Warp back to 1995, and the world was quite a different place. In hi-fi, we were besieged by a welter of black pressed steel-cased transistor amplifiers and CD players; Audiolab’s 8000a reigned supreme on the showroom floor, and the talk was of a new format called HDCD. Valve amplifiers were slowly beginning to creep back into public consciousness, but still regarded with extreme suspicion and no small amount of amusement by their many doubters. Amidst all this, one small British company was making an extremely focused, oddball preamplifier called the Micro, which offered quite superb performance for the price, and – shock, horror! – it used valves!
Launched in 2006 for £990, the Vita was a bigger, better version. It sports a largish (100x400x300mm) case in beautifully polished chrome with a black Perspex front, blue illuminated legends and big silver volume and source selector knobs. At the back, there’s a welter of gold plated phono socketry, including four line inputs, a phono input (with standard tube MM stage) and a single preamp out.
Inside, it is hard wired, the bulk of the wiring being used, according to designer Glen Croft, “in Broadcast Applications and in Abbey Road Studios”. The solid flat OFC copper on the negative of the power supply caps together with the bypass is said to be specifically tuned, and the selector switch is a high quality gold plated Palazzo switch. Pots are Blue ALPS types, but made specifically for Croft. The 6SL7 valves are specifically chosen for their natural warmth – for example Mullard non-military ECC35; the military versions may last longer, but the audio valves sound better. “The VT 229 classic valve is usually, fast and accurate. The Sovteks are fitted because they are clean, naturally warm, and have good frequency extension”, says Croft.
Although the choice of materials for the Vita is impressive, you can’t say it’s screwed together quite as well as some rival manufacturers. There’s a certain fragility to its feel that you don’t get from Japanese products of the same price, for example. The switches are a little noisy and the casing is slightly microphonic – a rap of the knuckles produced a thud through the speakers.
This is a serious sounding preamplifier whose phonostage gives rivals a very hard time. It wins no prizes for precision, detail or depth, but is seriously musical and a pleasure to hear. If you’re schooled on the cool precision of taut, tight, clinical and detailed transistor phonostages, you’ll find the Croft warm and woolly. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Bass is full and loose, and lacks a grip of the leading edges. The midband is quite two-dimensional, with poor fine detail resolution – forensic it is not. Treble isn’t by any stretch of the imagination open and airy. Yet it’s about ten times as musically convincing as your average high quality, high end transistor design. Put simply, the Croft shows real rhythmic élan; it has a natural feel than makes solid-staters sound frigid and mechanical.
The Lover Speaks’ No More I Love Yous showed a vast, expansive soundstage with great left-to-right staging. It’s truly widescreen, in the best sense of the word. Maybe it’s not quite as architecturally correct as a transistor phonostage, but that’s to miss the point. The Vita is euphonic sounding, and none the worse for it. This makes music truly uplifting, and also underlines what tubes can do. Interestingly, despite the loose bass, rhythmically it’s very convincing. That’s because the midband is truly lucid. It’s able to string a sequence of notes together in a way that’s rare, and all the better for it.
Jazz is where the Croft does best; Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner has a wonderful sense of pace, and really shows the musicians playing together empathetically. The Vita really emotes, and shows the point of the music, if not every last minute technical detail. Again, the bass is rich and warm, and the treble smooth and sweet and a little soft. The midband is a tad woolly and imprecise, with mediocre front to back staging, but the pace the Croft brings to the proceedings is a joy.
On classical, the music issues out from the loudspeakers with a lovely, organic feel. There’s a fine timbre to strings in my Deutsche Gramophon recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic), the Croft conveying the sense of being there better than it has a right to. Via the line level inputs, it’s more of the same; there’s less ‘hear through’ detail than the MF Audio Passive Pre, but the Vita gives a large and bracing sound that pulls you into the vocals and midband melodies. The downside is that it’s a little noisy, a little hissy, and a little loose and coloured.
This isn’t a universal panacea in the great scheme of hi-fi preamplifiers, but is a quirky and loveable device that is flawed but fun. It was very good value when new and all the more so now, if you can find it or its Micro cousin for under three hundred pounds or so. A charismatic product to love, warts and all.