Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why Computer Audio






Why computer audio? It can only be so good, right?

Increasingly, people are using their computers as a music server. For good reason, the interfaces are very easy to use, hard drive with large space is very inexpensive and who wants to hunt down a CD that may or may not be in its place. Our end goal was to make an integrated amplifier specifically to make computers and other digital music devices sound as good as or better than any CD player on the market.
Years ago, it became obvious that computers and iPods were here to stay. It was also painfully obvious that the upper end Consumer Electronics industry was largely ignoring this trend. The best thing the industry had come up with were analog docking stations or powered plastic speakers for the computer that were louder and sounded better than stock speakers, but a long way from true to life sound. For the most part, “sound quality” wasn’t part of the equation. Music was more like acoustic wall paper. So as people were listening to more and more music as a whole, less and less people felt the need to pair it with better audio.
This was particularly sad for me and my partners as we had all grown up in high-end audio industry for the past 30 years or more and really loved the gear and the business. We all loved the simple pleasure of listening to music the way or even better than the way it was intended.
While we appreciated the portability of the iPod, we didn’t own one between us… So we bought in and started playing with them to see where or if we could fit into this market. One thing for sure, we didn’t want to make another docking station to add to the multitudes already flooding the market. The iPods “output” is purely analog, and with a tiny power supply, it was only going to sound “so-good”.
The first thing you probably noted was the music on your iPod must be on your computer first. You can burn and catalog all of your music with cover art for free, have a great, easy to use interface and still send email or work on a spread sheet. And, you never have to look for that missing CD again.
Unlike the iPod, a computer could output a digital music signal via USB and sound great. This is with no modification to the computer. There are a few companies that have been and are still producing production and kit USB D/A converters, however, you have to use them in conjunction with and integrated amp which starts using up lots of room and dollars. For the most part, they were designed for the audio enthusiast who didn’t mind having separate D/A converters with an analog integrated amplifier. Most people won’t go through the trouble or have the space or inclination to get that deep.
Like most, I sat in front of my computer for hours on end and never listened to music until we made the Decco. It totally changed the way I felt about email, spread sheet and word processing. I was actually having fun at work and discovering my music all over again. This was in addition to the thousands of free radio on the net. Many people use products like Sonos, Apple TV or Logitech Squeezebox. They’re all great computer music transfer systems with their own intuitive user interfaces, but all had the same problem as a computer… They just sounded mediocre.
With this data in hand, we set out to make the world’s first new millennium integrated amplifier. It would have to be old school meets new. First to handle computers, it needed a USB DAC. To handle Sonos or a Squeezebox, it would need a coax input and for Apple TV, we needed a toslink input. These are the digital inputs we put into the Decco. There are also a couple of analog inputs for those who would want to use a tuner, turntable or other analog devices and a pre out for use with a subwoofer or external amp.
We all know the problems digital audio has faced since 1981… Digital music is often harsh, lifeless and two-dimensional. At the same time we’ve felt the best sounding CD players, D/A converters and integrated amps all had tube preamp sections, or at least the ones Jim and I prefer.
In a well designed circuit, a tube breathes life into digital music and helps restores a three dimensional stage and a relaxed, smooth sound. Simply put, more musical. We decided that we wanted a tube preamp section to do just that and designed it into the Decco and Nova. With the tube, the Decco and Nova take the chill off of digital music and make it sound warm, sweet and full.
Although I know exactly what I want in a product and Jim is a very good industrial designer, neither of us are engineers and well aware of our limitations in this area. Scott Nixon was an old friend of Jim’s and he graciously agreed to design our first DAC.
We really lucked out as Scott had not only successfully marketed a DAC that was selling well on the internet to enthusiasts. He also had a tube preamp design and amp design similar to that of the 47 Laboratories using a large transformer and National Semiconductor output stage he had been working on for years...
( ABOVE: The original Decco is still in use w/ the new Peachtree Audio DS4.5 speakers anda Wadia i170 transport)

We heard them and flipped out…High 5’s were flying all around…
We had Scott put the original Decco together in a project box and started carrying it around to dealers while using our computers for a source. This is the original Decco and resides in my bedroom w/ a Wadia i170 Wadia digital docking station and our DS4.5 speakers. Dealers were blown away by the performance we could get out of all formats from 128kbps to full wav and even internet radio like Pandora. We ended up with about 125 of the best specialty dealers in the country.

Although we don’t advocate hard compressed files, 128kbps files actually sounded really good through the Decco. So good, that that many can’t tell the difference between the low and high res files. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a difference. It’s just the line in the sand is less defined and for the first time and people are hearing what compressed digital files can sound like when treated right. The reason this even matters is that many programs like iTunes have the default recording set to 128kbps, or what they call “Good”. So many have burned and or downloaded thousands of songs in this lower resolution format without even knowing it. So if you do have lots of songs burned in 128kbps, it’s okay because it turns out that if you transfer the low res music in a digital format directly to a DAC, then run it through a good tube section and high current amplifier, this music can sound fine. This also frees you to guiltlessly download from iTunes when you just want a piece of music NOW… although there are much better sites with higher resolution downloads like Music Giants or Linn if you can find the song. I also encourage you to burn the discs you already own… You bought it because you like it and chances are, you won’t find a download that’s near the resolution of your original CD.
Stating the obvious, hard drive space is cheap these days so start burning in some sort of a lossless format when you can. If you have a small iPod, you can convert the large files to mp3 to transfer to the iPod while having a higher res original on your computer that you can listen to locally.
So we started playing with the different music management and burn programs. Jim loves EAC and Foobar and while I’ve used and appreciate them, I gravitated toward iTunes because I wanted to use what “most” people used to get common exposure. I ended up really liking the features and format…after all 117,000,000 can’t all be wrong.
IMHO, if you set up iTunes right, it sounds awesome. It’s easy to use and looks great too. But no matter what music management system you use, we’ll make it sound as good as it can sound.
Having said this, I’ll qualify the statement. If a recording is poorly engineered and sounds bad from the start, nothing you do will make it sound exceptional. A lot of Motown, old rock and many blues tunes fit this bill. I love the music, but rarely expect quality of sound… This makes me like the Temptations none the less.
So, after almost two years of R&D, designing, refining, getting dealer feedback and getting them hooked on the idea of getting a portion of the “download generation” or GEN D as we call them, we launched the original Decco at Cedia 2007. Even with a few kinks, the Decco was very successful. When a problem arose, we simply traded out the unit tracked down the problem. In less than a year, we’ve have over 2,000 units in the field and the demand continues to grow and have made several mods on the current Decco.
Some reports say there are up to 200,000,000 people who use iTunes…So even if a tiny percentage want to make their system sound good, we have a huge base to pull from. And as I write this at the end of 2008, there’s still nothing on the market like the Decco. Go figure…
All we lack is the ability to shout loud enough, so if you know anyone who likes computer audio, please tell them about our company.
This is my computer audio based system at home. It has a Decco, Era D5 speakers, Era sub8 and an Apple TV. The whole system is around $2500 w/ monitor and cables.
I’ve had high-end systems all my life and this one is very musical and for the money, the most enjoyable.
Well, this was my first blog entry. Hope it was helpful and gave you some insight as to why we believe computer audio is here to stay in a big way.
As always, we’re available to answer questions you may have.
Best wishes,
David Solomon

34 comments:

Teddy Rose said...

Hi Dave,

I've been following the development of the Nova with interest the last couple of weeks. I just resently ditched the pereamp in my system after getting a Benchmark DAC-1. Overall, its been a significant improvement, with much more detail than before (Cambridge Audio 640C). It has been a bit disappointing though, with a somewhat constricted soundstage and a ruthless accuracy that manages to strip some recordings of a fair bit of their musicality.

Another annoyance is that it only process PCM signals so I can't run my TV cable box (AC3) through it. My understanding is that the Nova and Decco can handle any digital audio format, and that is also what makes me really interested.

I live in the Vancouver BC area and was wondering if a dealer has been appointed here yet? Thanks.

Bill Pope

analytics said...

Hi Bill,
We'll take musical over analytical any day.Although w/ the Nova, we'll have both.
Can't help you out on AC3. You would have to tell the cable box to send a PCM signal for the Decco a to work. This works well w/ 2.0/2.1 theater.
Hope this helps,
David Solomon

Andrew Ross said...

This is somewhat unrelated to the main content of the article, but I was kind of surprised to see the speakers in both photos sitting on top of cabinets. I am planning to buy a pair of Era D5s this week, and the dealer says I really shouldn't put them on my media cabinet. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of space for speaker stands and would have to downsize to a smaller cabinet to make room for them. Since you have your D5s sitting on a cabinet I thought you might be able to offer some advice regarding the impact on the sound quality.

I enjoyed the article and I'm definitely going to look into the Decca as I continue to build my new system. Thanks very much,

Andrew

Jeff said...

Hi Dave,

My wife and I just remodeled a small condo in downtown Seattle for us and our three kids. I wanted a house-audio system, so I put some speakers in the ceiling (don't wince). All of the audio sources are digital (Apple TV, Mac Mini, TiVo Series 3), so my choices were: a) use a huge, complicated, crappy sounding A/V receiver, b) use the crappy internal DACs and go analog from the source to the receiver (shudder), or c) get complicated with a digital-audio switcher, external DAC, and a decent integrated amp.

Or, d) use a Nova. Wow, it's the perfect solution for me. Thank you.

I'm considering one for the bedroom TV system, too. I have two speakers just over the bed so we can listen to music and watch TV at low volume. Sources include Apple TV, TiVo HD, Mac Mini (for gaming), PS3, and Xbox 360. (I'm a game dev -- have to stay on top of the competition!) Again, an A/V receiver is overkill for stereo at low volume, and would not sound good for music. I'll max out the inputs, but a Nova again seems like the perfect solution.

Kudos to you and the team. Happy to spend my money with you rather than Sony/Denon/Marantz and co.

Jeff

eugenius said...

How about some detailed specs on the headphone amp in the NOVA ... like the recommended impedance range, what tube (s) etc

Does the headphone amp work with Denons at 25ohm and Beyers/AKG's at 600 ohm?).


Can you listed to a different track on headphones and speakers?

Can you use the speakers amp with agressive metal tweetered speakers? I have some of those ... :)

You know, the stuff that counts ... :)

We already know, the DAC - teh best ever.

ArturoK said...

David,
I've been thinking about the Nova. I want to play CD's, DVD's, BD's (all three from a BD player), VHS and TV audio out (or DVR audio). I want only 2 channels. Hence your product. I am concerned with audio-video synchronization. My current approach is analog out from the players into an old Rotel preamp and Rotel amp. Will I run into synch problems running digital out of my sources through the Nova instead?

D said...

hi david
i think i am on the market for exactly your Peachtree Audio Nova Stereo. but the site does not help. is nova the new decco? why not user manual? why no detail shots of the back of the unit? why no detailed specs? etc etc
can you help with more info? thanks
d

Sam said...

Hi Dave,

My Decco amp's headphone section is not working. I have had contacted the customer support but without luck.
I have already did the following:
1. Make sure my headphone is working properly.
2. Make sure all sourses to the Decco are working fine.
3. Unplug/plug the Decco hopefully to re-set the amp.
4. The main speakers worked fine.
What else can I try?

Thanks!

Sam

Mr. Kiser said...

Headphone amp not working? That can't be a good sign.

Mr. Kiser said...

Sam, did they ever fix the headphone amp? How old was the unit? I was thinking about getting one; however, if the units are faulty or if they are reluctant to fix problems, I will look at other options. Thanks.

Sam said...

Mr. Kiser,

My Decco amp is over a year old so the warranty is expired. However, I am looking forward to hear the answer from Dave.

Mr. Kiser said...

Sam,

It seems like Dave is taking quite of bit of time to answer. As a matter of fact, his blog site has not had action since December 2008. I hope Dave fixes your unit--even at a year old, it should not have such a major malfunction. Good luck.

Has anyone else had trouble with their Nova unit?

drv123 said...

Anyone know how to hook up an iPhone's USB output to a decco?

The iPhone has a type a connector and the input on the decco is type b.

David Solomon said...

Hi All, Sorry for the lapse in posts. I started this and wearing multiple hats did not follow up.
So I'll get to all of the questions and here's the first from Andrew Ross

"I was kind of surprised to see the speakers in both photos sitting on top of cabinets. I am planning to buy a pair of Era D5s this week, and the dealer says I really shouldn't put them on my media cabinet."

Andrew,
They do sound better on stands. I typically use the Sanus Ultimate Foundation. They work great and are just over $300.
However, this is the setup I sold to my wife and since have casually added w/ no comments from said wife...
David

David Solomon said...

From Jeff: I'm considering one for the bedroom TV system, too. I have two speakers just over the bed so we can listen to music and watch TV at low volume. Sources include Apple TV, TiVo HD, Mac Mini (for gaming), PS3, and Xbox 360. (I'm a game dev -- have to stay on top of the competition!) Again, an A/V receiver is overkill for stereo at low volume, and would not sound good for music. I'll max out the inputs, but a Nova again seems like the perfect solution.

Hi Jeff, Thanks for the comments. We're finding many are in your situation and a 2.0 or 2.1 system is really great for home theater, especially i the bedroom or any place that bullets or planes flying overhead isn't important to you.
The Nova works very well for this as all of the components you mention are well suited for the digital inputs.
Best,
David

David Solomon said...

Eugeneus wrote: Does the headphone amp work with Denons at 25ohm and Beyers/AKG's at 600 ohm?).

Can you listed to a different track on headphones and speakers?

Can you use the speakers amp with agressive metal tweetered speakers? I have some of those ... :)
The specs have been updated but The Headphone out will work w/most any electrodynamic set you have including the fore mentioned Denon and Beyer

You cannot listen to different sources on headphones.

Since we go for "Musical" or a little more laid back presentation,the Nova works well on speakers w/metal tweeters.
Hope this helps,
David Solomon

David Solomon said...

From ArturoK:
I want to play CD's, DVD's, BD's (all three from a BD player), VHS and TV audio out (or DVR audio). I want only 2 channels. Hence your product. I am concerned with audio-video synchronization. My current approach is analog out from the players into an old Rotel preamp and Rotel amp. Will I run into synch problems running digital out of my sources through the Nova instead?
Should have no problem w/sych on any of these. If the BD is not in synch, there should be a lip synch mode to adjust right on the player.
Best,
David

David Solomon said...

"D wrote": i think i am on the market for exactly your Peachtree Audio Nova Stereo. but the site does not help. is nova the new decco? why not user manual? why no detail shots of the back of the unit? why no detailed specs? etc etc
can you help with more info? thanks

Hi D,
Sorry for the delay and in the meantime we have put the specs on the site http://signalpathint.com/index.php/Nova/Nova-Specifications.html

I think it's a good idea to put a picture of the back of the Nova and will get it on asap. We'll also have the manual for download soon..
David

David Solomon said...

Sam wrote: My Decco amp's headphone section is not working. I have had contacted the customer support but without luck.

Sam, I am,,,customer service as is David Richardson. We should be easy to get to and will be glad to fix the HP section even if you are a little out of warranty.
My personal email is dsolomon@signalpathint.com and David Richardson is Drichardson@signalpathint.com , Our corp # is 704-391-9337
Pls write any time.Once again, very sorry for the delay...
David

David Solomon said...

DRV123 wrote:Anyone know how to hook up an iPhone's USB output to a decco?

The USB from iPhone, like the iPod is for input and updates. It does not have audio output from the USB. You can use the Wadia i170 which outputs digital from the iPhone and iPods though.
Having said this, all of the music on your iPhone is on your hard drive and can be had thru the computer USB....or if it's not in the same room, an Apple Airport express works well and has an optical out that can be plugged into the Nova.
Hope this helps

David Solomon said...

Now that I have all of the questions and comments answered, I have some rather exciting news. Since it's on the news stand now,I can announce that we have a new review in the Aug Stereophile and low and behold, we made the cover.

We continue to open new dealers and it's my wish that anyone in the USA could go to a local dealer and have a listen for themselves.
Best wishes,
David

Song said...

Hi Dave,

I'm using Nova with a laptop via USB. The laptop runs Windows XP and foobar200 play APE or FLAC files. I keep getting breaks in the music streams that sometimes sound like CD has a scratch or statics. Is there any way to fix it?

Thanks.

Song

Song said...

Hi Dave,

I'm using Nova with a laptop via USB. The laptop runs Windows XP and foobar200 play APE or FLAC files. I keep getting breaks in the music streams that sometimes sound like CD has a scratch or statics. Is there any way to fix it?

Thanks.

Song

eugenius said...

Thanks for the reply! :)

I have decided that I want a better amp for speakers than the one in the Nova, si I am waiting for the Decco2 to save some money and use the pre out on that.

I am also considering waiting for the upcoming DAC/preamp that I heard will be based on a better DAC chip.

I hope the Decco 2 will be available soon in Europe soon, maybe in with the same kind of package with speakers as the Decco1. :)

I'm also interested in the future dac/preamp based on sabre will be kickass, there's a romanian company that's going to make a statement ESS 9018/9012 DAC ... :)

What's the most musical, midrange-y tube that you can use on the Decco2/nova? As a replacement for the (russian?) tube that comes with it?

David Solomon said...

Hi Song,
Static isn't a common problem unless the USB is over 16-18ft.
We can repair the unit if need be, but if possible, I would try another USB cable and then another computer if possible to isolate the problem.
Lastly, it could be a bad tube if it's happening on all inputs.
If you still have the problem, you can write us for an RA. You see service under contacts on our web site.
Hope this helps,
David

swisstrip said...

Hi there!

I read the blog and noticed it died in July. Why?
Since you do not have many dealers and give limited spec info, the blog was the way to answer questions.

Wadia 171 and new 151 PowerDAC, and other companies' products are overlapping your segmentation of the market.

Seems like you were first to market with a great idea. You guys financially OK in this tough recession?

glen said...

Hi Dave,
I like the direction you are taking. this is where it is at. I have been looking for a product to play my music threw my i pod ever since my kids gave me my first i pod. I like hi end sound. I listen to music threw Hi End headphones or Mid Level speakers. I have been looking at the Wadia i Transport but I still need a DAC and a Amp. I want t get rid of my CD player, Turn Table, Tunner ectt.. and have a simple system to play my music. I like what I see with your products. The new i Deco looks great. I would love to see a i Nova to run my house system. Keep up the good work. This is the way I see music to be played in years to come. Thanks Glen Parker

Nada Brahma said...

Hi Dave,

I really liked your post and I really agree with you about the advantages of computer audio; I believe they are sufficient reason for computer audio to be the future of both hi-fi and audio.

I myself have all my music and movies in my iMac, and I enjoy to sit and browse through my music collection with the remote. With the NOVA and a couple of KEF XQ30 it's a treat.

I have a question regarding a rumour. I sincerely don't listen nor take industry rumours seriously, but when they announce something interesting I can't but want to know if they're true or not.

I read in some forum about Headphone Amplifiers -and I am a happy owner of a pair of Grado PS1000-, mentioning that there is a new Peachtree product coming out in 2010, which will feature a Headphone Amp that will dwarf competitors such as the Benchmark USB DAC and others in that field.
The post also mentions an upgrade of the sabre DAC.

The posted rumour doesn't give any additional info, and as this would be simply bliss for me -because I have been looking for a good Headphone Amplifier-, I would love to know if this is a fact.

I hope not to annoy you with a simple rumour, but I couldn't resist the temptation.

Greetings,

Karsten

Nada Brahma said...

Hi Dave,

I really liked your post and I really agree with you about the advantages of computer audio; I believe they are sufficient reason for computer audio to be the future of both hi-fi and audio.

I myself have all my music and movies in my iMac, and I enjoy to sit and browse through my music collection with the remote. With the NOVA and a couple of KEF XQ30 it's a treat.

I have a question regarding a rumour. I sincerely don't listen nor take industry rumours seriously, but when they announce something interesting I can't but want to know if they're true or not.

I read in some forum about Headphone Amplifiers -and I am a happy owner of a pair of Grado PS1000-, mentioning that there is a new Peachtree product coming out in 2010, which will feature a Headphone Amp that will dwarf competitors such as the Benchmark USB DAC and others in that field.
The post also mentions an upgrade of the sabre DAC.

The posted rumour doesn't give any additional info, and as this would be simply bliss for me -because I have been looking for a good Headphone Amplifier-, I would love to know if this is a fact.

I hope not to annoy you with a simple rumour, but I couldn't resist the temptation.

Greetings,

Karsten

hiPod Junkie said...

Hi Dave (and everybody),

First of all let me say how much I appreciate that you have given guys like me (that have a wife and kids as budget priorities) a fair chance to participate in th world of hi-fi.

I believe that the recent introduction of the iDecco2 has convinced me to commit yet another sin as a family father (after recently buying a 27" iMac, lol), by buying the iDecco2 to go along with it.

Until now I had little hopes to boast anything with my hi-fi friends that have gear that would cost me a years salary, but I believe my time has finally come.

I still have a couple of questions before I have my wife asking me where I got the money for the fancy gadget.

The iDecco2 is particularly attractive because of the iPod dock, but it doesn't have the power and full versatility of the Nova.
Is there a chance that there will be a Nova that includes the iPod dock in the near future?

I also read the last comment posted by Karsten, and I agree with him -from my family-guy point of view- that a good headphone amp is well worth it when you have the headphones he has (I only have a pair of Sennheiser HD600) and when you don't share your taste in music with the rest of your family.
Where I easily outrun my hi-fi friends is with almost 3 terabytes of lossless music files and the years of gathering a good music collection.

And continuing within the not always so fortunate logic of progressive upgrades, the question is of course if you're planning to seriously upgrade the Sabre DAC in future versions of the Nova and iDecco.
For me it made a lot of sense to wait for the 27" i7 quadcore iMac (eventhough the iMac still doesn't feature a blu-ray drive, etc.), and it would make sense to wait for an upgrade to make it a more definitive purchase, even if more expensive.
That way I will also make sure that my hi-fi buddies taste some well earned defeat, lol.

Hope that this thread stay alive, I believe it could become really interesting with more of your great participation.

THX in advance,

hiPod Junkie

Peter said...

Hi David: Really enjoyed your presentation at Music Lovers Wed nite. If you ever do a preamp/dac, perhaps you might consider adding Firewire input and a display that shows the input bit rate and the output bit rate. I have bought the Nova for my wife's system (she is over the moon) and I await future products for the main system. You are doing good - keep it up. Peter Truce

SapphireCrystal said...

It is weird to me that I used not to care about music quality and say "as long as it can produces music to hear, it should be fine." That was because the feeling given from a song when I listened to it was so fabulous in which I can get the feeling by just listen to poor quality songs.
However, audiophile has totally changed me. I find ways and ways, asking people, surfing webs in order to find a better way to improve that music quality so that I will simply "have better time listen to music." Of course, good DAC/amp/speakers COST money! Therefore, I found reviews (especially comparison between amp/DAC, etc...) and it turns to be "competition." If I got a new piece of equipment, I would listen to compare, to let those difference in sound compete to each other. Then I asked myself "wait if I kept listening like this, why listen to music, just ask for record of specific sound, like from do re mi fa son la si of each instrument, isn't it be better to compare.
Finally, I found myself back when I remember that "music comes to my heart in an emotional way." Good sound, bad sound can't alter that. Listen to relax, listen to feel, listen to be emotional, because I approach music in such an emotional way. In short, I want to tell you that even though you are searching for best sound in the world, please do not forget the feeling you got and are grateful for when you listen to a piece I like. I cried when I finally found back the way I listened to music, emotionally alleviated

Hans said...

Hi.
I just heard the iDecco at a dealer in Norway and I like the sound very much. I think I will go for the Nova as pre/dac and headphone system with active speakers. Because I have all my music in a HDD I can't see the use of an iPod/iPhone-input, but digital inputs I never get enough of.
I have a question about the tube; what about trying another tube, can I do it myself or must it be done at a servicecenter/dealer

James said...

Hi,

Have been reading with interest about the Nova.

I am based in the UK and as such am finding it very difficult to source the model over here. Do you have any distributers in the UK or what would be the cost of shipping from the US.

Thanks

James