Minimalist master Croft breaks tradition with a Valve/MOSFET hybrid .....review by KEN KESSLER

Sometimes it must seem that Croft is a personal cause célèbre as I've reviewed a disproportionate number of its products.

I've yet to be disappointed, and I continue to marvel at Glenn Croft's ability to make so much out of so little - he's a true minimalist. His approach to audio design is like that of Italians to cooking: make magic with as few ingredients as possible. Now he's added another integrated amplifier to the company's roster, and this one raises the bar higher once more.

This is particularly true if you're a hard-core, hair-shirt audiophile who can do without the frills. And this is very important. If you prefer, say, a fully loaded VW Polo over a refurbished Citroen 2CV, then you need to look elsewhere for a tube-hybrid integrated amplifier with a reasonable price tag. A Copland is an obvious alternative or one of the stunning Unicos from Unison Research - there are plenty of amplifiers that stop short of self abnegation. When you talk Croft, you're dealing with the pioneer spirit, with a small "p". However: the company's first tube/MOSFET hybrid at least shows the world that minimalism can be, well, elegant.

On the surface, Croft's new integrated (working title "GC-i"- which is a helluva lot better name than the original "Nullantine") is an extreme departure for the company. Indeed there are many breaks from Croft tradition to consider. Instead of the sadistically cruel pair of volume controls without detents, this product has a lovely, single, stepped, carbon-film, potentiometer. Moreover, it has a feel that wouldn't disgrace a 10k maga-amp.

Next, it comes with a beautiful Perspex front panel, with a cool blue illumination to show power on (via a front panel toggle) and which of the four line inputs is selected.

It has really sensible, useful speaker terminals. And it's well made: the case is stainless steel, with six circular heating vents filled with nicely-made grilles. In other words, this is the first Croft ever that doesn't make you want to avert your eyes and reach for the sick bag. And it sounds like it costs £3000.

Hang on. Let's calm down. Just so the guys who do make £3000 amps don't accuse me of piddling on their parade, I used the words "hair shirt" above, the classy finish and look don't alter the fact that the GC-i is minimalist. It's also line level only, despite a socket labelled "phono". It is aimed at people who only want to listen to their music and really don't care about anything else.

What Glenn Croft has pulled off is a minor miracle, and with great panache.

But what Croft has pulled off is a minor miracle, and with great panache. Y'see, this little bugger appears to drive anything, despite its power rating, despite any concerns about impedance. The only downside is that it's not as warm-sounding as an all-valve Croft. That's it.

So I am expecting serious hate mail from certain quarters when I tell you that I had no trouble driving Wilson's WATT Puppy System 7 loud speakers to seriously loud levels without a single sign of duress from this baby. Build quality is excellent (see technology box), and even the fittings on the back will surprise those who still think of Croft in Micro (HFN Sept 86) terms. The speaker posts are the kind I like-multi-way and usable, unlike certain WBTs-and the gold plated phono sockets for the four line sources and tape out are stout and secure. Also on the back is an IEC mains input and three user replaceable fuses.

Amusingly, the one test I didn't try is the one Croft cites on its bizarre website, that of shorting the terminals. This amplifier put up with so much abuse that I couldn't bring myself to do anything else to it. Making it drive a pair of Wilson WATT Puppy 7s to high levels for a sustained period is proof enough that the unit has that indomitable Battle of Britain spirit.

(As for the website, avoid it if you don't believe in alternative medicine, read the Guardian, smoke whacky 'baccy or think that Alistair Crowleigh was cool. I haven't seen such addled, celestial drivel since the days of the first LP from Haphash and the Coloured Coat).

Showing no mercy, I dropped the Croft in place without paying any concern to price or-as above-impedance. The source was the deliriously expensive SME 30 turntable with SME Series V arm and Koetsu Urishi cartridge, feeding the EAT 324 phono stage; while for CD I used the Marantz CD-12/DA-12. In addition to the Wilson's, I also had a go at the hungry Sonus Faber Guarneri and 100-ohm LS3/5A speakers. Wiring throughout was from Transparent. Here's the crunch: the system ranged in total cost between £35.000 and £50.000.

Croft charges £1250 for this GC-i integrated amplifier. and it did not embarrass itself.

For those of you who, as I, have a long-running with Croft gear, you know what to expect, with two exceptions to the form. Unlike the all-tube gear, The GC-i is almost ghostly quiet. Some may miss that hint of tube ssshhhhh, in the way that there are people who can't sleep without some low level noise around. or without a trace of crackle to their vinyl. That's the upside to MOSFET output stages the other? The aforementioned reduction in warmth.

Now those are the immediately apparent indications that this is to standard Croft what Emporio is to Armani. But there are some gains to GC-i ownership (luscious looks aside) that will make the marque much more appealing to a wider crowd and to precisely the sort of consumer who really doesn't want two cans and a piece of string, even if ol' Glenn Croft can make 'em sound like 50k's worth of OTL. No, what makes this Croft for everyman are drier, tighter bass (read: more modern) and a more crisp top end.

No, it is not too transistor-ish, and the baby has not been thrown out of the bathwater. I'm not kidding: The GC-i sounds exactly like a Croft should; only it's the naughty kid brother to the older family heir. It's an adult "rock" amplifier, loving every twang of the Thorns, the raunch of Willy DeVille, the wry of the late, great Warren Zevon. (Please, go buy his swan song, The Wind). Then again, a dose of Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here comes Charlie on 200 grammes worth of classic vinyl sounded so sweet and rich that it was a direct comparison with an all-tube alternative T+A's V-10 of the McIntosh C2200/MC2102 combination.

And that's where the fun started. Both of those offer way more power than the Croft, and sounded more willing to go loud - but that was using either to extremes. The Croft manfully delivered ample - and more than ample - levels with two of the toughest speakers around. So I made a phone call to distributor Eminent Audio, who admitted to as much bafflement and surprise as I did.

It turns out that the GC-i has confounding Croft ever since the first samples hit the stores. The amplifier has been taking on bigger, beefier competitors and slaughtering them, a real David versus Goliath scenario. Remember: Eminent Audio didn't prompt me, didn't tell me to try the Croft with products beyond its class. I just did. And I came away with even more respect for Glenn Croft's wares than I had before. At last, a Croft about which I'm not able to crack "ugly-step-sister" jokes.

Ken Kessler


TECHNOLOGY

Fitted with a pair of ECC83 drivers operating in Class A mode and driving two MOSFET output devices per channel, the GC-i is rated at approximately 30W per channel into 4 ohms, or 40-50W per channel, with 8 ohm loads. Part of the company's new Transvalve line, it's a design that is ".basically similar to Croft's long-serving, familiar output-transformerless circuits, but translated to new circuitry," according to Amar Biswas of Eminent Audio. (Glenn Croft himself redefines "reclusive".)

It was explained that this Croft integrated was designed using all-valve references, with MOSFETs substituted into the valve equivalent, so spiritually, at least--the GC-i is a valve amp. It reminded me of the point made by Tim de Paravicini's first Yoshinos; both single-ended, but one solid-state and one valve.
Inside the 75 x 405 x 315mm (hwd) case is total adherence to Croft values. In other words, no PCBs-everything being hard-wired. There are even strips of copper for the earthing - vertical constructs to hold the active devices. And when you pick it up, it seems a bit unbalanced, that's down to the massive 300VA toroidal power supply fitted in the left-hand side. Large capacitors, rock-solid construction, not one unnecessary "bit" - truly tidy wiring.

KEY FEATURES

  • Lower noise levels than all-valve designs
  • Excellent build and attention to detail
  • Ample power output

 

 


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