In short, this is an intensely musical phono preamp. I’ve had some quibbles about the sound of some PS Audio equipment in the past; its previous preamps and phono preamps seemed to tilt a bit towards the highs, making the midrange just a bit bright and hard. The PS Audio NuWave provides all of the upper midrange and treble energy anyone could desire, but like the rest of the PS Audio equipment I’ve auditioned in recent years, it now provides that life and detail without any hardness, leanness, or unrealistic brightness.
I lean towards a slightly warmer sound, but this reflects my preferences as a mid-hall listener. Even so, I had no problem enjoying the upper-octave sound from my most demanding reference records—including harpsichord, transverse flute, older violins, modern clarinets, and all of the other torture tests of upper midrange and treble sound quality. If you are lucky enough to have a collection with some of the Accent classical recordings or other smaller European labels that made truly great classical chamber music recordings—ones that did as little as possible to compress the sound or limit the true near-field energy of older instruments—you’ll know how demanding such music can be. However, you can use any other LP in your collection that exposes the most demanding aspects of the upper midrange, and you’ll find that a properly loaded cartridge will perform at its musical best.
Fortunately, the lower midrange and bass are equally good; if anything, the NuWave either has just a touch of excess deep-bass energy, or does a better job of retrieving such musical information than most of the competition. The deep bass seems to be an area where no two top designers ever seem to voice their units or deal with the RIAA curve in exactly the same way (the NuWave uses passive RIAA equalization). The key point is that if the NuWave errs at all, it errs in the direction of musicality, even in a system that measures relatively flat down to 25Hz in my listening room. There is musically realistic life and detail—from the lowest passages to the loudest—without any of the dulling that all too often occurs at really low musical levels in phono preamps and without any problems at peak levels. This is as true of the most demanding fortes in full symphonic music, jazz orchestras, and opera as it is of solo voice, piano, guitar, and violin. Part of this exceptional performance may be the superb signal-to-noise ratio, which makes the NuWave sound significantly quieter than the specified 72dB for moving-coil cartridges—at least compared to similar specifications in other phono preamps (try finding a real-world room silent enough to really listen at levels where the ambient sound allows you to clearly hear the full impact of such S/N ratios).
The soundstage is also very detailed and is as natural as given recordings, cartridges, tonearms, and setup permit. One of the strengths of the NuWave is that it clearly presents the sonic and musical impact of small changes in tracking weight, VTA, azimuth, and channel separation. The cartridge and set-up quality will generally be the key limiting factors in imaging and soundstage size with a really good phono preamp—analog has its limits as well as its joys—and this was fully apparent with the NuWave.
It does an equally good job of reflecting the more subtle nuances in the sonic characteristics of given cartridges—an issue I’ll come back to later. My VPI tonearm allows almost instant cartridge swaps and makes it very easy to hear the differences between cartridges without using two tonearms. Once again, it takes a truly excellent phono preamp that costs substantially more than the NuWave to challenge its ability to clearly reproduce the subtler sonic differences among cartridges.
The World Beyond Analog
At this point I had better start focusing on why it is called a Phono Converter rather than simply a phono preamp. Let me remind you that it converts analog phono sources into digital and has a separate high-level analog input that can provide a digital output from analog tape recorders and FM tuners. In short, if you have a DAC that is a full digital preamp, or you want to stream your analog music for any reason, the NuWave is one of the first truly high-end products that can do this and provide a conversion in both high-resolution DSD or PCM.
I was able to use the NuWave with PS Audio’s Perfect Wave DAC and the far-more-expensive EMM Labs XDS1 DAC, as well as do some short listening with several of my friends’ DACs in their systems. In each case, the sound of the digital output from the NuWave was virtually the mirror image of the sound from the analog phono circuit—allowing for the colorations introduced by each DAC. In the case of the Perfect Wave DAC, the sound through my analog reference system was remarkably close to the pure analog path, and I could make use of the Perfect Wave’s volume and balance controls, along with its wide range of digital inputs, to successfully eliminate the need for an analog preamp and get truly great sound.
In short, if you want to know about the nuances of the NuWave’s sound quality, just read my earlier comments about the analog sound. Its digital output preserves all of the sonic nuances in its analog output including the character of the cartridge and front end, and the end result—at the recommended recording rate of 24-bit/96kHz—gives you something so close to the sound of playing a record through the system used to make the recording that you get all of the (guilty?) pleasures of analog.
Certainly, there is no loss of life or dynamics, nor a constant touch of digital edge. It affords the ability to hear all the different sonic nuances that come out of various cartridges, or even pressings of the same recording. And if you doubt this, just try comparing the sound of the analog output to the sound of the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter’s digital output through a really good DAC. This is a result I never expected. My experience to-date with anything approaching consumer level A/D has often been very good, but never this close to being inaudible. If there is any coloration, it is at a token level and masked by all of the other coloration in an analog front end.