What of Peachtree’s claim that the Nova can compete with more costly DACs? I compared the Nova side-by-side with Benchmark Media’s critically acclaimed and award-winning DAC1 Pre ($1595) and found the Nova was thoroughly competitive with its more expensive counterpart, though the two DACs each offered a somewhat different take on the music. The competing DACs are about equal in overall resolution, though I would say the Nova enjoys a slight edge in handling upper midrange ad treble details while the Benchmark offers an equally slight edge in bass definition and solidity. The Benchmark is arguably the cleaner sounding and more neutrally voiced of the two (owing to its superior bass), but it has a somewhat flatter and more dry-sounding sound, while the Nova has a warmer, more three-dimensional and more dynamically expressive presentation. Personally, I would have a tough time choosing between the two, which speaks volumes for how good the Nova DAC really is. But for many prospective buyers, I suspect the tiebreaker will be that the Nova offers better versatility and greater overall value vis-à-vis the Benchmark. Here’s why. The Nova costs roughly $400 less than the Benchmark, offers comparable though arguably more flexible features (the Nova offers three analog inputs compared to the Benchmark’s one) and incorporates an 80 Wpc hybrid integrated amp (whereas the Benchmark is a DAC/headphone amp/preamp only). Advantage, Peachtree Audio.
Much though I enjoyed using the Nova as an integrated amp and as a standalone DAC, I felt its performance as a headphone amp brought many of its best qualities to bear in a remarkably synergistic way. Part of why many of us enjoy listening through headphones is to savor the up-close and intimate perspective on the music that they afford, and the role of any good headphone amp is to help take that perspective to the next level—yet without imposing any cold, sterile, or edgy artifacts. The Nova fills that bill to a “T”, especially so when its tube-powered front end circuitry is engaged. Some listeners worry that tubes might impart an artificially lush, loose, or romantic sound, but with the Nova headphone amp I found the opposite to be the case. Headphones suddenly sounded more detailed, more focused, and better controlled than they otherwise might, and they were enlivened by the Nova’s powerful yet nimble dynamics.
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic “Tin Pan Alley (aka Roughest Place in Town)” from The Real Deal: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 [Sony] makes an almost perfect vehicle for showcasing the Nova’s strengths, but also for exposing its minor weaknesses. Instrumentation on this beautifully recorded track is very sparse—just the sound of bass, drums, electric guitar, and, of course, Stevie Ray’s vocals—so that every little textural and dynamic nuance is exposed and open for careful examination. Early on in the track, you’ll hear incisive snare drum rim shots whose attack sounds, through the Nova, fairly crackle with explosive energy and whose reverberations within the recording space sound like the sonic equivalent of “contrails” lingering in the air and then slowly dissipating. Few if any amp/DAC combos in the Nova’s price range can match its ability to capture attack/decay information so well.
Later, Stevie Ray’s solo Stratocaster guitar lines give the Nova’s dynamic capabilities a real workout. If you stop to think about it for a moment, part of Vaughan’s genius as a guitarist involved not only his brilliant note choices and amazing finger dexterity, but also his remarkable control of moment-to-moment dynamics within solo lines. One moment might show a slow, restrained melancholy phrase while the next might bring an almost volcanic eruption of anguish and anger, only to be followed by soft, almost “muttered” flurries of notes adding musical afterthoughts. Many DACs I’ve heard have trouble capturing the ebb and flow of Vaughan’s abrupt and sometimes quite violent dynamic mood swings, but the Nova does not. No matter how big a surge or how sudden a recession in volume level, the Nova stays glued to the recorded performance—never adding compression or overload artifacts of its own.