What's behind the Italian-sounding name and new wood fascia? Is Glenn's new Vitale pre-amp still the genuine Croft article?

Plus ca change: here we are only just into the new millennium, and 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.

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 than 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 Hi-Fi Yearbook. 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- merda di tore. Cheap or dear, it's not what bits you use, but how you use them. PCBs suck. Real men use hardwiring. To this, you could also add that profit is a no-no, commercial nous and decent margins are the Devil's work, ad museum. 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, waterstained, musty, peeling cover. Ten 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 hotrodded Micro. For openers, it comes in a 442x105x355mm (whd) 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% 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.

Around the back, the Vitale has phono sockets for CD, Tuner, Tape In and Out, Phono and Main Output. An IEC three-pin socket accepts the AC cable. And, just in case you were thinking that someone had inserted the word `luxury' into the Croft dictionary, there's a tacky flying lead terminated in an alligator clip for earthing your tonearm. Only a British manufacturer...

Matching the Vitale to other components seems straightforward, aside from its high output. Its phono stage is specified as having an input sensitivity of 1mV for 0.5 RMS, with the usual input impedance of 47k ohms. The line inputs' sensitivity is 125mV for 0.5Vrms, with 100k ohm impedance; output impedance is 4k ohms. But the pisser is the maximum output - 40V RMS - and the perceived gain of the phono stage. I barely had to turn the volume control to drive the Musical Fidelity NuVusta 300 to ear-splitting levels. And the phono stage - wow! The Lyra Lydian, a low-output m-c in serious need of amplification, acted like a Shure moving-magnet. Whatever power amps you might consider mating to a Vitale, please try them together before handing over your loot. I never looked at more than a quarter turn on the volume controls, and that was with LP. When playing CDs, I turned the controls no more than 30.

In a period during which the Vitale was mated with a varied mix including old Quad amps and ESLs, the aforementioned Nu-Vista, Dynaudio Contour 1.3SE and Wilson WATT Puppy 6 speakers and Krell, Marantz and Musical Fidelity CD players, it dawned on me that I was using a silk purse decorated to look like a sow. Dig up any cliche you like: the Croft Vitale is high-end guerrilla warfare, luxury camouflaged as proletariat banality. All too apparent is that this pre-amp makes wonderful music in a robust, no-nonsense manner, such that it paints Glenn Croft as a self-abnegating Mother Theresa of a designer.

While sounding classically vintage in its warmth and near-total preclusion of edginess and grain, the Croft nods to modernity in sounding big, palpable and commanding certainly qualities which could never be levelled at a Quad II or Leak Varislope pre-amp. It paints a huge vista, with a wide and deep soundstage, complemented with slightly better-than-average image height. What snaps you back to the real world as you explore its massive arena are enough low level tube noise and fuzziness to make you utter subconsciously a mantra of `No transistors-no transistors-no transistors'. Quiet? Not quite. Quieter than even a mint Quad II? Yes. Quieter than a Nu-Vista. Er, no.

But the intrusion is no worse than vinyl swoosh, and it will disturb only those who have never experienced other than the silences of wholly digital playback. If anything, it's comforting to an old fart such as I because, once you listen through the mild haze, you hear a rich midband which positively cossets the human voice (this amp could be a memorial to Dusty Springfield), a sweet top end which even had me listening to violin (OK, so it was Grappelli), convincing dynamics, adequate kick and the kind of bass which impresses rather than oppresses. And, in absolute denial of all that I've just said, the Croft betrays its funky tubeness by being fast and precise in all matters transient.

It's as if Croft sat down and made a list of all the tube and transistor virtues, decided which were complementary and necessary for ear-friendly, wholly musical playback and found a way to achieve it through the simplest, low-partscount method possible. The result at 350 with black fascia or 400 if you need the wood, is the biggest bargain ever in non-kit valve preamplification. (A kit version would seem obvious, but the Vitale is so underpriced in builtup form that I can't see how a kit would offer any savings.)

It is an astonishingly musical, wholly satisfying device which begs only a partnering amplifier of similar cost. And I'll tell you this: if Glenn Croft or whoever it is that styles his stuff, were to allow someone with taste to create a new look, and if the company behaved like it really was in business, it'd grow faster than Tony Blair's ego.

But then it wouldn't be Croft.

Ken Kessler


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