Croft Chameleon Integrated Amp Reviewed

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Croft-Preamp-Reviewed.gifHappy though Croft might be to part you from nine grand for its top model, the company shines best when the budget is tight. Remember: this is a brand which - OTL designs aside - made its mark with a pre-amplifier so cost-effective and so basic that few believed what they were hearing. The original Micro was a steal at - what? �150? And so, too, is the Chameleon integrated amplifier. I'm still not sure how they do it....

In a nutshell, the Chameleon is the company's �750 Vista power amp with the addition of four switchable line-level inputs. That's it. It's utterly minimalist, sporting what has been Croft's traditional front panel layout for some years: a rotary switch with muted positions between the source detents, flanked by left and right volume controls. (I long ago stopped arguing about the sheer, nay SADISTIC and BASTARDLY inconvenience on non-ganged, separate left-and-right volume controls. In their warped quest - under the guise of purism - for zero cross-talk or whatever else they feel separate volume controls provides, they continue this barbaric practice. And yet I don't see two mono chassis, two power supplies, two AC cables, two source selectors, etc. But they'll never give it up, so why bellyache?)

As with the Vista, it's all about minimalism and the removal of anything unnecessary. Sounds like Colin Champan and his quest for lightness when designing Lotus road and race cars. As the company puts it, 'It does not take a genius to know that unnecessary components in an amplifier circuit inhibit its performance. By eliminating these, the amplifier is free to express a kaleidoscope of sound.' They also announce, quite rightly, that another by-product of this is lower cost, so that impoverished music lovers can enjoy high-end sound for minimal outlay. If other makers and importers of affordable valve equipment question my continued support for Croft gear, when theirs may have more power or features or better looks, all I have to do is say, 'Listen to the Croft. And then send that self-immolating piece of crap of yours back to whatever third-world country you exploited in its manufacture.'

Take the lid off, and you'll marvel at the lack of PCBs and the presence of true point-to-point hard-wiring...something familiar only to those who either remember or still use gear from the classic era, or who build minimalist kits. Inside the 442x355x105mm (WDH) chassis are four ECL805 valves, 17 resistors, four coupling capacitors and proprietary, Croft-designed output transformers: truly simplified circuitry, with fixed bias operation.

Neither the Chameleon's innards nor its normal-phono-socket-and-binding-posts back panel is the place to hunt for trendy 'designer' names; Croft's magical skill has always been the ability to coax incomprehensibly fine performance from mundane parts. And you'd replace the components with costlier stuff - however easy and tempting that may be - at your peril. In this respect, Glenn Croft is like one of those tinkerers who'd turn up at motor races at Brooklands in the pre-WWII years with a 'special' made in his back garden, who'd then beat the pants off of factory-backed teams.

Supplied specs are as minimalist as the gear itself: input sensitivity of 0.5 mV, input impedance of 470k ohms and - most misleading of all - power output of 15W/ch. Fed with signals from the Sony XA333ES SACD player or the Marantz CD12/DA12 CD player, the Chameleon was connected to the obvious choice for such seemingly limited power: a pair of small Loth-X Ion Amaze two-ways known for their lack of hunger. As expected, all was well. But just out of curiosity, since they were there for the using, I set it up with B&W's much needier DM602 S3. And blow me down: the Croft was powerful enough to stretch my listening level tolerances with the controls at the half-way mark. So, clearly, 15 Croft watts aren't the same as, say, 15 SET watts. (Can you even get 15W out of an SET???)

Aide from an easily-curable hum from the cabinet - a VPI brick took care of that - no tweaking was required. Wires were Nirvana for the interconnects and Kimber Select for the speakers, and the unit sat directly on a GM Accessori table with no extras. (A brief session with the Relaxa 1 magnetic suspension table yielded a slight but audible improvement in focus.) Warm-up to optimum levels of performance was a mere 15 minutes. In effect, the Chameleon was as painless a component to set up and use as any integrated amp from a multinational giant.

Even so, you really do need to adopt a 1980s mind-set to 'bond' with the Croft: forget custom install and remote this'n'that and classy styling and everything else which has come along to lift purist audio out of the hair-shirt mire of the Flat Earth era. The Croft is unapologetically aimed at the sort of listener for whom multi-channel never existed and never will. Despite the ease of set-up, which is due as much to minimalism as it is to good design, the Chameleon has a way of letting you think that you're some hardy audiophile accustomed to sinking massive copper plates in the garden for earthing, or for moving your turntable stand onto a two-meter-thick concrete base. You can lie to yourself and think that you're a noble masochist, just be repeating; two volume controls, two volume controls, two volume controls...

Then you switch it on and wonder how something can be so-o-o musical yet so inexpensive.

Two things mark the Chameleon, two characteristics which make it so satisfying and - coincidentally and gratifyingly - are so in line with my personal preferences. The two areas which matter the most to me, above ludicrously pronounced bass or hyper-transparency, are a natural midband and a seamless (and therefore wide-open) soundstage. This pair of qualities seem to me to do more to make a system's performance 'convincing' than the rather 'hi-fi-ish' attributes of bass extension or transient attack.

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