PLAYBACK: Peachtree Audio Nova Hybrid Integrated Amp/USB DAC

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Peachtree Audio Nova
PLAYBACK: Peachtree Audio Nova Hybrid Integrated Amp/USB DAC

Peachtree Audio is a division of Signal Path International—a firm headed by audio veterans David Solomon and Jim Spainhour. More so than many people in our industry, David and Jim have demonstrated a gift for developing products that combine the best elements of old-school, two-channel audiophile thinking (where sound quality always, always comes first) plus a new-school, digital/computer audio-savvy mindset. The end result is a series of new-age hybrid (that is, tube/solid-state) integrated amplifiers that incorporate built-in DACs with coax, optical, and USB inputs, and other connectivity features, as well.

First came the Peachtree Decco, a sweet sounding little 50Wpc amp/DAC that sold for $799. The Decco was well received in the marketplace and was a very good performer, though its amplifier section arguably did not have enough “oomph” to handle all types of speakers well. Down deep, however, David and Jim knew they could do even better if they built a more accomplished, upscale “big brother” to the Decco: one that offered a better preamplifier section, a more powerful amplifier, and a better built-in DAC. Now, that hypothetical upscale product has become a reality in the form of the new 80Wpc Peachtree Audio Nova hybrid integrated amplifier with built-in USB-capable DAC ($1199), which we will review here. But before we jump in, let’s step back to get a better “big picture” view of what the Nova is and does.

The Nova, of course, can be used as a traditional high-quality integrated amp, but in principle it is much more than that. The versatile Nova can, for example, also serves as a high-quality preamplifier or headphone amplifier with—at the user’s option—either solid-state or Class A tube circuitry engaged, or as the front-end of a variety of all-digital systems (systems fed by PCs or Macs, Squeezebox or Sonos devices, and the like). But one role you might not anticipate is that the Nova can also function as an ultra high-quality “remote switchable” 24-bit/96kHz standalone DAC—one that sounds so good, according to Peachtree, that it invites comparison with dedicated high-end DACs selling for more than the Nova does. An outlandish claim? Perhaps, but it’s one we’ll enjoy putting to the test.   

OVERVIEW

Consider this amplifier/DAC if: you value sonic refinement, versatility, and value in roughly equal measure. The Nova makes an ideal starting point for those looking to build seriously good yet also sensibly priced high-end audio systems, and it provides a DAC section good enough for use in very high-end systems. The key to the Nova is that it combines multiple functions, each of which is a strong performer in its own right, but which together add up to a stunning value. For about the price of a good integrated amp, the Nova is all that and so much more.

Look further if: you have power-hungry, low-impedance, or otherwise hard-to-drive loudspeakers (e.g., Magnepans). The 80Wpc Nova amp is pretty stout, but not that stout…

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: 8
  • Timbral Purity: 10
  • Detail & Resolution: 9
  • Imaging/Soundstaging: 9
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Value: 10

FEATURES

Solid-state/vacuum tube switching: one of the Nova’s most distinctive and enjoyable features is a switch on the unit’s remote control, simply labeled Tube. Here’s how it works: whenever the Nova is used as an integrated amp, preamp, or headphone amp, you have the option of engaging either a solid-state or Class A vacuum tube-based input stage (the tube used is a 6922) by pressing the Tube switch. As a cool visual detail, a blue LED illuminates the vacuum tube viewing window in the Nova’s front panel whenever the tube input stage is engaged.

Preamplifier: the Nova’s preamp section offers both variable and fixed level 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.

Headphone amplifier: the Nova can be used as a standalone headphone amplifier. As a thoughtful detail touch, the Nova is set up so that, when a headphone plug is inserted into its headphone jack, the Nova’s power amplifier section automatically disengages, effectively muting the speakers.

Power amplifier: the power amplifier section of the Nova is a Class A/B solid-state design that puts out a respectable (and conservatively rated) 80Wpc.

Flexible inputs: the Nova incorporates an onboard “switching” DAC, and as a consequence it offers a much different mix of inputs than most integrated amplifiers do: five direct digital inputs (one USB, two coax, and two optical) plus three stereo analog inputs. Peachtree notes that this combination of inputs allows users to connect a wide variety of digital sources such as the “Squeezebox, Apple TV, Wadia iTransport, Airport, Sonos, and XM or Sirius tuners.”

Home Theater bypass: the Nova’s analog “Aux” input can, via a rear panel switch, become a “Home Theater Bypass.” With the home theater bypass engaged, the Nova can operate as a “slave” amplifier that can be driven from the preamplifier outputs of an A/V receiver or controller.

Going wireless: the Nova provides a convenient rear panel chamber (normally sealed off with a cover plate) where users can house wireless digital audio receiver modules from Sonos systems and the like. 

A “remote switchable” 24-bit/96kHz high performance onboard DAC: the Nova’s versatile, onboard DAC is arguably its strongest single feature. In fact, Peachtree’s David Solomon recently told Playback that some listeners think of the Nova as a high-end DAC that just “happens” to come with an amplifier. Highlights of the Nova’s DAC section include:

  • The impressive new ESS 9006 Sabre DAC chip, which incorporates a patented jitter reduction circuit and promises a stunning signal/noise ratio of 122dB (or 118dB when measured “in system”). Peachtree’s Jim Spainhour comments that, “we chose the Sabre DA not just for the sound in an ideal setting, but when it’s being fed a less-than-ideal digital signal, too. That’s where it is the hands down winner.”
  • 11 regulated power supplies for the DAC.
  • Transformer coupling for each digital input to eliminate “noise associated with grounding problems and switching power supplies.”
  • A distinctive “galvanically isolated” USB input that eliminates computer power supply noise that otherwise “travels down the USB ground and manifests itself as a major source of jitter.”
  • Rear panel switch that allows users to select “Sharp” or “Soft” DAC filter slopes (the “Sharp” setting generates better lab measurements, but many Peachtree says many audiophiles prefer the sound of the “Soft” setting).

Sleek, art deco-inspired styling: like the original Peachtree Decco, the Nova’s faceplate features gently rounded corners and a rectangular “viewing window” through which you can see the Nova’s glowing 6922 vacuum tube at work. The amp comes housed in a svelte, upscale, round-edged sleeve finished in cherry, rosewood, or black lacquer. The Nova’s appearance says “pride of ownership,” loud and clear.

 

SONIC CHARACTER, AMP

Based on my listening tests, the Nova would hold its own quite nicely in comparison to like-priced integrated amplifiers—even if it didn’t include a killer onboard DAC. Three sonic qualities define the Nova’s sound. First, its tube-driven front end confers a gentle (but definitely not sloppy-sounding) touch of organic warmth and harmonic richness that make the Nova sound much more “alive” than many of the solid-state-only integrated amps I’ve heard. The Nova also sounds good in solid-state only mode, but with a presentation that, while very clean, is somewhat less rich, three-dimensional, and involving than when the tube circuit is engaged. Second, the Nova has a remarkably focused and well-defined character, and handles low-level details very well. As a result, imaging and soundstaging details are conveyed with the sort of precision and solidity that remind me of far more expensive integrated amps. Third, the amp’s bass sounds very tight and well controlled, exhibiting none of the looseness I’ve observed with some all-tube integrated amps. In short, the Nova, like many hybrid-integrated amps, is a best-of-two worlds design—one that marries tube warmth and harmonic richness with solid-state tautness and control.

The only drawback I noted, and it seems almost unfair to mention it, is that the 80Wpc amp does not have quite as much dynamic “grunt” or low bass punch as some higher-powered amps in its class. But don’t get me wrong: the Nova offers good dynamics and bass with the limits of its power envelope. It’s just that certain speakers require a bit more wattage than the Nova has on tap in order to really clear their throats and sing. But to put things back in perspective, remember this: virtually none of the Nova’s higher-powered competitors can match its versatility.
 

SONIC CHARACTER, DAC

The strengths of the Nova DAC parallel those of the Nova amp, and one of the first qualities you might notice about the DAC would be the strikingly clear, delicate way in which it renders low-level sonic details. If you listen carefully to the decay of percussion instruments through the Peachtree, for example, you’ll hear the shimmer of cymbals or the shudder of bass drums trailing off for a much longer period of time than through most DACs. Similarly, the Nova let’s you hear instruments reverberating within recording spaces long after other DACs would have buried their sounds in background noise—a quality I attribute to the Peachtree DAC’s excellent claimed signal/noise ratio. On paper these might sound like subtle or potentially hair-splitting distinctions, but in practice they mean that the Nova lets you enjoy noticeably more nuanced and finely shaded renditions of your favorite recordings. The sensation is the equivalent of finding sonic buried treasure; the Nova is your “all-access pass” to valuable layers of detail that simply weren’t audible before.

I was also mightily impressed by the Nova’s ability to convey a flowing, expansive sense of dynamic “bloom” whenever the music called for it. Some DACs seem to handle dynamics in a relatively crude, “color by numbers” fashion, but not so the Nova. It faithfully renders both subtle as well large-scale shifts in dynamic emphasis (and all points in between), making good recordings sound unusually expressive and vibrant—almost as though you can feel the music breathing. At more than a few points when listening through the Nova DAC, I found myself thinking (put on your best Dr. Frankenstein accents, now, please), “It is alive…”

Performance tip: For best sound, Peachtree’s Jim Spainhour recommends “at least a 72 hour break-in period due to the organic caps (capacitors) in the DAC.”

Sharp and Soft DAC filter switch settings: I tried flipping back and forth between the Nova’s “Sharp” and “Soft” filter settings and found the Soft setting gave consistently superior results. The “Sharp” setting, while pleasant enough for casual listening, dilutes some of the signature liveliness and harmonic richness of which the Nova is capable. The “Soft” setting, by comparison, yields a noticeably more detailed and dynamically responsive sound.

What of Peachtree’s claim that the Nova can compete with more costly DACs? I compared the Nova side-by-side with Benchmark Media’s critically acclaimed and award-winning DAC1 Pre ($1595) and found the Nova was thoroughly competitive with its more expensive counterpart, though the two DACs each offered a somewhat different take on the music. The competing DACs are about equal in overall resolution, though I would say the Nova enjoys a slight edge in handling upper midrange ad treble details while the Benchmark offers an equally slight edge in bass definition and solidity. The Benchmark is arguably the cleaner sounding and more neutrally voiced of the two (owing to its superior bass), but it has a somewhat flatter and more dry-sounding sound, while the Nova has a warmer, more three-dimensional and more dynamically expressive presentation. Personally, I would have a tough time choosing between the two, which speaks volumes for how good the Nova DAC really is. But for many prospective buyers, I suspect the tiebreaker will be that the Nova offers better versatility and greater overall value vis-à-vis the Benchmark. Here’s why. The Nova costs roughly $400 less than the Benchmark, offers comparable though arguably more flexible features (the Nova offers three analog inputs compared to the Benchmark’s one) and incorporates an 80 Wpc hybrid integrated amp (whereas the Benchmark is a DAC/headphone amp/preamp only). Advantage, Peachtree Audio.

SONIC CHARACTER, HEADPHONE AMP

Much though I enjoyed using the Nova as an integrated amp and as a standalone DAC, I felt its performance as a headphone amp brought many of its best qualities to bear in a remarkably synergistic way. Part of why many of us enjoy listening through headphones is to savor the up-close and intimate perspective on the music that they afford, and the role of any good headphone amp is to help take that perspective to the next level—yet without imposing any cold, sterile, or edgy artifacts. The Nova fills that bill to a “T”, especially so when its tube-powered front end circuitry is engaged. Some listeners worry that tubes might impart an artificially lush, loose, or romantic sound, but with the Nova headphone amp I found the opposite to be the case. Headphones suddenly sounded more detailed, more focused, and better controlled than they otherwise might, and they were enlivened by the Nova’s powerful yet nimble dynamics.                 

 

MUSICAL EXAMPLE

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic “Tin Pan Alley (aka Roughest Place in Town)” from The Real Deal: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 [Sony] makes an almost perfect vehicle for showcasing the Nova’s strengths, but also for exposing its minor weaknesses. Instrumentation on this beautifully recorded track is very sparse—just the sound of bass, drums, electric guitar, and, of course, Stevie Ray’s vocals—so that every little textural and dynamic nuance is exposed and open for careful examination. Early on in the track, you’ll hear incisive snare drum rim shots whose attack sounds, through the Nova, fairly crackle with explosive energy and whose reverberations within the recording space sound like the sonic equivalent of “contrails” lingering in the air and then slowly dissipating. Few if any amp/DAC combos in the Nova’s price range can match its ability to capture attack/decay information so well.

Later, Stevie Ray’s solo Stratocaster guitar lines give the Nova’s dynamic capabilities a real workout. If you stop to think about it for a moment, part of Vaughan’s genius as a guitarist involved not only his brilliant note choices and amazing finger dexterity, but also his remarkable control of moment-to-moment dynamics within solo lines. One moment might show a slow, restrained melancholy phrase while the next might bring an almost volcanic eruption of anguish and anger, only to be followed by soft, almost “muttered” flurries of notes adding musical afterthoughts. Many DACs I’ve heard have trouble capturing the ebb and flow of Vaughan’s abrupt and sometimes quite violent dynamic mood swings, but the Nova does not. No matter how big a surge or how sudden a recession in volume level, the Nova stays glued to the recorded performance—never adding compression or overload artifacts of its own.

The Nova’s only shortcoming—namely, very slightly lightly balanced mid- and low-bass—is also exposed in this track if you listen closely to Tommy Shannon’s electric bass and to the lower register of Vaughan’s voice. Shannon’s bass is closely mic’d and sounds very clean while exhibiting, at times, Tsunami-like waves of low-frequency energy that, under ideal circumstances, seem to lift listeners from their seats and carry them forward through the sheer force of the music. Those waves of bass energy are clearly reproduced by the Nova, but they lack the “Nth” degree of weight and wallop—qualities I heard both from my reference Musical Fidelity kW SACD player and from the Benchmark Media DAC1 Pre I had on hand for comparison.

Similarly, if you listen carefully to the timbre of Vaughan’s voice, you should hear a fair amount of upper register smoke, grit and growl supported, ideally, by darker, more full-bodied undertones down below. Through the Nova, those dark undertones were recessed just a bit, giving Vaughan’s voice a lighter, breathier character, whereas both my reference player and the Benchmark DAC captured more of the depth in the singer’s voice. Even so, these differences in tonal balance were quite subtle and in no way limited my enjoyment of the Nova. Again, the tradeoff is that the Nova does an exceptional job with inflections in Vaughan’s voice, so that you can enjoy the full emotional impact of every vocal swell or decrescendo.

       

BOTTOM LINE:

The Peachtree Audio Nova is a versatile, well-conceived and well-executed product that fulfills a number of roles with astonishing refinement, polish and panache. Do the math: the Nova would be well worth its asking price, whether evaluated as an accomplished hybrid integrated amplifier or as a high-end audio DAC. But the fact that the Nova plays both roles at once makes it a bargain—and a platform we can confidently recommend as a foundational element for use in very good, yet still sensibly-priced, high end audio systems. 

 

SPECS&PRICING

Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier/DAC

Power: 80Wpc @ 6 ohms
Inputs: five digital (one USB, two coax, two optical), three stereo analog
DAC Upsampling: 24-bit/96kHZ
DAC signal-to-noise: 118dB “A-weighted”

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
Price: $1199

Peachtree Audio
(704) 391-9337
www.signalpathint.com

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