A lot of bottle...

Easily the most frustrating company in all of hi-fi, Croft continually disarms this critic by producing with regularity a flood of cheap 'n 'cheerful products, which defy hi-fi - especially valve conventions.

Adhering to a policy of no PCBS, a profusion of cheap parts and separate left/right volume controls and source switches, Glenn Croft has spent the past decade giving more for the money than any other maker I can name.

His range of pre-amps shows how this is accomplished. At the bottom end are three models which use what is basically -the same circuit, with changes to the power supplies accounting for the price 'differentials. All three models in the lower half of the Croft catalogue use the same chassis and fascia; only the size of the knobs, which increase with price, indicate Micro A (260) , Super Micro (379) or Super Micro A (650) . By not having to produce three different face-plates or boxes, an immediate economy is effected. And this saving is passed on to the consumer. And if you think that 260 for an all-valve, hard-wired pre-amp is expensive, then you're in the wrong decade.

The 'Croft Universal Pre-amp Chassis' is a black anodised aluminium case measuring 390 X 280 X 80mm (wdh), with a black fascia containing the left and right volume controls, toggles to choose between line and phono, and between three sources when the phono/line switch is in the former position. The only switches common to both channels are the centrally positioned mute control (absolutely essential with dual volume controls if you don't want to keep re-adjusting every time you switch sources or material) and the on/off switch. A telltale lamp indicates on status. The back contains the phono sockets (with gold appearing on the phono inputs and main outputs of the Super Micro A), an, earthing post and access to the mains fuse.

All three pre-amps feature valve regulated HT supplies, regulated heater voltages, hard-wiring throughout with solid-core, Holco and Wirewound 1% metal film resistors, polypropylene and polystyrene capacitors and ultra-short signal paths. The Micro A's valve complement consists of two ECC83s in the phono section and an ECC82 in the line stage, while the Super Micro adds an ECL85 for regulation. The latter also employs a larger mains transformer and bigger reservoir capacitors, so the extra 119 isn't spent on fairy dust.

Moving up to the Super Micro A means a change of valves to octal triodes, two 68N7s and two 68L7s acting as cathode followers, better potentiometers, the aforementioned' gold-plated sockets, improved valve regulation, the elimination of cathode-decoupling capacitors, an output section similar to that of the 1500 Mega Micro and a mains RF filter.

The natural mate for any of the above is the quite remarkable Series 5S power amp . Selling for 599 with deluxe trim, this baby measures a mere 330x 190 X 155mm (wdh) and is the most unassuming amp you've ever seen. It's a black lump with a cage on top, phono sockets and binding posts at the back and an on/off toggle switch at the front. Take off the cage, and there's enough glass to supply a Coca-Cola plant in Lilliput. The battery of tubes includes four cheap and plentiful EL84s per channel for output duties, ECC83s as drivers and full valve regulation. A hefty mains transformer occupies one end, with a pair of output transformers at the other. Rated at 25W/ channel, it thinks it's much bigger, and it even yielded listenable levels from the Apogee Centaurus Majors.

But first the pre-amps. All are capable of re-creating a wide and deep soundstage, lots of low level detail and a gorgeous, rich midband and treble without turning sickly-sweet. Dynamics are simply terrific even on the most basic model, but these improve with each step up the ladder. The better power supply circuitry is the obvious cause, but it's not just smoother, more coherent swings from soft to loud which justify the expense. The dearer the model, the more quiet the background and the smoother the silences.

The phono sections are mainly suitable for m-m cartridges or m-cs with inordinately high output, and it's here that you do reap rewards with the dearer models. The phono stage is the limiting factor with the Micro A, although a pair of Ortofon T5 transformers - if you can find 'em - will turn it into an adequate M-C stage.

Not that the Micro A is noisy. Compared with budget Crofts of yore, it's almost solid-state in its silence. It's only when you move to the Super Micro and then the Super Micro A that you're made aware of a slight background hash. But paying for better silences may not be justification enough to move upward, either. The main gain is an overall improvement in clarity, image specificity and detail. By the time you hit the Super Micro A, you're enjoying the sort of performance best associated with 1000 plus units of the American persuasion.

But there is a trade-off which, in some ways, makes the middle model of the three the most satisfactory. The Super Micro A has a slight sharpness - a result of the hyper detail - which you notice alongside a reduction in warmth when judged alongside the less-expensive siblings. But the degree of discomfort it will cause depends on the rest of the system, especially the amplifier. just don't use it with slightly bright partnering equipment and you'll he OK. Which brings me to the Series 5S.

Quite frankly, I didn't expect quite so outstanding a product, prejudging it merely as tubes-on-the-cheap. One of the least expensive all-valve power-amps available, the series 5S is 'cheap' only in that it's so damned homely. It could have been styled by the guy who does camp stoves and industrial toasters. But burn it in for a good week-end, wire it up to any speaker you can think of with a 4 ohms-or better impedance and 85dB/ 1 W/ 1 m sensitivity and you'll challenge any retailer to justify a dearer purchase.

It's sweet. It's dynamic, despite its power rating. It has excellent bass extension and a shimmering top-end. And the mid-band is so life-like that you'll do double-takes when you feed it some well-recorded, uncluttered female vocals.

The trick is balance. It doesn't excel in any one area; it simply works equally well in all areas. I couldn't find a weak spot, any spot where the 5S fell flat. Sure, you'll want more 'easy' SPLs if headbanging is a proclivity, and a few more Hertz at the bottom would make it more suitable for large speaker systems, but - when matched to a fine monitor of the Celestion SL700/Sonus Faber Electa variety - it's nothing short of perfect. I can only dream about how this would work with a pair of the old Quads.

Exceptional as the pre-amps are, and I do mean exceptional, the tastiest bargain in the current Croft line-up is the Series 5S power amp. At 599 for the amp and 379 for the middle of the three preamps, I can think of no better sub-1000 amp purchase. The Croft Super Microplus-Series 5S is now my budget-to-lowermid-price reference.

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