There's a strange irony in the fact that Albert Einstein never actually uttered the words, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." What he actually said was this: "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." Personally, I like the misquotation better, for obvious meta reasons. But whichever wording you prefer, you have to admit that it's a philosophy that the audio industry could stand to take to heart. And it's a philosophy beautifully embodied by companies like Peachtree Audio.
Peachtree's mission is simplicity incarnate; its product line is focused wholly on two-channel audio, with a strong emphasis on the digital side of things. The $1,999 nova220SE integrated amplifier combines almost all of Peachtree's product categories into one simply gorgeous, rock-solid, beautifully built chassis. Within its glossy black wood cabinet, you'll find a 24-bit/192-kHz upsampling DAC with USB Audio Class 1.0 and 2.0 capabilities (with a push-button toggle on the back panel for selecting between the two); two discrete Class A preamp stages (one to drive the power amp and headphone amp; one to drive the RCA preouts) with technology borrowed directly from the company's $4,499 Grand Integrated X-1; dual-mono Class D amplifiers that deliver 220 watts of power per channel into an eight-ohm load with both channels driven, and 350 watts per channel into a four-ohm load, with Total Harmonic Distortion of 0.2 percent either way; a triode tube buffer with a user-replaceable Russian 6N1P military tube (6922 variant); and last but certainly not least, a dedicated headphone amp and output capable of delivering 1,170 mW of juice into a 32-ohm load with 0.006 percent THD.
Around back, you'll find three additional digital inputs: one coaxial, also capable of accepting a 24/192 signal, and two optical ins with 24/96 input capabilities. There's also a stereo analog input, stereo preouts, and a 3.5mm 12-volt trigger. Despite its capabilities, the nova220SE's front panel is clean and uncluttered, with only five input selection buttons, a power toggle, an IR input window, and a nice, chunky volume control with really nice heft and inertia.
Ease of setup is, of course, determined by connected components, which in my case amounted to my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC. If you're running Windows, tapping into the nova220SE's 24-bit/192-kHz USB DAC capabilities does require a driver download from the Peachtree website. For the bulk of the review, I relied on the nova220SE to drive a pair of GoldenEar Triton Seven loudspeakers connected via a pair of Kimber Kable 12TC speaker cables to the nova220SE's beautiful five-way binding posts. In the review's final weeks, the Triton Sevens were replaced with a pair of GoldenEar Triton Ones.
Honestly, the time spent with the GoldenEar Triton Sevens was more informative overall because I've lived with the speakers for a good nine or 10 months in my home-office two-channel system, and I've had the opportunity to drive them with quite a few different stereo preamps and amplifiers. With that in mind, I can say that, to my ears, the biggest difference that the nova220SE makes is its incredible capacity for dynamic range. Its punch. Its impact. Its ability to go from zero to rock 'n' roll in naught-point-nothing seconds.
The Black Crowes' "Descending," from Amorica (American Recordings), is a great example of what I mean here. I recall mentioning in a previous two-channel preamp/amp review that the strong sforzando moment at right around the 28-second mark, when delicate piano gives way to slamming drums and Dobro, didn't really deliver the goods through the Triton Sevens. The Peachtree nova220SE really reminds me of why I return to this song again and again when I'm auditioning new gear. It's not that "Descending" is an audiophile recording by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes the right combination of preamp, amp, and speakers to do the song justice. At the risk of being crass, that one little moment borders on the orgasmic when played through the nova220SE. It's a veritable explosion of sound. An exultant release of controlled ecstasy that makes you want to get up and jam along with the band.
Let's back up a few seconds before that sweet release, though, because the other thing that instantly stands out about the nova220SE's performance is just how wonderfully low the noise floor is. "Descending" may not be the best track to demonstrate that aspect of the amp's performance, but all the same I found myself taken aback by the subtle detail in the intro: the "accidental" percussion in the sound of piano pedals being depressed.
A track that shines a brighter light on the nova220SE's low noise and exquisite capacity for resolving fine detail is Ana�s Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer's Child Ballads (Wilderland), specifically the first track, "Willie of Winsbury (Child 100)." It's a wonderfully recorded, infinitely intimate album that's simple in scope - two singers, two guitars, recorded live without headphones and with no overdubs - but drenched in subtle detail. There are elements of the mix that I'm accustomed to hearing only through my custom IEMs, but the Peachtree does a wonderful job of sussing them out even in an open room. Through the Triton Sevens, and especially later with the Triton Ones, the nova220SE effortlessly resolves the texture of the bottom three guitar strings, the quiet breaths between vocal lines, even the subtle little mouth smacks that normally get buried or blurred over anything but a good set of headphones.
Click to Page Two for more on Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
Speaking of headphones, the output of the nova220SE deserves special attention in that department, because it's simply one of the most impressive integrated headphone amps I've had the pleasure of auditioning. The only other integrated headphone jack in a multipurpose device that has managed to deliver as much dynamic power, as much open airiness, as much detail and resolution as this is the one built into my Anthem D2v. In fact, I'd put it in the same league as standalone headphone amps like Meridian's Prime Headphone Amplifier -- perhaps not quite as transparent, and maybe not as eerily quiet, but certainly more powerful and dynamic.
Unfortunately I don't have any notoriously difficult-to-drive headphones on hand with which to tests its capabilities in that regard, but the output of the nova220SE was certainly sufficient to make my Audeze LCD-2 planar magnet cans and my Westone ES50 custom IEMs absolutely sing with tracks like the Allman Brothers Band's "Revival," from the 1997 Original Recordings Remastered CD release of Idlewild South (Mercury). That track, in particular, tends to be a tough one for me to truly enjoy over headphones because it's such a densely packed mix that the slightest imprecision, the slightest loss of punch from the rhythm section, turns it all into a jumbled mess. With the nova220SE, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe's dueling drum kits punctuate the track perfectly, and the percussive acoustic rhythm guitar never gets lost in the mix, which really serves to tie the disparate elements of the mix together superbly.
Putting the headphone amp through its paces with a variety of music also gave me the opportunity to do a good bit of A/Bing with the tube buffer in and out of the signal chain, and there's no doubt that there are differences, but with most of my music collection the differences were subtle. I liked it on with rockier, bluesier, Grateful Dead-ier sorts of tunes, for the increased warmth and smoothness in the midrange, but I tended to prefer it off with progressive and classical and stuff of the Coheed and Cambria variety, for reasons that I'm not sure I can really quantify, so take that for what it's worth. It's not as if the audio was more detailed with the tube buffer out of the equation -- just a weensy bit less colored and ever-so-slightly more analytical. To be honest, I'm not sure the casual listener would really notice much if any difference with most listening material.
As I said, though, the tube is user replaceable. The 6N1P was chosen for its durability and affordability, not necessarily its sonic characteristics. So, if you're looking for something that would deliver more of a classic tube preamp sound, you certainly have that option available to you.
There is, it should be noted, one area in which the tube buffer universally shows its strengths: with compressed streaming music. And in fact, this was perhaps the aspects of the nova220SE's performance that surprised me the most. As great as the unit sounds with high-quality, high-resolution digital material, its handling of over-the-top sources like Spotify borders on the magical. I queued up The Roots' Do You Want More?!!!??! (egregious punctuation not mine, I assure you) via Spotify Premium just to check out streaming performance and found myself so drawn in by the smoothness of the jazzy instrumentation that I couldn't resist listening to the entire album. That was with the tube buffer on, mind you. With it off, the streaming tracks were still infinitely listenable -- far more so than with many a high-quality, high-resolution DAC I've auditioned in the past -- just a weensy bit rougher around the edges and not as wholly engaging.
Legitimate complaints that could be leveled against the nova220SE are few and far between, in my opinion, but perhaps the most significant is its dearth of analog inputs. While the inclusion of only one stereo RCA auxiliary input is more than sufficient for me (and I would imagine many music lovers these days), I can certainly see how this might not sit well with some audiophiles.
I actually find the unit's lack of bass management or a dedicated subwoofer output a bit more concerning, to be honest. 2.1 is becoming increasingly important in the hi-fi world, and it shouldn't be too terribly difficult to implement at all. I mentioned this concern to Jonathan Derda, National Sales Manager for Peachtree Audio, who had this to say: "We've discussed bass management and DSP many times. Those things fall off in favor of higher-quality components and keeping the product extremely simple to use."
My only other potential concern is the lack of finish options for this unit in particular. While there's no denying that its high-gloss black cabinet is gorgeous, the nova220SE for some reason lacks the lovely optional finishes of many of Peachtree's other offerings. The Cherry and Rosewood offered on the rest of the nova lineup would be a welcomed option.
Comparison and Competition
If you're in the market for a $2,000-ish integrated stereo amplifier with USB DAC capabilities and anywhere near this much amplification, the pickings are pretty slim. NAD's $2,599 C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC amplifier comes to mind as the nova220SE's most significant competition in terms of value and performance. At 150 watts of power per channel, it's pretty close in terms of output. The C 390DD does lack the Peachtree's headphone output, but it features modular upgradeability, with options for a phono preamp and HDMI inputs, and it also features built-in room EQ for taming bass problems caused by standing waves. Then again, it also lacks much of the simple elegance of form and function that makes the nova220SE so appealing.
It's a little weird to me that the Peachtree Audio nova220SE integrated amplifier doesn't have more competition. Because for me, for my money and my listening pleasure, this is pretty much everything I could want in a two-channel audio system: supremely easy operation, an excellent DAC, a world-class preamp section, truly rocking Class D amplifiers, and a headphone amp that holds its own against standalones that sell for as much as this complete package (the only thing I would add being some bass management and a dedicated sub out). Sonically, it's a gentle giant, with more muscle than one could reasonably expect at this price point, yet its might doesn't come at the expense of delicate nuance or detail.
Furthermore, I'm struggling to imagine any speaker I might own or review that the nova220SE wouldn't be capable of driving beautifully. This is evidenced by the fact that Peachtree demoed the integrated amp with a pair of MartinLogan Summit X hybrid ESLs at this year's CES. We're talking about a speaker with four-ohm nominal impedance, 0.8-ohm impedance at 20 kHz, and power handling capabilities of 600 watts...and the nova220SE drove it like a striped ape.
Is it the right integrated amp for every two-channel aficionado? Well, no. Certainly not if you plan on integrating more than one analog source into your system. And not if you simply have an irrational aversion to Class D amps. But for the modern digital audiophile (with, perhaps, a burgeoning vinyl collection on the side), I cannot recommend this stunning little overachiever highly enough.