-by Brian Hunter
Back in my early days of discovery in hifi (way before my involvement in media and show attendance) there were only a select few brands that had any consistent representation at retailers in my close vicinity. For reasons unknown to me at the time, Music Hall, McIntosh and Peachtree Audio were the most dominate brands that kept showing up on the selling room floors with any type of reoccurring distribution. I was always had a healthy curiosity for Peachtree Audio amplifiers, with their sneak-a-peek tube stage window and wood-covered-with-a-white-candy-core design elements. For the most part, Peachtree doesn’t dance too high up the hifi pole; their prices generally land in a range of budget and gateway-drug hifi price points. The preamps almost always translate their “budget” terms from a smorgasbord of options with the hybrid digital and classic audio enthusiast in mind. The latest of which is their newest audio solution for separates, the novoPre ($799) and matching Peachtree220 class D amplifier ($999).
I ran both components in parallel with several other similarly-priced options with playback through the full-range driver Zu Soul Mk2 ($2k) and the Opera Callas two-way bookshelf ($5k) loudspeakers. I utilized both a PC and a Macbook Air running Audirvana Plus as a source, but stayed with the Mackbook Air for most of my critical listening.
As you have most likely already correctly guessed, the Peachtree220 harnesses the power of 220 watts per channel (into 8 ohms) for your listening pleasure and is available in three finishes (gloss black, rosewood and cherry) to wrap around a white core that mirrors the matching novaPre. According to the site, the gloss black comes standard and rosewood and cherry finishes will separate you from an additional $100. In addition to the solid distribution network I mentioned earlier, Peachtree does offer sales direct via their website.
Not long after I received the review units, a late night soiree with some friends from out of town happily ended up in the listening room. I quickly grabbed a fistful of cables for an impromptu listening session, interested to get some impressions from a completely unbiased, yet still well-trained pairs of ears. Starting with the Rega Brio-R ($900) and eventually making my way through the Calyx Integrated ($2.5k, also a 200W class D) the Peachtree220 clearly had the most balanced bass presentation for the ever-so-slightly treble-forward Zu Soul Mk2 for both guest and myself included. Indeed, the 220 produced a low-end that was not only the party favorite, but also stood up well against even more critical scrutiny. Bass body was full and balanced and didn’t crowd the mids in the least. Even though overall transparency was bested by amplifiers costing more, power was substantial enough to drive to high volume levels without strain and complex passages emerged without a scratch. What was perhaps the most delightful surprise to all the combinations I paired together over my extended listening sessions was the synergy between the 220 and its matching novaPre. More than just cosmetic mates, the two really played to each other’s strengths and produced some of the best combined sound for the pre. Like any cute couple, these two were truly made for each other. The pairing was pleasing to the point where it would be worth upgrading both the units before upgrading the amp alone.
The featured-packed nova did have a surprisingly limited number of analog inputs compared to other more analog-focused pre amps on the market. Oddly enough, while the 220 allows for both balanced and unbalanced inputs, the novaPre only offers single-ended connectivity. There is also only a single RCA input labeled “AUX” for connecting an external analog source, but Peachtree in turn leaned a bit more graciously on digital connectivity. Two coaxial, one optical and a 24/192 USB input round out the field on the back panel; bonus points for an extra pre out for subwoofer connectivity. The front panel features an individual input button for each connection as well as the classic window pane for viewing the triode 6N1P tube. The window lights up blue when the tube is engaged and can be turned off via the remote, but not on the unit itself. Peachtree claims the tube buffer helps “smooth the harsh digital edge found in poor recordings and compressed audio”. In execution, the 6N1P tube buffer is a fun option, but its impact on the overall sound still felt quite subtle. The upside to subtlety here is the lack of potential drawbacks that are occasionally associated with tubes, i.e., no sloshy bass or overly colored tone when in use. As a side note, the tube stage here (or anywhere for that matter) is never a substitute for a good source file. From my experience, if you are working with bitrates so low that you can audibly hear digital crispies then you are already too far gone for any type of posthumous resurrection. Significant digital unpleasantness may seem like an unforgivable sin to any audiophile, but I am still constantly surprised how often this still peeks its way into many modern (non-audiophile) setups. From my experience (albeit an extremely small test sample), I would go so far as to say that its sadly getting more prevalent (and/or acceptable) in mainstream stereos than even a few years ago.
Peachtree chose to go with the ESS Sabre 9023 for their DAC chipset in the novaPre. ESS Sabre DACs are a very popular choice this year, especially the ES9018 that appears in many standalone DACs like the Benchmark DAC2 and Auralic’s VEGA as well as the Peachtree’s own flagship the Grand Integrated X-1 ($4,500). The USB input was pretty much plug-and-play with my Macbook Air, but a driver needed to be downloaded from Peachtree’s site for high-resolution playback from a PC. Through both the 220 and the headphone jack, the DAC section of the novaPre seemed fairly forgiving of lower quality material. While perhaps not as grain-free as the Benchmark DAC 2 D ($1,800) by comparison, the 9023 did an excellent job of information retrieval in a balanced and linear fashion. No unusual frequency spikes or bass bumps could be found from the DAC directly when isolated.
The addition of a HD DAC in the mix is no joke here. The completeness of the package leaves very little left to seek for digital-oriented folks looking for an entry-level prospect. Still, those seeking an even smaller footprint may be drawn towards one of Peachtree’s integrated options. The nova125 ($1,500) and decco65 ($1k) offer some pretty compelling options in their own right. According to their website in addition to more watt power, the nova separates offer an upgrade in the preamplifier section, power supply and headphone amplification.
When the front-facing headphone jack is engaged it mutes the rest of the system, which can be very convenient. From my initial sampling from the headphone output to my Audeze LCD-3s it, became instantly apparent that power wasn’t going to be an issue. Bass extension was deep and very pleasing in terms of texture and slam. The same feed via the Benchmark DAC2 D and ALO International headphone amplifier felt slightly different. This dedicated headphone system had a little more treble emphasis and body by comparison. The Peachtree held its ground for the price, albeit with a bit more edge than the much more expensive dedicated setup. Headphone amplification included with loudspeaker preamps as an appendage have an unsettling way of under-delivering when compared their beefed up amplifier counterparts. The headphone amp on the novaPre runs a bit more parallel than most in that regard and brings plenty of controlled, powerful sonic impact to the table. True head-fier’s may still be drawn to the more specific components that make up their hobby, but for its part the headphone jack the novaPre does not disappoint.
As a loudspeaker preamp, the novaPre is more romantic than most. In conjunction with the Peachtree220 the shifting tonalities of a wide range of musical genres were translated with relative ease and candor. The laid back, relaxed combo was easy to listen to without fatigue or any audio unpleasantries. The novaPre didn’t add anything unwanted to the mix, and it didn’t subtract anything either. Aside from the full bass of the 220, the pre itself was free of any external colorings or frequency dips. Its heavily linear response was most welcome across all of its inputs, digital or not. Listening to Jason Mraz’s “Everything is Sound” a sharp organ strikes the left channel fairly early into the song. The novaPre/220 was able to place the instrument in a fairly focused, specific location as it rings out momentarily from the rest of the sonic field. The 220 showed no signs of slowing as it ran through the rest of the song with ease. The complex passages that appear as the song reaches its apex showed no signs of wear and tear. Mraz’s vocals are focused and uncongested throughout the song, even as scores of vocal and instrument tracks join him on the sing-song chorus. Although not the greatest vocal recording ever, the Beatles “Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” off of Abby Road houses some extremely well thought out basslines of Sir Paul’s creation but the 24 bit high-resolution digital files can occasionally sound a little thin in the lower regions. Ringo’s bass drum barely drives the beat along over the bouncing bass licks. The novaPre/220 really brought out the tone and texture of Sir Paul’s brilliant instrumental work here, to the point were it almost made me forget how awkward the acoustic guitar tone feels at the beginning of the song. Almost. I let the “record” spin further into “Golden Slumbers” and was further impressed with the completeness of the low-end resolution and girth, this time with George on bass (Paul was on piano). This is something that is hard to recreate with headphones, the grip of low frequencies and that in-your-chest feeling is sadly out of reach for most headphone listening. The novePre/220 brought out the best and never overpowered or overdid the low-end, a feat not easily achieved.
The novaPre and Peachtree220 aspire to achieve more for the budget audiophile and are successful in their endeavors. The move up to separates from the company’s cost-conscious intergrateds yields more setup versatility and more power, while still maintaining the product line’s more-for-less roots. The 220’s solid bass presentation translates well through the novaPre and ends up being one of the systems most endearing qualities. The synergy between the two is easily apparent and enjoyable to the point where upgrades with other combinations will most likely see a significant falloff in acoustic returns. The inclusion of the USB Sabre DAC as well as a multitude of digital inputs further its charge as a compete solution for music listening. If you find yourself reaching to Spotify or Mog to fill in the holes of your collection more often than you grab a CD, then this combination should be the top of your audition list. Peachtree has even been known to use streaming sources for their demos at shows, with very surprising results. The Peachtree site is currently running special direct on the novaPre with with Peachtree220. The combination special knocks off another $100 (for high gloss black) pushing its value proposal even higher and ever closer to amplifiers that offer much less.
About the Author
Brian Hunter is a recovering musician turned audio reviewer. He currently manages and writes reviews for his own head-fi site Audio-Head.com and freelances with several other publications. He loves tech and the tools of music, especially the ones involved in reproduction. After he finished his undergrad degree in business, he went to the local community college and got one in photography, which was way more fun. He likes it when people have unbridled enthusiasm for something and he seems to have the utmost respect for individuals who try to create, and even more for those who are good at it.
- Macbook Air running Audirvana Plus
- PC running Foobar 2000
- Zu Soul Mk.II Loudspeaker
- Opera Callas Bookshelf
- Auralic VEGA DAC
- Benchmark DAC2 D
- The Calyx Integrated
- Rega Brio-R Integrated
- Calyx Femti 125 Amplifier
- Audeze LCD-3 Headphones
- Zu Mission RCA Mk.2-b Interconnects