Creek 4240 Special Edition integrated amplifier Page 2
Is the sound special enough?
When I cranked up the Creek, I didn't expect much improvement in sound quality vs the stock 4240. I was in for two big surprises. First, the Special Edition Creek transformed the performance of the system to a much higher level of sonic realism than would be indicated by the $200 price differential. But, ironically, the character of the amp remained essentially the same as the stock 4240. When I switched to the Special Edition, the sound change was akin to that of making a significant upgrade elsewhere in the system while leaving the original 4240 intact.
Normally I spend quite a bit of time in my equipment reviews discussing tonal balance. Although detail resolution, soundstaging, and dynamic range are very important to me, I'm sensitive, perhaps overly sensitive to a component's timbral distortions. If I hear a significant coloration, particularly in the critical midrange, I will be less excited about a component's other positive attributes. I have very little to say regarding the Special Edition Creek's tonal balance in that I could detect no significant colorations whatsoever over the entire frequency range. Any minor colorations I heard can be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of my front-end gear.
Vocals were particularly captivating, whether male (Mighty Sam McClain, Give It Up To Love, AudioQuest AQ1015, LP and CD) or female (Bernard Rogers, Three Japanese Dances, Mercury 432 754-2; and Janis Ian, Breaking Silence, Morgan Creek 2959-20023-2). But the real test of tonal balance is on the component's reconstruction of fundamentals and harmonics of woodwind and string instruments. On Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (EMI ASD 4270), the reproduction of the subtle dynamic shadings of the clarinet and cello throughout their extended ranges were extraordinarily realistic.
With the Special Edition, Creek has finally gotten the high frequencies rightit shared neither the metallic high frequencies of the 4140s2 nor the slightly soft, laid-back high-frequency presentation of the 4240. Particularly since the transient reproduction of the unit was fast and natural without being etched, percussion (of particular interest to me) was reproduced with captivating realism. The bells and upper register of the piano on Three Japanese Dances shimmered with air, sparkle, body. The four percussionists on Clarity's stunning portrayal of Stravinsky's densely orchestrated Les Noces (Clarity CD1005-G), which on a lesser amplifier can sound like thick cacophony, were clear and easy to follow, and brought back memories of the live performance I witnessed in London's Royal Festival Hall in 1982.
I can't comment on the frequency extremes of the Creek because the amplifier extended beyond the frequency limitations of my associated gear. The highs extended at least to 1315kHz, the conservative upper limit of both my analog and digital front ends, and the bass extended to at least 50Hz (in my room the Alóns are flat to 50Hz, with reduced output at 40Hz, sans PW-1 subwoofer). The Special Edition Creek had none of the bass roundness of the original 4240.
Within the frequency limitations of the system the bass was clean, tight, and natural. Bass guitars were particularly realistic, and the electric bass on the Janis Ian disc was as natural as I've heard on a recording. John Atkinson's little ditty on Stereophile's Test CD 2 (STPH004-2) reminded me of John's 1964 Fender bass as heard live.
I know this sounds a bit like a rave review, but I haven't yet discussed the amp's two greatest strengths:
Exceptional Articulation of Inner Detail: The Creek is a limited-resolution budget component; I was very surprised to find the Special Edition revealed details I hadn't noticed before on some of my favorite recordings. For example, on "Uncle Meat," from Zappa's phenomenal The Yellow Shark (Barking Pumpkin R2 71600), the opening bass figure is doubled by the piano and bassoon, and the separation of the two instruments was very clear.
Robin Holcomb, despite being an excellent songwriter, is not much of a piano technician, and she tends to lean on the pedal too much. I usually use the title track from Rockabye (Elektra Musician 61289-2) as a detail-resolution test. On a high-resolution system, you can hear Holcomb's pedal go up and down during the intro before the vocals and other instruments kick in. On the Creek Special Edition, I noticed for the first time that Holcomb depresses the pedal quickly, but brings it up much more slowly.
On "Dyslexiana," from the highly experimental KLiP jazz recording (CDR copy of master tape, not yet released), the interplay between Elliot Kallen's internal piano manipulations and Garth Powell's subtle percussive interplay, which is recorded at a very low level, was captivating on a revealing system. The extensive use of space and decay on pianissimo passages can be lost on a less-than-revealing system. With the Special Edition Creek, I remained as captivated as when I played the CD on my expensive primary reference system.
This ability to resolve detail enhanced the unit's soundstaging presentation. The Creek, which had very good width, depth, and image specificity, also revealed quite a bit of air surrounding the instruments on the stage, as well as hall ambience. The Special Edition thus allowed the speakers to disappear on some very good recordings, something which the original 4240 could not do.
Explosive High-Level Dynamics and Bass Impact: The Creek reproduced triple-fortes without any sense of strain. Recordings with extensive bass information were particularly convincing. Even on the tiny Petites, the bass drum whacks during the most vibrant passages of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Clarity 1005-G) were among the most realistic I've heard from any recording.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of hearing the new King Crimson band live. Unlike his previous rock ensembles, Robert Fripp's latest unit employs two guitars, two bass/Chapman Stick players, and two drummers. The compositions for this "double trio" are more akin to jazz ensemble writing, or that of a classical sextet. This angular, dense, high-energy music is all through-composed with very little soloing and, because of its complexity, is difficult to analyze on first listen.
At the concertthe finest rock performance I'd seen in a decadeit was much easier to follow the individual bass and percussion lines than on the recording (Thrak, Virgin 40313 2). With the Creek Special Edition, even at excessively loud volumes, the individual bass lines and percussion passages were as clear as they were in concert. The Creek never once ran out of steam (the original 4240 compressed a bit at very loud levels). When the 4240 was pressed to its limits (I'm talking in excess of 100dB here), it amplified without strain or distortion, but it was obvious the amp was working hard. It's as if the amp were saying, "I'm not supposed to play this loud, but, if you insist..." The Special Edition, on the other hand, would reply, "Party onI'm not even tired."
Back to Kallen's KliP CD. On "Housewives, Students, Anyone?," the male narrator asks, "Do you need more power?" "No," I thought. As the Rolls-Royce marketing guys say, power is "sufficient."
As I search for something negative to say about this amp, I should point out that at no time was I fooled into thinking I was listening to significantly more expensive gear. The Creek lacked the silky, effortless, grain-free liquidity of more costly separates, as became obvious when I briefly substituted the Audible Illusions Modulus 3/Audio Research Classic 60 combo. The SE sounded like a cost-constrained solid-state amplifier, although a damn impressive one.
I must admit that much of my enthusiasm for the amp is a direct result of my experience with the Alón Petite, which is an unusually revealing, neutral, and dynamic speaker for $1000. The Special Edition Creek and Alón share the ability to be ruthless in exposing problems in associated gear. As a pair, they sang.
Although I've had extensive experience with Creek gear over the last few years, I was unprepared for how much of an improvement the Special Edition 4240 would be over the original 4240. To be fair, the 4140s2 (a steal in the used market), the 4240, and the 4240 SE are all excellent performers, but at three discrete levels of realism. I can't think of a single electronic high-end component available today that provides more value for money than the Creek 4240 SE. To my ears, the 4240SE/Alón Petite combination sets a new standard for performance in an electronics/speaker combination for under $2000.