Creek 5350SE integrated amplifier

Creek Audio founder/designer/co-owner Michael Creek is a quiet, friendly, unassuming man. Unlike some ego-driven electronics designers who tout their products very loudly from their pulpits, Michael Creek has been quietly designing high-quality, musical, and affordable integrated amps in black-metal boxes for nearly 20 years. His target market is the passionate music-lover who wants something a notch above an entry-level NAD or Rotel receiver, but whose bank manager would frown on splurging on electronic separates.

Creek designs have improved over the years, but in a quiet, friendly, unassuming, evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) way. Under discussion today is the new flagship of the Creek integrated line, the 5350SE (Special Edition) amplifier—the fourth Creek integrated amplifier I've reviewed in the last 12 years. All of them have shared a common sound: a coherent presentation with musically natural transients and dynamics and a rich, realistic midrange. As the designs evolved over the years, the amplifiers' resolution capabilities improved, the later models sounding more natural, with fewer of the rough edges of earlier Creek designs.

The 4240SE amplifier, which I reviewed in Vol.18 No.12, impressed me mightily at the time. In addition to excelling at the resolution of inner details and explosive high-level dynamics and bass impact, it was the first Creek amp I'd heard that got the high frequencies right. (I felt that the standard version of the 4240 exhibited a soft, rounded quality in the highs, and that its predecessor, the 4140s2, had an etched metallic quality in the top two octaves.) The 4240SE has served as my affordable reference amplifier for the last five years.

In 1997, Creek Audio caused a bit of a stir with a new entry-level integrated amp, the 4330, which impressed Sam Tellig and Wes Phillips (Vol.20 No.11 and Vol.21 No.8, respectively). Mike Creek has always believed that passive preamps sound better than those with gain, and in the 4330 was able to achieve a passive preamp stage by reducing the negative feedback in the basic integrated-amp circuit topology and improving the circuit's linearity, as well as performing other modifications to the input stage. Unfortunately, he was unable to execute a passive preamp stage in the successor to the 4240SE, the 5250SE, as the higher-powered amplifier (which featured four output devices instead of Creek's usual two) required an active preamp stage to achieve the desired level of gain and linearity.

The Ballad of Mike Creek
With Creek's latest flagship, the 5350SE, Mike Creek has finally achieved his design goal: a higher-powered, high-current integrated amplifier featuring a passive preamp stage, but that does not compromise linearity and gain. Creek achieved this in the 5350SE by redesigning the input and driver circuitry of the 5250SE to increase speed and make it more linear. This, combined with reduced feedback, enabled him to eliminate the active gain stage and keep the same input sensitivity.

The 5350SE uses a high-current, N-channel-only MOSFET power output stage driven by a P-channel MOSFET phase splitter and double differential voltage amplifier with symmetrical class-A driver, in order to minimize distortion and maximize speed with minimal negative feedback. The 5350SE features a 250VA toroidal transformer and multiple power-supply capacitors totaling 31,000µF. Mike Creek claims that the amp's unusually high peak current-drive capability, coupled with its low output impedance, makes it suitable for use with the most demanding speakers.

The 5350SE sports an Alps 27mm Blue Velvet volume pot and fairly elaborate switching—any of the amp's six inputs can be set to record while you listen to another—and all are accessible from a slick and user-friendly remote control. Four optional plug-in phono boards are available: the standard and Special Edition moving-magnets at $60 and $95, respectively, and the standard and SE moving-coils at $95 and $120, respectively. Although most of my reviewing was conducted using CDs, I checked out the SE MM stage via my Rega/Syrinx/Clearaudio analog source.

The 85Wpc 5350SE includes a headphone amp but not a balance control, and retails for $1500. That price might seem a bit high when compared with earlier Creek integrateds, but as Mike Creek felt the 5350SE's performance sufficiently exceeded those of his previous efforts, he also thought a price increase and a change in cosmetics were warranted. Unlike the sedate, minimalist Creek integrateds of the past, the 5350SE sports a slightly larger aluminum case with an exceedingly attractive, 10mm-thick, brushed-aluminum front panel. The 5350SE looks as if it would feel more at home with the multikilobuck stuff in J-10's upper-bracket loft than in Banker Bob's Budget Basement.

Also available is a non-Special Edition 5350, which I haven't heard. For $250 less, you get a 75Wpc amp featuring the same design circuitry as the SE, but with a less expensive volume control and lower-rated transformers, output devices, and power-supply capacitors.

US distributor: Music Hall
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
(516) 487-3663