • Signal/noise ratio of 122 dB.
  •  Jitter: >1 picosecond as measured at the Master Clock (Super Clock).

Headphone Amplifier

  • The iDecco can be used as a standalone headphone amplifier with a Class A tube output circuit (the headphone amplifier shares circuitry with the iDecco preamp).
  • As a thoughtful detail touch, the iDecco is set up so that, when a headphone plug is inserted into its headphone jack, the iDecco’s power amplifier section automatically disengages, effectively muting the speakers.

Amplifier

  • The power amplifier section of the iDecco is based on stereo MOSFET devices and puts out 40Wpc.

Art deco-inspired styling: like the original Peachtree Decco and the Nova, the iDecco’s faceplate features gently rounded corners and a rectangular “viewing window” through which you can see the iDecco’s glowing 6N1P vacuum tube. The amp is housed in a svelte, round-edged sleeve finished in black lacquer, which gives the iDecco a decidedly upscale appearance.

SONIC CHARCTER, PREAMP/HEADPHONE AMP

Since the iDecco preamp and headphone amplifier share common circuitry, my comments here will apply to both functions.

Not surprisingly, the iDecco preamp sounds nearly identical to the Nova preamp. In fact, when used in solid-state mode they do sound identical, so that minor differences between the tube circuits of the two products can likely be attributed to differences between the 6N1P and 6922 tubes, themselves. To my ears, the iDecco—with tube circuitry engaged—sounds perhaps a hair sweeter in the treble region, with a bit more harmonic bloom and greater three-dimensional than the Nova, though some might interpret the Nova’s sound as being a touch cleaner and therefore slightly more accurate. In any event, sonic differences between the preamp sections of the iDecco and the Nova are small.

I compared the solid-state versus tube sounds of the iDecco and found that, as with the Nova, the solid-state output section sounded very clean, but also somewhat less rich, three-dimensional, and involving than the tube circuit. Candidly, if I owned the iDecco I would leave the tube circuit engaged probably 95 percent of the time. For this reason my comments, below, refer to the sound of the iDecco preamp with the tube circuit in play.

The core sound of the preamp has three defining characteristics. First, the preamp offers excellent natural clarity, with plenty of focus and definition. More so than many products at its price point, the iDecco offers lots of resolving power, meaning that it handles low-level textural, transient, and especially spatial or soundstaging cues in the music with remarkable acuity. Second, the preamp delivers bass that is very tight and well controlled, exhibiting none of the looseness or sloppy romanticism you might hear in other affordable tube preamps. Finally, the iDecco preamp does a great job of capturing the sheer richness of both tonal colors and (especially) of harmonics in the music—in this respect sounding much more like an expensive standalone vacuum tube preamp, rather than an inexpensive integrated amp/DAC.

In my tests, I used the iDecco preamp to drive a pair of NuForce Reference 9 v.3 Special Edition monoblock amps and though the power amps cost many times what the iDecco does the Peachtree did not seem at all out of place. On the contrary, the match seemed a very good one, with the two products playing off of one another’s strengths in a beautiful and musically satisfying way. But one thing the wide-bandwidth NuForce amps did reveal—and please consider this a minor nit—is that there is a bit of noise produced when switching between the iDecco’s various inputs (or when turning the tube output stage on or off).

But let me be clear: though there is obviously more to the iDecco than its preamp section, I would be very hard pressed to name a preamp at the iDecco’s price that I would rather use in a high-end system. It’s that good.

 

SONIC CHARACTER, DAC

When used as a standalone DAC the iDecco, like the Nova, provides solid-state outputs only. For the most part, the strengths of DAC parallel those of the iDecco preamp. The DAC sounds extremely detailed and it resolves low-level sonic details beautifully—qualities that together help the DAC create highly believable, three-dimensional soundstages. Through the Peachtree, for example, you’ll hear long reverberation tails on individual sounds and can easily hear how those sounds interact with the acoustics of recording spaces. The DAC also captures both large and small-scale dynamic contrasts very effectively, letting listeners not only hear but feel the living, breathing pulse and flow of the music.

If your reactions are anything like mine, you may be struck by the fact that the iDecco DAC doesn’t conform to your mental image of a budget DAC. In fact, it doesn’t really sound like a “budget” anything, because it produces the sort of big, richly textured, wide and deep soundstages that are traditionally the hallmarks of higher-end audio components. In short, the iDecco DAC offer overall levels of sonic refinement and acuity typically experienced with DACs that cost as much if not morethan the entire iDecco does.

Fast and Slow DAC filter switch settings: I switched back and forth between the iDecco’s “Fast” and “Slow” filter settings and found that the “Fast” setting seemed to sap some of the iDecco’s typical dynamic vividness and sense of life. The “Slow” setting, on the other hand, restored a more detailed and dynamically responsive sound.

Narrow and Wide jitter adjustment switch settings (affecting SP/DIF and Toslink inputs only): I switched back and forth between the iDecco’s “Narrow” and “Wide” jitter adjustment settings and found the “Narrow” setting gave a clearer and more focused sound. The “Wide” setting has a slightly softened and perhaps more forgiving sound that is appealing in its way, but a sound that also limits the absolute accuracy and vividness of the overall presentation. That said, I could see how the “Wide” setting might be just the ticket when using the iDecco with high-jitter sources.

USB vs. SP/DIF Inputs: Among DACs that provide both USB and SP/DIF inputs, the common wisdom is that the SP/DIF inputs will always sound better than the USB inputs, and in most cases the common wisdom holds true. But frankly, the iDecco DAC really surprised me in that its USB and SP/DIF inputs sounded essentially the same, which is pretty remarkable. I did numerous back-to-back comparisons, first feeding full resolution WAV files via USB to the iDecco, and then playing the same musical content via CDs in my reference disc player and sending the resulting digital audio streams to the iDecco’s SP/DIF inputs. The sonic results were so similar that I couldn’t reliably characterize substantive differences (if any) between them. I’ve never had that happen when comparing USB and SP/DIF inputs in a DAC before. Cool, no?

During my listening tests, I compared the iDecco DAC both to a PS Audio Digital Link III DAC ($995, but currently offered at the special price of $700 in the U.S.) and to the output section of my reference Musical Fidelity kW SACD player (no longer in production, but a very costly player in its day).

I found that the PS Audio DAC produced a subtly sweeter, darker and subtly more “romantic” sound than the iDecco DAC, while the iDecco offeed a more resolved, open and transparent sound with—by comparison—an ever-so-slightly more lightly balanced presentation overall. I also found that the PS Audio DAC’s SP/DIF input sounded better than its USB input, whereas the iDecco’s USB and SP/DIF inputs, as mentioned above, sounded equally good.

In comparison to the DAC/output stage of my Musical Fidelity kW SACD player the iDecco offered many similarities, though I thought the Musical Fidelity offered slightly better resolution of low-level details and low-level dynamic contrasts, and a bit more defined and nuanced bass. On the other hand, you could argue that the iDecco offered a more relaxed presentation. In any event, the sonic differences between the iDecco DAC and the DAC/output section of the Musical Fidelity player were relatively small—especially in light of the big price differential between the products.

Given these results, I’ve come to think that the iDecco’s DAC section alone could more or less justify the product’s entire asking price, which is remarkable when you consider that there is so much more to the iDecco than just its DAC section   

SONIC CHARACTER, AMP

Having listened to the iDecco DAC/Preamp sections driving a powerful and accomplished pair of outboard monoblock power amps (the NuForce Reference 9 v.3 SE pair), I felt I was in a pretty good position to assess what the iDecco’s own amplifier section could do by comparison. My conclusion, not too surprisingly, is that the iDecco’s amplifier section is very good for what it is: namely, a high quality, mid-priced and moderately powered amplifier offered as part of an affordable, multifunction integrated amp. But that said, I would also observe that the iDecco amp is not quite the equal of a high-end standalone power amp, nor should we expect it to be.

On the plus side of the ledger, the iDecco amp delivers a rich, clear, and evocative sound with excellent soundstaging characteristics. When coupled with speakers that can be driven well by 40 Wpc, the iDecco amp can produce huge, three-dimensional soundstages that leave the sound of many modestly priced integrated amps in the dust. During my tests, I used the iDecco in conjunction with a pair of Monitor Audio’s superb (and quite easy to drive) Silver RX8 floorstanders ($2000/pair) and found the combination to be one of those rare instances of “sonic serendipity” where the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. Think of it this way: you could buy an iDecco and the Monitor Audio speakers I mentioned above for about $3000, then add either a PC-based music server and/or an iPod as source components, acquire an obligatory set of high performance cables, and wind up with a music system that—I kid you not—could easily do battle with many of the five-figure systems I’ve heard at trade shows.

Good though the iDecco amplifier section is, however, I would say it is perhaps not quite as impressive as other elements of the product are. The main sonic differences you would observe between the iDecco amp and higher end powerplants (such as the NuForce monoblocks I used in my tests) involve the iDecco’s slightly reduced levels of resolution and detail from top to bottom and somewhat less tightly controlled and less deeply extended bass response. There is, too, a difference in sheer power output to be reckoned with (remember, the iDecco produces an honest 40 Wpc at 6 ohms, while the NuForce monoblocks each belt out 335 watts at 4 ohms). In practice, this means you’ll want to keep the iDecco’s power output limitations in mind and plan your speaker acquisitions accordingly.

But let’s keep things in perspective. While the iDecco’s amp section may not enjoy the quasi-giant-killer status that its DAC and preamp sections do, it nevertheless offers very solid performance and—more importantly—unfailing musicality for the money.

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

I can’t speak for you, but I sometimes enjoy playing well-made recordings that show unexpected combinations of instruments at play, partly because they draw your attention to the musical ideas being expressed, but also because they seem like celebrations of the sheer beauty of sound, itself. One such recording is Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM], where two favorite tracks are “Bell-Painting” and “Talking Wind.” Both tracks employ distinctive high percussion instruments of various kinds, highlighting differences in the attack, voicing, and decay characteristic of each instrument as played within a reverberant recording space. On good equipment, the sonic effect of hearing these tracks is not unlike running your fingers through a treasure chest full of variegated jewels—so many different shapes, textures and colors to take in at once. On both tracks the iDecco not only did not disappoint, but positively excelled.

On “Bell-Painting,” the shorter and more delicate of the two musical selections, you initially hear a round of differently pitched small bells and chimes being struck, followed by a similar round of slightly deeper-pitched bells and gongs being sounded. The iDecco deftly captured the variations in attack between the bells, appropriately giving each its signature voice, and showing how decay characteristics help define the bells’ sound—with some fading quickly to silence as others continue to shimmer and ring for several seconds after being struck, their voices lingering and floating on the air. Most importantly, the iDecco captured—but did not overdo—the fundamentally metallic character of the bells, something that in practice is easier to say than to do on this revealing track (some amps, for example, make the instruments sound much too "dry," almost like bursts of white noise, which isn't right). The iDecco served up levels of realism and nuance that not many amp/DACs in its price range could muster.

On “Talking Wind,” the longer and more dynamically challenging of the two tracks, the iDecco got an even tougher workout, as the performers unleash an array of high and mid-pitched cymbals, gongs, and bells, and then introduce a musical theme propelled by low-pitched drums. The iDecco impressed me with its ability to navigate gracefully the track's complicated combinations of pitches and wildly fluctuating dynamic envelopes it (indeed, some of the percussion strikes captured on the track are downright violent). What’s more, the iDecco simultaneously managed to catch the complex interplay between the instruments while also showing how their sounds interacted with, and reverberated within, the relatively live-sounding recording space. Faced with such vigorous musical demands, some amps lose focus and retreat into a region where their sound becomes diffuse and compressed, but not the iDecco. It hung right in there, tapping into and beautifully expressing the richness and dynamic liveliness of the song, while presenting the instruments on a wide, deep, and precisely delineated soundstage. Well done, Peachtree.

If you play music that demands very high levels of bass power and finesse at the same time, such as the bass guitar solos found on “Lil’ Victa” from Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten’s Thunder [Heads Up], you might observe one of the few limitations of the iDecco amp: namely, a tendency to run out of steam down low and to deliver bass that, while rich and nicely weighted, is not the last word in definition. Through the iDecco amp you can hear differences between the voices of Clarke’s, Miller’s, and Wooten’s basses (Clarke plays an Alembic bass, Miller plays a highly modified Fender Jazz bass, and Wooten plays a Fodera bass), but the lines of distinction aren’t quite as crisply drawn as they might be in higher-end amps. Similarly, there’s a sense that the iDecco almost but not quite captures some of the finer textural and dynamic nuances of the three bass virtuosos’ playing styles. But on the whole, the iDecco’s sound is incredibly accomplished and refined—especially when you take its price and amazing versatility into account.

BOTTOM LINE:

The Peachtree Audio iDecco is a worthy little brother to the firm’s excellent Nova, as it combines remarkable flexibility (highlighted by the iDecco’s signature digital iPod dock) with levels of sonic finesse and refinement so high that they really belie the product’s modest asking price. As we observed at the outset, the iDecco can play many different roles, each at a very high level of performance. But whether you buy one to use as a DAC, a preamp, a headphone amp, or as one of the coolest DAC/integrated amps we’ve yet seen, the iDecco will more than give you your money’s worth.

 

SPECS&PRICING

Peachtree Audio iDecco integrated amplifier/DAC

Power: 40Wpc @ 6 ohms
Inputs: four digital audio (USB, SP/DIF-coax, Toslink-optical, iPod), one stereo analog
DAC Upsampling: 24-bit/96kHZ
DAC signal-to-noise: 122dB “A-weighted”
Outputs: two pre-amp outputs (one variable level, one fixed level), one headphone output (1/4-inch jack), main speaker taps
Dimensions (H x W x D): 5” x 14.75” x 14”
Weight: 25 lbs.
Warranty: One year, parts and labor
Price: $999

PEACHTREE AUDIO
(704) 391-9337
www.signalpathint.com

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