Orchard Audio PecanPi Streamer Ultra
back Ron Nagle reviewed the Orchard
Audio Starkrimson Class D amplifiers implemented with Gallium Nitride (GaN)
technology. The owner of Orchard Audio Leo Ayzenshtat has a very strong
design background, you can check him out on LinkedIn. Leo developed a DAC for
the Raspberry Pi which is available as a board only or you can buy it embedded
within either of the two streamers Orchard Audio produce plus the USB / S/PDIF
DAC they make. The two streamers are the PecanPi Streamer and PecanPi Streamer
Ultra (ULTRA). It's the ULTRA I'm test driving here. The most obvious difference
with the ULTRA is that it includes a 5-inch TFT screen on its front panel, not
many streamers come with such a screen this is a welcome addition. Both
streamers include the Orchard Audio DAC integrated directly with the Pi
motherboard via an I2S connection.
There are a good number of streamers on the market though not all come with an integrated DAC and far fewer include a screen. There is the possibility here to have a two-box system with ULTRA as the source directly feeding a power amplifier. This is how I ran the ULTRA for a lot of my listening. The 5-inch screen how useful is it? Surprisingly so in my view. It's a touch screen TFT and 800 x 480 pixels; it is very possible to control the streamer solely from the screen. Personally, I prefer to use a tablet to control the music I'm browsing and listening to but at times the on-board screen is a blessing. Certainly, when using internet radio, it makes good sense to use the screen. Sometimes it's quicker to touch the streamer screen than pick up the tablet - use the fingerprint scanner - go into the app so yes, I like the ULTRA's screen.
The software I ran on the ULTRA was Volumio, this was the option I requested; it was configured and supplied by Leo, just as it would be for any customer. Volumio was my preference as it's what I'm most familiar with. Other options are moOde, picoreplayer, and Roon. With Volumio you can use IOS, Android, or Windows devices to access the streamer. I subscribe to MyVolumio to provide access to my Qobuz account; TIDAL and Spotify are available too.
The best way to access Volumio is via the IOS or Android Volumio app available from the App Store and Play Store respectively. Volumio can also be accessed via a web browser, which is handy if you want access from a PC.
I used Volumio on the ULTRA with my Qobuz subscription,
Internet Radio, USB-connected SSD, and DLNA-served files from my music server. I
even used the USB CD drive Leo supplied, this worked especially well in that the
software picked up track listings from the internet automatically... this was so
much better than just seeing a list of track numbers. All my music sources
worked as I hoped they would and it was all without a hitch.
Connecting the ULTRA to an amplifier can be achieved either via RCAs to an "unbalanced" amplifier's inputs or via the XLRs to the inputs of a balanced amplifier. If connecting directly to a power amplifier you will need a volume control the Volumio digital software volume control is all you need and is perfect for the job. I have a soft spot for DACs that are fully balanced which is fortunate as this is the case with the Orchard Audio DAC. The DAC uses a pair Burr-Brown PCM1794A DAC chips, these are their flagship DAC chips. When used balanced via the XLRs you get to use the DAC in its higher specification, ie fully balanced.
Theory suggests the unbalanced mode measures slightly less
well but this should not be a perceptible difference. I also have a soft spot
for Class D amplifiers running in fully balanced mode an example is the
Lindemann Power 500, this only accepts a balanced signal via XLRs. The ULTRA
connected via XLRs to a balanced power amplifier just seems so right and so
simple! I would have loved to have heard the ULTRA connected with the Orchard
Audio Starkrimson GaN XLR equipped monoblocks. I should mention that the DAC
output stage is also fully balanced, utilizing OPA1612 silicon on the outputs,
and for headphones there are OPA1622 drivers as well.
Finally, I want to mention the boxing of the ULTRA. There's high-quality black gloss paint job for a start. The chassis has what I would position as slightly utilitarian US-style design-language coupled with a unique and interesting form factor. It's rather compact, it will sit well in many living rooms and living-kitchen situations, not just on a hi-fi rack.
The hardware inside the ULTRA is based around is the Raspberry
Pi 3B. Anyone who uses Volumio or mOde on a Raspberry Pi needs some ability to
cope with everyday technology. Generally speaking, 99% of the time you'll switch
on the ULTRA and after a couple of minutes you'll be able to use it via the
5-inch screen or via the app on a tablet / phone. It's the 1% of times when
something unexpected happens; most people considering a streamer are likely au
fait enough with resolving IT issues when they crop up. Most times any issue
will be to do with the internet connection not the ULTRA itself.
There are extra-simple ways to use the ULTRA / Volumio that may work for the more technologically challenged. Internet radio used via the integrated 5-inch screen will be super-easy, USB attached storage will be fine too. In reality, most people nowadays will use some form of streaming. Likely enough this will be Spotify, Tidal, or Qobuz. This isn't a big deal I'm simply trying to explain why someone such as my 85-year-old mother-in-law wouldn't be a suitable user. Anyone familiar with modern technology will be fine with it, I'm confident this covers most of the Enjoy the Music.com readership.
I focused on two systems when auditioning the ULTRA. One
system was using a Class D Ncore-based power amp - a Lindemann Power 500 feeding
MarkAudio-Sota Tower speakers. The other system is more away from the
mainstream, it uses 300B SET power amplifiers into Bastanis Sagarmatha Open
Baffle speakers. I had a good correlation of results between these two very
different systems so the ULTRA gave me great confidence in its abilities and
applicability to "normal" and slightly "out-there" systems.
With the 300B / Open Baffle system I used the ULTRA's RCA
(unbalanced) outputs, these connected to a Lindemann Musicbook Source used as a
First impressions silence no hum or obvious RFI
pickup, this is always a good sign into speakers with a 102dB/W/m sensitivity.
From the off it was clear the ULTRA throws a great 3D soundscape music
flooded the room in all directions and with good depth; a lack of depth is in my
experience where lesser digital front-ends all down so all was good so far.
Resolution / transparency was good too, a cut above the norm for sure. I also
had no qualms about dynamics. What was obvious was that the ULTRA was helping me
very clearly hear the differences between the mastering quality of the albums I
was listening to. This can be a pain at times but such clarity and truthfulness
to the source is important... unless you want all your music to sound the same
due to a lack of neutrality.
As is usual for my reviews I lived with the equipment for
several weeks. I then moved into analytical mode, making comparisons using some
of the playlist of tracks I have for this purpose. Here's a list of a few of the
tracks to give you a flavor of what I used:
The Who Behind Blues Eyes
Winton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Corrine, Corrina
Nils Lofgren Keith Don't Go (Unplugged)
Barber - Adagio for Strings (various versions)
Diana Krall Girl in the Other Room
Nanci Griffith Lone Star State of Mind
Karen Mok While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Sonny Rollins Moritat
Oscar Peterson You Look Good to Me
The Prodigy - Firestarter
Initial impressions were very positive so my curiosity turned to locating the best synergy with the two systems I was using. Both unbalanced and balanced connections worked well; in theory, balanced has a noise advantage (i.e. there's even less inaudible noise!). In practice I preferred balanced but not because of any theoretical advantage, it was because I was able to remove the preamp. Employing the Volumio software volume control and connecting the ULTRA via XLR cables directly to the balanced power amp inputs brought a useful lift in performance. I've moved to an era of simplification with my HiFi systems (of which I have too many); so deleting the preamp was a good thing and I felt it gave me a more robust and confident sound.
The difference was minor but I felt it worked well. Of course,
there are plenty of reasons for using a preamp, running a vinyl source being one
of them. I'm not anti-preamp, it's more that the simplicity of ULTRA + power amp
worked so well and it was such a neat and simple system. Don't let me sow any
seeds of doubt... the ULTRA works superbly into a typical pre-power combination
or an integrated amplifier.
Again, I was seeking the best sound so I tried out some of the
Volumio upsampling options. These are a software option, so it's not implemented
via hardware. My personal conclusion was that upsampling to 88.2kHz gave a more
open and airy sound but front-to-back depth was reduced or appeared reduced
this could be an artifact of the increased openness. Upsampling I found to work
well with more opaque or darker mixes but in general, my preference was for not
using upsampling. It can work... but I've heard more successful upsampling when
it is executed in hardware. The software upsampling option is part of Volumio so
it's something you can try for yourself.
Focusing back on native sample rates sound I found the ULTRA
to give a clean sound with no artifice or added euphonic lushness. I could
easily hear the structure and inner detail of the music. The portrayal of music
was vivid and spacious with good transparency.
The ULTRA is intended to be used in both loudspeaker systems and with headphones. I gave the headphones a go via the adapter lead which I connected to my Philips Fidelio X2HR phones admittedly these are at the budget end of the spectrum but the sound from the ULTRA was if anything even more impressive than via speakers. The excellent Fidelios are unbalanced headphones, as are many; the ULTRA is also able to be work with balanced headphones via the XLRs, this should give even better performance with a quad of headphone driver OpAmps in-circuit. What an amazing single box streamer / headphone amplifier!
A Duo Of Comparisons
Next, I hooked up the Lindemann Musicbook Source, this is an all-in-one streamer, balanced preamp with a phono stage built-in too. It comes in at around four times the price of the ULTRA. Some of the extra cost of the Source goes towards a very swish chassis. As you'd expect, the Source performs very well indeed, it takes everything up a notch. Its upsampling is executed in hardware; this is part of the recipe which gives a fine result. The ULTRA was not totally out-classed; switching between the Source and the ULTRA didn't result in disappointment, rather it's a musical result that bears comparison. Certainly, at a quarter the price of the Source the ULTRA does not remotely disgrace itself.
Compared with the Tinker Board & Qutest combination, I place the ULTRA ahead. The Qutest itself is double the price of the ULTRA though I feel the issue here to do with the USB feed from the Tinker Board this does however highlight the risks of DIY combinations versus well-tested integrated product (i.e. the ULTRA). Without a doubt, the ULTRA performs very well indeed. It produces a very even and balanced sound that is highly transparent, spacious, and without obvious foibles.
The ULTRA represents excellent value for money and very usefully includes a touchscreen to help with control functions. The ULTRA is well configured in terms of electronic configuration, software setup, usability, and form-factor. Sound quality is very good; the ULTRA can easily be used as the primary source within many systems. It's such a neat device that when partnered with a small power amp I can envisage ULTRAs being sprinkled around homes wherever music is wanted.
Aside from being a great digital source, the ULTRA makes a
great standalone headphone system for both balanced and unbalanced headphones -
it's so darned versatile and adds to its' looks - which diverges from the
boringly typical - the ULTRA has one heck of a lot going for it.
Balanced XLR Output
Unbalanced RCA Output
Stereo Balanced Headphone Output
Standard Unbalanced Headphone Output