Traditionally Creek has been king of budget British integrated amplifiers. The CAS4040 for example, is a lovely listen, and in its day one of the best things any budding audiophile could afford. It had a warm but grippy, detailed and musical sound that offered enormous bang for your buck. Three decades later, this new Evolution 50 attempts to provide the same sort of sonic virtues, but with a whole lot more going on. In the eighties, having alphanumeric displays, remote controls, electronic switching and backlit fascia buttons were barely possible. Nowadays though, you can apparently have it all – or can you?
The modest sum of £700 buys you this modular design – which has an expansion slot accommodating a range of three (40, 48, 54dB MM or MC) Creek plug-in Sequel Phono modules, an Ambit FM/AM tuner module or Ruby DAC module. It’s decently finished for its price with standard issue Brit-fi black steel casework (430x60x280mm, 7.5kg) and chunky (black or silver) aluminium fascia. Those backlit buttons are a nice touch and work well, in conjunction with a rather suave OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) display, defeatable and with adjustable brightness. Overall, the package works well.
As you’d expect from a marque that takes sound seriously, inside there’s a muscular 200W toroidal mains transformer with separate windings for both high and low current analogue, plus digital circuitry. Smaller, parallel power supply smoothing capacitors are used, as opposed to single larger ones – Creek says this helps to produce a very powerful sound from such a relatively small amplifier. Unusually perhaps, the David Gamble Class AB design is all-discrete and uses a high-end bipolar transistor power amplifier circuit featuring a pair of 15 Amp Sanken STD-03 bipolar power transistors. This is claimed to produce very high output current and low output impedance.
The preamplifier section is based on a Japan Radio Corp module and offers a choice of unbalanced or balanced inputs – it is very rare to see XLR connections on an integrated amplifier at this modest price – with multiple RCA input options plus volume, balance and tone controls, and can be bypassed completely should you have a DAC with a digital volume control and be that way inclined. Sadly Creek doesn’t make an FM tuner anymore, but should you feel the need, that Ambit radio board effectively turns it into a receiver for just a few pounds more, and Mike Creek claims this is more than just an afterthought. A system remote comes supplied.
With a claimed output power of just 55W (into 8 ohms), this isn’t going to burn a Krell-sized hole in your loudspeaker voice coils. But don’t let dissuade you, as amplifier power is only half of the equation in the quest for ‘loudness’, and these days there are plenty of efficient speakers (90dB sensitivity or more) which will make a big noise with a relatively small number of watts. Here we have something that sounds very clean and open – in a way a good transistor amplifier should be – but which doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly analytical or matter-of-fact sounding.
For example, Groove Armada’s Whatever, Whenever showed how it could be both surprisingly transparent, bubbling with detail and finesse, yet also unerringly musical and rhythmic. The amp took control of the track’s big, fat bass guitar pattern, giving a really tactile feel to the low frequencies without ever sounding overblown or under damped. Further up the frequency band, the Creek served up a full, expansive midband which you could really listen in to – indeed you could unpeel it like an onion, should you so wish. I found myself fixing on to the backing synth string sound, and from that I could delve right down into the electronic backing and rhythms with ease.
Caravan’s Nine Feet Underground is a busy track with lots of guitar noodling, frenetic stick work and a lovely, bouncy bassline – all topped off with an edgy sounding electric organ. The Evo 50 set everything in the recorded acoustic beautifully, each strand of the mix playing along by itself untroubled by whatever was going on beside or opposite. As well as staying scrupulously in control, it managed to slot everything together in a wonderfully rewarding way. Rhythmically it was really strong – not quite up with the best tube amps of course – but it really got into the groove and captured the wonderfully loose and floaty feel of this early seventies Canterbury classic.
Tonally you cannot call this amplifier bright – it lacks that ‘spot-lit’ upper midband that afflicts so many similarly priced amplifiers. The Creek is altogether better balanced, with a wonderfully seamless, all-of-a-piece feel that doesn’t have you trying to compensate for its peculiarities; it’s the sort of amp you could slot into a bright budget system and still retain your sanity. For example, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s In Dub is a wonderfully bouncy bit of early eighties reggae but wins no prizes in the smoothness stakes but the Creek makes the most of it without dwelling on the recording’s brightness. Conversely, cue up Solsbury Hill from Peter Gabriel and that fairly muddy sounding seventies rock masterpiece doesn’t hide its light under a bushel, the Creek being just searching enough to really pull the recording out.
Such delicacy of touch and lack of intrinsic colouration is a rare thing to have in an amplifier of this price, and takes you beyond the position where you’re always making excuses. Why then would you ever need to spend more than its £700 selling price if it’s so blameless in the great scheme of amplifier things? Well of course it’s not a universal panacea, and while it will trouble a number of other amplifiers costing up to twice its price, it is mortal like the rest of us. In absolute terms, the Evo 50 lacks some bass heft; low frequencies are decently strong and nicely taut, but there’s no sense that any sort of iron fist is in action. At high levels and on crescendos, when things get really complex and there’s a lot of things being asked of the amplifier’s power transistors and supply, you begin to hear its fallibility. It’s only a fifty watter after all.
In the everyday scheme of things however, these aren’t seriously going to put you off the Creek, as its general quality of sound is so high for a sub-£1,000 amplifier. Moreover, it hides its tracks brilliantly, so even when you’re pushing it just a little too hard, asking just a touch too much from it, it displays grace under pressure. Pretty much any sort of music you play comes out in a satisfyingly rhythmic way, with oodles of detail and surprising finesse. Can’t say fairer than that!