Peachtree Audio Nova 220SE integrated amplifier/DAC/headphone amplifier
- Chris Martens
- Dec 2014
Three essential insights have driven Peachtree Audio from the beginning. First, the firm was quick to grasp that computer audio would likely become the preferred music delivery vehicle for growing numbers of music lovers, young and not-so-young. Second, Peachtree understood that genuinely good sound quality is a gift that keeps on giving and that never goes out of style. Third, Peachtree recognised that, in order for its products to win the hearts and minds of newer generations of audiophiles, accessible pricing would be a vitally important factor. This is the basic ethos that Peachtree has followed for years and it is one that has served the company well.
Over time, Peachtree created successive families of versatile integrated amplifier/DACs that were computer-friendly, easy to use, attractive, and that offered an awful lot of sound per pound. First came the entry-level Decco-series amp/DACs, then the larger Nova-series models, then the second-generation Deccos and Novas, which were followed by the top-of-the-range Grand X-1 model, and now the new Nova SE (for Special Edition) range. The most powerful and accomplished of all the new SE models is the nova220SE (£1,499), which is the subject of this review.
What makes Peachtree’s SE models special? The answer is that all novaSE models borrow the discrete Class A preamplifier section that Peachtree originally developed for its flagship Grand X-1 integrated amplifier. Sonic benefits of this preamplifier section are said to include reduced noise, plus greater resolution and finesse. Having listened to Peachtree’s earlier, non-SE version nova125 amplifier at length, I can vouch for the fact that the nova220SE does take sonic steps forward relative to its predecessors, though the improvements it offers can at first seem subtle in character. Going further, though, the nova220SE adds design features not shared with other SE models; namely, a preamplifier that, says Peachtree, “delivers a balanced signal to the internal amplifier,” along with a dual mono, balanced stereo Class D power amplifier section that puts out a substantial 220 Wpc @ 8 Ohms, or 350 Wpc @ 4 Ohms.
The nova 220SE provides four digital inputs: one asynchronous USB (24/192), one coaxial S/PDIF (24/192), and two TOSLINK (24/96), but the unit also includes a stereo analogue input to provide connections for an outboard phono stage or other analogue component. The DAC section of the nova220SE is based upon the ESS Sabre Hyperstream 9022 DAC device whose signature “Hyperstream Modulator” is, according to Peachtree, “capable of 100% jitter rejection for maximum fidelity.” Growing numbers of manufacturers have jumped on the ESS bandwagon of late, but it is worth noting that Peachtree was one of the earliest adopters of ESS technology and now has four generations-worth of design experience with ESS components.
The nova220SE DAC requires no device drivers for Mac environments and can, with the proper rear panel switch settings, run at up to 24/96 resolution limits without a device driver in Windows environments. However, to take advantage of the nova220SE’s 24/192 capabilities, Windows users will need to install a (supplied) device driver.
One important point to note is that while the nova220SE DAC supports PCM files at resolutions up to 24/192, it offers no provisions for decoding DSD or very high resolution (e.g., 32/352.8) DXD files. Some will see this as a non-issue given that the majority of digital audio files in play today are in PCM format and at resolutions at or below 24/192. However, for listeners who have embraced or simply wish to try DSD and/or DXD–format files, the absence of DSD/DXD capabilities might be seen as a serious limitation (and frankly, their absence seems somewhat odd given that Peachtree has so often been ‘ahead of the curve’ in all things pertaining to computer/digital audio). Nevertheless, the fact is that the nova220SE’s PCM DAC is easy to use and sounds very fine indeed.
Peachtree’s integrated amps have long been known for flexibility and versatility, and the nova220SE is no exception. Thus, to address the never-ending valve-versus-solid-state debate, the 220SE (like many Peachtree models before it) incorporates a sophisticated, switch-selectable 6N1P valve-type buffer stage that can be engaged or bypassed ‘on the fly’ to suit the listener’s tastes or preferences. Also recognising the growing wave of interest in high-end headphone listening, the nova220SE is designed to serve double-duty as a high-powered (1170 mW @ 32 Ohms) headphone amp.
Visually, the nova220SE looks similar to but notably taller than past Nova-series amp/DAC, but with a few interesting twists of its own. Specifically, the 220SE gets treated to a distinctive and beefy 6mm-thick aluminium faceplate whose front surfaces feature a brushed texture and dark grey anodized finish not used on any other Peachtree model. For added impact, the nova220SE’s model name is deeply engraved into the faceplate’s surface, which helps give this most accomplished Nova model a classy look of its own.
The nova220SE ships with a simplified version of Peachtree’s traditional remote control, where the available control options include a standby/on switch, a muting switch, volume up/down controls, input buttons for the four digital inputs and one analogue input, plus a valve buffer stage on/off button (labelled, in American fashion, “Tube”). Unlike button-festooned remotes that can leave users perplexed, the new Peachtree remote is—like the nova220SE itself—a model of intuitive simplicity.
But, how does the nova220SE sound? Let me begin by stating that the nova220SE is at once the subtlest, most refined, and by far the most powerful Nova-series amp/DAC offered to date. In short, this best-ever nova220SE offers a heady combination of sonic virtues, especially in light of its moderate price.
Early generation Novas were thought to have good front-ends, but power amplifier sections whose output capabilities were somewhat limited—especially in terms of driving current-hungry, low impedance loads. Happily, the powerful nova220SE has no such limitations. On the contrary, the 220SE tends—to borrow a phrase made famous by the American President Theodore Roosevelt a century ago—to “walk softly and carry a big stick.”
To give the nova220SE a thorough workout, I used it drive a pair of seriously power and current-hungry, 4-Ohm, Magnepan 3.7i quasi-ribbon/ribbon type loudspeakers. Frankly, the Maggies have a reputation for chewing up wimpy amplifiers and spitting out the remains, but to my surprise and delight they got on quite well with Peachtree’s big Nova. Indeed, the 220SE drove the 3.7i’s with discernable exuberance and with a palpable dash of dynamic brio.
On powerful, propulsive tracks such as ‘Rapunzel’ from The Dave Matthews Band’s Before These Crowded Streets [RCA], for example, the nova220SE captured the full depth and weight, but more importantly the sheer articulacy and speed, of Stefan Lessard’s Warwick bass guitar, in the process demonstrating robust output modulated with admirable subtlety and agility. Likewise, the 220SE helped the Maggies make the most of the intricate, lithe, and beautifully textured drum and cymbal grooves created by percussionist Carter Beauford on the same track. One of the most consistently impressive things about the nova220SE is that it is not only powerful, but also quick and well controlled. The only observation I might add is that the amp’s voicing is shaded ever-so-slightly toward the warm side of strict neutrality. This characteristic never comes across as any sort of colouration, but rather it helps to ensure that the sound stays focused on the music as a whole—not on clinical dissection of individual musical pieces and parts. Above all, the 220SE manages to sound taut and free flowing at the same time, which is no easy feat.
The nova220SE power amplifier is based on the latest generation of Class D ICEpower technology (using a pair of bridged ICEpower modules for a true dual mono configuration), but frankly it sounds nothing like the sometimes softly focused and overly warm-sounding ICEpower-driven amps of yesteryear. On the contrary, the 220SE has its pace, timing, and definition house in order and sounds all the better for it. But ample power is only part of the nova220SE’s recipe for performance; the other key ingredients are resolution, dynamic nuance, and low noise—all three of which are positively influenced by Peachtree’s decision to use the discrete, Class A preamplifier section from the Grand X-1 integrated amp in the nova220SE.
To evaluate the subtler, more delicate, and more textural aspects of the nova220SE’s performance envelope, I connected the unit to a pair of GoldenEar Technology’s easy-to-drive and very revealing Triton One floorstanders (which we will cover in a future Hi-Fi+ review). The results were most impressive.
While Peachtree’s earlier nova125 amp/DAC was no slouch in terms of resolution, nuance, etc., the nova220SE is audibly superior. Interestingly, I found the sonic improvements did not so much manifest themselves in the form of dramatically increased resolution of low-level detail, although there was certainly some forward progress in that area, but rather as a marked improvement in overall three-dimensionality and resolution of delicate—almost subliminal—spatial and reverberant cues in the music. Thus, when I listened to a carefully produced studio recording such as ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ from Steve Strauss’ Just Like Love [Stockfisch], the 220SE let me hear precisely when, where, and how various reverb and spatial effects (along with other natural reverberant sounds) were applied and layered into the mix. Importantly, this meant I could also listen through (or beyond) the technology of the recording, per se, to enjoy a clearer, more coherent understanding of the artist and producer’s musical intentions.
Similarly, when I listened to a good recording captured in a natural performance space without any electronic processing such as ‘Calypso Blues, Part 1’ from Monty Alexander’s Calypso Blues: Songs of Nat King Cole [Chesky, 24/192], the nova220SE did a fine job of helping the speakers to convey a sense of place, allowing me to hear the myriad small cues that together showed the instruments interacting with the acoustics of the performance venue. Happily, though, the nova220SE doesn’t confront listeners with a jumbled and disjointed box full of random sonic details. Rather, it’s more organic than that, always directing the listener’s attention toward the sonic whole, never becoming unduly fixated on (or distracted by) the constituent musical elements that create the whole.
The nova220SE’s front end was well balanced, so that the sound quality of the asynchronous USB input (arguably the best sounding of all) was very closely matched by the quality of the coax S/PDIF input. Likewise, the analogue input offered a good measure of resolution and, with the right source components, delivered a remarkably spacious and three-dimensional sound. My only wish is that Peachtree would provide more than just one analogue input (as it used to do in the early generation Novas). My only other critique is that I wish the 220SE DAC could decode DSD and DXD files. Granted, those file formats are not yet in widespread circulation, but as the Boy Scouts would surely tell us, it pays to “be prepared”.
What of the switch selectable valve buffer stage? Interestingly, when I reviewed Peachtree’s nova125 I preferred that amp/DAC with the buffer disengaged, but with nova220SE, which offers a higher baseline level of resolution than the nova125, I found the valve buffer stage offered meaningful, albeit subtle, benefits. Specifically, the valve buffer changed the amp/DACs harmonic signature, making harmonics sound richer and more complete, but not in an over-dramatised way. But more to the point, I found that engaging the valve buffer helped unlock the depth dimension of soundstages—often in a significant and beneficial way. As a result, I did perhaps 70% of my listening with the valve buffer engaged, though this is a choice listeners will want to weigh for themselves.
Finally, we come to the 220SE’s headphone amplifier section, which—as Peachtree claims—is powerful enough to handle virtually any dynamic (as opposed to electrostatic) headphone owners might choose to use (even the Abyss AB-1266). However, I found the headphone amplifier’s voicing differed considerably from that of the 220SE’s main power amplifier, presenting a sound this was brighter and also more lightly balanced in the bass region, meaning the headphone amp missed out on some of the main amp’s admirable richness and density of tonal colour. Still, the headphone amp is a nice feature to have and one that, on the whole, adds to the nova220SE’s versatility.
Overall, the £1,499 nova220SE offers astounding performance for the money. The funny if not shocking part about this is that one might instinctively feel compelled (purely on sonic grounds) to compare the Peachtree against preamps, DACs, headphone amps, and power amps that individually cost more than the entire 220SE does. The question, then, is not whether the nova220SE can be surpassed (it can be, if you’re willing to invest a good bit more money), but rather whether anything near its price can do so many things so well.
In terms of sound per pound and far-ranging versatility, I think the nova220SE deserves recognition as one of the benchmarks in its class. Best of all, it offers the elusive and desirable combination of sonic finesse and dynamic clout—qualities that free listeners to explore virtually any sort of loudspeakers they might wish to try. For all these reasons and more, I think the nova220SE makes a great place to start (or perhaps conclude) a quest for high-end sound at a sensible price.
- Type: Two-channel integrated amplifier with built-in DAC, with hybrid valve/solid-state preamplifier and solid-state Class D power amplifier section.
- Analogue inputs: One stereo Auxiliary input (via RCA jack)
- Digital inputs: One asynchronous USB input, one coaxial S/PDIF input (via RCA jacks), two TOSLINK optical inputs.
- Analogue outputs: One stereo headphone output (via 6.35mm headphone jack), one pair of loudspeaker taps (with 5-way binding posts), one stereo variable-level preamplifier output (via RCA jacks).
- Supported sample rates: Coaxial S/PDIF: 16-bit/44.1kHz – 24-bit/192kHz; TOSLINK: 16-bit/44.1kHz – 24/bit/96kHz; Asynchronous USB: 16-bit/44.1 – 24-bit/192kHz
- Input impedance (AUX input): 15kOhm
- Output impedance (preamp): <50 Ohm
- Power output: 220 Wpc @ 8 Ohms (both channels driven, <0.5% THD), 350 Wpc @ 40 Ohms (both channels driven, <0.5% THD)
- Headphone amplifier output:1170 mW @ 32 Ohms, <0.1% THD; 182mW @ 300 Ohms, <0.1 THD
- Bandwidth: Preamplifier: 20Hz -20kHz, ± 0.2dB; Power Amplifier: 20Hz – 20kHz, ± 0.5dB; Headphone Amplifier: 20Hz – 20kHz, ± 0.1dB
- Distortion: Preamplifier: 0.004% THD + noise; Power Amplifier: 0.001% IMD; Headphone Amplifier: 0.006% THD + noise
- Signal to Noise Ratio:
- Dimensions (HxWxD): 126 x 377 x 343mm
- Weight: 11kg (shipping weight)
- Finish: Graphite grey faceplate, gloss black lacquer enclosure sleeve.
- Price: £1,499
Manufacturer: Peachtree Audio
UK Distributor: Anthem A/V Solutions
Tel: 44 (0) 1825 750858
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