Three integrated answers

Is there something in the water? Or is there really a universal hifi subconsciousness which leads wholly disparate companies to release similar products within weeks or months of each other?

More likely, though, is a commercial reality: the AMC3030 integrated tube amplifier is a runaway hit, which suggests that there really is a market for entry level tube products. Which I've been saying for years, but who ever listens? Amusingly, the doyen of cheap tube gear, Croft, is among the cloners, and to them I say `I told you so'. Like three years ago. But enough carping. Better late than never, I guess.

It's not as if there haven't been any integrated tube amps since the golden days of the 17.5W/chl Dynaco, the Rogers' Cadet and the like. Audio Innovations makes 'em, EAR has just introduced one, Unison Research will sell you one for the same price as a well equipped BMW, ad infinitum. What the AMC brought back to the marketplace is the notion of an affordable tube integrated which you can treat like a real world, mass-market transistor rig, aimed quite specifically at two markets. The most obvious of the potential purchasers are tube wannabees who simply cannot afford separates; the other possible customers are the fence-sitters who want valves but harbour understandable fears of going tube. AMC went all the way and NADified the AMC3030, right down to including a brace of fans which cool the EL34s so well that you'd be hard pressed to identify the '3030 as tube driven by mere touch. It even looks like a modern solid state device. And all of the other new generation tube integrates hide their tubes from view, sort of like taking the model badges off the boot of your Mercedes.

Croft's offering, the Croft Integrated, is not only the least expensive of this trio, it's also the most truly `purist'. Indeed, it's the antithesis of the AMC, so maybe Croft wasn't inspired by that august unit. This is not just an all tube design; it's hardwired throughout and dual-mono: pure Croft. Lift the lid and you can almost picture Glenn with his soldering iron, probably one which he heats up on the top of an Aga cooker or over a Bunsen burner. It's a rat's nest of wiring, as funky and homebrewed as last year's scrumpy. Unfortunately, the adherence to company policy means that it's also one of the ugliest, shabbiest, lowest perceived value, lowest pride of ownership products I've seen outside of the kit market. In other words: it's ideal for British hi-fi lunatics. Just as long as Glenn Croft insists on using up all the old Letraset sheets he probably found lying around some art college years ago, we'll have to suffer this Trabant like shell.

On the other hand, your 599 gets you one hell of a tube purchase. Eight, count 'em, eight Sovtek EL84 tubes deliver the specified 30W/ch into loads between 4-16ohms. They're driven by a pair of ECF82s, branded Osram, while the pre-amp stage contains a couple of Sovtek 12AX7s. The dual-mononess extends to separate power supplies and, yes, separate left-and-right volume controls for maximum inconvenience. This is pure stubbornness on Croft's part, but I suppose it does make some spineless, weak willed, unconfident types feel more like real `audiophiles'. The package includes separate speaker terminals (rather nice binding posts) for 4ohm loads, a welcome purist touch. The phono section comes as standard with the unit (48k-ohm m-m, loaded with 100pF and with 1.5mV sensitivity), and the Croft also accepts three line sources plus tape. The only bit of cost cutting which really irks me is the lack of an on/off indicator; you have to look through the lid to see the tubes glowing, or try to remember whether up or down on the toggle is on or off.

As for the ugliness, well, Croft will sell you a stainless steel front panel for an extra 100 or so, which is sort of like wearing a Hermes tie with a de-mob suit. Not to say that the unit is insubstantial. It weighs a healthy 201b and measures a tidy 16 x 12 x 14in (wdh). Which also tells you that good old Glenn - bless 'im! - has yet to go metric. (Hear, hear.)
At the other extreme is Beard's Hybrid 50 Integrated, which is so over-styled and deliberately Italianate that you wonder why the company doesn't simply move and change its name to Barba. Now I have no idea what the size of the market is for entirely wooden-clad hardware, but I love it if for no other reason than its being different, a refreshing break from hard, natural metals or mourning black. And the woodwork is drop-dead gorgeous, the grooving and finish suggesting some computer-operated process. Whatever the method, the lovely woodwork and the brass finish knobs, button and name plate lend it a vintage air, like the cigar box Carle amplifier from France. This is the kind of retro I adore, and I would imagine that the unit will find favour with non-Italians living in homes filled with period furniture.

As the name states, it's a hybrid, a pair of ECL86s sitting somewhere inbetween the pre-amp and the Mosfet output section. Beard's Miguel spoke for four minutes saying absolutely nothing that I could comprehend about their purpose; suffice to say that the Hybrid 50 sounds almost as tube-like as the opposition. For 795 (an extra 79 pays for a plug-in phono board), you get an animal of a 2x50-watter, a real powerhousewhich belies its delicate exterior and 445 x 375 x 95mm (wdh) dimensions. Weight is 8.2kg. The front features only a volume control, source selector (four line inputs) and tape monitor button. The back contains the on-off switch and gold plated socketry including the earthing post and Michell speaker terminals.

Also at the back is a push button to choose between local and overall feedback. With the button pressed in, the unit operates with `the Mosfet output section free from the constraints of feedback'. In the out position, the output section returns to the feedback loop. To be perfectly honest, the changes were minimal, dependent almost entirely on speaker load or type. With nasty speakers, ones which sounded loose or boomy without the feedback in place, switching it back in added a touch of control. Small monitors sounded better without the feedback. But it's all a matter of taste, so don't take my instructions as gospel. (I kinds wish that Beard hadn't included this option, because it's yet another vague facility to confuse nervous types.)

The interior is filled with a whacking great mother board containing all the circuitry, the valves fitted to a vertical daughter board, as is the optional phono stage. In the middle of the unit is a large heat sink, while the left-hand section contains a pair of over specified toroidal transformers. The mains transformer has been uprated to 150VA for the prototype's 120VA to allow the unit to cope better with nasty loads. Construction is, as always, excellent, with tidy wiring and what should be easy serviceability.

Somewhere inbetween is the dearest of the three units, the Woodside ISA230. Rated at 30W/channel, the Woodside derives it power from two pairs of EL34s, which are just about idling at that rate. They operate in ultra-linear push-pull Class A mode, so you can probably play genealogist with this one and eventually hit the name 'Radford'. Which is OK by me. The rest of the valve complement consists of a pair each of 12AX7s and 12AT7s, all of the tubes and most of the circuitry mounted on a single long, narrow board mounted vertically behind the fascia.

Inside, it's a mix of superb construction and wacky lateral thinking. A large toroidal deals with the mains, and separate output transformers assure you that crosstalk will be low. All of the wiring is tidy, the board nicely made, but the source selector rod has to be seen to be believed. Running the depth of the unit, it has a long bolt sprouting out of the side, acting as a bump stopper to prevent the user from turning it too far one way or the other. Aah, the British! Anyway, the unit measures 430 x 340 x 86mm (wdh), features goldplated socketry and good multi-way binding posts and the cleanest front panel I've seen this year. All black with gold lettering, which makes it fairly universal, the Woodside control deck contains a rotary selector for its four inputs, a rotary volume control and - in a neat recess - the on-off toggle switch, ,a green LED and the tape monitor toggle switch. The price is 899 in line level only form, as reviewed. (The optional phono section, which was not supplied, sells for 100. It's a movingmagnet hybrid containing one transistor and one double triode per channel.)

Because doing these mini survey group reviews is time consuming and fraught with the peril of mismatches, I spent two days narrowing down the choices of ancillaries to a CD player and speakers which mated well with all three, the selected devices being within the price ranges likely to be allocated by purchasers of sub-1000 integrateds. The CD player choice was instantaneous: the God-given Marantz CD52 Mk IISE. At 299, it's a steal, presenting a challenge even to 3000-plus machinery. Speakers? I alternated between the JBL.L1 (399 per pair) at one end and the Sonus Faber Minima Amator (1499 per pair) at the other, even though the Beard would drive the Apogee Stages. Wiring consisted of XLO 100 Pro for both the speakers and the interconnects.

I did, however, test the phono sections of the Beard and the Croft and found the Beard to be the quieter of the two, while the Croft seemed to have better dynamics. But, as the Woodside was supplied sans phono, I concentrated on the units in line mode. Rest assured, however, that the Beard and the Croft will definitely please analoguists. The amusing thing is that the Beard, with its greater grunt, could do with the Croft's `wider' phono section, while the Croft- in some ways a less delicate performer -would sound better with a quieter, Beard-like phono stage.

Now the fun begins: tubes or not, the three units have little in common other than the way two of them misbehave. Both the Croft and the Woodside, when overdriven, respond in as tin-tubelike a manner as you can imagine, turning brittle and grainy with an unmistakeable sizzle at the top end. The Hybrid 50, on the other hand, dealt with abuse in an almost (traditionally) valve-y way by softening and turning mushy.


As pure music amplification tools within their job descriptions, each has such a strong character that all that guff above about aesthetics, price and facilities is rendered meaningless. The Beard, for example, is - consistently -the least likely to be upset, it's the quietest of the three and it has the most sheer grunt. Despite looking like a backgammon box at the back of an antique shop, it likes to rock. The bottom end regardless of the feedback setting with the speakers I used for the listening sessions - is deep, rich and well controlled, with ample weight for large orchestral works (Yo! Sousa!). Modern, dry, synthetic bass is reproduced with greater accuracy than through the all-tube competition, both of which have a slightly softer quality way down below. But the Beard is also capable of behaving with delicacy and decorum, so the sound does not appear to be aggressive or overwhelming.

The mid-band is clean and clear, if less sweet than with the Croft or the Woodside. The upside is that it has rock solid imaging; the downside is a lack of warmth. I won't go as far as to call it `clinical', but you do feel that the sounds have suddenly been scrubbed clean after hearing the more fulsome Croft or Woodside; many of you might prefer this, but I'd be hard-pressed to call it more accurate. The Beard never lets you forget, however, that it's a big amp masquerading as a compact design because it throws out a huge image, a truly wide and deep soundstage which allowed it to mate perfectly with the Minima Amators. The fact that the Amators are Italian and are noted for their woodwork hasn't been lost on this observer...


The Croft? I love this scrappy little sucker, even if it does look like it should have a scatch 'n' sniff patch producing Eau de junkyard. Despite looking like the poor relative, it offers a commanding performance, especially for tube die-hards. Warm, lush and yet relatively free of noise by budget all-tube standards, coherent and smooth yet detailed. It's just on the right side of `vintage' in its overall capabilities. What it lacks is not absolute power or even headroom but a touch more control. It reminded me of certain amps of yore (which I will not name because the companies still exist and I hate lawsuits) which always made you feel like they were about to go ballistic, about to turn your room into the set of Backdraft. Maybe it's my nervousness about the finish, or lack thereof, because the Croft never so much as sputtered or farted even once. It's just got this junkyard dog vibe to it.

Which makes it a great rock 'n' roll amplifier. Through the JBLs, it could kick and punch and attack as if it were a far beefier tranny design. The difference, though, is a warmth throughout the frequency range, a richness which allows you to overlook its limitations. And they are not legion. Aside from sounding like broken glass if overdriven - something you'll avoid simply by choosing the right speakers - and running out of steam when faced with thunderous percussion (not rock drumming, but marching bands or kettle drums), it's one musical sucker. I would gladly pay an extra 200 if Croft put it into better assembly and aesthetics. If you're strapped for cash, look no further. This one's a bargain in the extreme.


Then there's the Woodside, in many ways the most commercial and professional of the trio. Aside from that daft selector rod, the unit itself is hard to fault. (Do, however, check that the huge toroidal hasn't loosened or shifted during shipping.) Almost as subjectively powerful sounding as the Beard, it can just about cope with loads hungrier than the two I selected for this review. But unlike the Beard, there's never a suggestion of anything other than valve power, despite the aforementioned break-up rather than slow-down when the unit is pushed to its limits.

Aural tidiness, too, is smack in the middle. Less analytical than the Beard but far better behaved than the Croft, the Woodside is one of the best `modern' sounding all-tube integrateds I've heard. The modernity, though, is strictly in its functionality. You can, ventilation aside, treat this like a circa 1993 transistor amp in every respect bar using it for sub4ohm loads. It's quiet enough, too, to suggest superlative tube selection or matching, and I've no doubt that the level of construction helped here.

Where the Woodside shines most, though, is in the midband. I swear, if I hadn't known what I was using you could have told me that the Minimas had been bi-wired with a mint but hot-rodded Radford STA-15. Only the cleaner top-end and the odd clipping behaviour betrayed the newness. The soundstage was slightly smaller than that of the Beard but on a part with the Croft; just wide and deep and `3D' enough to let you know that Water Lily uses a Blumlein array, that Sheffield Labs' Power Of Seven CD features almost a minyan's worth of singers, that front to-back depth isn't a figment of the audiophile imagination.

But there was one area where the Woodside emerged as a champion: it reproduced vocals with a natural easy grace the other two couldn't match. Using BB King's heart stopping take of `Don't Get Around Much Anymore' (if you're loaded buy the BB King box set on MCA; if you're not, consider the Ace compilation CDCH 376). I could hear every little sound from the throat, lips, teeth, tongue as part of a cohesive whole. Through the Minimas, it was in the room and in your face. And this is what hi-fi is all about: convincing you that you're witnessing a live performance.


That's enough to tip me toward the Woodside, especially when you add to it the clean, almost Bauhaus styling, the no-nonsense facilities, the sense of solidity. Then again, the Croft has a charm all its own, strengthened in the shops by an embarrassingly low price tag. And the Beard? That cabinet is almost enough to make me want it, coupled to its sheer practicality.

Fear not. You won't have any problem deciding which way to go if a tube integrated is what you require. Me? I'm partial to the Woodside, but I also love that Italian carpentry and I'm just crazy enough to be intrigued by Croft's Mad Max attitude.

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