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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COMMENTS
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

between this and the preceding review of Marantz's Network Audio Player.  Idiosyncratic old school vs bleeding edge new age.  This is why I love reading Stereophile!

Despite the measured flaws JA found in the Croft, Art and Stephens' emotional reactions (and greater focus on the music played than the player) spoke louder - particularily since they're both contextually well informed.  It's not the first time I've noticed such a discrepancy in these pages.  What's really going on here?  Does art trump sound engineering?  

Reminds me of a Japanese mantra; better to do a small thing well than a large thing poorly.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I'm not an electrical engineer.  But, when I look at the photo of the Croft's innards I'm struck by the apparent circuit simplicty, paucity of parts and what looks like point to point wiring.  Could this be the reason it sounded so good to Art and Stephen, despite JA's poor measurements?  Perhaps its flaws were lost in the light of what it did so well.

And, what are the pots on the rear panel's top left corner?  

LS35A's picture

The importer is in Canada.   I'm trying to find a list of U.S. dealers..... 

Doesn't Stereophile have some rule about how many dealers a product has to have before they will review it?   

 

 

 

 

Stephen Mejias's picture

The importer is in Canada.   I'm trying to find a list of U.S. dealers.....

Bluebird Music handles all North American distribution for Croft.  You can contact Bluebird for a dealer near you.

Doesn't Stereophile have some rule about how many dealers a product has to have before they will review it?

The Five Dealer Rule.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I know this is well above my pay grade, but wouldn't it be fun if Stereophile held an internal competition once a year?  Pick a gear type, let's say speakers the first time out, invite companies to submit the product they're proudest of, and then run a controlled blind test with Stereophile's editors and reviewers.  Let the companies know in advance what the associated gear will be so they can send their most compatible product. (Yes, without regard to cost or category, let your staff listen to all the speakers blindly "on a level playing field".) There could be two categories; rank overall, and, rank vs cost ratio.  To motivate the companies, you could give the winner of the second category free advertising for a year!  

It would be a blast to read the results; probably even more fun than Mikey's cartridge shoot-out over at AnalogPlanet and would set the bar very high for the audio press.  Of course, the 1%'s would be interested in the highest rank overall.  The rest of us 99%'s would love the highest rank vs cost ratio. 

It was your recent comparison of the Marantz to the MSB which triggered this idea.  A similar test of historic (Strads and Guarneris) and modern viloins was done by one of the violin magazines a while back.  The results were surprising.

andy_c's picture

With that kind of RIAA accuracy, it's a fair bet that the design was done by the proverbial "passionate artisan".

jgossman's picture

Croft was an advertiser in Listener.  

Still, there's no snark intended so don't take it as such.  I usually don't remember where I put my keys.  And if it was after you sold publishing to another company, you may have never known.  I would be more surprised that you both knew and remembered than otherwise.

Great review.  Unfortunately for my taste, my signal path hasn't had a transitor in years now.  Unfortunately for my purchasing power, I'm about to be a new dad.  Maybe one of my fellow readers can enjoy this amp based on the review.

JayeColby's picture

I have owned my Croft linestage integrated R for six months and enjoy it more and more each day. I don't listen to the measurements.

nunhgrader's picture

I usually have very similar viewpoints as Mr. Dudley's! Great article - I dig Mr. Mejias's unique and youthful voice/ viewpoint as well - keep up the great work!

SET Man's picture

Hey! After seeing so many expensive audios full of bling-bling, especially some of which I saw and heard at the NY Audio early this year.... some didn't sound good to me and made me want to throw up after they told me the price!

       This is just what the real world need today. Good audio piece at more affordable price for the 99%s like myself. For me I don't care much how the audio component looks if it sound good to me, but if it happened to look good too than that is a plus. Of course there will be people who buy audio with their eyes first still... well its their money.

     Man! Wish I could this Croft in my own system just to see and hear them.

killersax's picture

When a component's sound and its measurements diverge so much, we have a good opportunity to re-examine some assumptions. Two questions come to mind: (1) Is there something important about components that JA is not measuring? or (2) Do even expert listeners like their music better with added harmonic distortion and rolled-off treble? Very puzzling. (Although it is heart-warming to learn that Stephen Mejias likes Bruckner.)

SergioLangstrom's picture

Seems to me that if a component measures as badly as this one does, then those that liked how it sounds needs a hearing checkup. How can anyone trust reviewers that can't hear obvious faults in a component? Pretty soon everything will start sounding peachy.

Magnum Innominandum's picture

I fail to remember how often a device greatly praised for it's sonic qualities by the reviewer in this publication is measured by John Atkinson and it turns out it measures worse than a turd.

Here, we have TWO reviewers agreeing "sounds great" even the reviewer who knew it "measures poor" just loved the sound.

So, we can go with the conspiracy theory and consider that both reviewers were paid off by the manufacturer (that one seems universally popular) or we can simply conclude that the standard measurements JA performas have comparably little, if any bearing on actual sound quality (this one is unpopular especially among those who love to believe in "measurements", so it would likely have the ring of truth to it).

Indeed, I would issue two challenges to John Atkinson:

1) Justify measurements performed and their weighing in terms how they relate to what we hear, taking into account the extant body of work on the subject. So if for example harmonic distortion is measured and the impression is given that "lower is better" it should be backed by evidence that provides proof that lower distortion reliably results in better sound.

2) Justify the measurements interpretation in a system context; e.g., should I worry about the given amount of distortion in a given amplifer, considering the know distortion levels in speakers and microphones (or indeed LP records, analogue mastertapes). One might say justify any interpretation with an impact analysis.

To ask more pointedly, for example, why does anyone "define clipping at 1% THD"? It has for example been shown that much higher levels of certain types of distortion are inaudible while other types are both audible and objectionable at levels of THD much lower than 1% THD [1] and when most speakers exceed double digit level of THD at rated power. 

Failing any support by solid science regarding their importance and impact, performing measurements and interpreting them has preciously little value.  When solid evidence that these methods are not reliable or able to give us information about the audible effects and sound quality is present, continuing with the same old methods is something that Richard Feynman once charaterised thusly:

"In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.

So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land.

They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.

So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land."

It would be a major step forward in Audio SCIENCE, if we could discard trappings of science and instead actually act scientific, so that, in a figure of that speech, "the planed land", which for audio measurements would mean measurements that reliably predict if a given item will sound good or not.

Magnum Innominandum

[1] E.R. Geddes and L.W. Lee, “Auditory 

Perception of Nonlinear Distortion-Theory,” Paper 

presented at the Audio Engineering Society 115th 

Convention - Paper 5890 (2005, Oct.) 

Daveedooh's picture

I've just started taking my pension, and as such, have decided to re-vamp my system for the last time, hopefully! I'd sort of decided on one of two choices for a new amp - Naim Nait or a Croft. I've heard both makers equipment at various shows and dealers showrooms down the years, and have always enjoyed both. I've plumped for the Croft, in Micro 25 Basic Plus Phono Pre-Amp and Series 7 Power Amp form. They are scheduled to arrive in two days time. It's like waiting for Christmas Day when your five years old. I shall report back!

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