A 'bargain' power amp, tried with a made-to-match pre-amplifier

I first recall coming across Glenn Croft's amplifiers when I was editing this magazine some 15 years ago.

As expected, the taste by-pass continues unabated at Croft, The Series VC power amplifier and the Vitale SC pre-amp arrived in the new finish called 'Antique Gold' - beyond question the most hideous colour scheme I've ever seen applied to hi-fi equipment. Textured and looking like beaten, aged metal... the last time I saw anything similar was on a souvenir hookah in a street bazaar in Istanbul. If you're picking out a system for a brothel in Babylon, by all means order this option. of not, stick with the black or the wood. Tacky? I've seen more tasteful offering from Frederick's of Hollywood.

A thought: this is absolutely perfect for the Las Vegas CES. Croft should donate a set to Caesar's Palace, but the latter might decline on the grounds that it's too vulgar. Which is a shame, because this latest pairing from Croft is nothing short of remarkable. And you don't know how much it hurts me to say that, for the package commits no fewer than two of Kessler's Kardinal Sins. The ugliness you know about. The second is that Croft persists in using separate left/ right volume controls which are impossible to set equally without an SPL meter and test tones. (Go on: do it by eye and by feel, and then see if you can get it out of the back ouf your mind that you're out by a couple of dB!) But after a decade-and-a-half of reviewing Croftware, I'm learning that it comes with the territory.

At the heart of this review is the Series VC power amplifier, because the pre-amp is actually a hot-rodded version of the model I reviewed last year. The VC uses the exact same case as the Vitale, Croft sensibly ameliorating costs by not tooling up twice. This, for the last time, the the reply to those who complain 'But the inside of the Vitale is virtually empty!"

Clearly GC knows how to get the most out of the least; the low weight is down to a lean and mean circuit. Unlike the Amps Which Made Croft Famous (those devoid of output transformers), the Series VC is the latest incarnation of the company's entry-level, transformer-coupled, ultralinear stereo amp. (As an aside, it appears that Harvey Rosendberg of New York Audio Labs and Futterman fame owns the rights to the term OTL, for Output Transformerless, which is pretty rich considering that the term has been around for decades and he shouldn'tbe so hard-nosed about its use if he's really the warm-hearted uber-tweaker he wants us to think he is. And as far as I can tell, the Futterman brand is dormant, which makes it doubly absurd; surely the term should be generic. Suffice it to say, Croft, as well as GRAAF and others, are not now allowed to use 'OTL'. As such designs are the mainstay of Croft's catalogue, the company has been forced to creat a new ame, and has chosen ' CTC© ' which stands for ' Croft Transformerless Circuitry'.

First stage in the VC is a simple phase splitter stage, designed to require only two coupling capacitors (paper-in-oil, natch) in the entire circuit. Bias is fixed, and the valve complement is a pair of ECF82's driving eight EL84's to yield 30W/ch. As with all Croft units, it's hard wired throughout, using a mix of PTFE-coated silver wires and PTFE coated solid-core copper wires. And the enitre unit is a showcase for Croft's in-house designed double-C-core transformers.

Differing in the Vitale only in the simplicity of the front panel, the VC has a Croft badge back-illuminated in red - more whorehouse chic - and a tiny on / off toggle switch in the lower right hand corner. The back contains gold phono sockets, multi-way binding posts and an IEC mains input. That's it.

The unit weighs a solid but not overly awe-inspiring 8Kg. It runs cool, but then the top is absolutely filled with ventilation slots. Although the unit is only rated at 30W/ ch, that didn't stop me from trying it with Wilson WATT Puppy System 6 and the hungry Avalon Avatars. It rose to both occasions. But than I remembered: GC is a man after my own heart. Aside from his appreciation of horns - we're all allowed one perversion - Croft is a long time supporter of both the original Quad ESL and the BBC LS3/5A. And both took to the Series VC like ducks to the proverbial, especially the latter.

Sorry to keep going on about the now-obsolete Beeb mini-monitor, but an upcoming survey has overtaken my life: my listening room looks like the old Rogers warehouse. As I had plenty of different pairs to hand, it was a simple case of disconnection the Krell FPB300 and slotting in the Crofts. And, wow! Does the VC love that baby! I even had a Croft rival visiting during the sessions (an LS3/5A user), and he was staggered by the result.

What the VC does is extract a shade more solid, palpable bass from the wee system, at the same time lessening the distraction caused by that hump around 125Hz. Now I'm not, in my wildest musings, suggesting that Croft designed this amplifier to drive LS3/5A's. In fact, I suspect he used some vile horn system, as is the norm for tube makes in this most odd of audio eras. (OK, I have a soft spot for smaller Lowthers and the occaisional Klipsch...) Rather, what we have is a blissfully accidental synergy which again, by serendipity - found a VC in the hands of someone who hooked it up to LS3/5A's.

What this doesn't point out is how oddly the speakers responded to the Croft's unexpectedly prodigious output; like the Quad II-40, the Croft doesn't act its (watt)age. Thus, I actually found it too much for the old Quad electrostatics, my fear for their health making me somewhat neurotic about using them. On the other hand, the (15 ohm) LS3/5A makes every amp sound weaker than it is, while the Wilsons seem to run happily off whatever you feed them.

After listening to the Crofts, fed by the Krell KPS25s's both directly and through the Vitale SC, I settled on with the following assessment: the Series VC goes out of its way to belie its size, power rating and price. It acted more like two or three well-regarded US amps of the 60W/ch variety, bearing prices tags some three times higher. Along with the exceptional lower registers are a sense of scale which was consistent from speaker to speaker - note that while all of the ones I are known for being open and sounding 'big', they all behave differently and present thier soundstages with recognisable differences. The Wilsons and the Quads, for example, beat the LS3/5A's for stage depth while the Avalons bettered the others for image height. Whatever the speaker, though, the Croft is a master at portraying huge vistas. Just like the Vitale, as it happens.

At the same time , the VC seems partial to smaller, more intimate works than, say, the Kodo Drummers or the remastered soundtrack to Jaws. Using it to audition a rash of new, semi-unplugged blues CD's from Eric Bibb and Keb Mo', it emerged that the midband of the VC is also a near clone of the midband of the Vitale, leaning toward the rich while maintaining clarity and transparency. Although this isn't what the review set out to discover, it's quite clear that Glenn Croft is able to retain a family resemblance from component to component: high praise for both his skills as a designer, and for the consistency of his hearing. Both units possess a lucidity and 'analogueness' which doesn't appear at the cost of detail retrieval or precision. But neither will appeal to those who think that 'hygenic' is a virtue when applied to sound reproduction.

CROFT SC PRE-AMPLIFIER

Unlike the Vitale pre-amp I reviewed last February, the SC (Supercharged? Super Croft?) is your fully-loaded edition bursting with audiophile tweaks. This is the antithesis of Croftspeak, because Glenn Croft has always stood out from the crowd by making sublime hardware using the most mundane of components. The base Vitale, like the Croft Micro of yore, sounds good despite its humble contents. And that's why it sells for £375 - £425 depending on finish. The SC clocks in at a heady £750, but the power supply has been improved; certain coupling capacitors have been replaced with expensive paper-in-oil types, including the use of Oscon high frequency resolution caps; internal wiring is a combination of copper and 99.99% pure silver; and the SC uses selected ALPS potentiometers.

I didn't have a standard Vitale on hand, so here I'm relying on memory and my notes from the earlier sessions. Three areas strike me as vastly improved: the phono stage seems quiter; there's greater headroom (or dynamic contrasts); and the deep bass - both the control and the extension - has more impact.

CONCLUSION

These amplifiers deliver sound which has no truck with modern times, the £2K system reminiscent of systems, which, in the mid -1980's would have cost £5000 - in old money. Think mid - sized, classic Conrad-Johnson, Audio Research or Dynaco, or mid-period Radford, but with a shade more weight down below. And with a phono section that loves a certain freakish British cartridge with a tin can for a body.

Also continuing with Croft is an obsession with value for money. If you can get past the nauseating, nay, gruesome looks, and you're a slightly masochistic purist, this is the perfect alternative to the cliche of an over-hyped single-ended trode design.

TECHNOLOGY

Far from transformerless, the VC uses Croft's double-C-core output transformer, with two ECF8 tubes driving eight EL84's. It's hardwired throughout it PTFE coated non-stranded copper or silver, with only two paper-in-oil coujpling capacitors used in entire circuit. Top-ventilated casework measures 445 x 108 x 355mm (whd) with optional finishes. 8Kg weight. There are gold plated phono sockets, multi-way binding posts and an IEC socket at rear, on the front an on-off toggle switch and indicator light.

KEY FEATURES

  • Bass and power output belie 30W spec
  • Black and wood finish options - or controversial textured ' antique gold'
  • Ideal complement to LS3/5A speaker

Ken Kessler

 


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