Peachtree Audio Nova
You certainly seem to get your moneyâ€™s worth with the Peachtree Nova: a valve and solid-state pre-amplifier, a Class A headphone amplifier, 80W of power amplification and a high quality DAC, all in a single, art deco style enclosure with a swish wooden surround in a piano black, Rosewood or Cherry finish. Remove a panel on the rear of that enclosure and you have an aperture into which you can slot a Sonos ZP-90 ZonePlayer, in effect very tidily turning the hybrid Nova into a wireless integrated amplifier for your Sonos system. It is already starting to sound like the ideal heart of an office or study systemâ€¦
One of the Novaâ€™s most unusual features is a switch on its remote control, labeled â€˜TUBEâ€™. When you use the Nova as an integrated amplifier, pre-amplifier, or as a headphone amplifier, you can use this switch to choose between a solid-state or a Class A valve-based input stage. If you select the latter, a blue LED illuminates the valve viewing window in the front panel of the Nova. The valve in question is a Russian-made 6922 triode.
The Nova pre-amplifier section has both variable and fixed level outputs (with the fixed outputs being driven only by solid-state circuitry), making it easy to use the Nova to drive an outboard power amplifier or subwoofer, if you so desire. There is also an AV bypass facility, whereby the Nova can be connected to an AV processor and simply used to drive the front left and right channels for improved sound quality.
You can also use the Nova as a stand-alone headphone amplifier. When you plug your headphones into the relevant socket the speakers are effectively automatically muted when the Class A/B power amplifier stage disengages.
The Nova can also be used as a 24-bit/96kHz stand-alone DAC that, according to some critics, bears comparison to dedicated high-end DAC designs. That is a bold claim to make for the DAC in an all-in-one type device that costs half of what you might expect to pay for a top-notch, dedicated DAC. Either some critics have very questionable standards or the Nova DAC is truly something special.
The DAC stage employs an ESS 9006 Sabre DAC chip with a patented jitter reduction circuit and a 24/96 upsampling processor. This was chosen not just for its performance under ideal circumstances but also for how it performs when being fed less-than-perfect signals. This is a valid real-world situation that the Nova will likely encounter regularly. The DAC is powered by 11 regulated supplies and each digital input uses transformer coupling to avoid being overly affected by noise from imperfect earthing arrangements and switched mode power supplies. The USB input, which only operates at 16/44.1 and 16/48, is galvanically isolated to eliminate computer power supply noise that frequently travels along the USB ground plane and provokes jitter. Finally, the DAC offers two filter slopes, â€˜Slowâ€™ and â€˜Sharpâ€™, that can be selected by a rear panel switch. Peachtree says that â€˜Sharpâ€™ gives better laboratory results but many audiophiles prefer the â€˜Slowâ€™ setting. The switch is designed primarily to take the harsh edge off heavily compressed digital signals. That it is relegated to the rear panel suggests an element of â€˜set it and forget itâ€™ rather than it being designed for constant use.
The Nova is not a hideously expensive item but just looking at it gives the impression that it might damage your bank account a whole lot more than it actually does. What is more, I think the days when audiophiles did not care about the way their hi-fi looked have long since vanished. Partly for that reason, I think the Nova is among the ever-expanding range of products â€“ such as the Naim Uniti and Linn Majik DS-IÂ â€“ that are destined to find a place in the home office or study where their all-in-oneness is a real benefit in terms of reducing clutter.
The DAC in the Nova was designed by the highly respected engineer,John Westlake, the man behind revered products such as the Pink Triangle DaCapo and the budget Cambridge Audio ISOmagic and DACmagic. This association could well explain why the Nova is so highly regarded as a DAC in many quarters.
The Nova is a joy to operate: if it is in standby mode, there is no need to push the standby button to wake it up because selecting any input will bring it to life. The only operational glitch I discovered was when it was placed on a shelf above the Olive 3HD: its remote handset appeared to share one or two codes with the Olive.
I auditioned the Nova using the digital outputs of a Naim UnitiServe and a Logitech Touch, and the analogue output of an Olive 3HD, along with a pair of Mordaunt-Short Performance 2 loudspeakers.
It exhibited an easy-going balance with a reasonably well detailed but rather splashy top end and warm, friendly â€“ if not overly grippy â€“ bass playing on Cornershopâ€™s Brimful of Asha Â through the SB Touch. It sounded more aggressive and fiery playing Lenny Kravitzâ€™ It is a Love Revolution through the Olive. Switching the filter to its â€˜Slowâ€™ setting and engaging the valve in the pre-amplifier rendered Lennyâ€™s sound more tonally palatable and better controlled, firmed up Cornershopâ€™s low frequencies and gave its high an increased impression of detail and control.
Nils Lofgrenâ€™s performance on Keith Donâ€™t Go from his Live Acoustic album, through all the sources, sounded rather lackluster with muted dynamics on his voice and guitar with the TUBE circuit engaged. Taking this stage out brought more energy, enthusiasm and precision to his performance, better conveying the timbre of the bouncing harmonics he regularly features in his playing, and the sound of his right thumb and thumb pick on the bass strings. Nonetheless, even with all the â€˜wrongâ€™ settings there was nothing unpleasant or offensive about the delivery of the Nova: it just lacked a little drama and precision.
Compared to a really top-flight DAC, much of the hyperbole written about the Nova is revealed as uncritical fawning. For example, the Nova DAC is not about to knock my Naim DAC off its perch. In comparison, it sounds subdued and murky, with little of the more expensive DACâ€™s ability to reveal the layering, note shape, and imagery in even a simple recording. This sort of sycophancy does products no favours at all. It would have been better to make more sensible comparisons to, say, the DACMagic 2, with which it is realistically more in competition.
The best piece of advice I can give any buyer, though, is to keep their finger away from that TUBE button. It even managed to sap the gusto from The Proclaimersâ€™ vociferous 500 miles.
The Nova seems a fine and well-equipped little device to run a study or home office system although I question the worth of the switchable filter and valve: they are no more true â€˜audiophileâ€™ features than tone controls. The DAC and headphone amplifier are worthwhile space-saving and convenient inclusions, and the main amplifier is a capable design. The Nova might be streets ahead of most computer vendor audio â€˜solutionsâ€™Â but it faces stiff competition from the Arcam Solo Neo, Linn Majik DS-I, Naim Uniti and UnitiQute if it genuinely wants to attack the audiophile market. If you avoid the hype written by the bloggers â€˜nâ€™ blaggers (internet reviewers) you might approach this enjoyable little product with more realistic expectations.
Making comparisons with the Nova is difficult because it is such an individual product. I doubt it is possible to replicate exactly what it offers in another single box set-up. The closest is probably the NaimUniti that currently provides music in my office. This does not have a valve pre-amp but it does offer an integral streaming facility without any need to connect a Sonos â€“ or other â€“ network device and it includes a very good quality, multi-input D/A convertor. What is more, it also has FM and DAB tuners along with an internet radio player. And do not forget its integral CD player. The Uniti does cost more but if you wanted those extra facilities with the Nova you would probably end up paying more than that difference in price, and collect more boxes, which rather defeats the object. If youâ€™re prepared to forego the CD you could narrow the price gap with the UnitiQute.
Â SYSTEM BUILDING
There is not much to concern anyone who wants to assemble a system around the Nova other than what speakers will best suit it. Peachtree manufactures its own designs (formerly under the era brand name) and ears I trust highly rate the companyâ€™s inexpensive D5 mini monitors. I did my listening with the Mordaunt-Short Performance 2s, which sounded very neutral but are probably put out of the running by their price and size if you want a compact office system. Something inexpensive and none-too-large like the Q Acoustics 1020i, Mordaunt-Short 902i, or Wharfedale Diamond 9 would make a suitable near field monitor for most home office spaces. You might also like to try the Arcam Muso, which was designed to work with an all-in-one style device and so presents the driving amplifier with a sensible impedance and load. The Nova tended to run rather warm in my room so the last thing it needs is a difficult-to-drive loudspeaker.