There’s a famous Aesop fable about a wager between the wind and the sun as to who can get a solitary traveler to remove his coat sooner. The wind blows up a gale but the man only wraps the garment all the more tightly around himself. Comes the sun’s turn, he warms the day ever so gently until before long the traveler removes both overcoat and waistcoat. Extending Aesop’s characterizations to audio, some components are wind, some sun. The winds grab you by the lapels, pull you in, hand you a drink, and usher you right to table and feast. The suns, by contrast, invite you in, take your wraps, allow you a moment or several to collect yourself, then inquire how and what they might serve you.
Hailing from England, Croft Acoustics’ new all tube Micro 25 preamplifier and tube/transistor hybrid Series 7 stereo power amplifier have unquestionably been schooled in the arts of gentle persuasion, but their performance is nonetheless consummate. The first course passed the “first bite” test more deliciously than any new components I’ve sampled in a while: a vintage Vanguard LP of the Alfred Deller Consort singing Christmas carols from Old England reproduced with such warmth, glow, liquidity, and utterly rounded dimensionality as to disarm criticism. By conventional audiophile standards this was hardly an arduous task, the group numbering just the countertenor himself, a soprano, a baritone, and a tenor, and accompanied by only lute and recorder. But as Deller’s was an unusually pure voice with a distinctive timbre and as he surrounded himself with voices of similar purity though distinctly different in range and timbre, there’s enough here that needs to be kept separate and clear, yet also coherent, to screw up the midrange if components are not at least competent. The first carol, meltingly beautiful, was sufficient to reveal this pair as a whole lot better than that. What sweeter music, indeed. (It helped that per my request the importer, Jay Rein of Bluebird Music, broke the units in for fifty hours before shipping.)
This foretaste was only confirmed in the remainder of the evaluations, where musical beauty was clearly ascendant over laboratory truth. The auteur is Glenn Croft, virtually unknown in this country, though come to that, hardly a household name even in his native UK, where he has been designing preamplifiers and amplifiers, including some near legendary OTLs, for over a quarter century, along the way having acquired a reputation among British audiophile cognoscenti for modestly priced products of immodestly high performance.
Even by the standards of high-end designers, Croft is, I am reliably informed, idiosyncratic, somewhat intransigent in his thinking, yet utterly free from pretense; does not court the spotlight, scarcely even promoting his products (literature nonexistent, Web site primitive); and holds to his design principles with a tenacity rivaling that stone’s grip on Excalibur. The core conviction is a minimalism triangulated by vacuum tubes, discreet parts, and the simplest possible circuits with the shortest signal paths. If Thoreau were resurrected as an audio designer, his designs wouldn’t be much different from these Crofts, which embody the very essence of economy in its highest sense: performance and function paramount, needless complexity and extravagance scrupulously avoided, wastefully expensive and overspec’d parts eschewed in favor of moderately priced ones carefully selected by testing and intensive listening, and all glitz, glam, and luxury shunned with a disdain almost Puritan in its severity.
Croft doesn’t even supply an instruction sheet, let alone a manual, not that any is needed, so minimal are the functions—I almost wrote “functions and features,” except there isn’t a feature in sight, unless you consider the preamp’s on board phonostage a feature. (The closest might be that both units’ outputs are muted for about a minute after turn on while the circuits stabilize; when the muting goes off the LEDs turn from red to green and are ready for play. No on/off thumps here—very salutary.) The Micro’s front panel has just three knobs (one for source selection among phono and three high level inputs, one each for left and right volume), two toggle switches (mute, on/off), and an LED; the Series 7’s sports even less (power switch and LED). All jacks are RCA or binding posts that accept bananas, spades, or bare wires.
The black metal casework, which Croft proudly says is UK sourced, is utilitarian but by no means cheap in look or feel. In fact, I find the both units elegantly svelte in their Spartan simplicity, perhaps because I’m lately back from the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show where I saw almost embarrassingly luxurious electronics, several amps so large and crushingly heavy my foundations would doubtless need buttressing to support them. This duo I can carry under one arm. Open the hood and you find lots of empty space to keep audio signals well separated from power supplies, no circuit boards (which Croft seems to regard as an invention of the devil—it’s rumored he once took apart a Luxman amplifier to see if he could rebuild it without the circuit board), tidy point to point wiring, the shortest possible signal paths, and impressive toroidal transformers (again proudly UK-sourced). Assembly is said to be by hand.