Write down these numbers and put the paper in a safe place: (0902) 865326 and (0902) 331324. Those are the numbers I have for Eminent Audio, Croft's distributors, and they're the most important numbers associated with Croft ownership. Thinking back on the myriad Croft valve products I've used and abused, only one malfunction has occurred and that was nothing more than the intermittent failure of the on/off LED on the original Basic. So the toughest challenge of Croft ownership is becoming a Croft owner in the first place, hence the need to keep those digits handy. And you may want to use them once you read about Croft's latest bargains.
Concentrating on the #199 Micro II meant ignoring the dearer stuff, in itself something of an irony because Croft's more expensive products are hardly what you could call outrageously
priced. Picking models at random -- the Croft line is quite extensive -- I chose to sample a middle-of-the-range power amplifier and the top-end pre-amp, the latter to find out what Glenn could produce if cost restraints weren't part of the equation. But, as with every Croft model, we're looking at items which are 'out of the ordinary', not just another #1000 amp or #1500 pre-amp.
THE SERIES 3 STEREO POWER AMPLIFIER
The Series 3 power amplifier is a case in point. A scaled-down version of the company's Series 2, it's an output-transformerless design. That it sells for #1000 is remarkable enough; that it drives some pretty hungry speakers with impedances down to 5 ohms is astonishing. While direct coupling of the valves to the loudspeakers means no transformer and the miles of cable which can impair signal quality, the production of such beasts is complex, costly and fraught with peril. As a result, past designs have been huge, temperamental, delicate and scared spitless of looking at speakers with impedances below 15 ohms. The Croft Series 3 is endowed with real-world composure through the use of paralleled low impedance/high current triodes in a push-pull format; in the case of the Series 3, it's four pairs of rugged and dependable PL519s.
As with all Croft products, the device is free of circuit boards, all components being hard-wired with solid-core cabling. Designer fetishists will note that Holco, Vishay or Wirewound resistors
are used throughout. Although spartan, the Series 3 is solid and well-constructed, but its sheer homeliness will have many of you hiding it out of the line of vision of aesthetes. It is, simply, a box measuring 305x455x230mm (WDH), a chassis with a protective cage perched on top. The weight, most of which is at the mains transformer end, is a dainty 12kg. The front bears an on/off toggle and access to four fuses, while the rear offers gold-plated inputs, five-way speaker binding posts and the bias adjustment points. No messing around here: you either learn to use an a-v-o meter or buy your Croft from an intelligent retailer. Painted in Model T Ford Black, the Series 3 looks like what it is, a no-frills power amplifier. Just make certain that,
should you find its styling somewhat horrific, you find a hiding place which offers plenty of ventilation.
Don't be fooled by the 50W/channel rating. This amplifier embarrassed a host of dearer, more highly spec'd �solid-state� units and drove loudspeakers with impedances down to 5.6 ohms.
The other good news is that you can mono these for double the output should you move onto a different loudspeaker without wishing to part from a Series 3.
THE MEGA-MICRO PRE-AMPLIFIER
Thankfully, my only objections to Croft corporate policy are aesthetic or semantic. I mean, 'Mega-Micro'? 'Micro II Special'? 'Super Micro'? 'Super Micro A'? I do wish GC would settle into some naming groove so people knew what was what in his ever-expanding range. Y'see, these names don't appear on the front of the Croft pre-amps, because it's all part of the cost-savings techniques which make Croft the best value kit in the land: one fascia fits all. The Mega-Micro -- the #1500, top-of-the-line, two-box pre-amp -- is housed in exactly the same box as the bottom-of-the-line model, with only one visual difference: the Micro II's on/off toggle has been replaced by a small red tell-tale which glows briefly when you switch on from the outboard power supply. Croft passes the savings in tooling on to the consumer, hence the embarrassingly low prices. The power supply is also housed in the same box, but it sports a different face plate to account for having only two holes drilled into it, for the on/off toggle and telltale LED.
Both boxes measure 390x230x80mm (WDH) and are finished in black with gold legends. The lids are made of mesh (a stylistic link with the amp?) and the overall look is industrial but smart and purposeful. Gone are the days when Croft products looked like end-of-line buy-outs from a 1962 Radio Shack catalogue. Like the #199 Micro II, the Mega has two volume controls in keeping with its dual-mono status, a mute toggle (the only 'common' control), separate left/right source selectors and separate left/right phono/line selectors. At the back, it's the same layout as the Micro II but all of the phono sockets are top quality, gold-plated affairs. Also fitted to the Mega is a multi-pin socket to take the feed from the power supply.
One way of looking at the Mega is as an overkill version of the basic Croft recipe. In addition to external niceties like gold socketry and marginally nicer knobs, the Mega employs four completely separate high tension power supplies, enabling each stage in the Mega to have its own power source. The Mega also features two completely separate heater supplies, one for each channel. The output stage operates in push-pull mode for a lower output impedance, greater overload capability, lower distortion and overall sonic superiority. And, again in keeping with the Croft formula, the units are entirely hard-wired and pcb-free.
THE SOUND OF #2.5K
Spoiled as I am by a steady stream of insanely priced products, I have to admit that my biggest (hi-fi) thrill is finding something which does the job for a smaller outlay. That's why I went ga-ga over the Apogee Stages, Audio-Technica's AT-F3 and kin, the Celestion 3 and other cost-effective triumphs. With Croft products, I'm so used to being dazzled that I live in fear of becoming blase about each new achievement. And because I prepared for this review by doing time with that positively brilliant Micro II, I feared that maybe, just maybe I was going to be disappointed. It's never in a reviewer's interests to expect too much even before the mains plug has been fitted.
Prior to playing with the Crofts in tandem, I used the Series 3 on its own, then the Mega Micro, before uniting them as a natural pairing. Each in turn was inserted into my main system, but the Apogees were set aside when using the Series 3 in favour of less threatening speakers. And one of the first challenges to which the Series 3 rose were the ATC SCM20s, hungry little devils which make dearer amps quake. They'd been chewing up and spitting out all manner of amplifiers, mainly because of their low sensitivity rather than low impedance (they don't drop below 5.6 ohms). Other amps were clipping on seeming innocuous peaks, there was audible
compression, strain, you name it, and this was at normal levels.
While the Series 3 wouldn't blow down doors or cause the earth to move, it revealed no signs of distress at all with the kind of demands I deem to be suitable for normal listeners. Here, my
friends, is a sensibly-priced OTL amplifier which will drive something other than LS3/5As or Quad ESLs.
There's one indisputable reason why audiophiles put up with such ornery, restrictive designs as OTLs, and that's the unrivalled transparency afforded by eliminating the transformer. It's a gain not unlike moving from a box-type enclosure to a good panel, or from thin-strand cables to real ones, an opening-up of the sound which inspires such analogies as 'cleaning the window' or 'lifting another veil'. Frankly, I don't give a hoot which analogy you apply: OTL amplifiers, at least all of those which I've tried, simply possess a level of openness and clarity only rarely achieved by other topologies, and then in costly amplifiers striving for the state of the art. Finding such transparency at the #1000 price point is like finding prime filet in your Big Mac.
The bass, I hasten to add, is one of the sacrifices you make for
this transparency. Not quite coincidentally, you'll also notice that
the two speakers which adore OTLs -- the LS3/5A and the
original Quad ESL -- aren't exactly troglodytes, if you catch my drift. But when you find that rare OTL which does have the ability to drive speakers which dip (convincingly) below 80 or 90Hz, you're greeted with a blast from the past: vintage tube lower registers. I'm not in the mood to taste my Timberlands, so I'm not going to bleat about the rather appealing nature of
slightly underdamped bass, especially when it's only people over the age of 40 who can praise it because of nostalgia. I just want you to look elsewhere if you think that the bottom octaves on a rap CD are the yardstick for a musical foundation. But given that you can put up with slight sogginess, you'll probably find that the bass delivered by this particular OTL is marginally better (ie tighter) than the bass recreated by a number of transformer-coupled designs of similar specification.
Whatever you hear down below, the midband will seduce you with the
charm of such other middle-octave sirens as the wooden-bodied Koetsus,
the aforementioned Quads, ditto the LS3/5A, the Stax Lambdas and other
musical marvels. This is an amplifier for the lover of vocals,
especially delicate or overly textured vocals. True, there's a world of
difference between the sounds which issue forth from Linda Ronstadt and
Leon Redbone, whose only
common ground are their initials. But it takes detail and delicacy to capture all of the nuances of a voice like Redbone's (or deVille's, or Cocker's, or Nat 'King' Cole's), while a voice from some distaff angel needs clarity and freedom from sibilance.
The Series 3 also has a way with unamplified instruments, and those
Vanguard reissues made by hoary old folkies come alive with a vibrancy
I hadn't experienced since my first hit of expresso in the Gate Cafe.
The delicious harmonics of an acoustic guitar, the mellowness of
clarinet courtesy of Blue Note -- we're talking 'in the room'. But this
amplifier is as schizophrenic as need be, and I fed it the antithesis
of the above, massive doses of Thunder
and the Black Crowes and Gary Moore, without causing its undoing.
But there's a lesson to be learned, one which likens the Series 3 to
other OTLs. Despite its way with speakers of low-ish impedances, the
Series 3 needs to be coddled if it's to reproduce
the scale and dynamics of Works Which Go Loud. The hard rock taxed the Series 3 when it was hooked up to the ATCs; not so when the Croft was connected to the Monitor Audio Studio 10s, the Celestion 3s or even the Sonus Fabers.
One other area of the Series 3's brief deserves mention and that's the sound stage it recreates. I've heard wider, deeper and taller, but few amps at or near its price point can match it for overall coherence and consistency. By that I mean a convincing soundstage, with no 'blank spaces' or grave anomalies to ruin the illusion. In many respects, it reminded me of the spatial properties of the Solen Tiger: small, but perfectly formed.
The Mega Micro is in many ways too good for the Series 3, suggesting that the latter will work adequately with one of Croft's lesser pre-amps, or that the Mega deserves one of Croft's dearer power amps. The Mega'ss dynamic capabilities were better revealed through monster amplfiers like the 200W/channel Aragons or the Carver Silver Sevens, feeding full-range panels like the Divas. It's just that a number of the Mega's virtues are compromised slightly by the Series 3.
Don't get me wrong: driving the Series 3 amplifier with the Micro II and then swapping for the Mega wasn't unrewarding. You'd still hear the differences between those pre-amps with no greater difficulty than if you tried both through the Silver Sevens. But the Mega is quieter as well as more dynamic than the Series 3, and you become aware of this if, like me, you happen to try the Mega Micro through an amplifier capable of greater dynamic contrasts. It may be wholly psychological, but I was actually more at ease when using the Micro II rather than the Mega to drive the Series 3.
The Mega, you see, is of a whole calibre above the Series 3, however
wonderful that amplifier may be given its few and entirely workable
limitations. While the Croft Mega Micro proved not to be a complete
substitute for my reference, the much costlier Audio Research SP-14, it
performed more than adequate as a drop-in replacement. Aside from lower
gain in the phono
section, purely a practical consideration, the Mega matched the SP-14 in transparency, dynamic contrasts amd coherence. Where the SP-14 showed its superiority was in the resolution of fine detail, transient recovery and the portrayal of ambience.
But that's treating the Croft Mega Micro as if it were some mortgage
buster from across the sea. It isn't. It's a native product worthy of
partnering any components you care to name. The
Series 3, while not the ideal match for the Mega, is to its price class what the Micro II is to affordable pre-amps. Or, to repeat myself with the tedium of a skipping LP, Glenn has done it again.
Croft has products which can take on the world, sonically if not
aesthetically. They've proven to be reliable beyond my wildest dreams,
they're built with care and they're embarrassingly
underpriced given the status quo. But the world has to know about such items and be able to buy them if they're to reach those who would appreciate them. If only Eminent Audio would get a separate phone line for the FAX machine...