Croft Vitale Preamp Reviewed

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Here we are only just into the new millennium, and ol' Glenn Croft is doing his best to keep us in touch with the century which gave us valves, hi-fi and analogue. Since I'm a firm believer that Retro Is Good, I have no problem with the company issuing a latter-day equivalent of the original Croft Micro pre-amplifier - 15 years on and still one of the finest budget buys of all time. But a lot has happened since '85, and even our off-kilter friends from Brum can't get away with something which looks like it was made in 1957 and was only discovered during a dig by the local archaeological society under the ruins of a recently-demolished row of shops.

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Dubbed the Vitale, in a deliciously blatant attempt at adding a frisson of Italian-ness, the new pre-amp shows that Croft still adheres to the belief that the only things of any importance are what's on the inside and how does it sound. This is, of course, in direct contradiction to the last 20 years' worth of consumer trends, during which even the most crass and vulgar lout learned the difference between Bic and Montblanc. British consumers have had a few (during- and post-Thatcher) years to develop a taste for style and finish, something which the key players in the current government are more that happy to exploit, given that their true colours show through their Hugo Boss suits. And yet here is Croft producing something which looks like an illustration from an ancient . Maybe we should run the pics in black-and-white.

The upside, though, is that Croft retains its belief in a home-spun, Whole Earth philosophy which goes something like this:
Looks count for diddly-squat.
Designer components are merda di toro.
Cheap or dear, it's not what bits you use, but how you use them.
PCBs suck.
Real men use hard-wiring.

To this, you could also add that profit is a no-no, commercial nous and decent margins are the Devil's work, ad nauseum. As it stands, Croft is to hi-fi what the Morris Minor is to cars, while everyone else wants to be Ferrari. But those who have played with Croft gear in the past know better than to judge this particular book by its dog-eared, foxed, water-stained, musty, peeling cover. 10 minutes' use will show you that the Vitale is so damned good and such an obscene bargain that fearful rivals might feel that it should be stifled, like the apocryphal 100mpg carburettor or the carcinogen-free cigarette. If word got out and Croft could make enough, the Vitale could kill the market for all pre-amps selling for under �1000 or even �2000.

Don't mistake Vitale for a hot-rodded Micro. For openers, it comes in a 442x355x105mm (WDH) enclosure, which contains more empty space than a PC software box - no surprise when you consider that the whole thing weighs only 2.5kg. I suspect that the reason the Vitale isn't housed in a tiny case like the Micro is down to one of Croft's rare moments when reality interfered: the chassis, and even the valve holder plate inside, are clearly suitable for dearer, more complex models. Even the back plate has exposed, pre-drilled holes for extra input and output sockets. Someone with some sense must have whispered to Croft that he would save a whole Porsche-load of money if he used a one-size-fits-all approach for the chassis. As such, this housing just begs to be filled with, say, an all-tube Croft integrated amp with a Vitale for its front end. Under �799, two EL84s per channel...but I digress.

Inside, Vitale is classic Croft, with nary a PCB in sight and everything connected through point-to-point wiring. As this is a truly minimalist design* in a large case, everything is spread out like an exploded drawing. With its lid off you can see the regulated heater supply in its own large chunk of real estate, some very serious, very large caps with loads of breathing space right behind the front panel, three valves (two ECC83s and an ECC81) mounted horizontally on a metal strip, metal film resistors, polypropylene coupling capacitors throughout and matched polystyrene capacitors in the phono stage. The joints are secure, the wiring tidy and the overall layout promises easy DIY servicing decades hence. Because there's no congestion within and the lid is well-ventilated, the Vitale runs cool.

It's worth pointing out how the Vitale differs from the Micro, whether it's regarded as a continuance or not; even if there are no links, Vitale now represents Croft's entry-level. The potentiometer has a lower value, for better synergy with the proliferation of line level sources; this is said to contribute a more extended high frequency response. The line stage now has gain and bears only one coupling capacitor per channel in the signal path; the Micro had two. Vitale's phono stage has only two coupling capacitors per channel, while all four of the Micro's electrolytics have been eliminated. All of the resistors are of much better quality, +/-1 percent 50ppm types, and the Vitale's RIAA capacitors are now matched channel-to-channel. The cabinet, too, is more robust, and the controls have better feel.

Croft supplied the deluxe version with the optional wooden front panel and brass knobs. And where there's brass, there's muck. I was told its finish wasn't up to shop-ready standard, but even a kiss from the guy who lacquers Sonus Faber Amatis couldn't save this baby. It's ugly with a capital 'ug'. The Vitale fell out of the ugly tree and hit all the branches on the way down, as the saying goes. Since I haven't seen the model with the �50-less-expensive black front panel and plastic knobs, I can't say which is more hideous. Ironically, there's a touch of elegance in that the Croft badge lights up when the power is on, its refinement reminiscent of a three-year-old child's attempt at making a birthday card for Mommy: the 'N's and 'S's and 'R's might be backward, but it's the thought that counts.

Two volume rotaries - Croft continues to adhere to dual-monoism - and a source selector reside in a cut-out in the middle of the fascia. To spare you having to adjust two volume controls every time you change sources or LPs, the three line inputs and phono input are separated by muted positions (except between tuner and tape). Thus, when changing an LP, you can leave the levels as they were and just move the selector one notch for full muting. Aside from a tasty little on/off toggle switch in the lower right-hand corner, that's it for the Vitale's front panel.

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