Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated integrated amplifier Sam Tellig May 2014

Sam Tellig wrote about the Croft Phono in May 2014 (Vol.37 No.5):

Art Dudley was the first at Stereophile to discover this little gem, which he reviewed in the October 2013 issue. I was intrigued because: a) Artie loves it, and b) John Atkinson does not. After measuring it, JA snorted: "To me, it seems, at best, inadequately engineered, and at its worst . . . just plain inadequate."

You have been warned: If you listen to test tones, you can probably hear distortion. JA: "[T]he phono stage suffers from a severe rolloff in the treble. . . ."

JA measured the output impedance as 2.15 ohms at 20Hz and 1kHz, so your speakers might not run ruler-flat, boosting some frequencies, attenuating others. This is what happens when Croft crafts hi-fi for pleasure rather than for pain. As we all know, hi-fi should cause pain when you pay, pain when you play—but bliss when you play test tones.

JA arranged for Stephen Mejias to receive a sample of the Phono Integrated. Perhaps AD had lost his marbles. Or JA had.

SM loved the sound. Knowing that ST had long ago lost his marbles, SM arranged for yet another sample to be sent—to Sam. Mischief was afoot.

Glenn Croft has been making audio gear in England for than 30 years. My friend of 50 years, Lew, had the first Croft gear to arrive in North America: a pair of OTL (footnote 1) monoblocks that he used with his Quad ESL-63 electrostatic speakers. It was a match made in heaven—until Lew's carpet caught fire. Not realizing that tube amps can deliver heat from hell below, he'd placed the amps too close to a carpeted floor. He needed to put them on a platform. When it comes time to bury your uncle, ask for extra slabs of granite.

I don't remember whether the Crofts were damaged by the blaze. I think Lew had the carpet resized. Never place any amp, tubed or solid-state, directly on or even close to a carpet.

These days, Croft still uses small input tubes, like the ECC83 (12AX7). He now prefers MOSFET output transistors to big output tubes—far less troublesome, more economical, and less prone to pyrotechnics.

'umble 'eye-fye!
The Croft Phono Integrated has the thinnest faceplate I've ever seen—less than 1?8" thin. The knobs, while attractive enough, look as if they're from the 1970s. They appear to be the same or knockoffs of the knobs Counterpoint and others used four decades ago.

The Croft Phono Integrated should come wrapped in newspapers, like English fish and chips. Roy Hall used to import equipment like this. It was called Creek. Early Arcam, Musical Fidelity, Naim—these, too, were drab. Croft is still made in the UK.

The Croft eschews features—eg, anything convenient or cosmetic that might help dealers sell it. I didn't find an instruction manual. If there is one, you don't need it. There's no remote control, no headphone jack. No balance control—instead, the user must adjust separate left and right volume pots. Of course, these pots have no markings or clicks to help you do this precisely. And the Phono Integrated comes in any color you want, as long as it's black.

The beauty is out of sight. The RCA jacks are of very high quality, and robustly mounted. There's a line-out pair of RCAs, for biamping or use with a subwoofer or two. (The Phono Integrated is part of Croft's Series 7, which includes a standalone preamp and a standalone power amp.) The Phono Integrated costs $1895.

Inside, the Phono Integrated is hardwired, like my cat: no circuit boards. The phono stage uses two ECC83 tubes—ah, valves. The power amp's driver stage uses another ECC33, plus two MOSFET output transistors per channel to deliver the claimed output of 45Wpc into 8 ohms, or 50Wpc into 4 ohms.

Ah, for some nice NOS (new old stock) Mullards. Ask Croft about availability. The standard tubes are JJs, from Slovakia.

Mull this. The Croft Phono Integrated is one of the best integrated amplifiers I have ever heard. It satisfied Stephen and delighted Artie. A pox on test tones! A pox on cosmetics! A pox on convenience! If it weren't for the KEF LS50 loudspeaker, this would have been my top choice for Stereophile 2013 Component of the Year.

The phono stage is moving-magnet only. You could add a step-up for moving-coil cartridges, or use a high-output MC like the superb Dynavector 10X5. The phono stage stays on whenever the amp is on, whether you're using phono or not. The amplifier seems to scold you: What are you doing, listening to digital? Or Bluetooth (which sounded wonderful with the Croft)? Put on an LP!

I'll play devil's advocate.

Why would someone blow nearly $2000 on an integrated amp with built-in Bluetooth and locked in with today's technology? Keep all your dirty digital doings away from the amplifier. You wouldn't put the litter box next to the kitchen table, would you? If you do digital cheap, and change your DAC and Bluetooth receiver often, you can avoid being stuck tomorrow with today's technology.

Why spend real money on today's tech? Spend it on yesterday's technology. What is already obsolete cannot become obsolete.

Gleefully, I installed the Croft Phono Integrated in my system, which included a Musical Fidelity V90-DAC and a Rega P25 turntable with Goldring 1042 moving-magnet cartridge. I used various Bluetooth devices, too, including Arcam's rBlink receiver and Musical Fidelity's V90-BLU. I sank my blue teeth in. Speakers included my Harbeth Monitor 30.1 Domestics, the Stirling Broadcast LS3/6s, and DeVore Fidelity's Orangutan O/93s. I'm told that these speakers are easy loads—a phrase that always makes my wife, Marina, laugh. Before the Croft's arrival, I'd been using my LFD LE IV and Unison Research Simply Italy integrateds. (Watch this column for the phenomenal LFD LE V, which is more than twice the price of the Croft and does not have a phono section.)

The sound of the Phono Integrated was musical in a way that very hi-fi components are. For a hybrid amplifier, it sounded almost totally tubed. There was none of that misty, plasticky quality that I and others have long associated with MOSFETs. (I think I invented the term "MOSFET mist.") The Phono Integrated sounded tubed—warm, full-bodied, and, most of all, immediate: the performers were in the room with me. They came to me; I didn't have to come to them. This was almost single-ended-triode (SET) sound. Or OTL sound, if my memory of Lew's Croft OTL monoblocks serves me right.

This, to me, is what sound reproduction should be about: the tonality, the atmosphere, the immediacy. Yeah, the Croft looks crude, dude. Deal with it!

I've been listening a lot lately to two great jazz singers who are no longer with us: Shirley Horn (great pianist, too) and Carmen McRae. Each was blessed with a unique style and presence. For Shirley Horn, I suggest her albums You Won't Forget Me (you never will, that's for sure) and You're My Thrill. For Carmen McRae, it's Carmen Sings Monk, Lover Man and other Billie Holiday Classics, Birds of a Feather, and, if you can find it, Bittersweet. Most of these albums by McRae are out of print.

The Croft Phono Integrated does have its limitations, aside from some limitations on test tones. As I said, if the amp is turned on, so is the phono stage. With the DeVore Orangutan speakers, the bass was not quite as controlled or as tight as I might like. Plump, but not pinched.

Transparency was another matter. I can hear into good recordings with the new LFD LE V in ways that I couldn't with the Croft Phono Integrated. There was some lack of air there, some loss of definition. But compared to what, and at what price?—Sam Tellig


Footnote 1: OTL stands for output-transformerless. Instead of output transformers, an OTL amp uses an array of tubes in the output stage to lower the output impedance. —Sam Tellig
COMPANY INFO
Croft Acoustics
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
310 Rosewell Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M4R 2B2, Canada
(416) 638-8207
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