Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated integrated amplifier Stephen Mejias comments
As I write these words, I haven't yet read Art Dudley's complete review (elsewhere in this issue) of the new Croft integrated amplifier. I do know, however, that Art liked it a lot and that it performed very poorly on John Atkinson's test bench. It's not the first time we've experienced such a discrepancy, and it won't be the last. In this case, though, the results diverged so thoroughly that JA asked for a second opinion. Perhaps because I happened to be in his direct line of vision, JA offered the assignment to me. (I tried to duck. I failed.) He said something about lots of third-harmonic distortion1.2% of the stuff, even at low volumes into 4 ohms, which should be easily audible on pure tones. Uh-oh.
Honestly, I was excited. I had never listened to a Croft product in my home. I understood the British company to be somewhat under the radar, at least here in the US, and somewhat idiosyncratic, with a distinct focus on quality and craftsmanship over convenience.
In fact, the Croft Phono Integrated lacks anything that at all resembles a convenience featureno remote control, no digital inputs, no headphone jack, no upgrade paths for wireless streaming or USB connectivity. Instead, it trades conveniences for inconveniences, or minor annoyances, like separate volume knobs for the left and right channels. Before I could listen, I had to send JA an embarrassing e-mail: "Um, where should I begin with the volume knobs? Where is the zero point? Where is the max point? I don't want to blow up my system."
I added a smiley face in an attempt to, you know, like, direct JA's attention away from my awkward ineptitude. But really, what's up with the two volume controls? In what world is that useful?
As it turned out, the zero point was with both controls at the noon position, turned as far counterclockwise as they would go. That settled, and with the Croft introduced to my systemRega P3-24 turntable with Elys 2 moving-magnet cartridge, NAD C 516BEE CD player, Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 loudspeakers, Kimber PBJ interconnects and 8VS speaker cableI was ready to listen. I compared the Croft with four other integrated amplifiers: my NAD C 316BEE ($380), my Exposure 2010S (discontinued, $1295 when last available), Arcam's A19 ($999, review to come), and Creek's Evolution 50A ($1195).
I started with the Finale from Bruckner's Symphony 4, Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (CD, Decca 2894663742). The Croft sounded smoother and sweeter in the highs than any amp I've heard at home, so that at around 2:30, when the violins soar high above everything else, beautiful, tangible tension was suspended in the air between my speakers like a clothesline cranked taut between row houses. Later, at around 9 minutes in, the brass and string sections take turns playing a somber theme. I always love this bit of music; I look forward to it, anxiously, and sink down into my seat, sort of deliriously, when it finally arrives. With the Croft, these few moments were supercharged with the kind of magic that only the best hi-fi can deliver. I heard more inner detail and tone color, so that I could more easily distinguish between individual players and more readily hear the special differences between the strings and brass. The music became even more emotional, purposeful, and meaningful, but also more beautifulthere was greater grace, momentum, and sway.
This was all lovely, but it wasn't until I listened to "The Game of Love," from Daft Punk's brilliant new Random Access Memories (CD, Columbia 88883716862), that I heard the best of what the Croft had to offer: remarkable senses of space, scale, force, and impact.
Shit. Holyfreakingshit, read my notes. The sound is much more "hi-fi" (in a super awesome way) than I've ever heard in this room: big, bold, forceful, smooth, detailed, and here, here, here. I underlined that last here three times.
My system sounded bigger and more alive than ever before. The sounds of brushes against hi-hat and snare drum; of plectrum raking against electric guitar strings; of breaths between words, revealing the unmistakable humanness behind the vocoder-processed vocalsall of these things came together to create a massively compelling listening experience. This was hi-fi. I leapt from my seat and ran to the bedroom, where Ms. Little was hiding with the cats, and asked her to listen with me.
"I feel like I'm hearing the supportive instruments better," she said, demonstrating by making a funny wah-wah sound. And when the robot sang, "And it was you / and it was you / the one that would be breaking my heart"tremblingly, tenderly, desperately, unlike most robotsMs. Little responded, "Oh, wow. Wow. I'd never heard that before. It's beautiful, really beautiful."
It was. And because of the Croft's great sense of space and its expert ability to drive a beat forward, the music was also funky as hell. I didn't think they could make this much funk in England. Who knew?
The Croft sounded smoother and more coherent than my smooth and coherent-sounding Exposure; more open and more naturally detailed than the Arcam or the Creek; far bigger and more involving than my modest NAD; and more forceful, physical, and dynamic than anything I've heard at home. Whether I was listening to chamber pieces such as "In Light," from Sophie Hutching's intoxicating Night Sky (CD, Preservation PRE036); massed voices in Debussy's Invocation, performed by Cantus, on Stereophile's Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH0016-2); remastered jazz classics such as Miles Davis's In a Silent Way (SACD/CD, Columbia/Legacy/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD2088); modern rock recordings like Jenny Hval's Innocence Is Kinky (CD, Rune Grammofon RCD2142); or adventurous electronic music, like Zomby's With Love (LP, 4AD CAD3305), the Croft was sweet without being cloying, resolute without being overbearing, and always invigorating. Listening to that last LP, I distinctly remember screwing up my face and bobbing my head in time to the big, bad music. My notes tell me there was better tone color, more space, more force, and, ultimately, so much more music. I underlined music three times.
Straining, somewhat desperately, to hear something wrong with the Croft, I did think there were times when strummed guitarsespecially acoustic guitarsrang out longer than they should, seeping into areas of the music they shouldn't have, like watercolors streaking across paper. Was this the distortion JA was talking about? Maybe. I noticed it mostly while listening to "Love & Light," from Sandro Perri's excellent Impossible Spaces (CD, Constellation CST085-2), but, all things considered, it was a really easy thing to forgive and forget.
Anyway. I've probably said more than enough. JA's going to cut half of this and think twice before asking me to do another Follow-Up.
Regarding whatever Art said about the Croft Phono Integrated, I agree. He wants the amplifier back when I'm done writing this. I don't blame him.Stephen Mejias