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Peachtree Audio nova125 integrated amplifier/DAC

Peachtree Audio nova125 integrated amplifier/DAC

Some years ago, Peachtree recognized that a seismic shift in the high-end audio universe was at hand—a shift wherein PCs would step outside of their traditional roles as office tools to become full-fledged digital audio source components. Thus, long before others began to pursue the idea, Peachtree was hard at work to develop integrated amplifiers fitted with easy-to-use, built-in, high-performance DACs. In retrospect, the concept not only seems brilliant, but downright prescient. Peachtree also understood that with the rise of interest in computer audio there would come a golden opportunity for high-end manufacturers to reach out to young music lovers who might never otherwise have considered owning high-performance audio systems of any kind. As a result, Peachtree has always sought to build components clever enough, hip enough, and accessible enough to appeal to young, computer-centric music lovers, but that also offered credible high-end features that would appeal to veteran audiophiles. This requires, of course, finding a balance between simplicity and sophistication and between price and performance—a point of balance many Peachtree components have struck in a successful way.

If there is any drawback, I think it may involve the fact that some Peachtree components may suffer from a perception problem: Are they mid-fi (albeit very good mid-fi), or are they the gateway to the serious high end, or perhaps both? What causes these questions to be raised is the fact that earlier generation Peachtree amp/DACs traditionally have had front-end sections (typically comprising a preamp, DAC, valve buffer stage, and headphone amplifier) that offered considerably stronger and more sonically sophisticated performance than their associated power amplifier sections did. In fairness, the power amplifier sections of those earlier generation Peachtree amps could perform pretty well when matched with relatively easy-to-drive loudspeakers, but they offered limited current drive and power output capabilities and thus were not suitable for driving some of today’s best, but also most demanding, value-priced speakers (e.g., Magnepan’s excellent but power-hungry model 1.7s). Faced with this dilemma, Peachtree Audio founders Jim Spainhour and David Solomon did what high-enders have always done: they’ve upgraded, and in a big way.

Accordingly, Peachtree has revised its entry-level integrated amps by improving their already very good front-end sections and then by equipping their new models with powerful, high-current Class D power amplifier sections. Consider, as an example, Peachtree’s new nova125 amp/DAC ($1499/£1,299 including VAT), which is the subject of this review. The old Nova put out 80Wpc into decidedly benign 6-Ohm loads. By comparison, the new nova125 belts out a generous 125Wpc at 8 Ohms and an even more impressive 220Wpc into 4-Ohm loads. Moreover, Peachtree claims the nova125’s “high current output stages can comfortably drive any speaker load from 2 ohms” (something that could never have been said of the earlier Nova).

 

Then, where the original Nova provided a 24/96-capable DAC with an isochronous USB input and four S/PDIF inputs, the nova125’s onboard ESS Sabre 9023 upsampling DAC offers 24/192 resolution (except for the optical input, which is limited to 24/96), with an asynchronous USB input and three S/PDIF inputs (two coaxial and one optical). Peachtree points out that the ESS 9023 DAC uses “a patented process called Hyperstream™,” which “buffers the incoming digital bitstream and reclocks it from thousands of picoseconds of jitter to less than 3 picoseconds.” Expanding on this theme, the firm says the new 24/192-capable asynchronous USB input, “keeps digital jitter at bay by not relying on the audio clock in the computer, which can get thrown off time by the thousands of processes running in your operating system’s background.” Finally, the nova125’s DAC section is backed by a decidedly performance-minded new Windows device driver, which is provided on an included CD ROM. In addition to its many digital inputs the nova 125 also provides one analog input to support any legacy analog components the owner may wish to connect.

Astute Peachtree observers will notice that the old Nova did have a somewhat more generous mix of inputs than the nova125 does (the old Nova offering five digital and three analog vs. four digital and one analog for the new model). But, given that the new DAC supports higher resolution formats and asynchronous USB backed by more sophisticated device driver software, there is every reason to think that the sonic performance of the nova125 should be significantly higher than that of the old Nova.

To give users a measure of control over amplifier voicing, the nova125 can be run purely in solid-state mode, or, when desired, with a triode 6N1P valve buffer section engaged (the valve buffer can be switched on directly from the nova125’s remote control). The valve buffer also provides a Class A valve-powered output for the nova125’s headphone amplifier. According to the manufacturer, the nova125 power amplifier section uses “the newest generation of Class D technology” with benefits said to include, “extended bandwidth, improved dynamic range, and exceptionally low distortion,” plus the aforementioned ability to handle low impedance loads. The bottom line is that, apart from a modest reduction in the net number of inputs supported, the new nova125 appears to be better than its predecessor in every way, but costs only slightly more. All of this, of course, sounds good on paper and in theory, but how does the nova125 sound in real life?

Well, let me come right out and say it: Peachtree’s nova125 sounds terrific. Taking nothing away from the original Nova (and iNova) designs, I would say this new amp sounds like it belongs in any entirely different and better class of equipment than the original Novas did. The original Nova had a warm, friendly, inviting sound, but a sound that in truth did not provide the last word in resolution, definition, or focus. What is more, the original Nova’s dynamic capabilities were highly load dependent. By comparison, the nova125 sounds as if someone has turned its conceptual resolution, definition, and focus “knobs” up to 12, yet without in any way causing the amp to sound sterile, mechanical, or edgy. More importantly, the nova125 sounds powerful (and is powerful) in a way no previous generation Peachtree Nova-series amp has ever been. In short, this thing flat-out rocks, yet in a quite sophisticated way.

 

Some will surely ask, “Yeah, but can it actually drive truly demanding speakers?” To settle the question once and for all, I connected the nova125 to my undeniably power hungry Magnepan 1.7s, put on a dynamically challenging track, and let things fly. And man, did they ever fly. The track I am speaking of is the exuberant and boisterous all percussion cut “Stank” from Jamey Haddad’s Explorations in Space and Time [Chesky, Binaural+ series recording]. “Stank” features some low percussion drum thwacks that are likely to loosen your molars, plus a plethora of (somewhat) more delicate higher percussion voices that supply piquant commentary and textures, with the proceedings as a whole captured in a wonderfully reverberant, natural acoustic space. In short, it’s the sort of track where there is a lot going on at once, serving up everything from bombastic, brute-force dynamics to multiple layers of delicate textural and transient detail. There is, quite simply, no place for amplifiers (or transducers) to hide.

Happily, the nova125 has no need or desire to hide from any types of music or loudspeakers because on “Stank” it rolled up its figurative sleeves and pushed my Magnepans with serious authority and a welcome dash of brio. The big drums on the track crackled and thundered as they should, while the higher pitched drums exhibited excellent transient “snap” and beautiful, variegated skin sounds that conveyed an impression of real players deftly varying the intensity of their touch and attack from note to note. Through all of this, the Peachtree did not whimper, whine, or wilt; instead, it just cranked out the song’s ultra-funky groove for all it was worth. In my view, this is something the old Nova could never, ever have done—at least not with Maggie 1.7s. With the nova125, then, Peachtree has cooked up a sensibly priced amplifier that possesses, in roughly equal measure, both serious dynamic muscle and a generous measure of finesse.

To explore the finesse dimension more fully, though, I decided to put on one of my favorite orchestral recordings: namely, the Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony performance of the Henry Brant-orchestrated version of Charles Ives’ A Concord Symphony [SRS Media, multichannel SACD]. In particular, I focused on the third movement of the symphony, entitled “The Alcotts” (each of the symphony’s movements is named for an important figure or figures in the American Transcendentalist movement). What I’ve found appealing about this live recording (captured in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco) is the way it provides rich but believable amounts of orchestral detail, while also placing the orchestra within the context of a naturally resonant, three-dimensional performance space (or at least that is what should happen with good electronics driving one’s music system).

Happily, the nova125 did not disappoint. It did a lovely job with the voices of the various orchestral sections at hand, offering a particularly fine rendition of the winds and brass. Indeed, the brass theme introduced about three minutes into the movement sounded heart-meltingly beautiful, conveying that elusive mix of transient bite and blooming, burnished “glow” so characteristic of brass at its best. Throughout the movement, the nova125 also revealed enough low-level detail to remind me that the recording was captured live, yet without pressing details forward so insistently as to make a nuisance of itself. While the nova125 can and does sound very focused—much more so than the original Nova did—there is also about this amp/DAC combo an over-arching quality of “just-rightness” that reminds me of the old adage regarding the importance of enjoying all good things in balance and moderation.

 

How did the nova125 fare as a DAC? To find out, I used an Oppo BDP-105 as digital transport to test the S/PDIF inputs and a Windows PC loaded with 100% uncompressed digital audio files to try out the asynchronous USB input. As a comparison standard, I used my reference Rega Isis CD player/DAC. What I discovered was that the nova125’s DAC and S/PDIF inputs sounded, again, more detailed and focused than the DAC section of the original Nova did. However, I felt that the DAC section’s best performance of all was realized through the asynchronous USB input, which I felt sounded even more refined, tightly focused, and generally more spacious and three-dimensional than the S/PDIF inputs did. While the nova125 could not match the even higher levels of resolution and all-round refinement of my Rega Isis, I felt it acquitted itself admirably given the huge price differential between the two components.

What of the nova125’s 6N1P valve buffer? Frankly, I came into this review thinking that I might enjoy using the buffer, since I have been a proponent of hybrid valve/solid-state amplifiers in the past. However, in doing some admittedly crude “blind testing” with and without the valve buffer, I consistently found that I preferred the clearer and, to my ears, more explicit and less coloured sound of the nova125’s solid-state circuitry. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but for the bulk of my listening tests I felt more comfortable with the valve buffer disengaged (though I continued to try it from time to time, just to keep an open mind).

Finally, I wanted to check out the nova125’s headphone amplifier section and for this purpose I listened through my reference Audeze LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones, comparing back and forth between the nova125 and the superb Burson Audio Soloist headphone amp (the Burson is essentially a handmade Australian headphone amp/preamp that sells for just under $1000). What I found was that the nova125 sounded very good, with plenty of output for powering the Audezes (which are not the easiest-to-drive headphones around), a reasonably low noise floor, and a rich (but not overly rich) and articulate sound. Nevertheless, the Burson sounded even better, with more detail, superior three-dimensionality, and even quieter noise floors. In fairness, though, let’s acknowledge that the Burson costs two thirds what the nova125 does, yet provides only a fraction of the nova125’s functionality. Once you throw that consideration into the mix, I think the nova125’s headphone amp section has got to be considered icing on the cake.

To sum things up, I would say that Peachtree has taken the nova125 forward, not just by a small incremental step, but by a giant leap. Relative to the original Nova, which was a very high-value product in its own right, the nova125 offers a front-end DAC section that is better, an asynchronous USB input that is much better than the original Nova’s USB section, and a power amplifier section that is just light years better than the original Nova’s amp. Perhaps best of all, the nova125 has lifted many of the equivocations and qualifications that applied with the original Nova; at last, Peachtree has given us an affordable amp/DAC that can drive fine but power-hungry speakers in an effective way. This means that value-minded listeners can use the nova125 without worrying about whether it has enough refinement or power to handle their speakers of choice. In truth, it’s got both qualities in spades, and for a very sensible price.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS
Power Output: 125Wpc @ 8 Ohms, 220Wpc @ 4 Ohms
Inputs: One asynchronous USB, two coaxial S/PDIF, one optical S/PDIF, one stereo analog, one 12V control signal.
Outputs: Speaker taps, 1/4-inch headphone jack, one variable level stereo preamp output.
DAC: ESS Sabre 9023
Jitter: <3ps measured at master clock.
Resolution levels supported: MP3, 16/44.1, 16/48, 24/88, 24/96, 24/176, 24/192
USB: Asynchronous up to 24/192
Optical: Up to 24/96
Coax: Up to 24/192
Valve complement: One 6N1P (used for headphone amp, switch selectable valve buffer stage)
Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz +0.5dB
S/N: 96dB
Dimensions (HxWxD): 111 x 376 x 292mm
Weight: 9.82kg
Price: $1499, £1,299 including VAT

Manufactured by:
PEACHTREE AUDIO
2045 120th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98005 USA
Tel. (704) 391-9337
www.peachtreeaudio.com

UK Distributor:
Anthem A/V Solutions
Tel. 44 (0) 1825 750858
www.anthemavs.co.uk

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