Creek 4240 Special Edition integrated amplifier
In this, my first equipment review for Stereophile, I'll begin by explaining my philosophy regarding reviewing inexpensive components. In my quest for products by designers who strive to establish new benchmarks for reproducing sonic realism at lower prices, I'll be looking for "value" components (a more appropriate term than "budget") whose designers logically fall into two camps:
"Price point" designers (Arcam, Audible Illusions, Audio Alchemy, Creek, Grado) who have built their reputations by placing all of their designs under very stringent cost constraints. The presumption is that they target serious music lovers of modest financial means.
"Trickle-down" designers (eg, Alón, Audio Research, Cary, MIT, VPI) have made their marks by designing breakthrough designs whose cost considerations take a back seat to sound quality, and, in extreme cases, may be ignored entirely. Reputations thus established, these designers seek to expand their markets by applying their fundamental design philosophiesand the magic of their pricey designswithin a more cost-constrained context.
Unlike most equipment reviewers, who begin by reviewing budget gear and go up in price as their experience grows, I've moved in the opposite direction. Although I play with the big-bucks boys, as a reviewer I prefer to seek out inexpensive gear that sets new standards at low price points.
This accomplishes two objectives: It locates components that enable a higher level of performance at any given cost constraint, and it brings more people into the hobby, by sending the message that this is not solely a rich man's sport. (Today, $2500 can buy better sound than $5000 did five years ago, or $10,000 did 10 years ago.) My greatest joy as a reviewer is to put together a modestly priced system for a friend and watch the smile on her face as she plays through her music collection as if hearing the stuff for the first time. Which brings me to...
Roy Hall of Music Hall in Great Neck, New York, is Creek's US distributor and is also part-owner. Hall's rooms at past Stereophile and CE Shows reveal his strategy of bringing very-low-cost serious British high-end gear into the US. At every show I've attended, Music Hall has achieved some of the best sound using some of the least expensive components. Creek electronics were always in use. (They also make CD players, and for a while sold a cute little bookshelf speaker.)
My first experience with a Mike Creek design was with the 4140s2 integrated amplifier I reviewed in 1990 (Sounds Like... No.8, footnote 1). This $550 40W unit (which included a killer low-output moving-coil phono stage, no less) impressed me so much that I purchased it, and I've used it in my lowest-price reference system ever since.
For its price at the time, the 4140s2 was an incredibly detailed, dynamic, and fairly neutral unit whose sonic performance and parts'n'construction quality hinted at a much higher price. The 4140s2's magic was in the way it put the music together (rather than analyzing it or picking it apart) to convey a realistic, involving musical experience. The British mags would call this "following the tune," and the American undergrounds would term it "spectral and temporal coherency." The bass extension and speed on this baby (read: lots of current produced into real speaker loads) was killer. On the minus side, images on the soundstage were rather two-dimensional, with limited stage depth, and the lower high frequencies had a slightly metallic, etched qualitythis amp wasn't a good match for speakers with bright tweeters.
In 1989, Creek was sold to TGI (Tannoy/Mordaunt Short); shortly thereafter, Mike Creek left the company. Roy Hall, Creek, and Creek's European distributor bought the company back from TGI in 1993, after which the entire Creek line was revamped. The 4240 integrated amplifier, which replaced the 4140s2 in 1993, was the first Mike Creek design released under the new ownership.
When the 4240's first production unit entered the country, Wes Phillips and I visited Roy Hall's home to compare the new amplifier with the 4140s2 and to meet the designer. During this delightful evening (wherein Roy served a 1988 Tignanello to accompany takeout pizzathe man has his priorities straight), the comparison was enlightening. Although I'm reluctant to comment on comparisons made with unfamiliar systems, this listening session convinced me that the 4240 had achieved new levels of body, palpability, and realism, which the earlier amp had lacked. It also seemed as if the lower high-frequency edge had been scotched.
Enter the 4240
The only way to be sure was to get one of those suckers into my reference system posthaste; I was fortunate to receive one of the early review samples. My listening sessions confirmed a natural and refined quality that I normally associate with expensive tube amplifiers. Rather than the forward, etched quality of its predecessor, the 4240 eased me into the music gently and let its holographic timbres wash over me. Unfortunately, the bass was inferior to the 4140s2, as the midbass on down had a thick, rounded qualitynot objectionable, but clearly a step backward.
All in all, however, the new amp was far superior, and the minor bass tradeoff was well worth the integrated result. As I prepared my review (The Abso!ute Sound, Issue 100), I wondered to what extent other reviewers would share my enthusiasm. It turned out my view was in the minority, as both Corey Greenberg (Stereophile, July 1994), and Rob Doorack (Listener, Issue 2, Spring 1995) issued negative press on the 4240, implying that Mike Creek had taken a step backward. To paraphrase these gentlemen, the 4240 lacked the excitement and drive of the earlier unit. It was too laid-back. It was boring.
I can only scratch my head and conclude that these gentlemen like a more exciting than real presentation; one enhanced by the etched lower high frequencies of the 4140s2. But to my ears, naturalness rules; the Creek 4240 presented a much more convincing sonic transcription of the live musical event than did its predecessor.
Which brings us to the matter at hand. Before revamping its lineup, Creek marketed a top-of-the-line integrated amp, the 6060. At nearly double the price of the 4140s2, it basically provided a high-power option for those who liked the sound of the 4140s2, wanted more than 40W, and didn't want to make the jump to separates. I was perplexed, and had begun to think the company was ignoring a key potential market segment, when I learned that Creek's new management had no interest in introducing a replacement for the 6060. In 1995 Creek did introduce the P42 and A42 preamp/amp combo, which offered, at 50Wpc, a higher-powered Creek option.
Don't you deserve something special?
Creek has now finally introduced a higher-power integrated amplifier, the 4240 Special Edition, at a price of $800. Externally, the only difference between the special edition and the standard 4240 is the gold lettering on its faceplate (Creek traditionally uses green). The functions of the two units are identical: five inputs, including an auxiliary input which can be converted to phono by purchasing an additional moving-magnet ($50) or moving-coil board ($95). The simplylaid-out unit sports volume and balance controls, and a headphone jack. For those who wish to complement the amp with additional electronics in a more elaborate system, both preamp-out and amplifier-in jacks are provided.
The Special Edition also includes the most annoying feature I've seen on any piece of electronics, one shared by the entire Creek line: Deltron speaker connections in the back of the amp. These wonderful little jacks mate with Deltron males, which actually seem to provide a better connection than typical five-way binding posts. The problem is, they're incompatible with most American connections. The Deltron jacks do accept banana plugs or "fat bananas"which I understand Music Hall sellsbut are incompatible with the spade lugs and bare wire commonly used in the US low-cost electronics market. Of course, Music Hall dealers will be happy to custom-terminate wires for customers, but then the wires will have compatibility problems with other gear.
I found all this highly annoying: I tried to hook up a new pair of speakers, and found I had three sets of speaker cable custom-terminated with these stupid plugs. They therefore could not be mated with the screw terminals and Edison Price Music Posts on the back of my Audio Research and Cary amps, respectively. You'd think Creek/Music Hall would have realized by now that their segment of the market, more than any other, is driven by convenience.
Open ze box, and the upgrades on the Special Edition are obvious. What Mike Creek has done is replace the output devices and toroidal transformer of the 4240 with those of the 50W A42 basic amplifier. In addition, some minor parts upgrades have been performed on the preamp section, including the addition of a silky high-quality ALPS pot for the volume control. The SE retains the DC-coupled pre- and power-amp sections of the original 4240, as well as the lack of capacitors in the signal path.
Footnote 1: Robert Harley reviewed the 4140s2 for Stereophile in September 1989, Vol.12 No.9.John Atkinson