Crofts Manship

Like eczema and Bob Monkhouse, Croft simply refuses to go away. And, boy, am I glad. You 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 World War II surplus, spray-painted with Halford's matt black underseal.

Well, not quite. Croft purists will be pleased to know that the stylists up in Birmingham still need eye glasses 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 preamplifier both sport the company's 'new look': round cornered, black fascia with gold accents and identical, 15. 5 x 12 x 3. inch, 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. What you lose in perceived value you gain in sonics. And this stuff is, after all, severely under-priced. Think of it in the way you used to be able to justify the existence of a Citroen 2CV - ugly but nonetheless unique.

Series V is rated at 30W/channel into loads of 4-16 ohms, though it seems much more powerful. The rear panel carries extra multi-way binding posts to allow the user to choose between 4-8 and 8-16 ohm taps. The input sensitivity is O.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, opt to 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 certainly 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, Roederstein capacitors, etc), silver-plated switches, a valve-regulated power supply and gold-plated sockets for pre-out and phono.~inputs. All this and the Micro II still features a moving-magnet phono section, the company remains unashamedly and vehemently pro-analogue. The three line/tape inputs are specified as 55OmV/47k-ohms, with the phono section set at I .5mV sensitivity, 47k-ohms impedance and lOOpF capacitance; the unit's out put impedance is 470 ohms. 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 that 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 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.

ANCILLARIES

Sources consisted of the Marantz CD-52 MkIISE and Primare 204 CD players, and the Michell GyroDec/SME IV! Transfiguration cartridge with MC Kinnie RO III moving-coil 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 Min ima Amators and Wilson WATT 3/Puppy 2.

At no time did I, a non-head-banger, 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….)

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 transistor 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. . . a 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 modem 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 rosy-cheeked fatness and avoid hygienic solid-state equipment unless you're prepared to sacrifice the Croft's warmth.

Ofthe two, the pre-amp seemed the more'universal' and less critical of partnering components than the Series V, but that's netihe here nor there. Suffice to say tht the rest of my remarks concern the two Croft components as apairing, a likely enough marriage when you realise that there's a £50 savings if the two are purchased together.

B efore 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 pur chased 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 absence of circuit boards will make it forever serviceable. I hasten to add that my Mk I Micro still works perfectly, and has only just had its first tube replacement.

PERFORMANCE

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-agressive 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 transperancy and detail. Hey, give me some credit. I know the difference between changes in performance wrought by component ageing, and 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 pleasure of tubery, the easy moreishness, the politesse, without ever lapsing into sogginess or the romantic haze which entices so many ( and I number myself among them) 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 competant, equally modern tube competitors? Offering so much coherence, such a convincing portrayal of scale, such neutrality and yet such warmth, this inexpensive pairing 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 'Croftiness' of it all, that which makes owning anything from Croft an adventure: finding a retailer in your hemisphere, getting used to separate volume controls, hoping that the reliability doesn't match the appearance (in fact, I've yet to have any Croft products go nuclear on me).

And yet the equipment is so good that even I, a man of negative patience, will put up with the Norman Wisdom-ness of the whole operation. One thing's for certain: neither the equipment nor the search for it will prove boring.

 


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