Croft Cameleon integrated amplifier

Croft Cameleon, by Sanjay Nambiar I- Audio Volume 2 Number 9

How many among us has heard of the Leaks, Quads, Rogers, Pyes and Phillips? Some of these brands are still around but thirty years ago, they were they epitome of hifi in Europe. All of them had (the Brits called them thermionic valves or just valves) amplifiers in their line up with the Leak TL12's and Stereo 20s, Rogers Cadets, The Quad IIs, Pye Mozarts and Phillips 2by2s (the latter two being single-ended amplifiers). Leak, Rogers and Pye unfortunately, are no more. Quad has gone on to produce amplifiers beyond the reach of us mere mortals with the Two Forty, while Phillips has dropped making tube amplifiers altogether.

It was during the mid-nineties , when there was a resurgence of tube amplifiers, a lot of companies realised that they could meet the demand. The Far East was sourced for manufacturers. However, there are companies that pride themselves in build quality and would not compromise on maximising profits. Croft is one of them. All their electronics are proudly made in the UK, and are hand made. That means no printed circuit board and ICs.

IN ITS OWN INTRO BOX

We have read numerous reviews on Croft amplifiers in British Magazines like the Vitale and the Micro preamplifiers. I dare admit that I was intrigued by the positive comments that all of them espoused. The availability of Croft here in Singapore has allowed me to assuage that curiosity somewhat. The Cameleon is a power amplifier with a passive preamplifier built in. It shares the same steel chassis as the Vitale preamplifier (and I would bet the rest of the range as well). On the front are three gold-plated knobs with a selector flanked by two volume controllers. The latter two control the left and the right channels respectively, thus dispensing with a balance control. This may bit of a bother for perfectionists, as they would have a fun time getting the balance exact although there are markings on the fascia. To the right is a simple power on toggle switch.

Below the knobs is the Croft logo that is backlit with a red LED when the power switch is thrown. Both the top and bottom panels are heavily perforated to aid ventilation and also reduce the weight of the Cameleon significantly. At the back are 3 line inputs (the phono is only an additional line input even though the sockets are gold plated and located separately from the other) and a tape loop. What is unusual is the arrangement of the speaker binding posts for they are not in tandem but placed one above the left. This has to be mentioned because most of us may take things for granted and inadvertently short the amplifier. Another peculiarity is that the Cameleon has two fuses for protection, one for the mains and one for the high DC voltage. An IEC 3 pin mains receptacle allows for tweaking.

On the inside, there are only four tubes, the ECL85 (or 6GV8). There are two sectioned tubes with a triode and a power pentode built into one envelope. The circuit is a pure minimalist design with only two tubes per channel. Negative or fixed bias is used to allow the Cameleon to produce a claimed 15-Watt output from an ultra linear push-pull configuration. You have to salute the croft engineers for the design of the smallest push-pull output transformer that I have ever seen used. (Why this is mentioned, I will expound on later). Internal wiring is mostly solid core. Grounding wires are connected to a star ground. As mentioned earlier, there is no PCB and all the components are hard wired. You cannot get anything simpler than this.

I partnered the Cameleon with my modified Sony X3000 and upgraded Loth X bookshelf loudspeakers (with high 95dB sensitivity). The amplifier is dead quiet. First impression revealed a very detailed and truly expansive soundstage. Imaging was very good with each instrument clearly delineated with space surround each instrument.  

Dynamic contrast was superb considering that the low power output of the amplifier would have limited headroom (then again this was with a high sensitivity loudspeaker). I tried for a range of material from Lee Riternour's Wee Bound album to Sony's Hybrid DSD sampler. The former revealed the excellent bass qualities of the transformer designed. Bass was deep! A lot more than you would expect from such a small design. As a result, bass was a bit on the lean side but a lot more detailed and fast. Absent was the usually tubbiness normally associated this design. This would suit those who enjoy small jazz ensembles beautifully. Track five, a version of Bob Marley's 'Waiting in Vain' put its ability in unravelling bass lines to the test which it passed beautifully.

Vocals were a bit forward in its presentation, a bit like the single-ended variety, which to me is a plus. This was fully realised in Stephen Bishop's rendition of 'Separate Lives' where his voice was projected a bit into the room with his guitar located a bit to the back. The presentation here was clean and clearly defined the singer's ability. And you could pick out the recording room's ambience as well! Playing Sony's Hybrid DSD sampler, the first track would have sent many lesser tube amps into fits with the pounding percussions. The Cameleon breezed through, unruffled by the various dynamic complexities on that track. Talk about English panache! Track two again revealed the capabilities of the amplifier in picking out the rolling drumsticks on the unsnared snare drum. Check out the Cameleon's midrange and tonal capabilities, especially on vocals, piano and sax evidenced on Jacintha's 'Autumn Leaves'. The amplifier just allowed me to enjoy the music.

So what can I say about the Cameleon aside from the fact that I had a truly wonderful time with it? That you don't need expensive higher powered amplifiers, to equal its poise, elegance and transparency. It is like listening to a single-ended amplifier with a lot more speed. All you need is a pair of speakers with simple crossover (which sucks up less power). At the asking price of $23000 it would seem a bargain for this minimalist hand made design. If the Leak Stereo 20 is a classic that is still much sought after up till today, the Croft Cameleon can be sure of such a reputation in the future.

Truly Beguiling

 


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