Peachtree Audio Carina GaN Integrated Amplifier: Full Review and YouTube video


A little over a year ago, Peachtree Audio cleared their deck, and introduced the Carina Integrated Amplifier. From the front panel to the internals, much of the design was new. I was fortunate to have one of the first review models and it was both intriguing and sonically stunning. Led by the inclusion of a pair of ESS 9068 DAC chips, with menu controls that allowed for personal preference in how the output sounded. This onboard DAC design was a showstopper.

For 2024, Peachtree has updated the Carina with three new models. the 150, 300 which uses Hypex NCore class D amplification, and for this review the 200wpc GaN. All three models come in either piano black, or in this case the stunning Gloss Mocha. The GaN stands for Gallium Nitride, which provides for a multiple factor increase in digital switching, resulting by my own previous experience with a smoother, more solid-state comparable sound. But the Carina GaN takes another leap by implementing the same design as their GaN 1 amplifier.

I'll let Peachtree President Andrew Clark explain in detail how the amplification section works:

"The simple version is the zero and ones go into the amp where they become on/off electrical pulses that become the waveforms that drive the speakers. Very similar to how a DAC works. A DSD DAC more specifically. Just with speaker level voltages. This type of amplifier topology is sometimes called a power DAC because although it is NOT technically a DAC, it operates like one but at power amp levels instead of the typically small line levels most DACs output.

The main thing is that it avoids unnecessary steps of signal conversion at 2 key points; converting a digital signal to an analog signal, then converting that analog signal to a PWM signal which is what all class-D amplifiers need to utilize to drive the outputs. Sidestep that and you get better sound and no need to use a feedback loop. Feedback loops can be helpful to get better specs on most amps, but GaN FETs are SO much cleaner they don’t need them to spec well and we are firm believers that the amp sounds MUCH better without any feedback as even the best feedback designs take along some music with the distortions."

Now, you may be asking, then why are the dual ESS 9068 DAC chips even onboard? The answer is that when one uses the headphone or preamp outputs. I engaged both over my six weeks of listening, and I'm still enthralled with the sound. My Masters & Dynamic headphones delivered the fine capabilities of the dual 9068 chips. There is ample airiness between the instruments to add to the exceptional detail. The headphone amplifier punched nicely when the music dynamics called for power.

From my review of the original Carina: 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. The 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. Note that the hybrid volume option only effects the dual ESS DAC's, the digital GaN section always uses the digital volume control.

The back panel layout is still much the same. From left to right: Master Power Switch, power cord receptacle, Bluetooth antennae, Right Speaker five-way binding posts, 12V Input/Output trigger jacks, USB, Optical, COAX 1, COAX 2, Left Speaker posts, RCA Preamp Outputs, Phono Ground, and the Phono/AUX input with the selector switch below. The remote, while simple, and plastic, is very well laid out, making for easy tactile control without having to look at the buttons.

The original Carina did, curiously, leave out one desired input, a phono stage. Well, thankfully as mentioned, that has returned. In typical Peachtree style, they didn't just add the same board as was in their Nova integrated or PreDac models. Instead, they designed an improved phono stage that digs deeper. In many ways it reminds me of the overbuilt phono amp of the Adcom GFP-565. 

I spent a great deal of time with the Carina phono stage out of accident, as I failed to pay attention to the fact that the current Carina's all use a USB-C input instead of USB-B. Since I had no such wire on hand for connecting my iMac music streamer, while I waited for an adapter to arrive I spun plenty of vinyl from my Technics SL-J2 table with a new cantilever and tipped Stanton 3003 cartridge. 

Spinning Fleetwood Mac's Rumors, the channel separation is quite good, "The Chain" shows off the guitar work juxtaposed to the heavy percussion hits. In "Go Your Own Way", the layering of each member part  doesn't just avoid the muddiness that occurs with built-in phono preamps. That also means that the pops and clicks that are a part of the vinyl experience are more obvious as well. In my week-long vinyl deep-dive, I thoroughly enjoyed my time via the Carina GaN. Solid electrical engineering design will give all users a positive experience. I know I did.

Once the USB B to USB C adaptor arrived, it was time to experience GaN + PWM amplification. Flat out, it is different in that I found that many of my normal auditory cues changed. The overall sound signature definitely isn't vacuum tube or solid state, but it also contains some foundational differences than either ICEPower or Hypex NCore of class D designs. There is an obvious increase in blackness on a couple of occasions that became a bit unnerving the first few times I listened due to what I expect is the lack of negative feedback. The vocals of Phil Collins can't hide his specific regional accent in "Do You Know, Do You Care", due to the silent background. The slight vocal echo in "You Can't Hurry Love", no longer hides in the shadow. The haunting "Through These Walls", really demonstrates the Carina GaN at its best, I was able to hear deeper into each instrument's tonal quality. The saxophone in "The West Side" sounded for the first time as if it were recorded outside at night. Finally, the piano in "Why Can't It Wait Until Morning", the subtle decay of each note is stunning without any fuzz or hiss.

Shifting to female vocals with heavy harmonies, the Indigo Girls  are a fine example of how very different vocal signatures can marry into wonderful blend. "Kid Fears", shows off such differences all the while allowing space and expansiveness of both voices. That quality flows through every song. Instrumentally, the dueling upper register guitar notes in "Closer To Fine", are distinct, though never harsh, as is the tambourine shimmer. In "Watershed", the bass notes have solid punch, yet avoid overpowering. The opening tap notes of "Three Hits", demonstrate a subtle richness that the Carina GaN brings into the listening experience.  

Delving into the blend of the Moody Blues and the London Symphony, the GaN + PWM amplification reproduction of a concert hall maintains the almost scary black background, while the richness of the instruments are on display. "The Afternoon", reveals the naturalness of the treble, especially the flutes during the final moments of the song. The vocals in poetic style expresses in first-rate detail the lone voice in a large concert venue with a silent backdrop.

Switching to Grofe's masterpiece, Grand Canyon Suite, the movement "Painted Desert" blends the brass and woodwind instruments into a building crescendo, the Carina GaN powers the two groups evenly while maintaining the purity of the notes. The uniquely western "On the Trail", with its beautiful opening violin is stunningly airy and once again without any perceivable noise.

Of all the artists I listened to, the one that really defined the qualities of the Carina GaN is Diana Krall. I've mentioned many times in other reviews of the jazz club, ever so slightly smokey sound of her music. With the Carina GaN, smoke has cleared. I hear her talent across her recordings in a different way. It's like she was recorded in a light-colored room, lit by sunlight. The sheer clarity of her vocals and accompanying instruments, left me with only that uniquely British term, gobsmacked. 

If you are like me and enjoy experiencing more than one type of amplification, the fact that the Carina GaN has preamp outputs makes it a very worthy hub piece for use with either a solid state or tube amplifier for those times when one craves a different sound. Plus, that's another time when one can enjoy the dual 9068 DAC chips. This is a piece of gear with multiple value points.  

By chance, the $2999 Carina GaN overlapped my time with the $3599 HiFi Rose RS520 integrated amplifier. While they are very different as the RS520 has streaming capability and a large color digital display, the Carina GaN has a phono section and the dual 9068 DAC chips vs a single 9038. What both units have in common is 200wpc of GaN amplification. So, comparing over several days was pretty straight forward. While not massive, the Carina GaN with its PWM digital design is quieter. The silent background was very much apparent with all three of my speakers: Magnepan .7, LSA Signature 80's, and Totem Model 1's. Power-wise, the Carina GaN also had a small, but recognizable advantage in grunt horsepower. It delivered more thrust when needed on dynamic passages. 

Final Thoughts 

I know some will ask why in 2024, the Carina GaN doesn't have streaming capabilities. I'll point out that an old laptop no longer in use can make for a fine streamer. My 2017 iMac, works great in such a role, and with Roon, or other software, and hard drive stored personal music collections, can be streamed in via a wired USB connection, or for casual listening, via bluetooth. Or, you can add a dedicated streamer such as BlueOS, or WiiM. Point being, you have solutions that won't break the bank.

While I've always been a fan of the elegant, curved design of Peachtree products, it's the sound quality that comes first, followed by functionality. The Carina GaN integrated amplifier is a worthy offspring of the original Carina. By implementing GaN +PWM that Peachtree first introduced a year ago with the GaN1 amplifier, a marker has been thrown down in the advancement of clarity in integrated amplifiers. The sound signature may not convert those dedicated to glowing vacuum tubes, but the ability to avoid noise in the final sound is deserving of attention and praise. The Carina GaN just made me want to spend more time listening and enjoying music. 

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