Thursday, May 1, 2008

Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier

Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier  HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

The one thing I've liked about designer Mike Creek of Creek Audio as much as his design talent is his predictability. I've been following his integrated-amplifier designs for nearly 20 years now, having reviewed, in sequence, the CAS4140s2 (for another magazine), the 4240SE (Stereophile, December 1995, Vol.18 No.12), and the 5350SE (March 2001, Vol.24 No.3). In each case, I was sufficiently impressed with the review sample that I bought it and made it my new reference in my second, affordable system. The predictable part comes from Creek's traditional nomenclature: an "s2" or "SE" (Special Edition) designation has always denoted a modest upgrade, and a numerical uptick in the model number a more significant upgrade, the level of significance denoted by the specific digit being increased. Hence, the update from 4240 to 5350 is intended to indicate a greater improvement in sound than the update from 4140 to 4240.

But with his latest integrated amplifier, Creek has thrown his entire numerical upgrade system out the window. In his view, the Creek Destiny ($2200) is such a giant step up in design and sound from its predecessor, the $1495 5350SE, that it requires entirely new nomenclature. Still, he's keeping the 5350SE, now slightly redesigned and rechristened the Creek Classic, in production as well.

The Creek Destiny's external appearance indicates significant improvements in construction quality and cosmetics. The spartan, minimalist aesthetic of earlier Creek gear has been replaced by the sleek, the sexy, the modern, the rugged—the Destiny's 22-lb weight reminds me more of Krell gear than of Creek. In an e-mail, Mike Creek explained: "The Destiny amp is enormously strong and could probably withstand being driven over with a car, although nobody has tried this yet, due to the value of the parts involved." Moreover, the front-panel controls are logically laid out, and the elaborate remote control is designed to also control the companion Destiny CD player.

My comments here reflect the Destiny integrated's performance with my usual analog and digital front-ends, as well as with the new Destiny CD player (footnote 1). (Roy Hall, of Creek importer Music Hall, insisted on sending me a Destiny CDP as well.) I listened to the Destiny with a number of different loudspeakers, but most of my conclusions here were drawn in the context of Monitor Audio's RS6 Silver and Joseph Audio's RM7 XL Special Edition speakers (a review of the latter is underway).

The Design
For the Destiny, the discrete analog MOSFET circuitry Creek has used since 1993 was refined and upgraded with the introduction of separate power-supply and voltage-referencing circuits for each channel. The Destiny also includes Surface Mount Technology (SMT) to reduce the space taken up by the amplifier circuits and improve the layout. This, according to Creek, allows the signal path and amplification to be located on the top layer of the circuit board, and the power supplies and ground to be located on the bottom layer. The Destiny is also fully dual-mono, and its low-noise, 300VA toroidal transformer has separate windings for the preamp and power-amp circuits. In addition, the left and right channels have their own low-impedance DC power supplies, fed from two separate Shottky-barrier diode bridge rectifiers and multi-capacitor reservoirs, for a total of 20,000µF. Creek claims output power of more than 100Wpc into 8 ohms (both channels driven) and 200W into 4 ohms (one channel driven).

The Destiny's elaborate array of protection circuits is designed to monitor temperature, current, DC offsets, power-supply status, and overdrive situations. If any of these conditions exceeds preset conditions, a microprocessor takes action and either mutes the input signal, separates the speaker outputs, or, in extreme cases, shuts off the main power.

These protection circuits turned out to be a problem with my first sample of the Destiny, which shut down several times for seemingly no reason, the shutdown in each case preceded by a slight, phasey high-frequency distortion in one channel. I sent the amp back to Mike Creek, who couldn't replicate the problem but said that the sample was from an early production run and may have included some off-spec capacitors. The second sample he sent me, from a later production run, ran flawlessly. Aside from the minor hiccup with the first sample, the two Destinys sounded identical.

The Destiny has five line-level inputs, a tape-monitor loop, a headphone amplifier, and two sets of speaker outputs, which can be run concurrently or separately. The Destiny will eventually have optional plug-in boards for either a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage or an integrated DAC, but as these were not yet in production, I used the phono-stage plug-in from my 5350SE and an additional pair of interconnects. The Destiny's preamp and power-amp sections can be used separately, and, although the integrated has a passive preamp section, there's also the option of switching in an additional gain section in the line stage, which can add up to 9dB in increments of 3dB.

I have mixed views about the unorthodox speaker terminals on the rear panel. They're rugged and angled—it's literally impossible to short them out—but they're designed for bare wires or banana plugs. I'm used to spade lugs and five-way binding posts, so this disturbed me at first. And with the spade lugs fastened to the Speaker A terminals, the odd angle made it impossible to fit a second pair of banana plugs into the Speaker B terminals. That said, I found that the Destiny's posts grabbed the spade lugs on my speaker cables better than most five-way types do.

Footnote 1: Creek Audio's 24-bit/192kHz Destiny CD player ($2500) visually resembles the Destiny integrated amplifier and seems cut from the same sonic cloth. It shared with the Destiny integrated the same pristine, extended, and delicate high frequencies, along with portrayals of ambience, air, and subtle low-level dynamic articulation that more resembled a good vinyl front-end or analog master tape than anything digital. Unlike Creek's CD53 Mk.II, a sample of which I own, the Creek Destiny so clearly outperformed my California Audio Labs Icon Mk.II Power Boss that I was looking for some way to justify its purchase. The CAL made my decision easier: Toward the end of the reviewing process, after 15 years of loyal service as my reference CD player, the CAL gave up the ghost.—Robert J. Reina

The Sound
I can't comment on the timbral characteristics of the Creek Destiny because, across the entire frequency spectrum, I heard not a single deviation from neutrality—this is the least colored component I've ever reviewed. Here are its strengths:

• pristine, extended, and detailed high frequencies with no trace of hardness, and a purity and delicacy that reminded me more of the pricier Jeff Rowland Design Group products than of older Creek designs; appearing in my listening notes many times: "Clean! Clean! Clean!"

• an organic rendering of low-level dynamic articulation and subtleties that reminded me of expensive tubed gear, and a powerful sense of high-level dynamic slam that, with the right recordings, could be startling

• superb rendition of inner detail across the frequency spectrum, combined with abilities to render hall sound, image specificity, and ambience that rivaled much more expensive separates

It's that detail thing that most got me. Throughout my notes appear such comments as: "never heard that bongo part," "vocal phrasings I'd never noticed before," "guitar detail I'd never heard before"—all about recordings I'd heard dozens of times before. The Destiny is the kind of amplifier that made me want to put down my pen, kick back, and listen to music. Which I did—for many, many hours.

The Destiny's rich, silky, holographic presentation of Madeleine Peyroux's voice on her Dreamland CD (Atlantic 82936-2) was one thing, but I focused more on Marc Ribot's finger-picked dobro. Although very familiar with this disc, this was the first time I'd noticed that Ribot uses different dynamic attacks on his instrument's lead, rhythm, and bass strings. Similarly, listening to the a cappella "Our Prayer," from Brian Wilson's SMiLE (CD, Nonesuch 79846-2), I was easily able to follow the dynamic inflections of each separate vocal line.

Listening to Timothy Seelig and the Turtle Creek Chorale's recording of John Rutter's Requiem (HDCD, Reference RR57-CD) was a treat. Aside from the glorious and airy voice of soprano Nancy Keith and the extended upper register of the flute, I was amazed at how easy I could follow the low-level organ-pedal lines way down in the mix. They were deep, effortless, and uncolored. My notes: "with tears in my eyes, the naturalness, the drama, ahhhh!"

Twentieth-century chamber music let the Creek strut its stuff on difficult high-frequency passages. The shimmering extended partials of all the percussion instruments in George Crumb's Night Music (LP, Candide 31113) were breathtaking. Swedish composer Christer Lindvall's bombastic chamber work Earth Bow, from Rhizome (CD, Phono Suecia PSCD 154), features electric guitar and percussion—my speakers seemed to disappear, with all instruments placed precisely along the wide, deep soundstage.

The Destiny's ease with highly modulated passages of orchestral recordings made it easy for me to analyze each work's structure. Listening to David Chesky's Violin Concerto, from Area 31 (SACD/CD, Chesky SACD299, CD layer), it was very easy to hear the subtle pitch inflections on the timpani, violinist Tom Chiu's phrasing in his solo passages, and the low-level bassoon line under the hairier orchestral parts.

Jazz freaks will love the Destiny. On "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," from Bill Frisell's East/West (CD, Nonesuch 79863-2), the Creek's superb articulation of transients let me follow the subtle dynamic inflections of Kenny Wollenson's brushes as if I were attending a live performance. With Keith Jarrett's Radiance (CD, ECM 1960/61), I could follow the master's inflections and dynamics in excruciating detail—it was as if I could see his fingers on the keys. The upper ranges of the piano were shimmering and extended without a touch of brightness. The neo-romantic dynamic swells that are critical to this music shone through as they do when I see Jarrett live in performance. And the tandem crescendos of Don Fiorino's guitar and Mark Flynn's drums in "Crushing Heaves of Silence," from Attention Screen's La Tessitura (CD, Hojo HOJO110), were reproduced without strain or hint of compression.

The Creek's high-frequency purity came through in spades with Sonic Youth's "Becuz," from Washing Machine (CD, Geffen DGCD-24825). The upper registers of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's just-intonation Fender Jazzmasters shimmered with endless decay and pristine drama. The Destiny's abilities in high-level dynamic slam were particularly noteworthy with recordings that had dramatic and extended bass information. When I cranked up Kraftwerk's "Man Machine," from Minimum/Maximum (CD, EMI ASW 60611), to well past 100dB through both the Monitor and Joseph speakers, the lowest bass-synth blasts caused visible and tactile movement of my pants legs from across the room.

The Others
I was dying to compare the Destiny ($2395) to my own Creek 5350SE integrated ($1495). John Atkinson also sent along NAD's C 372 integrated ($899), which Jim Austin favorably reviewed in the October 2006 Stereophile.

Like the Destiny, the 5350SE is a neutral performer, although its midbass is very slightly warmer. To me, this implies that the Destiny may have set a new standard for midbass clarity in my system. Dynamics at both extremes were superior with the Destiny, whose highs were more detailed, delicate, and extended. The Destiny also revealed more inner midrange detail and had a greater sense of ease. Both amps were superb at articulating transients.

The NAD C 372 had a sweet, delicate midrange, but revealed less detail than the Destiny, and vocals were not as holographically presented. The NAD's highs were less extended and airy, while the Destiny revealed more hall sound and ambience. The NAD's midbass, too, was warmer and not as defined as the Destiny's, which also did better with high-level dynamics.

I've been a fan of Creek Audio for many years, but even I was surprised at how impressed I was with the Destiny—Mike Creek had already set his standard very high with the 5350SE. But I'm happy to make the Destiny my new reference in affordable integrated amplifiers, and have decided to buy Creek's superb Destiny CD player as well. In fact, I was intoxicated by the combination of the Destinys with the Monitor Audio Silver RS6 speakers. The trio produced a detailed, delicate, dynamic, uncolored sound that rivaled what systems costing twice as much can manage. I strongly suggest that dealers who sell both Creek and Monitor gear audition this system.

Mike Creek, you've done it again. Keep raising that bar!

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