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June 2013
Enjoy the Music.com
Peachtree Audio novaPre Preamplifier / DAC
An affordable, attractive, and tubed digital preamplifier.
Review By Tom Lyle

 

Peachtree Audio novaPre Preamplifier / DAC  This Peachtree Audio novaPre digital preamplifier that's been in my system for the past month or so makes it once again obvious that audiophiles are a lucky to be participating in this pursuit at this point in time: Never have there been so many ways of assembling a system at so many different price points; digital is maturing at breakneck speed; the sound of vacuum tubes and solid-state components are often indistinguishable other than each of their sonic advantages that each possess; gear that was once considered to be only useful on desktops systems has now made its way into our main systems; and trickle-down technology is occurring at a faster pace than ever; and the list goes on. Plus, all this is happening in what is considered by most to be a slow economy.

 

Modern
The Peachtree Audio novaPre is a relatively affordable, modern high-end digital preamplifier. Not long ago, and it is still true in many cases, a preamplifier or integrated amp in this price class would offer as an option an entry-level moving-magnet phono preamplifier. Although I've heard many excellent sounding on-board phono preamplifiers over the years, there are many that would consider ordering a low-cost onboard phono preamp a waste of space and money, if they require a phono preamp at all. If one must have a phono preamp there are a plethora of outboard models available that would likely outperform the majority of these inexpensive on-board phono preamps. This is not only because an outboard preamp does not have to share the same power supply, but because an outboard unit would likely have many more loading options. Peachtree's approach makes sense -- to meet the needs of the modern audiophile the Peachtree novaPre has an internal digital-to-analog converter. It is not a stretch to imagine that these days, in most systems digital sources outnumber analog sources. The novaPre's internal ESS Sabre digital-to-analog converter is capable of decoding a digital signal with a sample rate of up to 192 kHz and a word length of 24 bits with an asynchronous USB input, a TosLink optical input, and two RCA coax inputs. Peachtree has not forgotten that there are some with at least one analog source, so there is also a pair of unbalanced RCA analog inputs so one can connect the output of an iPod, a phono preamp, an FM tuner, SACD player, etc.

Peachtree Audio novaPre Preamplifier / DACThe Peachtree Audio novaPre is a hybrid tube preamp that uses a 6N1P vacuum tube in its output section. Peachtree claims that this is a perfect way to smooth the harsh digital edge of poor recording or compressed audio. I'd like to think that the tube offers more than to simply act as a filter. Nevertheless, there is a control on the novaPre's remote so one can switch off the tube to decide for oneself whether the tube adds, subtracts, or otherwise affects the sound of the preamplifier regardless of the source. I think the window on the front panel displaying the tube with a blue LED to me looks a bit cheesy, but the majority of visitors to my listening room thought it looked cool, so who am I to judge? But there was just about total agreement that the design of the novaPre's cabinet, especially that the combination of its rounded corners and wood veneer were very attractive. The inclusion of a "high-quality" headphone amplifier with its jack on the novaPre's front panel is a plus, as well as its aforementioned remote.

 

Popular
Peachtree audio offers a few products that are positioned below the novaPre, most notably the very popular decco65 and nova125 integrated amplifiers. One could use either of these as a preamplifier by using the "preamp-out" on its rear panel. Peachtree Audio claims that the novaPre outperforms either of these components because the novaPre uses "custom-designed" Class A circuitry, and this unit has the benefits that all separate preamplifier/power amp users will enjoy -- a free-standing preamplifier that doesn't share a power supply to send juice to both the preamp and amplifier sections of these integrated amps. The improvement in sound quality that is likely due to this feature alone is large enough to warrant using two components, and one has the option of using a more powerful amplifier such as Peachtree's own Class D Peachtree220 which boasts 220 wpc.

 

First-Rate
Peachtree Audio novaPre Preamplifier / DACI auditioned the novaPre in a system I often refer to as my second system in the common space in our home. Its "second" designation notwithstanding, this first-rate (I like to think) setup is a digital-only affair, relying on the inexplicably discontinued Logitech Squeezebox Touch media server which reads FLAC files with a resolution as high as 96kHz/24-bit wirelessly from my hard-drives located in the main listening room two floors away. There is also an Oppo universal player available in the system to spin physical media, but to be honest; it is rarely used these days. I connected the Touch's coax digital output via DH Labs Silver Sonic 75-Ohm digital cable to the internal DAC of the novaPre in place of one of the three DAC/preamps I have on hand -- a Benchmark Media DAC1USB, Wadia 121 Decoding Computer, or M2Tech Vaughan. Using a DH Labs Encore power cord connected to all the gears IEC power input, including the novaPre, the preamp was connected to a pair of tubed PrimaLuna Dialogue Six monoblocks with a run of DH Lab Air Matrix interconnects.

The amps were in turn connected to a pair of EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature two-way floorstanding loudspeakers, also using DH Labs cable, a short run of Q-10 Signature. All the gear's power cords are connected to a Chang Lightspeed power conditioner and everything except the speakers are supported by modified Metro Commercial shelving. The untreated room leans toward the live side of neutral; it only has a small area rug in front of the system, the rest is hardwood flooring up to the plaster walls of the well over 100 year-old house. To its acoustic advantage is the room's non-rectangular shape and the rather thick Roman shades over the windows. Still, the 18" by 12" room with its eight foot ceiling enables both efficient and inefficient speakers to be driven with very little power. And the EgglestonWorks speakers aren't that difficult to drive, they use only two drivers, a 6" mid/bass and a 1" domed tweeter in its cabinet that is only a little more than three feet high. Even though its sensitivity is rated at only 87dB/W/m, with a rather stable impedance of 8 ohms and with its clever cabinet design it end up not being a very challenging load.

 

Excellent
The 70 wpc PrimaLunas and the Peachtree novaPre are an excellent match. I've had the PrimaLuna/Eggleston combination in my system for quite a while now, and despite using a few different DAC/preamps over the last couple of years, I'm very familiar with the sound of this system. But placing the novaPre into the chain was quite a surprise. A pleasant surprise. I've gotten used to some mighty fine digital sound coming forth from these speakers, thanks to very high-end digital components such as the $8000 M2Tech Vaughan. The novaPre proved its worth in just a few days. In place of the uber-detailed sound that I was accustomed to was a relaxed, matter-of-fact sound thanks to the novaPre. I hope one doesn't give one the wrong impression, it did have a relaxed sound, but rather than just fading into the background the music was as involving as I've ever heard it coming from this system. The novaPre seemed to be voiced with the sound of music in mind, and each instrument, group of instruments, or voices were reproduced with a combination of qualities that drew me into the music. OK, I could imagine a reader rolling one's eyes at the obliqueness of my description, and it also might not help that I am probably getting ahead of myself. Perhaps if I described the different elements of its sound it might be more effective in creating a mental picture of the sound quality of this unit? Very well, then. It had tight, pitch stable, deep-reaching bass. The midrange was transparent. The treble was extended and never fatiguing, most likely because it had nary a bit of digititis, in other words, it's reproduction of the treble had no harshness or any other nasties that would suggest that the digits were not converted to analog with the most exacting of techniques. And what was most surprising was that this DAC/preamp was producing this sound for fewer than one thousand dollars.

I was so impressed with this DAC and preamplifier combo I searched out familiar tunes from my large collection. Albums that I heard at least a thousand times, in fact many with less than stellar sound quality from the rock genre were reincarnated when listening through the novaPre. Amon Duul II might a bit more popular in the United States now than back in their heyday in German in the late 1960s into the 1970s, mostly likely because their early material is now grouped in the hip Krautrock category. But the fact remains that they outlived this era to produce much more conventional rock material than their earlier avant-garde stuff, and this later material still spent quite a bit of time on my turntable, and continues to pass through my music server into my speakers to this day. Their album Vive La Trance from 1973 in particular, to my mind's ear seems to be on the cusp, combine much of their earlier spacey ornamentations with conventional pop/rock song structure. The results are quite odd, so I'm not so sure I'd recommend this album to anyone who is not comfortable with the combination of heavily accented lead vocals with hippy political leanings and less than virtuosic instrumentation.

But as they say, the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts, and Amon Duul II seems to be able to pull this off. The first track "Morning Excuse" is an exercise in 1970s multi-track that somehow works thanks to their very creative minds. The novaPre makes each track in the dense mix not only audible, but somehow injects some air into the proceedings, as if one can hear the studio surroundings in each individual instrument's tracks. And if that instrument was plugged directly into the soundboard or very closely mic'd, it becomes placed in the artificial soundstage in the exact spot it was (unintentionally) dialed. The vocals and instruments are somehow simultaneously separated in their particular places in the soundstage but also merged organically into the song structure. This is true despite the strange instrumentation that they combine with the vocals, plus, there is some what I can graciously categorize as "very creative" synth effects that overlay the entire song. There is not only guttural spoken word, but heavily FX'd electric guitar, clean guitar picking, and heavily-accented sung choruses. Let's not forget the background vocals, and the conventional rock rhythm section under all of what's going on. Perhaps this record that I once considered a bit lo-fi isn't so bad after all. Perhaps I just didn't hear in the proper context. With the novaPre in the system it all made sense. I listened to the entire album. Twice.

After I let the Amon Duul sink in for a while, I spent some time with the Touch on its random play setting. It was too long before the Led Zeppelin track "Black Country Woman" came on to the screen. Since first hearing this song from their Physical Graffiti album many moons ago, I always considered it a throw-away track. Acoustic Zep was never my favorite, always preferring them to rock out, thank you very much. And the fact that it was originally intended but never used on Houses Of The Holy never helped its cause. Listening to it through the novaPre it sounded as if it deserved reconsideration. The novaPre has a distinctive way of placing each acoustic instrument into its own space in the soundstage, along with air between each instrument. But at the same time each instrument sounded as realistic as this recording allowed, so as with the Amon Duul track it was able to integrate each instrument into the whole of the song. This was especially true with regards to John Paul's mandolin, which had a physical presence that somehow effortlessly combined with the rest of the instruments and Robert Plant's vocals, and thus drawing me into the tune. I've never really noticed Ian Stewart's contribution to the tune very much before. Sure, I heard it, but at best I always thought his piano sounded as if recorded outdoors with only one poorly positioned microphone, but through the novaPre its sound now made much more sense, in a laid-back pastoral recording-session sort of way. There is nothing I've ever heard of that could measure a component's involvement, but if there was such an instrument, the novaPre would excel in this portion of its bench test. I suppose I'd group the novaPre into the category of components that sound more pleasant than accurate. Personally, I find nothing wrong with that, and the fact that there still is a larger amount of accuracy included in the sound of the novaPre than euphony; it finds itself in the company of many other high-end products that I admire.

 

Good
I guess this is a good time as any to discuss the intangibles of the novaPre. Even though it has an excellent internal DAC, it is a preamplifier, and so it will be the centerpiece of many systems. The volume control worked very smoothly, and even though I used the remote most of the time I still found it a bit tricky to get the perfect volume when listening at very low levels. Of course, this was only when using it to listen to music in the background, which wasn't that often. How a component behaves during serious listening sessions is more important to me, and I'm sure it's more important to most listeners, too. It was also nice to have the option of not only being able to switch the tube in and out of the circuit. Although the difference it made to the overall sound of the system was small, I still preferred the sound of the novaPre when the tube was activated, and that's how I listened to it, and that's how I judged it. If the option of disconnecting it didn't exist and the tube was enclosed in the cabinet with no option to view or disengage it, I wouldn't have complained. There is another option available on the rear panel, the choice of connecting ones power amp to either the Class A or Op Amp output. I might have heard a bit of softening of the treble when using the Class A output, yet they were so close in sound (and they both sounded good) there is a good chance that I wouldn't guess the correct output in a blind test more than half the time. Still, it was nice to have the option. I think most owners of the novaPre will find the greatest convenience contained within the novaPre its choice of four digital inputs. Of course I would have liked more analog inputs, but I also like that this preamp cost what it does and it would likely cost more if it had more analog ins. In my main system upstairs having only one analog input would be inconvenient, to say the least. In the system in which I tested it the fact that it only has one analog input was fine. I used it to connect a cable so family members could connect their Apple devices.

 

Jack
I'm going to be honest; I didn't spend much time experimenting with the headphone jack on the novaPre, not only because I assume that all "serious" headphone listeners will use their favorite outboard headphone amplifier. But there is no denying that having a headphone jack located on the front panel that automatically disconnects the speakers and has its volume controlled by the remote (unlike my Headroom headphone amp) is awfully convenient. I also don't think it is fair to judge the novaPre's headphone jack against my outboard headphone amp, so I didn't. But I did listen to its headphone jack for a tune or two, and to its credit it not only drove every headphone I had on hand but did so in a very competent manner. The headphone amp didn't totally reflect the sound of the novaPre as it was a bit more forward in the midrange. Other than that it had an open sound that didn't have any faults other than that slightly forward midrange and some minor faults of subtraction. But best of all, there was no background noise that was noticeable coming from this circuit, hum or otherwise. I suppose this might just be a reflection of the novaPre's quite background in general. When I was testing this headphone jack and noticed its quite background is when I remembered that I failed to mention that one of the strong suits of the novaPre during normal operation was its quite background. So I am mentioning it now. I hope that this positive quality is not overlooked by anyone. A quite background cannot be overstated as being an important factor in increasing a components microdynamic response, its overall natural reproduction of instruments, and the reproducing the ambience of the recording venue in which these instruments were recorded.

 

Difference
Peachtree Audio novaPre Preamplifier / DACSonically, one isn't giving up an enormous amount with the novaPre. The difference between it and (much) more expensive preamps and converters that are available (and by the way, it's no secret that there are many much, much more expensive preamplifiers and DACs out there) will be their more refined sound. The major difference between this preamp and the combination of my reference preamp and using it when mated to one of the outboard DACs I have on hand was, put very bluntly, that my reference preamp and DAC combo resulted in a sound that was more spit-shined -- its resolving power was greater, its treble was more sparkling and lifelike, and its mids were also more realistic and placed in a soundstage that had considerably more layers to it. Added to that was that the bass was more stentorian, with leading transients that were more sharply defined. However, this comparison was made when listening to the Peachtree novaPre in my main system in my acoustically treated dedicated listening room while wearing my overly-critical audiophile reviewer ears. Downstairs in the second system the novaPre was right at home, and was just about a perfect match for the EgglestonWorks speakers powered by the PrimaLuna amps. Could I live with it forever? Yes... well... as long as any audiophile is likely to consider the term "forever".

 

Audiophiles
We've (that is, audiophiles) have come to the point in time when more and more preamplifiers are going to include a DAC within their inner workings, and more and more audiophiles are going to demand that it do so. And this makes sense. At least it makes sense when this combination is well-executed. The Peachtree Audio novaPre is a well-executed digital preamplifier, which also looks good while performing the task. I not only enjoyed my time with the novaPre but will certainly mention it to anyone who asks me to recommend an affordable audiophile product that can handle the duties of a preamplifier and DAC in one package and sound and look good while doing the job

 

Ratings (note that I tend to rate very conservatively, reserving a five note rating for the best I’ve every heard):

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube stereo preamplifier with DAC
Vacuum Tube: 6N2 
DAC: ESS Sabre 9023
Resolution: mp3,16/44.1,16/48,24/88, 24/96, 24/176, 24/192
USB: Asynchronous up to Optical: Up to 96k/24-bit
Coax: Up to 192kHz/24-bit
Tube: 6N1P
Line Output: Two pair variable RCA 7V to 11.2V peak
Impedance: Pre out 1, Class A, 50 Ohms, Pre out 2, Op-Amp, 15 Ohms
S/N: 96dB
Jitter: <3ps measured at master clock
Power Supply: 8700uf filtering
Separation: 94dB
Power Consumption: 60w max <1w standby
Dimensions 4.37” x 14.8” x 11.5” (HxWxD)
Weight: 21.56 lbs.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor 6 mo. tube
Price: $999 (gloss black, add $100 for rosewood or cherry as reviewed)

 

Company Information
Peachtree Audio
2045 120th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98005

Voice: (704) 931-9337
E-mail: info@peachtreeaudio.com
Website: www.PeachtreeAudio.com

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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