PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter

A New Breed Of Phonostage

Equipment report
PS Audio NuWave
PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter

PS Audio’s NuWave Phono Converter combines a phono preamplifier and an analog DSD/PCM converter that can be used for a record player, a tape recorder, an FM tuner, or any other high-level input. It features an advanced all- analog phonostage and an equally advanced A/D converter, both of which have discrete circuit sections. The NuWave isolates and separates the analog and digital paths within the device—making it the first product where you can clearly compare the sound of a true high-end analog phono preamp with that of a state-of- the-art A/D converter that can drive virtually any modern DAC.

For those who don’t yet need the integral A/D converter, the NuWave functions just as any other phonostage would. It will amplify cartridge outputs with a pure-analog signal path based on a differential low-noise input stage coupled through passive RIAA equalizer to a discrete Class A FET output stage. It has an extraordinary range of gain which can accommodate cartridges from moving coils with as low as 0.2mV output up to moving magnets with up to 220mV output, and can do this with virtually no noise or hum.

At the same time, the NuWave utilizes a high-performance Burr Brown PCM4222 A/D converter that PS Audio states has exceptional dynamic range and low noise. It allows the user to choose between linear PCM or DSD at the NuWave’s digital-output jacks. For PCM, the A/D chip can provide up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution, while the DSD option offers both standard DSD (2.8224Mbs) or double DSD. This means that you can digitize and store your LP collection at up to 192kHz/24-bit PCM, or standard or double-speed DSD. The PCM output is available at the USB, SPDIF coaxial, and I2S outputs. The DSD stream is output exclusively on an I2S bus via an HDMI port.

The A/D chip’s clock is processed by PS Audio’s Digital Lens reclocking circuit to reduce jitter. It’s worth noting that jitter in the A/D’s clock is just as sonically pernicious as jitter in the D/A’s clock. The difference, however, is that jitter introduced in the A/D stage is permanently embedded in the signal and cannot be removed later. There is a separate high-level analog input for digitizing line-level sources such as from an FM tuner.

You can find a full technical description on the PS Audio Web site. There, you can also find a copy of the instruction handbook—which is far more intimidating at first glance than it is in practice. What counts, if you choose to reject all the techno- babble, is that you can not only use the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter to play straight into any DAC with DSD or PCM and take advantage of its linestage preamp capabilities, but also create your own digital library from vinyl, tape, radio broadcasts and live events, or even studio work. This does allow for the potential horror of someone recording high-res digital karaoke or Guitar Hero—ironic as that may be—but in every meaningful respect it provides a mix of features I suspect every audiophile will eventually need.

Performance As An Analog Phono Preamp
Let me begin with the core aspect of the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter’s performance. First, it is a truly excellent analog phono preamp. While it has many other features, this will be the most important single aspect for most owners. It also means you can have some of the best analog sound available right now and wait for the day you will need its digital features, or continue with analog while you convert your LP collection for digital storage. With all of the additional features of the PS Audio NuWave, there are none of the trade-offs typically required when choosing between a purely conventional phono preamp and an A/D converter, especially at its price of $1895.

Not only does the NuWave have exceptional gain with exceptional silence, its gain can easily be adjusted to allow for different cartridge loadings while playing a record. It produced excellent results with my lowest-output moving coils, high- output moving magnets, and moving irons. My only quibble would be providing some additional higher impedances like 3k, 5k, and 1k ohms for what is admittedly a handful of moving- iron designs—more a reflection of my love of trying different loads with Soundsmith and Grado cartridges than a real-world audiophile need.

Optimizing the gain and loading are critical with a phono preamp. So is consistency, regardless of gain and load, and here the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter is exceptional compared to many competing products. Far too often, a phono preamp has “sweet spots” in noise, in gain versus sound quality, and in accurately reproducing the dynamics of music.

As for actual musical performance, I have no idea how PS Audio’s voicing tests for this unit were conducted, but someone clearly went well beyond his favorite cartridge and really worried about providing a truly musical interface with a wide range of cartridges and preamps. A few much higher-priced all-analog phono preamps sound better to my ear, but they tend to be at the cutting-edge level, like the Pass Labs XP-25—a unit that sells for $10,600, some five times the cost of the PS Audio.