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 knowsomeone 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 yearsitself no small feat in perfectionist audioand 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 simplein the purist sense of the word, of coursesolid-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.
For his latest product, Glenn Croft has combined in a single packageand thus, one assumes, a comparatively thrifty packagea 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-magnetcompatible 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 ampas far as one can get from those small-signal tubesis 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.
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 weighingor costingan 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 connectorswhich appear identical to the ones used on my Shindo amplifierssuited 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.
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.
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 audiblewithout undue brightnessand 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 enoughand, 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. Notablyand also from the very first notes on this great discthe 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 musicsuch 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 drummingnot to mention Quentin Warren's electric guitar, plus the downright sensual note attacks of the electric organin "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 houseall was forgiven.
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