Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated integrated amplifier

The name sounds perfect. It fits neatly next to those of Messrs. Leak, Sugden, Walker, Grant, Lumley, and others of Britain's most rightly revered amplifier builders. In fact, when their distributor called and asked if I'd like to review the latest amplifier from Croft Acoustics, I accepted without actually knowing who they are, simply because they sounded like someone I was supposed to know—someone who's been around for 60 years or so, shellacking bell wire in an old mill with a thatched roof.

As it turns out, this British company has been in business just 30 years—itself no small feat in perfectionist audio—and founder Glenn Croft actually doesn't spend his days winding transformers. Although Croft's first commercial product was, indeed, a tubed amplifier, he has dedicated the past few years of his professional life to making hybrid amps with decidedly simple—in the purist sense of the word, of course—solid-state output sections. The latest of these is the comparatively humbly priced and plainly named Phono Integrated ($1895), a sample of which made its way here some time between this year's Montreal and New York audio shows.

Description
For his latest product, Glenn Croft has combined in a single package—and thus, one assumes, a comparatively thrifty package—a pair of products that already exist in the Croft line, neither of them lavishly priced themselves: the Micro 25 preamplifier ($1395) and the Series 7 power amplifier ($1395). The resulting integrated amplifier, while possessed of specifications that slightly differ from those of its two forebears, is one in which line- and moving-magnet–compatible phono-stage gain is provided by vacuum tubes, and output power is provided by transistors.

From the Phono Integrated's gold-plated but blessedly non-massive RCA jacks, input signals go straight to a rotary input-selector switch, from which they are ushered to a dual-mono pair of volume pots. Phono-stage gain is provided by a stereo pair of ECC83 (12AX7) dual-triode tubes, made by JJ Audio of Slovakia, while RIAA equalization is applied by passive parts. A third ECC83, using a pair of P9NK50 MOSFETs as a constant-current source, is the voltage amplifier for the output section, which is built around a complementary pair of J162 and K1058 MOSFETs. In the right-rear corner of the Croft amp—as far as one can get from those small-signal tubes—is a simple and very cleanly executed analog power supply, with separate rectifiers for tubes and transistors.

Apart from a small circuit board containing the bipolar timer and relays for the amp's warm-up circuitry, the Phono Integrated is hand-wired, point to point, with neatly made solder joins and Bakelite terminal strips. Two separate aluminum brackets support the tubes and output transistors, the latter fitted with a heatsink of appropriate size, and while the Phono Integrated lacks a metal partition between its input section and its power supply, the amp proved free of hum and noise during use.

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The two-part steel chassis was well painted inside and out, with all parts held neatly in place with appropriate fasteners. Build quality, styling, and ergonomics were all better than I expected for this product category and price range: In common with high-end amplifiers from before the dark era of thick faceplates, digital displays, and other sonically dubious decorations, the Croft's casework is quite nicely designed and finished, without weighing—or costing—an iota more than necessary. On unpacking the Phono Integrated, the first words that entered my mind were "Plain but cheaply elegant."

Setup and installation
As one might hope of such a product, the Croft Phono Integrated held no unpleasant setup surprises. Because it exhibited slightly less gain than necessary for the 1.05mV output of my EMT TSD 15 pickup head, I preceded the Croft's phono-input jacks with my Silvercore One-to-Ten step-up transformer, which also provides an appropriate load for the moving-coil EMT. That left three pairs of line-level input jacks for my two line-level sources: a Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player and a selection of different USB D/A converters (see "Associated Equipment"). The Croft's stereo pair of speaker connectors—which appear identical to the ones used on my Shindo amplifiers—suited the banana plugs on my reference Auditorium 23 speaker cables and a loaner pair of TelWire cables. I experimented with neither isolation devices nor aftermarket AC cords.

From the moment I flipped its front-mounted power toggle, the Phono Integrated required 69 seconds of warm-up before signaling that it was ready to play music (which it indicates by changing the hue of its pilot light from red to green); after that, the case never became more than moderately warm to the touch. Controls are basic, and though I regretted the lack of a mono switch, I was absolutely delighted by having separate volume controls for the left and right channels: my preferred way of doing things in any event. The Croft did not come with a remote handset, which suited me just fine: I seldom use them, and while it would be overstating the case to say that I resent having to pay for the things and their supporting circuitry, that isn't far off. To me, remote controls are much more an annoyance than a convenience.

Listening
Cold and out of the box, the Croft Phono Integrated sounded just a little bit grainy, but at the same time it was exceptionally involving and impactful for such an affordable product, with notably good frequency extension toward both extremes and a treble range that wasn't the least bit hard or glassy. The graininess diminished significantly over the following two days, and although the Croft's sound remained just slightly more textured than neutral, I found myself impressed with its character from that moment forward.

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Listening to the first selection on Jacques Loussier's seminal Play Bach No.1 (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SSL 40 500 S), it was impossible not to notice one of the Croft's greatest strengths: It clarified, better than my own electronics, the precise pitches of every fast-moving note played by the remarkable bassist Pierre Michelot. Not only that, but, through DeVore Fidelity's Orangutan O/96 speakers, the Croft did almost as good a job as the Shindo Cortese in getting across the idea of touch in the playing, especially the more subtle gradations of same in Loussier's piano. Besides, percussionist Christian Garros's triangle was perfectly audible—without undue brightness—and musical timing and pacing were superb.

With "Once Upon a Time," from Frank Sinatra's September of my Years (LP, Reprise FS-1014), the Croft showed good momentum, perhaps owing to the combination of tautness and sheer depth it brought to the plucked bass strings. The Croft didn't have the organic sense of note-to-note flow that characterizes my reference tube amps, and its string tones were a little ragged, seeming freighted with a bit too much (artificial) texture. Nevertheless, the Phono Integrated delivered the emotional goods, and pulled me into the song.

Similarly, the Croft didn't approach my Shindo separates in conveying the rich timbral colors in the strings that open my favorite recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, led by Anthony Lewis and featuring a young Janet Baker (LP, L'Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60047). Yet the Croft allowed them to sound just sweet enough—and, at the same time, did a fantastic job of nailing the attack components of all the notes, allowing the strings to sound pacey and vibrant and, again, very appropriately impactful. Notably—and also from the very first notes on this great disc—the recording's unusually big, wide scale was portrayed well by the Croft.

The amp's good scale served it well on mono discs, too, as on the great recording by Fritz Lehman and the Berlin Philharmonic of Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem (CD, Deutsche Grammophon/ArkivMusic 457710), which exhibited fine substance and size through the Phono Integrated. The Croft also sounded compelling with such things as the very slow harp arpeggios in the first movement, although it did betray just the slightest harshness on massed vocal peaks there and in the second movement.

Well-recorded piano music—such as Chopin's Waltz, Op.34 No.2, performed by Witold Malcuzynski (CD, EMI Classics/ArkivMusic 68226)—showed the Croft at its weakest, timbrally, with a sound that was markedly more grainy, and even a bit chalky, compared with the best tubed amps. That said, in my estimation, the Croft more than made up for shortcomings in that regard by being more explicit than average with shadings of touch and tempo. Nor did other keyboards go wanting: The pounding piano in "Golden Opportunity," from Ian Hunter's Overnight Angels (LP, CBS 81993), never pounded as hard as it did through the Croft. Much the same could be said of Donald Bailey's drumming—not to mention Quentin Warren's electric guitar, plus the downright sensual note attacks of the electric organ—in "Sista Rebecca," from Jimmy Smith's Open House (LP, Blue Note BST 84269).

On the downside, although not at all bright or even light in its tonal balance, the Croft didn't spare me the bad news of the peaky top ends that made cymbals sizzle overmuch, over-emphasized vocal sibilants, and suchlike. Evidence abounds on Jenny Hval's slightly hot Innocence Is Kinky (LP, Rune Grammophone RLP3142). Ditto "Call Me Michael Moonlight" and "When the Damsons Are Down," from Martin Newell's brilliant but casually recorded The Off White Album (CD, Humbug BAH25). But this shortcoming wasn't as severe as with other amplifiers, and in any event, given the crazy-good job the Croft did with the electric bass line in the same album's "Miss Van Houten's Coffee Shoppe"—making that line more lithe and tight and colorful and deep than any other amp in the house—all was forgiven.

Conclusions
Halfway through my time with the Croft Phono Integrated, I already thought of it as one of the best affordable-perfectionist amplifiers I've heard: direct, punchy, and musical, if just a bit coarse when asked to perform outside its comfort zone. It was, if I may be forgiven for saying so, the sort of performance anyone would expect from a good circuit that isn't built with the finest or rarest of parts, but that isn't freighted with a lot of unnecessary bullshit, either. It was as honest as they come.

The Croft was, in many ways, the most impressive affordable amp I've heard in years: Not the best, per se, but the one that did the most to win me over, with its excellent build quality, its musically incisive and involving performance, and its stunning level of value. For some reason, a line from a long-ago film review, of David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly, comes to mind: "The original did more with less." Considered in such a light, the Croft Phono Integrated is that original.

And: It seems entirely possible that one could pay thousands of dollars to an industrial-design firm and still fail to achieve the clean and altogether classy appearance of understated quality that Glenn Croft has hit on here. The amp's casework is pleasant to behold, touch, and use, while avoiding altogether the ridiculousness of so many thickly faceplated and overpriced competitors.

It all comes back to my time with that Jacques Loussier album. I still remember when, a few months ago, I borrowed a current sample of the Shindo Cortese single-ended amplifier ($9995). Play Bach No.1 was the first record I played through it, and I was knocked out by a level of subtle impact that I'd never heard before from the LP. The Croft duplicated that experience. It didn't have the Shindo's timbral color or psychedelic flow, but it allowed the music the same level of excitement and impact, which is at least half the game, in my book. Maybe yours, too.

If I were a designer or a builder, this is how I would do the thing. If I were buying in this price range, this is the one I'd choose. Strongly recommended.—Art Dudley

COMPANY INFO
Croft Acoustics
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
310 Rosewell Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M4R 2B2, Canada
(416) 638-8207
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COMMENTS
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

between this and the preceding review of Marantz's Network Audio Player.  Idiosyncratic old school vs bleeding edge new age.  This is why I love reading Stereophile!

Despite the measured flaws JA found in the Croft, Art and Stephens' emotional reactions (and greater focus on the music played than the player) spoke louder - particularily since they're both contextually well informed.  It's not the first time I've noticed such a discrepancy in these pages.  What's really going on here?  Does art trump sound engineering?  

Reminds me of a Japanese mantra; better to do a small thing well than a large thing poorly.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I'm not an electrical engineer.  But, when I look at the photo of the Croft's innards I'm struck by the apparent circuit simplicty, paucity of parts and what looks like point to point wiring.  Could this be the reason it sounded so good to Art and Stephen, despite JA's poor measurements?  Perhaps its flaws were lost in the light of what it did so well.

And, what are the pots on the rear panel's top left corner?  

LS35A's picture

The importer is in Canada.   I'm trying to find a list of U.S. dealers..... 

Doesn't Stereophile have some rule about how many dealers a product has to have before they will review it?   

 

 

 

 

Stephen Mejias's picture

The importer is in Canada.   I'm trying to find a list of U.S. dealers.....

Bluebird Music handles all North American distribution for Croft.  You can contact Bluebird for a dealer near you.

Doesn't Stereophile have some rule about how many dealers a product has to have before they will review it?

The Five Dealer Rule.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I know this is well above my pay grade, but wouldn't it be fun if Stereophile held an internal competition once a year?  Pick a gear type, let's say speakers the first time out, invite companies to submit the product they're proudest of, and then run a controlled blind test with Stereophile's editors and reviewers.  Let the companies know in advance what the associated gear will be so they can send their most compatible product. (Yes, without regard to cost or category, let your staff listen to all the speakers blindly "on a level playing field".) There could be two categories; rank overall, and, rank vs cost ratio.  To motivate the companies, you could give the winner of the second category free advertising for a year!  

It would be a blast to read the results; probably even more fun than Mikey's cartridge shoot-out over at AnalogPlanet and would set the bar very high for the audio press.  Of course, the 1%'s would be interested in the highest rank overall.  The rest of us 99%'s would love the highest rank vs cost ratio. 

It was your recent comparison of the Marantz to the MSB which triggered this idea.  A similar test of historic (Strads and Guarneris) and modern viloins was done by one of the violin magazines a while back.  The results were surprising.

andy_c's picture

With that kind of RIAA accuracy, it's a fair bet that the design was done by the proverbial "passionate artisan".

jgossman's picture

Croft was an advertiser in Listener.  

Still, there's no snark intended so don't take it as such.  I usually don't remember where I put my keys.  And if it was after you sold publishing to another company, you may have never known.  I would be more surprised that you both knew and remembered than otherwise.

Great review.  Unfortunately for my taste, my signal path hasn't had a transitor in years now.  Unfortunately for my purchasing power, I'm about to be a new dad.  Maybe one of my fellow readers can enjoy this amp based on the review.

JayeColby's picture

I have owned my Croft linestage integrated R for six months and enjoy it more and more each day. I don't listen to the measurements.

nunhgrader's picture

I usually have very similar viewpoints as Mr. Dudley's! Great article - I dig Mr. Mejias's unique and youthful voice/ viewpoint as well - keep up the great work!

SET Man's picture

Hey! After seeing so many expensive audios full of bling-bling, especially some of which I saw and heard at the NY Audio early this year.... some didn't sound good to me and made me want to throw up after they told me the price!

       This is just what the real world need today. Good audio piece at more affordable price for the 99%s like myself. For me I don't care much how the audio component looks if it sound good to me, but if it happened to look good too than that is a plus. Of course there will be people who buy audio with their eyes first still... well its their money.

     Man! Wish I could this Croft in my own system just to see and hear them.

killersax's picture

When a component's sound and its measurements diverge so much, we have a good opportunity to re-examine some assumptions. Two questions come to mind: (1) Is there something important about components that JA is not measuring? or (2) Do even expert listeners like their music better with added harmonic distortion and rolled-off treble? Very puzzling. (Although it is heart-warming to learn that Stephen Mejias likes Bruckner.)

SergioLangstrom's picture

Seems to me that if a component measures as badly as this one does, then those that liked how it sounds needs a hearing checkup. How can anyone trust reviewers that can't hear obvious faults in a component? Pretty soon everything will start sounding peachy.

Magnum Innominandum's picture

I fail to remember how often a device greatly praised for it's sonic qualities by the reviewer in this publication is measured by John Atkinson and it turns out it measures worse than a turd.

Here, we have TWO reviewers agreeing "sounds great" even the reviewer who knew it "measures poor" just loved the sound.

So, we can go with the conspiracy theory and consider that both reviewers were paid off by the manufacturer (that one seems universally popular) or we can simply conclude that the standard measurements JA performas have comparably little, if any bearing on actual sound quality (this one is unpopular especially among those who love to believe in "measurements", so it would likely have the ring of truth to it).

Indeed, I would issue two challenges to John Atkinson:

1) Justify measurements performed and their weighing in terms how they relate to what we hear, taking into account the extant body of work on the subject. So if for example harmonic distortion is measured and the impression is given that "lower is better" it should be backed by evidence that provides proof that lower distortion reliably results in better sound.

2) Justify the measurements interpretation in a system context; e.g., should I worry about the given amount of distortion in a given amplifer, considering the know distortion levels in speakers and microphones (or indeed LP records, analogue mastertapes). One might say justify any interpretation with an impact analysis.

To ask more pointedly, for example, why does anyone "define clipping at 1% THD"? It has for example been shown that much higher levels of certain types of distortion are inaudible while other types are both audible and objectionable at levels of THD much lower than 1% THD [1] and when most speakers exceed double digit level of THD at rated power. 

Failing any support by solid science regarding their importance and impact, performing measurements and interpreting them has preciously little value.  When solid evidence that these methods are not reliable or able to give us information about the audible effects and sound quality is present, continuing with the same old methods is something that Richard Feynman once charaterised thusly:

"In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.

So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land.

They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.

So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land."

It would be a major step forward in Audio SCIENCE, if we could discard trappings of science and instead actually act scientific, so that, in a figure of that speech, "the planed land", which for audio measurements would mean measurements that reliably predict if a given item will sound good or not.

Magnum Innominandum

[1] E.R. Geddes and L.W. Lee, “Auditory 

Perception of Nonlinear Distortion-Theory,” Paper 

presented at the Audio Engineering Society 115th 

Convention - Paper 5890 (2005, Oct.) 

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