Peachtree Carina Integrated Amplifier

 Incarnation four, that is where Peachtree Audio now stands as a company, beginning as speaker manufacturer ERA under the design guidance of noted speaker builder Mike Kelly. Incarnation two, was a dramatic shift into amplification with a vacuum tube window. Incarnation three, came with advanced engineering that improved the sound quality, upped the power output, and in a surprise, parted ways with the signature vacuum tube. Now, incarnation four, between the GaN400 amplifier, and the screen interface Carina, a definite next step in engineering and design is in place at Peachtree Audio.

Like all full production Peachtree products, the Carina is a capsule-shaped, wood-cased unit. With just a single framework and exterior for the entire lineup, manufacturing costs are kept to a minimum allowing for assembly in the USA. The front panel layout of two large knobs, one for input selection and the other volume, with a monochromatic OLED screen between them is similar to Hegel. Both knobs have a nice, though a bit light, step click feel during rotation. The screen goes dark after 10-15 seconds of non-use, though that can be changed to "always on" in the settings menu. The power button is unchanged from previous models, though the LED ring around it is green instead of blue. Interestingly, in the standby mode there is just a small light from above shining thru. Along the far right are two vertically aligned, 4.4mm T/R/R/S balanced and 1/4th unbalanced headphone jacks. The engraved "peachtree" name is centered above the screen in the pewter colored metal.

The back panel consists of two levels: The upper section with the power toggle switch, bluetooth antenna socket, left speaker connections, service panel, and right speaker connections. The lower level consists of the power cord socket, 12v trigger, USB C output, USB B, I2S, optical, COAX 1, and COAX 2 inputs, and Preamp/subwoofer RCA outputs. Surprisingly, Peachtree decided against an analog RCA input as well as a phono input. At first this may disappoint or surprise many, but later I'll discuss a work-around for those that have an analog source.

Under the hood, the Carina uses class D HYPEX NCORE amplification design, compared to previous models that relied on ICEpower. Output power is 300wpc into 8 Ohm, and 580wpc into 4 Ohm loads. Dampening factor is a strong >625. That power definitely produced a solid grip and healthy dynamics with my Magnepan .7's. The Carina provides plenty of slam for the most intense impact music moments from John Entwhistle’s thunderous bass in The Who’s “Eminence Front”, to the thunderclap in "Gaia" by James Taylor. I didn't find myself wanting for my reference amplifier, Peachtree's beastly amp500, though near the end of the review period I did shift the Carina into the preamp role and let the amp500 flex its musical muscle.

The OLED display upon powering on first gives a simple greeting screen and easy to read size “peachtree carina”, followed by the main information screen. On the left is the input choice, and PCM data rate. On the right in a double size font is the volume level. The additional technological beauty of using an OLED display is that Peachtree used the opportunity to create a full feature control center without a multitude of physical buttons/switches. To enter the control menu, one pushes down on the center of the input knob for three seconds and the menu appears. (I do wish there was a definitive tactile feel to the pressing of the knob.) The image below shows the display. Rotating the left knob moves through the choices, while the right knob controls the specifics. The NOS MODE on/off choice I used quite regularly as I delved into my digital collection and Qobuz library. The user can also control whether the display turns off after a short period, brightness level, and three initial decibel levels: -50db, -35db, or last setting. All of these features I appreciated.

The Carina is designed using a digital volume attenuator. Peachtree engineering team took the next step by adding a HYBRID mode. To do this, the Carina has an analog ladder that when engaged Peachtree states provides “optimal performance”. My experience with the hybrid mode is that it’s smooth, though occasionally a click as stated in the manual, can be heard with certain volume changes. 

The real star inside the Carina is the DAC. Lots of audio manufacturers are offering internal DAC's and for good reason, most buyers want to avoid multiple pieces of gear and the tangle of wires that comes with it. The section is usually put on a daughterboard consisting of a few chips and resistors. Leave it up to Peachtree to take the leap and offer the ability for the user to switch between NOS and Oversampling mode (done via the knob/display). Secondly, and just as cool is that dual mono ESS 9068 chips are used, internally balanced, one for each channel. Beyond that, you get the full PCM treatment up to 768kHz, and DSD 64-512 with the USB and I2S inputs. 

In the menu control is a PCM FILTER mode with three settings L (linear) FAST, H (hybrid) FAST, and M (minimum) SLOW. L-FAST would be considered the standard setting. I played with all three settings and found that my preferred setting was dependent on the speaker in rotation (see next paragraph) and music playing. Much like all the physical filter switches and speaker placement, take your time and enjoy the process!

Of course Internal DAC's are always a "yes, but" for me. Yes, they are nice, and perform from average to admirable, but I still crave my external DAC, when all is said and done. But very quickly the Carina changed my mind. My reference Parasound P5’s DAC sounds boring and flat in comparison. To be honest, it is all but equal to my Denefrips Ares II, plus being easier to switch in and out of NOS mode. The output from the DAC is three-dimensional, lively, and warm. The ability to choose oversampling or NOS mode personalizes the experience. For me, the choice was made by the speakers. With the Magnepan .7's and LSA Signature 80's, oversampling made for the better listening experience. Yet, with the vintage Totem Model 1's, as well as the Paradigm Prestige 75f's, NOS mode was the clear choice. 

Reliving my high school days, The Doobie Brothers Minute by Minute album is chalk full of auditory delights for the stereo fanatic. "Dependin' On You"  with its fast transients, nice mid-song horns, and guitar solo demonstrates how the Carina nails the upper frequencies. Just as compelling, the Carina presents the complexity of instruments with natural spacing.

Continuing with the Minute By Minute album, “Open Your Eyes” the smooth, warmth of Michael McDonald's vocals envelop the upper half of the room’s height. Add in the lush harmonies of the band, and the easy high piano notes, the match of the ladder DAC’s qualities are perfect for the tight frequencies of class D amplification. The same can be said for “Sweet Feelin', the natural vocal timber is all there along with the sweet, woody sound of the bongos. The Carina presents a very natural midrange, that is neither dry, nor syrupy. The LSA, Totems, and Paradigm speakers all paired nicely with the Carina, though if I had to pick, the LSA Signature 80’s had the most magic. 

Going wireless with Bluetooth is something that I normally only partake of in my classroom. But with the platform's maturity and consistent improvements in sound quality with Bluetooth 5.0 HD audio decoding, I now consider it a worthy endeavor for any non-audiophile die-hard. At the end of the review, I moved the Carina into my living room and paired it with the Model 1's to enjoy Christmas music as we read via Qobuz streaming from an iPhone. No matter where I was in the house, the connection stayed locked in. 

As for playing vinyl thru the Carisa, a few hoops need to be jumped. With a traditional turntable you will need a phono preamp, then an analog-to-digital converter, with an optical or COAX cable to connect to the Carina. Since I already have a phono preamp, an Amazon search gave me several choices of analog to digital converters. After reading the comments I settled on the VPFET unit with USB, COAX, and Optical outputs, with power via USB-C cable. Warning, make sure that the Carina is powered off via the toggle switch on the back of the amplifier. Otherwise, you'll be frustrated by the lack of an output. 

If you're new to the vinyl world and need to purchase a turntable, you can save a step or two and purchase a USB or bluetooth model, or one with a built-in phono preamp. Of course in the latter case, you'll still need an adaptor. The gang at Peachtree has posted on Facebook the Blusound Node as an option. No matter which route you take in the needle-dropping world, it's possible with the Carina.

Spinning Elton John’s masterpiece Madman Across The Water, I was satisfied by the conversion to digital then back to analog, especially with a $17 converter in the musical chain with the in songs “Levon” and “Indian Sunset”. I won’t say it was absolutely as pure as a direct analog line. But for the type of user the Carina is marketed towards, the occasional foray into vinyl, owners will be perfectly content.

While as the years have passed, my wife and I’s musical taste has merged, there are still occasions that she turns up her nose, meaning it’s time to put on the headphones. The Carina’s headphone amplifier section stays distortion-free well past my decibel tolerances. Sonic output was right in line with performance through speakers. That may seem trivial, but the reality, in my experience, is that many times there is a significant difference in the musical characteristics. 

A final visit with Minute By Minute via Master & Dynamic MD40 headphones meant cranking up the fun country-rock instrumental diddy, “Steamer Lane Breakdown. The quick pace and depth of the soundstage gives the tight guitar picking significant natural color and life.  I never really enjoyed the song on my Sony Walkman even with Sennheiser headphones back in the day due to congestion. The Carina’s head amplifier section is a fun, toe-tapping experience.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been a huge integrated amplifier fan for 16 years, reaching its pinnacle a decade ago as an owner of a Simaudio i7. Since selling it in order to take care of family finances, I’ve been searching for an integrated amplifier that would satisfy me in the same way the i7 did. The Peachtree Carina is absolutely the closest I have come to that nirvana moment. While $2499 is no small amount of change, the Carina is an absolute bargain. I cannot rave enough about the DAC section. Choosing the combination of dual ESS chips makes the Carina the finest built-in DAC integrated I have personally heard. Add in the ability to choose between PCM filters and NOS or oversampling, the result is a fine-sounding piece of gear. Simply put, the Peachtree Carina integrated amplifier is insanely terrific.

Mark Marcantonio