While typing my finishing thoughts to this article, my hometown team won its second World Series in three years. As it was in 2010, this year’s edition of the San Francisco Giants seems a most unlikely champion of the big leagues. Their two-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher had a terrible year; their best closer was out early due to season-ending surgery; their best offensive weapon, a crowd-favorite and All-Star Game MVP, was suspended after the half-way mark for illegal drug use; and their starting first-baseman, a star of their previous championship team, was relegated to a pinch-hitter role due to anxiety attacks. But after a few key trades the Giants turned a roster of smart, scrappy players into a feisty, never-saydie team that nearly collapsed in two hard-fought playoff games, before sweeping Detroit in four. Versatility was a huge key to the team’s success; witness that Cy Young Award winner being left out of the World Series rotation, only to shine from the bullpen.
My baseball musings are a way of saying that many of today’s most exciting and interesting audio components offer their own brand of chameleonic versatility, appealing to traditional audiophiles while at the same time embracing the needs of those who prefer their music not from vinyl or compact discs but rather streamed via computer.
Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Wyred 4 Sound’s mINT, a tiny integrated-amp/DAC. Now we’ll look at Peachtree Audio’s Grand Pre X-1, a $3299 hybrid-tube preamp and DAC.
Peachtree is best known for its line of affordable, wood-clad designs, but the Grand Series, which as of now also includes the $4499 Grand Integrated, charts new, higher-end territory for this Bellevue, Washington-based firm. The hefty, round-cornered chassis sports a half-inch-thick aluminum faceplate, titanium buttons, and engraved rather than screened input names. Likewise, the design and internal component choices reflect the company’s drive for excellence.
Given Peachtree’s commitment to computer-driven audio, the Grand Pre X-1—which is slightly upgraded from the original Grand Pre (more on that later)—employs Reference ESS Sabre32 9018 DACs to significantly reduce jitter from highly jitter-prone computer and other sources. A newly designed asynchronous USB input is said to provide the best possible connection between computer and DAC by allowing “the Grand Pre’s internal high-precision clock to control the flow of data coming from the computer. This method lowers incoming jitter so the Sabre DAC has less timing errors to re-clock.” Capable of 24/192 resolution, the Grand also accepts sampling rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz. Galvanic isolation, used to break ground loops when multiple circuits need to speak to each other, is said to eliminate the noise caused by the switching power supplies commonly used in computer and other devices. And to sweeten the harsh digital nasties from poor or compressed recordings, Peachtree commissioned the legendary Bascom King to design a tube buffer stage. Using a pair of 12AU7s running in mono, a front-panel tube-bypass switch allows listening in either a completely solid-state or hybrid-tube mode from both the preamp as well as from the built-in headphone amplifier. As with any good design, the preamp stage uses the shortest possible signal paths, while a VCA (voltage-controlled-amplifier) gain control changes current in the preamp without having the signal pass through a potentiometer. Hence, the motorized pot’s role is to simply feed a reference voltage to the VCA unit. Peachtree feels strongly that the result is superior channel matching, excellent soundstaging, low coloration, and high dynamic range.
Because early editions of the Grand Pre reportedly had a few minor issues, Peachtree’s David Solomon wrote me about the changes that went into the X-1 version, which also created a few-hundred-dollar price bump. Some listeners were said to get a slight popping noise while adjusting gain, so Peachtree added a few caps to the gain control to eliminate any noise. Secondly, Peachtree changed the USB receiving chip from a Tenor TE8802L chip to a more stable XMOS device.
This is my first review of a Peachtree Audio design and, though I’m aware that I’m starting at the top, the Grand Pre X-1 is a mighty impressive effort.
Whether spinning vinyl, CD, or streaming from my MacBook Pro, which was a snap to set up for use with the Grand Pre X-1, the sound was open and airy, with a nice feeling of drive and pace, good re-creation of dynamic extremes, and fine microdynamic shading. The tube buffer is certainly that. Over time I would go back and forth with different sources, and Peachtree’s stated design goals for the unit proved to be true—meaning that with LPs and all but the poorest-sounding CDs, I preferred the unit with the buffer off. For example, with something like HK Gruber’s marvelous, funny, very well recorded, and always surprising Frankenstein!! [Chandos], the Grand Pre did a fine job of carving out a large stage with excellent depth and spot-on imaging. Gruber’s singspiel, performed while standing in front of a horizontally arranged orchestra, was articulate, strings were lively, percussion was delivered full of verve and snap. But the tube buffer softened things too much, and dulled air and edges. On the other hand, while casually streaming from lower-quality sources such as Pandora, or a poor-sounding older compact disc, the tube buffer did a fine job warming things up, adding a bit of golden tone, rich texture, and generally saving one’s ears from that harsh, edgy, aural-icepick effect.
My advice is to experiment. If you’re going to listen to a lot of digital sources of varying quality—and if you’re reading this I’d say that’s a safe assumption—then the tube buffer should prove a welcome feature.
But not surprisingly, the Peachtree Grand Pre X-1 shines with superior sources such as the Gruber mentioned above. Fine LP sources, too, are impressive, and of genuine high-end quality when played through this design. I highly enjoyed my record collection over this peachy unit, and compared to analog-only models never felt that the Grand Pre was a compromise approach. For one example, Analogue Productions’ superb 45rpm edition of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out displayed a marvelous sense of the intricate timing changes that still make this music so inventive and satisfying so many decades after it was released. The interplay of Brubeck’s piano with his terrific small ensemble was always revealing, drawing me into tune after tune. The Peachtree’s tonal quality neatly splits things nearly down the middle, with perhaps a nod toward the lighter side of the spectrum, which I generally prefer to the darker side.
Streaming high-resolution files proved to be a rewarding experience over this Peachtree model. As I said in my review of Naim’s outstanding SuperUniti (Issue 225), the world of computer-derived audio is still relatively fresh territory for me and one I’m not quite comfortable with, as the technical micro-details and very different musical/sonic experience, in many ways superior and in others not, are issues I’m still grappling with. Nevertheless, with something like the truly fine 192/24 rendering of Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, the Grand Pre X-1 was a model of resolution, tonal complexity, and “there-ness.” Vocals were superb, the stage was big, wide, and open, dynamic range from whisper to thunderclap and back, and the experience was highly impressive as well as musically compelling. So I’ll now confess that I found Analogue Productions’ QRP vinyl pressing even more engaging.
Like I said, Peachtree Audio’s Grand Pre X-1 sets a new standard for this company. It’s a thoughtfully designed, well built, and truly versatile performer that should more than satisfy a wide range of music lovers—from those who have enthusiastically embraced computer audio to geezers like me who are still straddling the proverbial fence.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Hybrid Tube Preamp & DAC
Inputs: Aux/HT analog, Aux 2 analog, balanced (XLR) analog, USB digital, one BNC digital, two coax digital, two optical digital
Outputs: Coax: pre, line, high pass pre, balanced (XLR)
Tube complement: 12AU7 (2)
Dimensions: 17.5" x 4.8" x 16.5"
Weight: 24 lbs.
2045 120th Avenue North East
Bellevue, Washington 98005
Acoustic Signature Challenger turntable, Funk FX -R Pickup Arm, and Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridge; Sutherland 20/20 and Simaudio Moon 310LP phonostages; Cary Audio Classic CD 303T SACD player; Apple MacBook Pro computer; Exposure 3010S2 mono amplifiers; Magnepan 1.7 loudspeakers, Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10 Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks