The PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter is a very useful and, more importantly, very good sounding component for the digital age. For $1,895 you get a standard outboard phono preamplifier for using your moving magnet or moving coil phono cartridge with a line level preamplifier and an analog-to-digital converter for recording or monitoring your phono or line level. Here is a partial list of features for this very capable component:
- Balanced or single ended analog outputs
- High resolution asynchronous DSD and 24 bit 192 kHz PCM outputs
- 1 stereo analog input from any source such as a tuner
- 1 stereo phono input
- Cartridge load selector on rear panel: 60, 100, 160, 600, 1K, 1.6K, 47K or 100K Ohms
- Mono or stereo select
- 100% pure analog path for the phono stage from phono input to main output
- Gain select from the front panel
- Asynchronous digital output to 192kHz 24 bit
- Asynchronous DSD output at 64X and 128X
- Polarity invert function
- XLR, RCA analog outputs
- S/PDIF, I2S, USB digital outputs
- Incoming A/D sample rate 352.8kHz
- Front panel OLED display
- USB, coax and I2S digital outputs with DSD or PCM
Other components on hand during the review period include a Basis 2500 Signature turntable with Vector 4 tonearm, Miyajima Kansui and Zu Audio DL-103R moving coil cartridges, Sutherland 20/20 and Sutherland DUO phono preamplifiers, Mark Levinson 326S preamplifier with phono, Prism Orpheus Digital Interface and Lynx Hilo AD/DA converters with custom Windows 7 computer/music server, YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature Main Modules speakers, Magnepan 1.7 and 3.7 speakers, Dali Mentor 5 speakers (from the home theater system), and two Gallo TR-3 and TR-3D subwoofers. The power amplifier is the remarkable Acoustic Imagery Atsah monoblocks. All front end components receive their AC power from a PS Audio AV-5000 power conditioner, which is connected to the wall power with a Shunyata Anaconda CX power cord. A PS Audio Quintet, connected to the utility grid with another slithering Anaconda CX, is normally used for the power amplifiers. A variety of power cords are used elsewhere in the system, including Wyred4Sound P1 and Jerry’s DIY power cords which can be found on the music computer, Prism Orpheus, and Levinson preamp.
The NuWave Phono Converter has a sound quality and character that reminds me of the modified PS Audio GCPH Phono Preamplifier that was reviewed here on 10 Audio in 2006. The break-in period was longer than for most components, with about 220 hours of playing time required before the sound stabilized. At 25 hours, the sound was hard and coarse which was typical and expected. The sound lost a lot of that edge at about 75 hours and was getting much better. At 120 hours the upper frequencies were showing a very promising refinement. At that 220 hours milestone, break-in seemed complete. I used a reverse-RIAA box and my tuner for a source, plugged into the NuWave’s phono input, during this time.
Using the NuWave Phono Converter as a basic phono preamplifier is most instructive for understanding the overall sound quality of this unit. The phono stage is very quiet, with almost no background noise or hiss at normal volume settings. If you have used almost any tube phono preamp, the near-silence of the NuWave will be a wonderful revelation.
The bass presentation is very deep and powerful, with excellent resolution that allows you to hear bass strings vibrating cleanly and to feel the impact and power of a bass drum. After the initial impulse, the very obvious character of the drum or string bass is always ready to enjoy. This usually indicates a well-designed power delivery to all internal components to supply adequate power as needed for those large power demands.
The midrange is natural. Bruce Springsteen’s distinctive vocals are presented quite realistically with no unwanted emphasis outside the fundamental frequencies. Whether rocking or plaintive, his singing connected very well with this listener.
Moving up the frequency range, the treble was finely detailed and naturally extended. Again, with no unwanted emphasis or highlighting, the entire presentation is very linear and free of editorial effects. While tube or higher-end phono preamps can offer more warmth and roundness in the upper frequencies, the NuWave Phono Converter acquitted itself very well and is always enjoyable.
The sound from either the RCA or XLR outputs seems the same and there does not seem to be an advantage to using one connection instead of the other. The analog-to-digital converter (AD or ADC) is quite good. The reference AD here is the Prism Orpheus which is still unbeaten after almost 5 years. Recording at 24 bit 192 kHz resolution is standard and can offer sound quality that comes very close to listening to the LP live. Yes, you will save hard drive space by recording at lower sampling rates, but hard drives are getting less expensive all the time, so the savings in hard drive storage is never worth accepting lower sound quality. And you can always convert to lower quality, such as MP3, later. I did not record DSD as I had no comparison DA converter for DSD.
Those 24/192 WAV recordings are a bit warmer in the mids and less sharp or crisp in the upper frequencies than recordings made with the Prism ADC. Imaging is a bit better in comparison to the $2500 Lynx Hilo which was noticeable on Paul Simon’s “Homeless”. With the PS Audio, it is just a small amount easier to place the individual musicians on the crowded stage. The overall size and depth of that stage was very similar for live listening or for recordings made with the NuWave ADC. Listening live to an LP offers a slightly richer sound with just a bit more low level resolution. Even with the Prism converter, there is a small difference between a listening to the live AD feed and a recorded file through the DAC.
The NuWave Phono converter is simple to install and operate. The Windows® driver installed easily. Use the Windows Sound applet and set the NuWave as the default recording source, making sure to use the Advanced tab to set the quality at 24 bits and 192kHz Studio Quality. Windows 8® would probably configure as easily, if you were lucky enough to stumble on the Sound applet, wherever it is hiding. It is difficult if not impossible to compare the USB and S/PDIF digital outputs. As I found in my review of the Berkeley Alpha DAC Series 2, a USB to S/PDIF converter can present such a huge sonic variable that comparisons can be unreliable. I hope one day we can finally answer the question of which connection is better: USB or coax. However, when sending the phono signal to a computer for recording, it is very apparent that the USB connection works extremely well.
The NuWave Phono Converter has an interesting combination of features: a high quality phono preamplifier that is compatible with the vast majority of cartridges available today, and a similarly high quality AD converter for making digital recordings. The performance of the phono stage alone justifies the asking price.
Overall Rating: 8.5 LPs
Link to manufacturer’s Web site: PS Audio