By Richard White

When hi-fi became largely transistorized during the 1960s, in many instances the trusty pre-amp, hitherto the focus of the whole set-up, went out into the cold. A further blow to the breed's self-esteem occurred when the reaction against tone controls, variable slopes and all that, set in.

Given that most popular amplifiers were integrated types, indeed they not infrequently included tuner as well, the pre-amplifier became to a large degree banished to the margins of higher end - with a commensurate increase in price.

When we had a look at Croft's Epoch Elite valve pre-amp a few months ago, we were pleased to give top marks for sound quality but noted that , at 950, this was an item which would need saving up for. Now Croft have met the piggy-bank brigade halfway and introduced the Vitale (rhymes with 'Charlie') with the intention of giving similar service to its illustrious cousin, but at a much reduced price.

As is usual with Croft gear, advantage is taken of the comparatively low production numbers to employ the hard-wiring techniques which mass production usually precludes. This allows very short signal paths - in some instances the components are soldered directly to the valve sockets - which has at least one distinct advantage: the eradication of all-but-unavoidable paralleling of tracks in PCBs which can introduce capacitative spuriae.

Being a budget version, the Vitale pre-amp does not have the benefit of valve regulation of the power supply which distinguishes the more expensive Epoch. Despite this, stabilizing looks to be in good hands if the hefty reservoir capacitors are anything to go by.

Also, bearing in mind its price, it would be idle to deny that the Vitale is presented in anything but penny-plain finish: collet knobs are not usually considered the hallmark of expensive gear! I understand that those who prefer a somewhat more up-market look may specify the brass knobs and wooden fascia from the manufacturer at pro-rata prices.

Having given high marks to the Epoch Elite, I was curious to see how the economy model measured up , particularly the moving-magnet phono stage.

Straight on to the platter with my Zuckerman Elgar Violin Concerto to see if all was lovely in the late-Romantic garden. So it proved, with the full majesty of the orchestra swelling, almost bursting out of the loudspeakers while the delicate nuances of the solo violin wove their way through the ensemble.

All right for dynamics so far; clarity was checked with the Archiv pressing of Vespers by the members of a Spanish monastery. With the wonderful acoustic reproduced on this disc, the entirely unselfconscious performance of the singers adds, rather than subtracts, from the whole. The natural throatiness and huskiness of the brothers was amplified with a crystalline clarity which could all but transform a South London sitting room into a medieval chapel. Luckily, before I could pop up to Shrewsbury to solve a mystery or two, the side came to an end and Brother Cadfael turned back to reviewing hi-fi.happenings in between.

A quick trip round the air-waves proved that the Vitale was prepared to pass on music without comment. Even the most compressed rock and rap got a fair hearing and the Archers showed their stereophonic worth in trumps before I managed to switch 'em off.

In common with its more expensive stablemate, Croft's Vitale has an uncanny ability to disappear completely and let the sound itself get on with it. This unassuming valve job seems to be able to pass styles with nothing added and, more importantly, nothing taken away. If you can put up with the somewhat homely finish, it would be difficult to recommend anything else, either at this price or indeed considerably more.

Richard White


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