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PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter

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.

 

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.

 

I should note, however, that these comments are based largely on the Phono Converter’s PCM outputs. The one DAC I could use with DSD input capability produced excellent sound, but I’m not really familiar enough with that DAC’s DSD performance to make detailed judgments or enter the raging high-end debate over PCM versus DSD. About all I can say is that PS Audio is a great fan of DSD, and it is highly unlikely that the DSD output lags behind the PCM with regards to sound quality.

Creating Digital Copies Of Your LPs and Tapes
I did try making digital copies of FM and tapes with the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter, and it did an excellent job. My main focus, however, was on its ability to make digital copies of LPs. This is also the main focus of the PS Audio instruction manual, which I would strongly suggest you follow to the letter. The process was also complicated enough for me to contact Paul McGowan—head of PS Audio—for a supplement to the manual on finding the right software to create a digital library of LPs, which is provided in the sidebar to this review.

One of Paul’s recommendations is an independent product called Vinyl Studio ($29.95; alpinesoft.co.uk), which is a very affordable program that worked as well as anything I’ve encountered, and whose features keep improving as the software is refined. The end result was again excellent sound quality for every LP that I copied, but I did come away with mixed feelings about the idea of transferring a library of records to digital. This is not a process that is nearly as easy as streaming CDs or downloading digital recordings. You have to bring your computer to your turntable or vice versa; there are some minor computer set-up issues. Unless you use a Mac, you have to make sure your record is properly cleaned and your phono front end is optimally adjusted, and you have to monitor the actual playback of the record.

This is fine for the pearls of your record collection, but work your way through several hundred or thousand LPs and do so knowing that cartridges, tonearms, and turntables constantly evolve? Well, audiophiles are crazy—I know because I am one—but, that crazy?

And yet, the answer eventually might be yes. The rationale for such a library is not just to ensure against damages to your records or having a digital copy in your library for streaming; rather, one of the great strengths of analog for seasoned audiophiles is that they almost certainly have gradually acquired a front end that has the colorations they love.

Let’s face it, LPs have serious technical limits, one of which is an often musically satisfying level of compression, and most LP recordings were mastered with considerable equalization. No cartridge can be neutral and no audiophile I know of buys a cartridge for its technical performance.

Tonearm settings are critical, and as CBS Labs found years ago there is no right setting for VTA—there is no null; you have to trade increases in one form of distortion for another. Turntables, levels, and cables all make a difference—as does the way you clean your record and stylus. And yet, the end result can still be a triumph of aesthetics over technology.

Some purists may get upset with the idea of recording colorations. The Absolute Sound has never, however, been the province of Puritans. When TAS was founded, Harry Pearson repeatedly pointed out that the test is how real and moving the music is. In fact, if TAS had a mantra, it would be: “It’s the music that matters.”

Summing Up
PS Audio’s NuWave Phono Converter is truly an innovative product with great sound and value for the money. A real pleasure to review—even if it does suck me into making digital copies of my LPs!

SPECS & PRICING

Inputs: Two RCA phono; two RCA line-level
Outputs: RCA or XLR; S/PDIF digital coax; HDMI; USB
Gain: 0.2-220mV, mc/mm
Cartridge loading: 60 ohms (80nF) up to 100k ohms (47pF)
A/D Converter: PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz; DSD 2.8MHz or 5.6MHz (DSD 64, DSD 128)
Dimensions: 14″ x 8.3″ x 2.4″
Weight: 14 lbs.
Price: $1895

PS AUDIO
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, Colorado 80301
(720) 406-8946
psaudio.com

By Anthony Cordesman

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