Remember Intel Viiv, media centre PCs and all-in-one media solutions? Remember convergence as a bona fide lounge room concept? Where’d it go? The general public didn’t buy it. It was all too finicky: drivers for digital TV cards, accommodating 5.1 surround sound devices…too many options. Then the cult of Mac sold us on diminished choice being a good thing. We learnt that convergence could be simple and elegant (but not without a few complications).
Digital audio is like that – convenience and audiophile sound quality can lie down together. They don’t always make beautiful music, but some solutions make the trade-off between the quality of digital audio and convenience less of a see-saw. Some solutions are just so darned elegant – the mot juste to explain my Squeezebox loyalty. Convenience brings more wow than the slight dint in sound quality could ever remove. (I don’t want a computer in my audio rig – iTunes, it’s a FLAC no go zone and the Squeezebox controller apps for the iPad are beautiful). Still, digital audio solutions – such as a Squeezebox + DAC – aren’t necessarily the best at any price, but they ARE slowly encroaching on the rightness of similarly-priced CD players…but CD players are just so nineties. And that wall of CDs? Well, it owns you.
Unusually, Mrs Darko was present at the Peachtree iDecco (AU$1399) un-boxing ceremony. “Ooooooh. Why can’t we just have one of those? It’s so cute.”, she exclaimed. I don’t recall if the Mrs emphasised “we” or “just”; she definitely emphasised “cute”. But I – and you – get her drift. She gave it a second look. Hifi for ladies then. An all-in-one hifi solution for the modern-day Don and Bettie Draper? I should coco.
The extended specifications breakdown won’t be listed in this review. As with everything else that gets heard/interpreted/judged by these ears, it just seems so pointless to reproduce THD figures and component detailing when such granular technical deconstruction can be found elsewhere on the ‘net. The overarching message from the Signal Path mothership is that their iDecco is five products rolled into one box: DAC, iPod dock, pre-amp, hybrid integrated amp and headphone amp. It’s a convergence product but it can also stand alone in any of its five roles. It does away with interconnect choices and the whole unit comes home for a price less than some interconnect choices. Tinkerers and tweakers might get restless. The 6N1P tube that graces the pre/head amps can be rolled…but then what?
At first glance, the iDecco has “lifestyle” written all over it. You plug in your CD player, your computer and your Foxtel box into each of its three digital inputs (coaxial, USB and optical) and you’re set to rock; plus you’ve an iPod dock to boot. What self-respecting young professional doesn’t want an iPod dock? A quick stroll ’round Harvey Norman will confirm that we’ve been here many times before: great idea, indifferent execution. For such a versatile product it’d be an achievement for it NOT to sound like crap. We could then slap a four or five star recommendation on it, head home and sleep easy. But the Peachtree box goes a little deeper down the audiophile rabbit hole. I went with it.
First up: the iPod dock. It’s digital. To use the proper vernacular: PURE DIGITAL. I’m not sure what Faustian pact Signal Path made with Apple, but it can’t be cheap to tap the (encrypted) digital out on the iPod’s rear end. Amazingly, only Onkyo and Wadia have previously stirred those waters; yet, they only tee-d the ball, leaving the end user to clobber it out of the park with their DAC of choice. Half a job’s a good job, right boys? Wrong. The iDecco joins the two halves of the iPod-as-music-server game. You dock your iPod and the decoding is handled by the in-built ESS Sabre 9006 DAC. Do you know/care that the DAC stage is fed by eleven regulated power supplies? You will likely care more that all digital audio fed into the Sabre is up-sampled to 24bit/192Khz.
iPod song choices can be moved along and volume attenuated from the remote, but album selections will need to be made the old-fashioned way. The way we’ve done it since (oh!) 2002 – with the jog wheel. I’m sure you can cope: select album and dock it. Simple. The pre-amp tube can be clicked in and out on the remote too; I found this indispensable for enlivening flat recordings (tube off) and taming edgier tunes (tube on). Not a big change but sill noticeable: think “5pm to 5.30pm” differential. iPhones? Plugging in both my iPhone 3G and iPhone 4 resulted in differing-but-recalcitrant on-screen messages about incompatibility. Whatever. The music played. The show carried on. (I suspect the iOS warning pertained to the iPhone’s inability to push video via the PURE DIGITAL dock and out through video outputs on the backplate of the iDecco).
Some thoughts on the iPad as transport. In late 2010, Apple killed off the ability to push digital audio out via the official camera kit to devices that draw more than 20mA (the limit was previously 100mA). Try hooking an HRT Music Streamer II+ into a 4.2.1 firmware-d iPad and you’ll be met with this joyous greeting: ““Cannot Use Device. The connected USB device requires too much power”. So back to mains-powered DACs with our iPad we must limp. The iPad/iPhone has the potential to be a tremendous portable, battery-powered digital audio transport but the firmware screams “no dice”. The iDecco is (obviously) a powered device and remains unaffected by the wisdom of King Jobs. My point? If you’re gonna go DAC-ho with your iPad, you’re gonna be chained to the mains, so you may as well consider ANY DAC – not just those that are supposedly iPad specific. If you can’t go portable, go quality. A clean power supply does make a difference to sound. With the iDecco you dodge noisy wall-wart power supplies that ship with a lot of other budget DACs: Cambridge DacMagic, HRT iStreamer, Beresford Caiman, Musical Fidelity V-DAC etc.
The gents at Signal Path have been (cough) creative chaps with their amplifier rating. Whilst most everyone else quotes output power into eight ohms (and then maybe four), the Peachtree has been made to dance to its own drum: their specification for the amplifier reads ’40wpc into 6 ohms’. Confusing or misleading? You choose. Let’s subtract 10wpc for an approximation into 8 ohms. If you require more juice, the Nova goes to 80wpc (again into 6 ohms). The iDecco’s more humbled power disposition means you’ll need speakers that are an easy drive or a smaller room. Or both. Don’t be bringing no ATCs to the church hall. Or so shouted my preconceptions…
…until a duo of 86db standmounts stood down the armchair audiophile from his station within. It takes a while to acclimatise to seeing/hearing a budget amplifier fail to distort when pushed passed 1am on the volume dial. But there it was. The iDecco tidily drove the Usher S-520 through Quantec’s tech-charged dub. An album heavy on low frequencies, some bass bloom was noted (but it was far from unlistenable). Even with its steelier tonality, the REDGUM Sonofa’GUM 5500 remains the Ushers’ synergistic number one wife among my harem of integrateds: it secured a tighter bass, its linearity cleaner and sleeker.
I’ve always admired Seth Krinsky’s Virtue gear for bringing refinement and tone to the Tripath table. In addressing the recessed midrange of many Class D amplifiers, Krinsky’s done good things. With the Virtue Sensation M901 (AU$1250) waltzing matilda with Louis Chochos’ newest creations – the 97db Hoyt Bedfords – we never run into headroom issues. We witness a rich midrange and incredible imaging that projects well into the listening space. The iDecco’s amplification talents get scary close to the Sensation – there’s similar spaciousness above. Midday on the volume dial is more than enough. The lip of more pointed transients on the iDecco were less crystalline. Instead, the iDecco turns up the humidity. On the strident drumming that commands the intro to Joy Division’s moody “Atmosphere” the iDecco was the denser, fleshier playa’. Conversely, the Sensation thinner and better separated. The winner in the detail retrieval sprint was too close to call.
Siphoning the iDecco’s fixed output into a wonderful DIY 6L6 single-ended integrated (thank you Eric McChanson) returns some elasticity to the presentation. Elasticity that I prefer for the harder reflexiveness of Dave Angel’s techno bounce. The SET’s soundstaging is less definite, more directionless. The iDecco stiffer in its instrument placement, sonic decay is swifter – notes don’t hang around for as long – but bass is markedly tighter. Pushing the SPLs on the solo iDecco assisted in going deeper into a song’s digestive tract without feeling overwhelmed (or bothering the neighbours). Moving back to the Usher S-520s and McChanson’s SET really wasn’t in the game – it ran out of puff early on. The hybrid nature of the iDecco civilised Robyn Hithcock’s vocal aggro on The Soft Boys psych-punk debut record (remastered again in 2010 by the folks at Yep Roc). The midrange was a thick and juicy steak but the iDecco ain’t the beefiest cow in the field, even at its budget-ish price point.
If this reads as ever-so-slight disappointment with the amplification stage, it isn’t. Buyers will just need to let the tail wag the dog and find suitable loudspeakers to match its diminished muscularity. Allow me to clarify further. The iDecco/Hoyt combination is one that could be evangelised with as much fervour as the Red Wine/Omega, not because it is as good, but because it gets so close for considerably less cash whilst simultaneously dragging its head-amp, DAC and digital iPod dock mates along to enliven the gathering. The iDecco/Usher pairing is no slouch either – it’s the least serious sounding: what it lacks in tonal ripeness, it makes up for with snap and bounce. If you’re not concerned with mass strings, it will more than suffice. Just bring speaker cable.
The aforementioned amplification differences are relatively minor. They are as much a matter of flavour preference as downright technical fortitude. A good audiophile friend finds my penchant for single driver speakers bewildering. I love their speed, their ridiculous imaging and their transparency. He ignores those talents in favour of describing the Hoyt Bedfords as “edgy”. I keep telling him: it ain’t the speakers (‘cos there ain’t no cross-over), it’s the amplifier. (He’d like the softness that the iDecco’s MOSFETs bring to the party).
Or maybe it’s the source. One sure-fire way to discern an amplifier’s transparency is to ensure it cleanly passes source differences. As per my usual A/B crude-comparative method, two synchronised Squeezebox were each fed into the Eastern Electric MiniMax (ESS Sabre 9018) and the iDecco’s (ESS Sabre 9006) coaxial input. The MiniMax was then connected to the auxiliary (analogue) input of the iDecco. The Sabre chips differ slightly – Alex Yeung’s device has the 32-bit advances – but their sonics are unmistakably of the same genome, their presentation of similar orange grove aroma. Don’t like the metaphor? How about: zesty detail with a hint of late afternoon sun? Know that the USB input on the iDecco – like the MiniMax – is pinned to redbook (16/44). Used as a standalone DAC, the tube plays no part in the audio chain that leads to the fixed outputs on the rear. Just sayin’ is all.
The blue-LED-encircled input selector switches on the front panel of the iDecco demonstrate that class touches aren’t the preserve of the high-end. They pulse gently until signal-lock is maintained. Signal Path’s forethought also extends to the rear of the unit for the user to toggle the strength of jitter correction (wide vs narrow). Wide is intended for more jitter-prone transports and has a smoothing (smearing?) effect on transients. Users upgrading from Cambridge DacMagic territory will be familiar with user-selectable filters on their DAC. Also found on the back panel, toggling “Fast” and “Slow” filters allows the user to tune the sound to their needs.
The MiniMax is the louder of the two DACs and required some downward attenuation nudges to match the iDecco’s converting internals. Volume levels matched, the iDecco presented as not as ‘there’ as the Eastern Electric – it’s hazier in the upper frequencies and barks less. Some will be happy to relinquish some of the the up-in-your-grill enthusiasm of the MiniMax, others won’t. If you like your edges crisp-crunch, the MiniMax is your DAC. System synergy will be the final judicator. As with many DAC comparisons, what separates the two is ~5% of grey. “Narrow jitter” and “Slow filter” got the iDecco closest to the MiniMax’s energy.
Just I was about to sign off on the completion of this review, a mate emailed me. He’s the new owner of a Decco 2 (same as the iDecco but sans iPod dock). “JD – not terribly impressed with the headphone output. It lacks the oomph to drive the AKG 701s entirely properly. Actually, the little HLLY DMK-IV was better. I have a pair of Audeze LCD-2s on order – suspect it won’t drive them at all. May have to look into some Schiit instead.” The iDecco picked no quarrel with my Ultrasone DJ1Pro.
There numerous ways in which to conclude about this Peachtree product. The cliche is “Swiss Army knife”. Yes yes. It is a rare collision though: convenience AND quality? Yes indeed. With so much packed into such a snazzy case AND sounding excellent, it’s hard not to feel that high end manufacturers/distributors must be quietly counting serious coin piles in dank, joyless quarters. You can keep your $5k pre-amp and your $7k monos when so much flexibility and FUN can be had for so little. The iDecco takes me ever closer to dropping a phrase I loathe: “no brainer”. It’s easy to be flippant when it’s someone else’s money. However, the Peachtree iDecco WILL be the best AU$1400 you ever spent on hifi. If you outgrow it, it’s there as a back-up or the heart of that second system you’ve always contemplated. Your significant other will almost certainly dig its looks, the diminished wire collection and the iPod dock. Chicks dig iPod docks. It does everything but serve you cocktails. And it does that everything to an audiophile standard.
Let’s get crude with some star-rating assignation: A four star integrated (that’s not powerful but can drive) plus a four point five star DAC (that’s stupid close to the best of the budget pack) plus three point five star head-amp (no go for AKG 701), plus pre-amp (untested), plus five-star-because-IT’S-DIGITAL iPod dock. You could go Eastern Electric MiniMax with A N Other integrated (hello Dayens Ampino) for similar cash down, but you’d probably have to surrender headphone listening, iPod connectivity or remote control. The high end will probably stand aghast that Signal Path have separated cat and bag: audiophile solutions can be both stylish and affordable. The Peachtree iDecco hammers that truth home as an all-in-one unit, gift-wrapped with a bow. DAR-KO award.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Virtue Sensation M901
- Eric McChanson DIY SET
- Hoyt Bedford Type I
- Usher S-520
- Joy Division – +- (Remastered Singles 1978 – 1980) (2010)
- Quantec – Cauldron Subsidence (2009)
- Dave Angel – R&S Classics (1996)
- The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)
- The Soft Boys – A Can Of Bees (2010 Remaster)