Croft Cameleon integrated amplifier
Purist 15w valve amplifier promotes noble masochism.

Happy though Croft might be to part you from nine grand for its top model, the company shines best when the budget is tight.

Remember: this is a brand which-OTL aside made its mark with a pre-amplifier so cost effective and so basic that few believed what they were hearing. The original Micro was a steal at what? 150? And so, too, is the Cameleon integrated amplifier. I'm still not sure how they do it.

In a nutshell the Cameleon is the company's 750 Vista power amp with the addition of four switchable line-level inputs. That's it, it's utterly minimalist, sporting what has been Croft's traditional front panel layout for some years: a rotary switch with muted positions between the source detents, flanked by left and right volume controls. (I long ago stopped arguing about the sheer, nay sadistic, of non-ganged, separate left-and-right Volume controls. In their warped quest for zero cross-talk or whatever else they feel that separate volume controls provides, they continue this barbaric practice. And yet I don't see two mono chassis, two power supplies, two AC cables, two source selectors, etc. But they'll never give it up, so why bellyache?)

Take the lid off, and you'll marvel at the lack of PCBs and the presence of true point-to-point hard-wiring .something familiar to those who either remember, or still use equipment from the classic era, or who build minimalist kits. Inside the 442 x 335 x 105mm (wdh) chassis are four ECL 805 valves, 17 resistors, four coupling resistors and proprietary, Croft designed output transformers; truly simplified circuitry, with fixed bias operation. Neither the Cameleon's innards nor its normal back panel is the place to hunt for trendy designer names; Croft's magical skill has always been the ability to coax incomprehensibly fine performance from mundane parts. And you'd replace the components with costlier stuff-however easy and tempting that may be-at your peril. In this respect, Glen Croft is like one of those tinkerers who'd turn up at races at Brooklands in the pre-World War II years with a special made in his back garden, which'd beat the pants off the factory-backed teams.

Supplied specs are as minimalist as the gear itself: Input sensitivity of 0.5 mV, input inpedence of 470k ohm and-most misleading of all power output of 15 W/ch. Fed with signals form the Sony XA 333 ES SACD player or the Marantz CD12/DA12, the Cameleon was to the obvious choice for such limited power; a pair of small Loth X Ion Amaze two-ways known for their lack of hunger. As was expected, all was well.

But just out of curiosity I set it up with B&W's much needier DM602 S3. And blow me down; the Croft was powerful enough to stretch my listening level tolerances with the controls at the halfway mark. So, clearly, 15 Croft Watts aren't the same as, say, 15 SET watts (can you even get 15W out of an SET???).

Aside from an easily-curable hum from the cabinet-a VPI brick took care of that-no tweaking was required. Wires were Nirvana for the interconnects and Kimber Select for the speakers, and the unit sat directly on a GM Accessori table with no extras.

Warm-up to optimum performance was a mere 15 minutes. In effect, the Cameleon was as painless a component to set up and use as any integrated amp from a multi-national. Even so, you really do need a 1980s mind-set to 'bond' with the Croft: forget custom install and remote this 'n' that and classy styling and everything else which has come along to lift purist audio out of the hair-shirt mire of the Flat Earth era. The Croft is unapologetically aimed at the listener for whom multi-channel never existed and never will.

Despite the ease of set-up, which is due as much to minimalism as it is to good design, the Cameleon has a way of letting you think that you're some hardy audiophile accustomed to sinking copper earth plates in the garden, or to moving your turntable stand onto a two-metre thick concrete base. You can lie to yourself and think that you're a noble masochist-just be repeating 'two volume controls, two volume controls, two volume controls'.

Then you switch it on and wonder how something can be so-o-o musical and yet so inexpensive.

It sounded less like the master tape and more like music. For some, that is heresy. 

Two things mark the Cameleon, two characteristics which make it so satisfying, and which are so in line with my personal preferences. The areas which matter most to me, above ludicrously pronounced bass or hyper-transparency, are a natural midband and a seamless (and therefore wide open) soundstage. This pair of qualities seem to me to do more to make a system's performance convincing than the rather 'hi-fi-ish' attributes of bass extension or transient attack.

It took only the briefest burst of the SACD of Alison Krauss' 'Now that I've found you' to hear that the Croft can do 'sweet' and clear with the grace of a 300B-driven amp, without exhibiting any traces of saccharine or fat. If the foodiness of the sentence bugs you, think of the Croft as natural tooth sugars while SETs can veer toward the teeth-rotting.

It's warm, it's lush, it embraces you, but it's never smothering or schmaltzy. There's plenty of air accompanied by a compelling sense of space; you'll find even greater pleasure in well recorded live albums, where the engineer captured the venue. Check out the Corrs' live in Dublin or, if you prefer something of an earlier vintage, Poco's deliverin'. It's almost enough to let you continue believing that two channels really are enough.

Within the soundstage, the Croft has the ability to convey convincing performers, each with his of her space and with satisfyingly lifelike height and mass. The ever-dependable Persuasions demonstrated this to good effect, especially in the way their voices blended while remaining distinct. This quality also allows the listener to home in on specific instruments, regardless of the number in the ensemble, such that the 'duelling' guitars in the in the Allman brothers' earliest works and or the elements of the often-overwhelming wall of sound that is Wheatus' 'Teenage Dirtbag' can be savoured in isolation with less work than it takes to focus on one of those 3D optical illusions.

The track which smacked me upside the head, the single song which delivered more of itself though I'd heard it a thousand times was Squeeze's masterpiece ,'Tempted', which I was listening to again thanks to the new 2CD 'best of'. It's not even an overcrowded work, yet I swear the Croft unveiled miniscule details almost as matter of fact rather than through artificial highlighting. And still it was more of a natural whole, less of an assembled in-the-studio creation. Which is probably a roundabout way of saying that it sounded less like the master tape and more like music. For some, that is heresy. For ye of limited funds, it's an invitation to the high-end without the need of a second mortgage.

If you can afford a gilded lily, Croft will sell you a tarted-up with a luscious 12mm 'Baux' front panel, a stainless steel lid, paper-in-oil capacitors and other refinements for a still sane 1425. On the other hand the beauty on review is yours for an embarrassing 875. And that's outrageously good value for an all-tube amp with the Croft pedigree. But the Croft doesn't have it all its own way.

Its main rival has to be the Unison Research's astonishing Unico valve-hybrid integrated, which offers far more real power, better build quality, looks which won't have you grovelling for apologies and-for sofa bound tubers-remote control. The Unison is the unit I'd recommend to anyone after an integrated for under a grand; it's a no-brainer choice. But if you're the sort who'd buy a Morgan instead of a Porsche, drink absinthe instead of scotch, holiday in Turkey rather than Spain, then the Croft is just that little bit more than 'different'.

Whatever way you cut it, the Cameleon is high-end sound with a mid-fi sticker. And you'll suffer absolutely no guilt selling out to convenience.

Ken Kessler


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