In a recent review of a digital audio player, we found ourselves forced to confront the role of traditional audio gear in the age of streaming services. This week, we’re looking at a stereo amplifier — a device that was, in our youth, hidden in A/V cabinets and, more recently, is slowly being challenged by soundbars and Bluetooth speakers. Audiophiles will always have systems full of discrete components, but can these big amplifiers still compete when consumers’ home theaters are frequently coming “in a box?” Hi-fi veteran Peachtree Audio thinks so, and it makes an extremely compelling case with its line of Nova integrated 2-channel amplifiers. They are the antithesis of the ’90s dull black box on an A/V rack, with impressive functionality and clean power. After a few weeks with the Nova150 — Peachtree’s midrange model — all we can say is that we’re sad to see it go.
At first glance, you’d almost think the Nova150 was a well-maintained amplifier from the mid-20th century. Like so much of the stereo gear from that era, the Nova150 has a plain aluminum panel on the front, panoply jacks on the rear, and a brown wood case; the only things missing are a pair of VU meters and an AM/FM radio dial. A closer look reveals that its rounded wood housing has been polished to a high gloss finish, its brushed aluminum face is flush-mounted to the wood as if it grew that way naturally, and its volume knob is very clearly digital. This retro-futuristic design is one of the things we like most about the Nova150; it deserves to be displayed front-and-center, rather than stuffed into a cubby in a media center. We like the character of the Gloss Ebony Mocha model we received for testing, though it’s likely that the Piano Black version might “gel” better with other modern electronics. If anything negative could be said about the Nova150’s physical design, it’s that the high-gloss finish will likely be more susceptible to fingerprints and scratches; the care it demands can serve as a reminder that this amplifier isn’t just a commodity.
The Nova150’s interface is deceptively minimal, with a gray aluminum face broken by nothing but eight buttons for selecting inputs and a companion LED for each. In sharp contrast to the Brooklyn DAC we reviewed earlier this year, the Nova150 has no LCD to display volume or other information. Peachtree has, however, hidden more functionality behind the buttons. When adjusting volume, the eight source LEDs light up to show volume level, and long-pressing any of the input buttons can toggle “volume control bypass” mode (more on that later). Though this setup keeps the interface clean, we think it may go a bit too far — there’s no way to tell exactly what volume level the Nova150 is at without changing it, and the number of steps between the LEDs seem to vary depending on where you are in the volume range. This can be frustrating when switching between sources or media, or even after coming back to the Nova150 and not remembering the volume at which you last listened. After initial setup, adjusting the volume is perhaps the primary way that users will interact with the Nova150 — there’s no need to keep the volume level so hidden.
The Nova150’s included remote is very good. An aluminum top with a contoured rubberized plastic bottom makes it easy to hold, and easily discernable buttons make it easy to control. In addition to volume and mute buttons, the remote allows input selection via the eight dedicated buttons. If you’re using the Nova150’s USB inputs, track controls are passed through to your PC or Mac as well. The remote is more than just a convenience — it’s the feature that makes the Nova150 truly able to function as a home theater receiver and a hi-fi integrated amplifier.
One of the most impressive things about the Nova150 is its wide range of inputs. In addition to its standard analog RCAs, the Nova150 features a phono input for turntables, two optical inputs, a coaxial digital input, a standard USB-B (PC & Mac) jack, and a dedicated iOS-compatible USB-A jack. Significantly, the iOS input features Peachtree’s unique “Dynamic Noise Elimination Circuit” designed to circumvent the electrical noise that would otherwise plague these portable devices. Each of these worked flawlessly for us except, somewhat predictably, our testing of the USB connection with a PC — some driver issues held us back initially, but an update to Windows 10 seemed to solve it in time. We especially liked using the Nova150 with iOS; we were able to stream music from Apple Music and Tidal on our phones in full quality while charging. The Nova150 uses ESS’ Sabre 9018KM DAC which supports a wide range of music formats and resolutions up to a ridiculous 32-bit/384kHz. Peachtree has indicated that an optional Wi-Fi module for wireless streaming to the Nova150 is forthcoming, but it was not available at the time of our testing.
For those using multi-speaker setups with their TVs, the Nova150 has an extra trick up its sleeve — Home Theater Bypass mode, or “HTB.” To use this mode, the Nova150 is connected to a surround-sound home theater receiver’s line-level outputs. The incoming signal “bypasses” the Nova150’s volume control, instead allowing the home theater receiver to control the volume of the speakers connected to the Nova150; the Nova150 essentially turns into a dedicated power amplifier. For those passionate about both music and movies, the Nova150’s HTB mode makes it easy to maintain a high-end 2-channel music system that can instantly become part of a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system, going a long way to help justify the Nova150’s price. It’s worth noting that the Nova150’s own preamp output can do this trick in reverse — long-pressing an input button on the Nova150’s face toggles between fixed and variable volume output for connection to an external preamp or powered speakers respectively.
Though the Nova150’s inputs are impressive, its outputs are what really count — it is, after all, an amplifier. It includes a pair of speaker outputs that can accept banana plugs or bare wire; these are rated at 150 watts per channel and, impressively, compatible with speakers ranging from 2.5 ohms to 16 ohms. Preamp RCAs are also available, rated at 3.8V RMS, as well as a relatively powerful headphone output rated at over 1.6W into 32 ohms. Nitty-gritty details about the specifications of each of these outputs are available on Nova’s website. One noteworthy omission from the Nova150’s outputs is a dedicated subwoofer output, but it’s not a dealbreaker — it wouldn’t matter if the Nova150 was connected to a home theater receiver in HTB mode, but it would be a nice feature for those who want to use the Nova150 as a home theater receiver in a 2.1-channel setup.
We listened to the Nova150 extensively using the optical, analog, and USB inputs, including straight out of our iPhone’s Lightning jack. We focused on the digital inputs, of course, because we wanted to see how the Nova150 sounds as a complete package. Though Sabre DACs have had a reputation in the past for sounding harsh, that certainly isn’t true in this implementation. The Nova150 sounds clean, dynamic, and transparent as it should be. The speaker outputs easily drove a pair of 6 ohm speakers to room-shaking volumes without distortion, and the preamp outputs worked nicely with our active studio monitors. The Nova150’s headphone amplifier, thankfully, does not sound like an afterthought, and was able to power full-size planars with no problems. All inputs — including the iOS — were free of noise that we could hear, even at full volume with no music playing. When testing high-quality amplifiers, we’re looking for a lack of coloration — it’s best if they not have a sound signature at all. The Nova150 did its job but stays out of the way of the music.
It’s great when a device helps to justify its cost with lots of functionality, but even better when a jack-of-all-trades does all those things really well. The Nova150 was a pleasure to review — it’s exquisitely designed, powerful, clean-sounding, and versatile. We appreciate the extra attention given to iOS devices, as it signals to us that Peachtree wants to excel with traditional formats but also embrace the way that people listen to music in 2017. We would be willing to trade some of its minimalism for extra control — the volume level indicators aren’t user friendly, and we would have liked the ability to toggle muting of the preamp outputs when both passive and active speakers are connected — one more button wouldn’t have ruined the design. Still, PeachTree’s Nova150 is an excellent product and, if it’s in your budget, should be seriously considered for a spot at the center of your system.
Company and Price
Company: Peachtree Audio
Model: Nova 150