Continuing my series of integrated amp reviews (integrated means it has both
preamplifier and power amplifier in the same chassis), I once again end up in merry
old England. The UK is a nation that seems to be in love with integrateds, and where the
benefits of less boxes, lower cost, and fewer connections appear to have
outweighed the flexibility and megalomania of separates.
Creek Audio Systems was started in 1982 by Michael Creek in the U.K. Since then, ownership has gone through a series of changes. Currently, Michael Creek still owns 50% of the company and is the Managing Director.
Before starting Creek Audio, Michael had gained significant experience in the
audio industry. Beginning in 1970, he worked in his father's audio company Wyndsor Recording
Co. Ltd, which made low cost 'reel to reel' tape recorders, record players,
cassette recorders and FM/AM radios. Then, in 1976 he formed M.R.Creek Ltd,
through which he acted as a design consultant to the audio industry.
The front panel is a very handsome looking block of machined aluminum. It
features a power button, volume control, and speaker selector. It also has
separate selectors for source input and recording source, in case you want
to listen to one source while you record another. I have no interest in this
since the CD burner on my PC handles all the recording I do these days. It also
features a headphone jack for you can-heads.
The rear panel also hosts six line-level inputs via RCA jacks, and two tape-out loops. There also is a set of pre-in and pre-out RCA jacks, that are connected via a u-bar jumper, and removing the u-bar disconnects the power section from the preamp section. This allows you to use the 5350SE as a preamp or power amp if you want to. I would have been much happier if the line-level signals were not routed through those jumpers, and if a pre-out had been provided instead to allow me to connect a subwoofer. Of course, it is virtually impossible to design features to be able to please everyone, especially the likes of finicky nit-pickers like me.
The remote control supplied is an excellent design. It's compact enough to fit snugly in your palm, and has few enough buttons that you can quickly memorize the intuitive layout. However, the sample supplied for this review stopped working after a few weeks, not that I have much use for a remote. I thought it might just be the batteries, but I tried several sets without success.
One of the great benefits of building an integrated amplifier is that you can start out with a design of the pre or power sections that really rocks your boat, and then design the other section to mate optimally. Creek like many others, has utilized this opportunity, and has implemented a passive preamp section. The beauty of a passive preamp of course is that other than source switching and volume control, there is nothing else in the signal path.
However, there is some difficulty with integrating a passive preamp properly into a hi-fi rig:
First, the source must be able to deliver a high enough voltage and have a low enough output impedance, i.e., deliver enough current to sustain the journey from the source's outputs to the power amplifier's inputs, without degradation or attenuation. Many modern source components have op-amps in their output stages, and these devices are usually able to generate high enough voltages, but are unable to deliver large amounts of current.
Secondly, total capacitance of the interconnects must be low enough to not taper off the higher frequencies of that fragile source signal.
And, lastly, the power amp must have a high input impedance and voltage
sensitivity to be able to accept the weak signal and drive it to full
resolution. The actual values for the metrics mentioned above vary depending
on whom you ask, and frankly I do not have the expertise to quantify the
values. The point is, with a passive preamp there is a lot to be said for the
simplicity of its approach, but it is not easy to implement, and the a lot of
attention must be paid to system matching.
I innocently asked further about what the tradeoffs were, not
only to report to you but also to increase my own knowledge, and the response
revealed something important. Someone once called Mike Creek a
'quiet' person; perhaps he never asked him a question on the design of his
products. Well, Mike went on for at least a good 20 minutes. My relatively
limited technical knowledge only allowed me to grasp a couple of items
he showered on me, but before I could digest any of that information he
unleashed another avalanche of information. Honestly, I could not even keep up
writing it all down. The only way I could summarize the technical aspect of my
interview with him is that this obviously is a man who is completely immersed
in what he does, is very passionate about his work, puts an immense amount of
effort and trial into each nuance of each product, and is not at all secretive;
this is as much of a hobby as a business to him. While I do find many
designers of audio equipment to be similar in nature, I have come across a
couple who are extremely tight -lipped. I personally, applaud the likes of
Mike Creek who help make this pursuit complete, by satisfying the needs for
both knowledge and good product.
The amp is rated at 85 wpc into 8 ohms and 150wpc into 4 ohms, with a
peak current capability of better than 30 amps. For 50 msec
durations, the amp can deliver about 300wpc into 2 ohms, about 500wpc into 1
ohm, and about 1000wpc into 0.5 ohm; per Roy Hall the US distributor. This is
testament to the rugged design of the amp. Warranty is 2 years.
All tests were done at two levels that registered at 60 dB and 80 dB at my
listening spot, using a -20 dB pink noise test tone. Comparing the Creek 5350SE
directly to the previously reviewed Musical Fidelity A3.2, I found a subtle
but distinct shading that separated them. Basically, I felt that the A3.2 was
more prominent in the midrange, and the 5350SE in the frequency extremes. I
cannot tell for sure which amp is more 'neutral' or flat in its response, or
which one I preferred more, but here is what I heard, so judge for yourself.
At one point on the track, the eight-armed Russ Henry was all over the large
toms and the high hats, while playing a little rat-a-tat on the snare. This
snippet of microdynamics was a little more prominent with the A3.2, likely due
to the prominence in the midrange relative to the Creek.
On this track, the Creek edged slightly ahead in terms of detail and tonality
of the drumsticks hitting the triangle and cymbals. The Creek also was better
at its ability to separate the instruments in space. The Musical Fidelity,
was no slouch at any of the above either and did give a little more weight to
the sound of Sting's thumb thwacking the electric bass.
In my mind, for $1500 you could not even come close to this performance with separates. There are
a host of other integrated amplifiers in this price range, and direct
comparison to one of them showed that the Creek yielded no ground in overall
terms. They had their sonic differences, and deciding between them could only
be an issue of personal preference. I hope I have provided enough detail in
this review to help you make that distinction.