DAC: Peachtree Audio claims that the iNova’s DAC has been designed specifically to deal with the high levels of jitter and signal path noise problems often found with computer based audio rigs. So by running the iNova’s fixed analog output into the preamp of my regular two-channel system, I was able to evaluate its performance independently from the amplifier.
First I tried the upsampling filter mode against the filterless non-upsampled setting, and found that with almost all sources I preferred the non-upsampled version. While the upsampled mode offers better performance on paper, to my ears the straight poop from the non-upsampled setting sounded more natural with less of a mechanical quality. Playing Apple Lossless or WAV files from the iPod really sounded impressive, with a lively dynamic quality that I don’t normally associate with the lowly iPod.
It is this ability to suck beauty from even a questionable digital source that sets the iNova’s DAC apart. With top notch source material such as some 96/24 transfers I keep on my Alesis Masterlink, the difference between the iNova and the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC was nip and tuck, but with more prosaic stuff, the iNova’s ability to keep ugliness at bay was clearly superior.
Over the long haul with a lot of recordings I formed the impression that the DAC would veer just a tad towards a slightly rounded and warm take tonally, yet its ability to resolve fine detail was hard to fault. Bass was truly impressive, with plenty of moxie coupled with a sense of tunefulness that made following the tune easy and enjoyable.
Integrated Amp: When I’m not auditioning new gear I generally use all tube electronics in my system, so I expected to prefer the iNova with its tube buffer stage engaged. Yet most of the time I found the amp more resolving and neutral going through the solid state circuit. While the tube did open up the soundstage considerably, it also had a tendency to lay a very fine gauze between you and the music, removing the last degree of detail and transparency. The standard Nova uses a 6922/6DJ8 tube for the buffer, but Peachtree has switched to a Russian 6N1P for the iNova, apparently because some users didn’t think that the 6922 was sufficiently tubey. Well that’s not a problem anymore, and switching over makes a pretty clear difference, especially in the size of the soundstage.
This however is nitpicking, because in either setting the iNova was able to deliver an astonishingly accomplished sound for what it is. It has an ability to flesh out the sound with a rich sense of body that you normally only hear with really pricey separates. It is the antithesis of a cool thin sound, yet it manages to deliver plenty of high frequency detail with midrange richness that uses a broad palette of tonal colors. Bass was especially noteworthy for an 80-Watt amp, and it took a firm grip of my PSB Synchrony Ones. If I really turned the wick up I could hear the iNova approaching the end of its power curve, but this was really at a louder volume than I’m normally comfortable with in my medium sized room.
Headphone Amp: Just as when you’re driving speakers with the integrated amp section, the iNova’s headphone amp lets choose between the tube buffer and its solid state equivalent. The difference however is that with headphones I often found that the expanded soundstage and smoother qualities of the tube buffer was preferable to the solid state option. The amp had plenty of punch, driving the HiFiMAN HE-5s without breaking a sweat. While I preferred the sound of the HE-5s with the tube kicked in, when I tried my Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros I appreciated the added incisiveness of the solid state mode. Luckily, it’s easy to flip between the tube and the transistors, so having split feelings about which mode to use isn’t really a problem.
I have a selection of my favorite evaluation tracks stored as WAV files on my iPod, so I used those primarily for checking out the iNova’s iPod dock. Starting with the title track from jazz pianist Geri Allen’s Segments album [Disk Union], it was hard to believe that I was listening to the output of an iPod. Bassist Charlie Haden’s solo came across with tons of weight and power, yet following each note was easy, and the feel of his fingers plucking the thick strings had a great presence. Drummer Paul Motian’s cymbals had tons of sheen and brassy character, while his staccato tom tom thwacks were delivered with a startling dynamic jump factor.