Creek Evolution 50A integrated amplifier
It seems I'm always reviewing an integrated amplifier from Creek Audio. It started in the late 1980s, when I fell in love with the capabilities of inexpensive, well-designed audio equipment, sparked by the spectacular sound of a pair of Celestion 5 bookshelf speakers at a Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I was reading an issue of Hi Fi Heretic (now defunct), for which my friend Art Dudley wrote, and it included a survey of various inexpensive British integrated amplifiers, some of them made by Creek. I was already familiar with the company, but hadn't listened to affordable British electronics since I'd lived in London, in the early '80s. I got a Creek 4140s2 integrated and was amazed at its neutrality, its lack of etched sound, its natural reproduction of instrumental timbres. I ended up buying it, and used it to review bookshelf loudspeakers.
In 1995, I heard that Mike Creek was updating all of his electronics, and became intrigued by his new flagship integrated, the 4240SE, which became the subject of the first review I wrote for Stereophile, for the December 1995 issue. I was amazed at how its performance exceeded that of my beloved 4140s2. I bought the review sample, and moved the 4140s2 to my computer audio system.
A few years later, Mike Creek again launched new, more powerful, more expensive integrated amps, and I again reviewed his new flagship: the 5350SE (March 2001). Again, its performance significantly exceeded that of its predecessor; again, I bought the review sample.
In 2007, I got a call from Creek's US importer, Roy Hall, of Music Hall Audio: "Mike Creek has a new circuit design and a new flagship design." Oh, nonot again. I reviewed it in the January 2007 issue. Once more, the performance of a new Creekthe Destiny this timeexceeded the performance of its predecessor. Once more, I bought the review sample. You'd think I'd be used to this pattern.
But no. Recently, I called Roy Hall to request a review sample of the Epos Elan 10 loudspeaker, recommended to me by a Stereophile readerit's the replacement model for the M5i, probably my favorite Epos bookshelf model. "Yeah, you can review the speaker," Roy said, "but there's something more exciting you need to review first. Mike Creek has a new integrated amplifier."
Here we go again. "What does it cost this time, Roy?" I braced myself, ready to hear that Mike Creek had broken the $3000 price barrier. After all, his current flagship integrated, the Destiny 2, costs $2795.
"No no no. Creek has developed a new, innovative circuit design that you'll see implemented in all the company's designs in the near future. But this time, he's first introduced the new design in an amplifier that is less expensive than anything he currently makes."
I've known Roy Hall for 25 years. Sure, he's a salesmanbut he has great ears, and he's honest. As Roy talked about the sound of the Creek Evolution 50A integrated, his voice expressed an enthusiasm I'd never heard from him before. Then he told me the price: $1195.
The Circuitry Magic
The new circuit, which Mike Creek attributes to his senior engineer, David Gamble, is incorporated in what appears to be a conventional class-A/B amplifier. The maximum output power is specified as >55Wpc into 8 ohms and over 85Wpc into 4 ohms. Two Sanken bipolar power transistors are used for each channel; these incorporate temperature-sensing devices so that the output stage bias current can be adjusted automatically. The 50A's 200W toroidal power transformer has separate windings for its high- and low-current analog and digital circuits. Creek claims that this results in low magnetic interference. The 50A's power supply features several small value, low-impedance capacitors in parallel to effectively create a single high-specification capacitor to smooth DC.
The Evolution 50A's preamplifier circuit provides more flexibility and control than is typical in an amp at this price. The preamp has four single-ended inputs and one balanced input, one of which can accommodate one of three moving-magnet or moving-coil plug-in phono boards, which cost $150$225 and differ from each other in the amount of gain required. (My sample lacked a phono board.) The 50A has a separate set of preamp out jacks, and one of its line inputs can be set to AV Direct mode, so it can be used for the front left and right channels of a multichannel system in which the volume is controlled by the surround-sound receiver. AV Direct can also be used to slave the Evolution 50A to another 50A, to biamplify a pair of speakers. In the future, the 50A will be available with a plug-in tuner module accessible by one of the line inputs.
In addition to the large input selector and volume knobs, the 50A has buttons for Balance as well as Tone: treble and bass controls that can be assigned, via front-panel pushbuttons, to the volume control knob. The display can be dimmed or turned off. There's also a headphone jack, but I didn't test the headphone amplifier during my listening sessions.
The elaborate, well-laid-out remote control gives the user access to all of these functions, the tuner module when that becomes available, and the CD and DAC functions of Creek's other Evolution 50 and Evolution 100 products. The Evolution 50A is available with a faceplate in attractive brushed silver or black.
The Sound of Magic?
I like to test a new component's midrange by checking out how well it reproduces a woman's voice. I listened to the entirety of Alison Krauss and Union Station's Live (CD, Rounder 11661-0515-2), and was impressed by the lack of coloration but the high level of refinement in the Evolution 50A's reproduction of Krauss's rich, silky voice. I had a similar reaction to woodwinds. I've been giving John Coltrane's Stardust (CD, Prestige PRCD-30168) a lot of play latelyI'm continually drawn in by the writing, the arrangements, the playing, and the seductive sound quality. (I must get me an original vinyl pressing of this baby.) In the title track, Coltrane's tenor saxophone was breathy but liquid and silky, with a sense of low-level dynamic linearity that I'm not used to hearing from electronics in this price range.
The 50A's resolution of high-frequency detail, delicacy, and air enabled me to enjoy every track on Ghost Town, a solo album by guitarist Bill Frisell (CD, Nonesuch 79583-2). He plays pretty much a different axe on each track, but I most loved his shimmering, chiming upper register in his arrangement of an early John McLaughlin composition, "Follow Your Heart." I had a similar reaction to guitarist Marc Ribot's solo-guitar work in his Silent Movies (CD, Pi PI34). I was particularly attracted to those tracks in which Ribot plays in the lower register of his amplified archtop guitarthrough the Creek, the instrument had a rich, woody resonance.