Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed a distinct split taking hold in the audiophile world. While some companies and audiophiles embrace an old school view of the world based around vinyl LPs and even reel-to-reel tape, another group has chosen to look forward, building systems around new digital music delivery methods using computers and hard drives. Left out in the cold is the good old red book CD, which seems to be on the audio format chopping block much like the vinyl LP was some 15 years ago.
Peachtree Audio clearly belongs to the latter group, developing systems built primarily around new digital sources, but which can also accommodate audio formats from the past. The iNova is a perfect example of this thinking, forming the hub of a system using digital sources, with a nod towards legacy analog components.
Playback evaluated the original and still available Nova back in 2009, but enough has changed with the new iNova version, that we decided it was worth taking a fresh look. As its name suggests the most obvious change is the addition of an iPod dock, but there are plenty of additional refinements under the hood that make the iNova a significant step up from its dockless cousin.
Preamp: The iNova’s preamp section is quite a versatile beast, with four S/PDIF digital inputs (2 optical, 2 coax), a USB digital input, two analog inputs, and two analog outputs (1 fixed, 1 variable) in addition to the iPod dock. One of the analog inputs can be switched to a fixed level mode, which is useful if you plan to use your iNova to drive the front left and right speakers in a surround system. Perhaps the coolest feature of the preamp is how it allows you to select at the push of a button, between a solid state signal path and one that passes the signal through a tube buffer stage. Both settings have identical gain, so you can switch back and forth using the remote to your heart’s content, comparing the tube and transistor versions.
Headphone amp: Far from being an afterthought, the iNova’s headphone amp runs directly off the preamp’s output, delivering 300mW into 150 Ohms. The headphone socket is set up so the power amp disconnects automatically when a headphone jack in inserted.
Power amp: The iNova features an 80 Wpc (into 6 Ohms) class A/B MOSFET solid state power amp. Compared with the standard Nova, the power amp’s capacitors have been upgraded to deliver tighter, punchier bass with more impact.
High performance digital to analog converter: Perhaps the biggest change from its cousin is the quality of the DAC used in the iNova. The standard Nova is certainly no slouch in this department, incorporating the impressive ESS 9006 Sabre DAC. The new iNova kicks that up a notch to the latest ESS 9016 version of the Sabre32 Ultra DAC, providing a significant bump in the type of signals it can handle. This means that it can now handle 192kHz/24-bit signals on the S/PDIF inputs, and 96kHz/24-bit on the USB input. The USB input still uses a galvanically isolated Tenor receiver, which is designed to stop electrical noise from the connected computer contaminating the iNova’s clean isolated signal path. It should be noted however that this receiver chip will not handle 88.2kHz files, something to bear in mind when choosing the resolution of your downloads from a site like HDtracks. The other big change here is that you now get a choice between running the DAC in a non-upsampling mode, or with a more conventional non-aliasing filter that upsamples all signals to 192kHz/24-bit when engaged.
iPod dock: This is obviously the biggest news with the iNova, and what Peachtree has done is to incorporate the iPod dock section from their iDac, slipping the circuitry into the space set aside for the optional Sonos box on the regular Nova. The dock officially handles iPod Classic, Touch, and Nano models from Gen 3 up, but I found it worked just fine with my iPhone 4 in addition to my iPod Classic. Alas, iPad users are out of luck. Unlike many, but by no means all other iPod docks, the iNova is able to stream a digital signal through its dock connector, bypassing the iPod’s built in DAC to send the digital signal directly to the Sabre DAC. iPods can carry video too, so the iNova has a component video output that you can connect to your TV.
Styling and build quality: Like all Peachtree components, the iNova sports a somewhat retro look, with soft rounded corners and a luxurious wood case that kind of reminds me of Luxman gear from the 1970s. The review sample was finished in a particularly sumptuous rosewood, although a more modern looking maple and a gloss black are also available. The various indicator lights use the currently fashionable blue LEDs, with the digital input lights switching to a groovy rotating pattern when no signal is present. The preamp’s tube sits behind a window on the front panel, lit from below with another blue LED when it’s engaged in the circuit. Curiously, when you switch to the solid state setting, the tube’s LED goes out while the tube itself continues to glow.
DAC: Peachtree Audio claims that the iNova’s DAC has been designed specifically to deal with the high levels of jitter and signal path noise problems often found with computer based audio rigs. So by running the iNova’s fixed analog output into the preamp of my regular two-channel system, I was able to evaluate its performance independently from the amplifier.
First I tried the upsampling filter mode against the filterless non-upsampled setting, and found that with almost all sources I preferred the non-upsampled version. While the upsampled mode offers better performance on paper, to my ears the straight poop from the non-upsampled setting sounded more natural with less of a mechanical quality. Playing Apple Lossless or WAV files from the iPod really sounded impressive, with a lively dynamic quality that I don’t normally associate with the lowly iPod.
It is this ability to suck beauty from even a questionable digital source that sets the iNova’s DAC apart. With top notch source material such as some 96/24 transfers I keep on my Alesis Masterlink, the difference between the iNova and the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC was nip and tuck, but with more prosaic stuff, the iNova’s ability to keep ugliness at bay was clearly superior.
Over the long haul with a lot of recordings I formed the impression that the DAC would veer just a tad towards a slightly rounded and warm take tonally, yet its ability to resolve fine detail was hard to fault. Bass was truly impressive, with plenty of moxie coupled with a sense of tunefulness that made following the tune easy and enjoyable.
Integrated Amp: When I’m not auditioning new gear I generally use all tube electronics in my system, so I expected to prefer the iNova with its tube buffer stage engaged. Yet most of the time I found the amp more resolving and neutral going through the solid state circuit. While the tube did open up the soundstage considerably, it also had a tendency to lay a very fine gauze between you and the music, removing the last degree of detail and transparency. The standard Nova uses a 6922/6DJ8 tube for the buffer, but Peachtree has switched to a Russian 6N1P for the iNova, apparently because some users didn’t think that the 6922 was sufficiently tubey. Well that’s not a problem anymore, and switching over makes a pretty clear difference, especially in the size of the soundstage.
This however is nitpicking, because in either setting the iNova was able to deliver an astonishingly accomplished sound for what it is. It has an ability to flesh out the sound with a rich sense of body that you normally only hear with really pricey separates. It is the antithesis of a cool thin sound, yet it manages to deliver plenty of high frequency detail with midrange richness that uses a broad palette of tonal colors. Bass was especially noteworthy for an 80-Watt amp, and it took a firm grip of my PSB Synchrony Ones. If I really turned the wick up I could hear the iNova approaching the end of its power curve, but this was really at a louder volume than I’m normally comfortable with in my medium sized room.
Headphone Amp: Just as when you’re driving speakers with the integrated amp section, the iNova’s headphone amp lets choose between the tube buffer and its solid state equivalent. The difference however is that with headphones I often found that the expanded soundstage and smoother qualities of the tube buffer was preferable to the solid state option. The amp had plenty of punch, driving the HiFiMAN HE-5s without breaking a sweat. While I preferred the sound of the HE-5s with the tube kicked in, when I tried my Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros I appreciated the added incisiveness of the solid state mode. Luckily, it’s easy to flip between the tube and the transistors, so having split feelings about which mode to use isn’t really a problem.
I have a selection of my favorite evaluation tracks stored as WAV files on my iPod, so I used those primarily for checking out the iNova’s iPod dock. Starting with the title track from jazz pianist Geri Allen’s Segments album [Disk Union], it was hard to believe that I was listening to the output of an iPod. Bassist Charlie Haden’s solo came across with tons of weight and power, yet following each note was easy, and the feel of his fingers plucking the thick strings had a great presence. Drummer Paul Motian’s cymbals had tons of sheen and brassy character, while his staccato tom tom thwacks were delivered with a startling dynamic jump factor.
I played a 96kHz/24-bit rip of Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um [Sony] from the Alesis Masterlink via coax to an S/PDIF input, and was reminded how astonishing it is to think that this recording is now over fifty years old. The clarity and bite of Booker Ervin and Shafi Hadi’s tenor saxes on “Boogie Stop Shuffle” came across with palpable presence, where you could hear the reed sound as part of yet distinctly separated from the overall sound of each instrument. During the unison sections the dual left and right channel assault had a wonderful live quality. This recording was a good case where for me the added detail of the solid state setting won the day over the tube.
Consider this amplifier/DAC if: you want an all-in-one solution that can sit at the center of a modern audio system, yet is able to draw the best performance possible from any type of digital source. The iNova’s DAC alone is worth the entry price, and when you add in the punchy amplifier and refined headphone amp, the entire package becomes a true bargain.
Look further if: you want to drive huge power sucking speakers in a large room, or if you feel a need to dazzle your audiophile buddies with a vast array of gear.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced integrated amps)
Ratings (relative to comparably priced DACs)
•Design & Features: 10
•Tonal Balance: 9
•Timbral Purity: 10
•Detail & Resolution: 9
The Peachtree Audio iNova is a beautiful one stop shopping approach to building a modern high-end system. All you need is a source like an iPod or computer, and speakers or a pair of headphones and you’ll be good to go. For me the DAC is the real star of the show, proving itself to be especially adept at drawing the best possible sound from all types of source components. The amp is an impressive performer too, and I bet you could embarrass some snobby audiophiles if you played it to them blindfolded. It really punches well above its weight class, sounding like a much heftier machine than it actually is. Finally, the iNova has a sense of style that should help get it past the door in even the most style conscious homes.
SPECS & PRICING
Peachtree Audio iNova integrated amplifier/DAC
Power: 80Wpc @ 6 ohms
Inputs: six digital (one USB, two coax, two optical, one iPod), two stereo analog
DAC: 192kHz/24-bit (S/PDIF); 96kHz/24-bit (USB)
DAC signal-to-noise: 122dB
Outputs: two pre-amp outputs (one variable level, one fixed level), one headphone output (1/4-inch jack)
Dimensions (H x W x D): 5” x 14.75” x 14”
Weight: 26 lbs.
Warranty: One year, parts and labor