Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed a distinct split taking hold in the audiophile world. While some companies and audiophiles embrace an old school view of the world based around vinyl LPs and even reel-to-reel tape, another group has chosen to look forward, building systems around new digital music delivery methods using computers and hard drives. Left out in the cold is the good old red book CD, which seems to be on the audio format chopping block much like the vinyl LP was some 15 years ago.
Peachtree Audio clearly belongs to the latter group, developing systems built primarily around new digital sources, but which can also accommodate audio formats from the past. The iNova is a perfect example of this thinking, forming the hub of a system using digital sources, with a nod towards legacy analog components.
Playback evaluated the original and still available Nova back in 2009, but enough has changed with the new iNova version, that we decided it was worth taking a fresh look. As its name suggests the most obvious change is the addition of an iPod dock, but there are plenty of additional refinements under the hood that make the iNova a significant step up from its dockless cousin.
Preamp: The iNova’s preamp section is quite a versatile beast, with four S/PDIF digital inputs (2 optical, 2 coax), a USB digital input, two analog inputs, and two analog outputs (1 fixed, 1 variable) in addition to the iPod dock. One of the analog inputs can be switched to a fixed level mode, which is useful if you plan to use your iNova to drive the front left and right speakers in a surround system. Perhaps the coolest feature of the preamp is how it allows you to select at the push of a button, between a solid state signal path and one that passes the signal through a tube buffer stage. Both settings have identical gain, so you can switch back and forth using the remote to your heart’s content, comparing the tube and transistor versions.
Headphone amp: Far from being an afterthought, the iNova’s headphone amp runs directly off the preamp’s output, delivering 300mW into 150 Ohms. The headphone socket is set up so the power amp disconnects automatically when a headphone jack in inserted.
Power amp: The iNova features an 80 Wpc (into 6 Ohms) class A/B MOSFET solid state power amp. Compared with the standard Nova, the power amp’s capacitors have been upgraded to deliver tighter, punchier bass with more impact.
High performance digital to analog converter: Perhaps the biggest change from its cousin is the quality of the DAC used in the iNova. The standard Nova is certainly no slouch in this department, incorporating the impressive ESS 9006 Sabre DAC. The new iNova kicks that up a notch to the latest ESS 9016 version of the Sabre32 Ultra DAC, providing a significant bump in the type of signals it can handle. This means that it can now handle 192kHz/24-bit signals on the S/PDIF inputs, and 96kHz/24-bit on the USB input. The USB input still uses a galvanically isolated Tenor receiver, which is designed to stop electrical noise from the connected computer contaminating the iNova’s clean isolated signal path. It should be noted however that this receiver chip will not handle 88.2kHz files, something to bear in mind when choosing the resolution of your downloads from a site like HDtracks. The other big change here is that you now get a choice between running the DAC in a non-upsampling mode, or with a more conventional non-aliasing filter that upsamples all signals to 192kHz/24-bit when engaged.
iPod dock: This is obviously the biggest news with the iNova, and what Peachtree has done is to incorporate the iPod dock section from their iDac, slipping the circuitry into the space set aside for the optional Sonos box on the regular Nova. The dock officially handles iPod Classic, Touch, and Nano models from Gen 3 up, but I found it worked just fine with my iPhone 4 in addition to my iPod Classic. Alas, iPad users are out of luck. Unlike many, but by no means all other iPod docks, the iNova is able to stream a digital signal through its dock connector, bypassing the iPod’s built in DAC to send the digital signal directly to the Sabre DAC. iPods can carry video too, so the iNova has a component video output that you can connect to your TV.
Styling and build quality: Like all Peachtree components, the iNova sports a somewhat retro look, with soft rounded corners and a luxurious wood case that kind of reminds me of Luxman gear from the 1970s. The review sample was finished in a particularly sumptuous rosewood, although a more modern looking maple and a gloss black are also available. The various indicator lights use the currently fashionable blue LEDs, with the digital input lights switching to a groovy rotating pattern when no signal is present. The preamp’s tube sits behind a window on the front panel, lit from below with another blue LED when it’s engaged in the circuit. Curiously, when you switch to the solid state setting, the tube’s LED goes out while the tube itself continues to glow.