Like eczema and Bob Monkhouse, Croft simply refuses to go away. And, boy, am I glad. Y'see, there's this element in the audio community that feels no company with a turnover of less than, say, £5,000,000 deserves to have its products reviewed...forgetting all the while that every company had to start somewhere. Meanwhile, I (and other reviewers who think that every product justifies a review regardless of the size of the company) get hassled for 'promoting' these small firms. And while Croft probably isn't doing anywhere near five big ones per annum, it has or is just about to complete its first decade, thus depriving the enemies of fringe companies of any satisfaction due to its disappearance. And, as if to celebrate its maturity, Croft has launched a new line with front panels which don't look like WWII surplus spray-painted with Halford's matte black underseal.
Well, not quite. Croft purists will be pleased to know that the stylists up in Birmingham still need eyeglasses and that nobody will ever mistake the new Croft units as anything other than 'British: cottage-industry type'. The Series V Power Amplifier (which I believe is the company's only non-OTL power amp) and the entry-level Micro pre-amplifier both sport the company's 'new look': round cornered, black fascia with gold accents and identical, 15.5x12x3.5in, well-ventilated chassis which suggest a close reading of the Maplin catalogue (First Edition). But, dear readers, I have decided -- after nearly a decade -- to stop chiding the folks at Croft because I know in my heart of hearts that they will never hire an 'aesthetician' and that Croft products will forever be, at best, utilitarian in appearance. But what you lose in perceived value you gain in sonics. And this stuff is, after all, severely underpriced. Think of it in the way you used to be able to justify the existence of a Citroen 2CV -- ugly but unique.
Series V is rated at 30W/channel into loads of 4-16 ohms, though it seems much more powerful. The rear contains extra multi-way binding posts to allow the user to choose between 4-8 and 8-16 ohm taps. The input sensitivity is 0.3V RMS and input impedance is 270k ohms, and the operating mode is single-ended triode. As with all Croft components, the Series V is "hand-crafted", or should that be hand-crofted; no-one could ever accuse the company of owning a surfeit of CAD/CAM equipment. There is, as all Croft nuts know, a complete absence of circuit boards because all Croft components remain entirely hard-wired with solid core cable. The valve complement consists of eight EL84s for the power section and a pair of ECF82s in the driver section. Power freaks can, of course, have their Series V mono'ed for 60W output.
As one of Croft's other signature features has always been non-relational model numbers or names (though Roman numerals now predominate), I'm eternally grateful that the company has resisted adding a 'Mk' suffix to the Micro. It's come a long way from the days when £149 bought you a three-valve, cream'n'black, hardback-book-sized pre-amp which compensated for its noise and sheer funkiness with sound quality light years beyond its price-tag. Along with what must be Mk VI status comes the new cabinetry, the retention of separate left/right volume controls, dual-mono construction, top-quality components (0.5% Holco resistors, Roderstein capacitors, etc), silver-plated switches, a valve-regulated power supply and gold-plated sockets for pre-out and phono-in. And the Micro still features a moving-magnet phono section, the company remaining vehemently pro-analogue.
The three line/tape inputs are specified as 550mV/47k ohms, with the phono section set at 1.5mV sensitivity, 47k ohms impedance and 100pF capacitance; the unit's output impedance is 470 ohms. Inside it's pcb-free, with all wiring of the solid-core variety and the valve complement now consists of a pair of ECC83s, one ECC82 and one ECL85.
As you'd expect of components which are accompanied by an owner's manual which dumps on digital and promotes horn systems, the Croft pairing benefits from all manner of neurotic fine-tuning and tweakery. While I did try some tube swaps for luxo glassware, the change of valves made less difference than the addition of Pearl Tube Coolers. Isoplats, Flux Dumpers, myriad wire types -- all of these compounded the problem of assessing the Crofts au naturel, so I avoided everything that involved actual parts changes or additions. I reviewed 'em instead 'straight out of the crate', placed on the floor sans trick feet or platforms, weights or clamps or Harmonix stick-ons.
Sources consisted of the Marantz CD52 MKIISE and Primare 204 CD players and the Michell Gyro/SME IV/ Transfiguration cartridge and MC Kinnie ROIII step-up for analogue duties. Wires connecting the two Crofts were XLO of the purple'n'green variety, as were the speaker cables. Since the Series V never behaved like a 30-watter, I felt no need to baby it. Among the many speakers I had it drive were Linn Tukans, JM Labs Micron Carats, Rogers LS3/5As, Sonus Faber Minima Amators and Wilson Watt III/Puppy II. At no time did I, a non-headbanger feel any need for extra juice or even more headroom, so you could say that I was not unimpressed with the sheer grunt on offer from four EL84s per channel. (Hmm. I thought they were only good for about 6W apiece...)
Read more about the Croft Series V on Page 2.
Provided the Micro is kept well away from the Series V -- Croft
recommends a minimum spacing of 30cm -- and the leads are kept tidy,
hum and noise will prove to be negligible. It was only when using the
phono stage that I detected a bit of hum, but that might have been
caused by using a dual-power-supply active step-up, a load of extra
cabling and a sensitive (to say the least) cartridge. Croft is now so
good at minimising the noise element attributed to tube designs that
you could almost be forgiven for mistaking it for a transitor unit. I
ran it side-by-side with a Classé DR-4 and a Gryphon and couldn't
detect which was which by the silences.
Mixing and matching the Crofts, though, proved to be more hassle
than it was worth; the two units, quite simply, behaved best when
working together. This synergy was immutable, regardless of the
attempts at partnering the two items with gear of far loftier status.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that Croft products won't work with
others, only that they seemed optimised for each other...à la Linn
components. Dynamics, openness and mid-band 'realism' were consistent
from product to product, but the character changes. You know when
you're listening to a Croft component because of its magical mix of
tubey-ness and modern precision; other components tend to exaggerate
one or the other. It's a curious phenomenon, but it was repeatable. In
other words, don't mix the Crofts with vintage valves unless you want
more rosey-cheeked fatness and avoid hygienic solid-state equipment
unless you're prepared to sacrifice the Crofts' warmth.
Of the two, the pre-amp seemed the more 'universal and less critical
of partnering components than the Series V, but that's neither here nor
there. Suffice to say that the rest of my remarks concern the two Croft
components as a pairing, a likely enough marriage when you realise that
there's a 50 savings if the two are purchased together.
Before I write another word, you should know exactly how inexpensive
the Micro/Series V combination is relative to other all-tube pre/power
combo purchases. The pre-amp retails for 400, the power amp 649. But
the price if they're purchased together? 999. Yes: just under a grand.
Now I know that this isn't the only pre/power tube combo beneath that
point, but I'm hard-pressed to think of one so purist and so
well-conceived, plug-ugliness notwithstanding. What your one-kilopound
gets you is the basics-plus-superlative sound. The sheer simplicity and
the absence of pcbs will make it forever serviceable. I hasten to add
that my Mk I Micro still works perfectly, its first tube replacement
having only just occurred.
Anyway, back to the performance. 'Croft' could just be a synonym for
'valve' because everything the company makes seems to reek of tube
virtues: sweet behaviour at the extremes, lucidity throughout the
midband, convincing three-dimensionality and depth, non-aggressive
bass, apologetic clipping. But that could apply to any 30-year-old
Brit-amp. The difference between the Croft and its spiritual ancestors
is in transparency and detail.
Hey, give me some credit. I know the changes wrought by ageing,
versus the intrinsic qualities of a design. Quite simply, the Croft has
a clarity and an ability to resolve fine detail more in keeping with
modern solid-state designs than tubes. How much of this has to do with
parts selection, modern parts quality or circuit details I can't say,
but I can tell you that the Croft Micro/Series V combination manages to
convey the sheer pleasance of tubery, the easy more-ishness, the
politesse, without ever lapsing into sogginess or the romantic haze
which (and I number myself among them) entices so many for all the
wrong reasons. Those who, by virtue of youth or obsessiveness, insist
on crystal clarity and massive amounts of information will find that
the Croft delivers both.
So what makes it any different from let alone better than a host of
other competent, equally modern tube competitors? With this inexpensive
a pairing offering so much coherence, such a convincing portrayl of
scale, such neutrality and yet such warmth, it has to be the kind of
purchase that the penurious music lover (rather than the
shallow-pocketed hi-fi nut) would simply cherish. Countering this
bounteous portion of musicality is the sheer 'Croftness' of it all,
that which makes owning anything from Croft an adventure: finding a
retailer in your hemisphere, having your phone call connect, getting
used to separate volume controls, hoping that the reliability doesn't
match the appearance (I've yet to have any Croft products go nuclear on
True to form, Croft has a raft of phone numbers to try if the above
paean to Croft entices you at all, try (0902) 20824 or (0902) 656840.
Should that fail, the recently appointed Simon Sargeant will respond to
calls on (0527) 577319. Or write to Eminent Audio, 5, Wesley Walk,
Charford, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Forgive me if this nonsensical
approach to audio acquisition smacks of 'scoring a dime bag of grass'
circa 1968, but, hey, 'CROFT' probably stands for 'Company Reportedly
Orbiting Foreign Terrain'.
One thing's for certain: neither the equipment nor the search for it will prove boring.