PS AUDIO NUWAVE phono converter
IS the popularity of vinyl in a digital world just a fad or is it here to stay? Is digital media really perfect or does it introduce a whole new set of problems? Is it merely nostalgia taking precedence over perception or does analogue really sound better than digital?
These are but a few questions in the great digital-versus-analogue debate, and they barely scratch the surface of the many issues enthusiasts stress over.
I say it shouldn’t matter at all – the best format is the one that allows you to enjoy music. And if you’re arguing about it more than actually listening to it, perhaps it is time to get off those Internet forums and put on some tunes instead!
But there’s a better way to end the debate – and that is to embrace both and leverage the strengths of each format, which is precisely the solution that PS Audio offers in the form of its NuWave phono converter. It is both a phono preamp and an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC).
BITS AND PARTS: The NuWave Phono Converter (NPC hereafter) is first and foremost a phono stage, married with cutting-edge digital technology in a single chassis. As its name implies, it provides conversion of the music on one’s precious (some say fragile, but that is the topic of another debate) analogue records into digital formats. Note the use of plural here, as the NPC supports both PCM and DSD encoding, up to 24Hz/192kHz and DSD128 resolutions respectively!
The NPC, however, offers more than just those two functions – it can also be used as a live digital interface when playing vinyl! Now where’s the sense in that, you may ask? Frankly, a lot more than I expected, which we’ll go into a little later.
The NPC’s aesthetics is built to PS Audio’s house style – which looks rather unassuming on first glance. It has a low profile and shoebox-like width, but is quite long, measuring 6.1 x 21 x 36cm (h/w/d). The NPC is available in black and silver aluminium finishes, with nice rounded edges, and the top panel is made of some shiny plastic which I assume is acrylic. It is also much heavier than it looks at 9.1kg, most of the bulk due to the very hefty power supply inside. Would you expect any less from PS Audio?
The front panel houses an OLED display flanked by a pair of buttons on each side, which will not make much sense until you turn the unit on. The left pair scrolls through the extensive menu categories, while the right pair is used to select the options within each. It’s all very intuitive, and mastery of the NPC operations comes within seconds. You’ll still have to read the manual to understand all its functions, of course.
But round the back is where all the action is. You get two of the all-important RCA analogue inputs (phono and line-level), analogue outputs (RCA and XLR), three digital outputs (S/PDIF, I2S and USB), a series of 10 DIP switches for cartridge loading as well as the ground connection, IEC power socket and firmware upgrade port. It’s all quite heavily populated, and kudos to PS Audio for laying it out well.
I wont get into all the technical details of components used and functions offered, and the information is available on the website if you wish to know more.
IN CONCERT: The most important consideration – how does it perform purely as a phono stage? The simple answer is that the NPC very good – but will most probably not outperform other dedicated phono stages of similar price, but it’ll sure be close.
It’s exceptionally quiet, even at maximum gain, which goes up to 78dB from 18dB in 3dB increments. Equally flexible is its cartridge loading, ranging from 60 Ohms to 100kOhms, which should cover all typical MM and MC cartridges.
To generalise, the NPC’s overall sonic character leans more towards the analytical rather than the euphonic. It ticks all the right boxes sonically – fast, detailed, and dynamic. It’s just that the NPC won’t envelope you in a warm blanket of sound while you relax with a merlot in one hand and a habana in the other… well, you get the picture. Rather, it makes you sit up and take note of the music.
There’s loads of energy and detail in the treble and upper midrange, without any harshness. There’s also plenty of extension in the bass, which is similarly fast and punchy. All the elements of portraying a convincing soundstage, with precise instrument placing and imaging, are there.
The NPC comes into its own where digitising is concerned – it will cover all your requirements for digitising analogue material, and knocks it out of the park. All the needle-drops I made sounded so close to the direct phono stage-only path that any differences heard had to be due to the addition of a DAC in the chain.
Although the NPC is capable of digitising at resolutions up to 24/192 and DSD128, PS Audio insists that 24/96 or DSD64 is more than sufficient to capture all the nuances of the analogue source. The argument is spelt out in the manual, and company owner Paul McGovern has a lengthy blog post explaining why.
There’s a high learning curve involved in the digitalisation process, but that’s more software-based (i.e., the computer programme you’re using), and not the fault of the NPC itself – which is excellent. And to state the obvious, digitalisation is done in real time. It’ll take as long to capture the data as it takes to play it, not to mention the editing needed – which, for a newbie, will probably take much longer than the actual playing time.
Interestingly enough, if you have another phono stage (or any other analogue source), you can plug that into the analogue inputs and capture that sonic character instead, bypassing the NPC’s internal phono stage.
But the NPC had one final trick up its sleeve – to digitise the signal on the fly and pipe it directly to another DAC (or better yet, a Class D digital amplifier) during live vinyl playback! I didn’t get to try the digital amplifier route (I don’t have one) but it makes a lot of sense.
In my system, I maxed out the NPC’s resolution to DSD128 and fed it to the Geek Pulse DAC. This way I could use the Pulse’s volume control and connect its output directly to the power amplifier. Were there any benefits from doing so? Well not really, but notably, the music didn’t suffer either – all the nuances of the direct NPC-amplification path were present!
Quite frankly, the NPC has slightly shifted my perspective on digital audio, and has convinced me that it can indeed capture the musical nuances that we love when playing vinyl. Try it, you may be surprised yourself!
APPLAUSE: The NPC is extremely user-friendly, even when considering the myriad of functions it has. What it set out to do has been done – not just adequately, but to a high degree of competency. A lot of thought has been put into its design and it shows. If you’re looking for a digitising tool for your vinyl/cassette/reel-to-reel collection, you need not look further than this.
BUT…: Bear in mind that digitising vinyl can be a tedious process. As for the NPC itself, there’s nothing I have to knock it.
FINALE: Understandably, the NPC will not outshine other standalone phono stages at its price range. If you want to get the best dedicated phono stage for your money, you may find more bang for your buck elsewhere.
However, if you are looking for a reliable and great-sounding component to digitise your vinyl, the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter is more than equal to the task. Highly recommended.
Sources: Rega P5 turntable with Exact cartridge / DAC: M2Tech Young with Palmer power supply, Geek Pulse / Toshiba L40 notebook running Audacity / Audio Image phono stage / Amplification: Euphonic Research ATT600 preamp, Odyssey Audio Stratos Stereo Extreme power amplifier / Speakers: Magnepan SMGb / Cabling: DH Labs SilverSonic USB cable, Rega SC42 speaker cables and an assortment of pure silver interconnects.