Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated integrated amplifier Stephen Mejias comments

Stephen Mejias also wrote about the Croft Phono Integrated in October 2013

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 distortion—1.2% 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 feature—no 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 system—Rega 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 cable—I 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 beautiful—there 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. Holy—freaking—shit, 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 vocals—all 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 robots—Ms. 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 guitars—especially acoustic guitars—rang 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

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
What a contrast...

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
Wait, maybe...

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
Dealers?

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
Bluebird Music

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
BTW, JA,

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
RIAA accuracy

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

jgossman's picture
Adverts

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
Croft integrated

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
Dudley = my own views

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
Less bling more performance...

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
Sound vs. measurement

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
Listening Vs Deaf Ears

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
Measurements vs. Listening

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.) 

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