The Fifth Element #55 Page 2

The answer is a resounding yes. Consider my chessboard shaken by Peachtree Audio's Nova USB integrated amplifier ($1199).

The Nova USB is your grandfather's integrated amplifier with a few twists—a high-quality internal USB D/A converter feeding (in class-A) a tubed line stage, which then hands off to an 80Wpc class-A/B power amplifier—all in one stylish cabinet at a fairly amazing price.

The Nova has eight inputs: five digital (one USB, two coaxial S/PDIF, two optical TosLink), and three line-level analog, the third of which is a home-theater pass-through. Before I move on to the Nova's other features, let's size up its functionality, compared to CD receivers. On a case-by-case basis, depending on how much time you spend listening to which sources, setting up the Nova may or may not be more complicated; eg, if you're going to listen to LP as well as SACD, you have two additional sources to plug into the Carat I57; and if you listen to LP, SACD, and Internet radio, three—at which point the Carat has lost its advantage of simplicity.

The best candidate for a Nova is someone who has already migrated to using a computer as a music server, or who plans to. These days, of course, with storage space so cheap, there's no reason not to use lossless compression instead of MP3.

If your major source of music is CD, the Nova is still an attractive option: you can buy a DVD player for under $75 to use as a transport, and if you listen to SACDs, you can connect your player to the Nova's analog inputs, and its S/PDIF output to the Nova's S/PDIF input for CD listening (assuming Nova's onboard DAC is better—if not, stick with the analog connection). So, for SACD listening, the Nova is no more complicated to set up than all the recommendable one-boxes save the Denon, which would need another box, a USB DAC, to listen to Internet radio anyway. As Charlie Brown said: Sigh...

As I mentioned in the teaser in my April column, the Nova is uniquely styled. I think its appearance is a very clever homage to the Eames Office firm, as in Eames Chair. The Nova is about 15" (385mm) W by 5" (130mm) H by 13" (335mm) D (from volume knob to speaker terminals). The corners are rounded, and it sits higher than we're used to—the Eames influence. The veneer wrap follows the contours so perfectly it looks totally fake. But I am assured it's real wood, and from certified renewable supplies. The Nova is made in China in an ISO-certified factory, is RoHS-compliant, comes in recyclable packaging, and draws only 1W in Standby mode.

Standby/On and input source are selected by flush buttons surrounded by blue light pipes (red for Standby). Volume is controlled by a large knob. In the opposite corner from the On switch is a ¼" headphone jack. A small, matte-black, non-illuminated remote control of some rubbery material controls Standby/On, Mute, Volume, Input, and the one really questionable thing, as far as I'm concerned: on/off of a blue LED at the base of the line-stage vacuum tube, which is visible through a rectangular window to the left of the volume knob. That lily didn't need gilding, I think.

Connections are good quality, the single-wire, EC-compliant speaker terminals more so than the RCA input jacks. Set into the nonremovable top panel are two sets of black-plastic ventilation louvers. Interestingly enough, the left side of the chassis is largely empty, as it's meant to accommodate and hide, à la the Trojan Horse, a Sonos ZP80 or ZP90 Zone Player.

The internal star of the show is an ESS 9006 Sabre DAC, a smaller sibling of the ESS 9008 Sabre DAC at the heart of the McIntosh MCD500 SACD player ($6500) Sam Tellig waxed lyrical over in the June issue. In the Peachtree Nova USB, the ESS 9006 DAC is said to be implemented with a power supply regulated at 11 stages, in a galvanically isolated environment.

Listening: I set up the Peachtree Nova USB with Aerial Acoustics 5B two-way monitor speakers ($2200/pair) and let it break in. The Nova's digital source was primarily an S/PDIF feed from Luxman's exceptional DU-50 universal player ($5000), using a 2m length of Kimber Kable's DV-30 digital cable ($160, footnote 2). After a week or so, it was time for some critical listening.

Through the combination of Peachtree Nova USB and Aerial 5Bs, my friend Bob Saglio and I listened to "Embraceable You" and "Honeysuckle Rose," from Jane Monheit's Taking a Chance on Love (CD, Sony Classical SK 92495); "I Surrender, Dear" and "I'm in the Mood for Love," from Julie London's Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737); and all the usual suspects from Donald Fagen's The Nightfly (CD, Warner Bros. 23696-2). We then listened to the same sequence of recordings through the Carat I57, and then back again to the Peachtree.

The results were uniform across all tracks, and a little surprising. I'd been so knocked out by my time with the Nova that I'd forgotten how great a player the Carat is. So, purely on the basis of sound, it wasn't exactly a case of new champ vs old chump.

The Peachtree Nova was more energetic, with punchier dynamics, more pointed articulation, more energetic bass, and slightly more well-defined treble; but, in its own way, the Carat I57 matched the Nova strength for strength in warmth and fullness, and getting lusciously right the middles of the notes (as distinct from the edges). (However, another listener might hear the same comparison and decide that the Carat was soft or even mushy, rather than euphonic.) So—perhaps an even tradeoff, by which I mean that I think both represent good value for money (but keeping in mind that the Nova costs $800 less); you just have to decide what's more important for you.

It's a tough call, but, judging by Jane Monheit's bossa-nova–tinged "Embraceable You" (if you have a pulse, you must hear it), I expect that most listeners will plump for the more forward, detailed, and dynamic sound of the Nova USB—especially considering its bargain price. (Both components are made in China.) The Peachtree-Aerial combination was excellent, especially for its well-defined bass.

Just a couple of additional matters to note:

Using Luxman's DU-50 player as a transport, with Kimber's DV-30 digital cable, and playing "Peoples' Parties" from Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark (gold CD, DCC GZS 1025), I compared the Nova's S/PDIF digital input to the Nova's USB input as run from my Mac G3 desktop, playing back an .AIF file I'd ripped from the CD using the program Toast. I synced the tracks up to within a few seconds. For this critical listening, I used Denon's excellent new AH-D7000 headphones ($1000), which I'd used twice the previous week in live recording sessions.

Bottom line: Try as I might, I could hear no difference between the S/PDIF and USB feeds, and I was surprised. For all its prevalence in the consumer world, USB is seldom regarded in the professional domain as a particularly robust or glitch-free protocol. So I won't be surprised if the Nova's digital performance measures very well when John Atkinson publishes his Follow-Up.

Great as the Nova is, it's not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; it's just an overperformer in the budget marketplace. The opening track of Court and Spark features some pretty ham-handed piano pounding, closely miked to boot. Through the Nova's internal DAC (S/PDIF), the piano sound was steely and strident. Switching over to the analog outputs of the Luxman DU-50 (Fluency DAC engaged, Kimber Hero analog interconnect), the stridency nearly vanished, and the entire soundstage suddenly snapped into a new, more realistic focus—nor were these differences I had to strain to hear. Similarly, there was less nasality and more body in Mitchell's voice, and less wire and more wood in the 12-string guitar. I preferred the Luxman's sound in every way—and for $5000, why shouldn't I? Just a reality check. No free lunch. Get the Luxman if you can.

Summing Up: If you don't mind using something else as a transport, or if you have a music network up, and $1200 is your limit, the Peachtree Nova USB is totally wowzers. In my book, the Nova is the Dynaco Stereo 70 for the 21st century. (Should I copyright that?)

The combination of the Peachtree Nova ($1199) and the Aerial 5Bs ($2200/pair), though by no means perfect, and despite its not really getting into the deep bass, actually surpasses the hopes I had when I started this project. Bravi.


Footnote 2: I have not done any comparisons, but the conventional wisdom makes sense to me: that an S/PDIF cable should be very short, and if it can't be very short, it should be at least 1.5m long, the better to minimize the effects on word-clock timing of any internal reflections.—John Marks