There’s an old saying that more or less goes, “Never judge a book or an amp by its cover.” Exhibit One: the Creek Evolution 100A—outwardly an exemplar of modesty—the quintessential stealth integrated amplifier. With its engraved front panel and chunky control knobs it mirrors its slimline, mild-mannered sibling, the 50A, in most every detail. But beneath the conservative exterior skin of the Evolution 100A lurks a different beast, and underestimating its capabilities would be a serious mistake.
Power output is rated 110Wpc into 8 ohms, a big jump over the 55Wpc Class AB Evolution 50A. It owes this power boost largely to an all-new circuit design. However, shoehorned into the case is also a “super-size-me” power supply. The 360-watt, low-profile, toroidal mains transformer is outfitted with multiple windings for high and low voltages and currents to separately feed the power amp, preamp, and digital circuitry. In its literature, Creek credits its long-standing design policy of paralleling several small capacitors in the power supply to create an ultra-high-specification capacitor with low inductance and ultra-low impedance. This improves filtering and helps boost output from a relatively small amplifier.
Like the Evolution 50A, the 100A uses four Sanken Darlington transistors per channel with built-in thermal compensation. However, to increase the power output without expanding the chassis’ waistline, Creek Audio engineers developed a Class G circuit—a dual-rail design that mostly runs at a lower voltage for power levels up to 25 watts, but that, upon demand, can automatically swing to a higher secondary voltage to increase the output power capability to over 100 watts into 8 ohms.
Dominating the front panel is a large, white-on-black OLED display that’s sharp and readable at realistic distances. Its brightness is adjustable. Flanking the display are the same backlit soft-push buttons found on the Evolution 50 Series, which offer a firm, yet tactile feel. Augmenting the volume knob are balance and tone controls, which in my experience always come in handy. The Evolution 100A is available with either a black or silver brushed-aluminum front panel, and is equipped with two sets of loudspeaker binding posts, with local and remote switching for A and B outputs.
The preamp section provides high levels of flexibility through five unbalanced and a single set of balanced inputs. It’s thoroughly configurable via modular options that slide into back panel “smart slots.” Principal among them is the Ruby DAC/Bluetooth/FM module that replaces Input 5 and features a pair of 24-bit/192kHz SPDIF inputs, twin optical inputs, and a 24-bit/96kHz USB input, as well as Bluetooth and FM reception. If you’re looking only for a dedicated tuner add-on, there’s the optional Ambit plug-in tuner module, which essentially turns the Evolution 100A into a traditional receiver. When fitted, all the tuner’s functions are imported into the display and controlled by the left-hand buttons and control knobs, and remote control. Another modular option is the Sequel 2 phonostage, which replaces Input 1 and plugs into a dedicated connector on the preamp PCB. It’s supplied in three versions (40dB moving-magnet, 48dB moving-coil, and 54dB moving-coil).
The Evolution offers a dedicated headphone circuit. In this case “dedicated” means that rather than generate headphone output off the power amplifier, the output is derived from a separate amplifier located on the preamplifier circuit board. And this is no throwaway, either—it’s a solid, satisfying performer capable of driving low-impedance portable-player earbuds as well as higher-impedance over-the-ear designs. For those seeking sheer convenience, the Bluetooth setup was as easy as screwing in the included antennae and enabling the “Evolution BT” on my MacBook via My Settings/Bluetooth/My Devices. Quasi-computer-phobe that I am, it’s always “fingers crossed.” But BT worked like a charm—that is, to the extent it can. Actually, it performed like all BT devices in my home—less than pristinely focused and somewhat compressed. Great for parties, but IMHO leave the serious listening to Ruby.
During my evaluations, the Evolution 100A was given an Olympic-level workout driving top-notch loudspeakers such as the Wilson Sabrina, the Spendor S7, and the Vandersteen Quattro Treo CT. And while I fully realize that most Creek owners are not going to put this amp through the withering gauntlet of such high-resolution loudspeaker pairings that doesn’t mean it wasn’t game for the challenge. In each scenario, the Evolution 100A was rock-solid and stable across the frequency spectrum, with full-bodied bass, a warm, slightly chesty midrange, and relatively smooth and forgiving treble throughout Appalachian Journey [Sony]. It’s a straight shooter in that it didn’t shine headlights on any particular octave range, and it’s not an additive sound in the sense of being tipped-up or rolled-off at the extremes.
On tracks from Pat Metheny and Charlie Hayden’s Beyond the Missouri Sky, the bass transients were nicely focused and tuneful. The initial pop off the string was clean and forceful, although ideally it should have been more of a swift jab. This impression is consistent with the Evolution 100A’s nature of veering to a rounder, slightly warmer sound overall.
Tracks from Norah Jones’ seminal album Come Away with Me were well focused, spacious, and three-dimensional, though the soundstage also narrowed slightly on “Cold Cold Heart,” and the 100A didn’t reproduce the bass vamp as tenaciously as certain other amps. I also felt that the singer’s vocal transients were not quite as resonant and airy as I’ve noted with highbrow references such as the MBL C51 integrated, the Jeff Rowland Continuum S2, or the new Pass Labs INT-250 (review forthcoming).
The 100A’s ability to reproduce ambient information from a live acoustic recording was very good. I admired the nicely positioned and layered orchestra sections during Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture, as well as the low-level sparkle emanating from the concert harp. And in the background, the ambient space of the hall lent a sense of volume and perspective. Turning to studio-born music, a track like “Tea in the Sahara” from The Police’s Synchronicity album presented penetrating bass, percussion, and kickdrum information with remarkably clean dynamics, pitch, and air. The Evolution 100A handled the complex intermingling of these cues with aplomb, although some constriction and dynamic foreshortening slipped in at higher levels.
The instrument that authenticates performance (at least for me) is the piano. No other instrument combines its vast repertoire of textures and touch, explosive dynamics, and expressive detail. As I listened to Warren Bernhardt’s “Autumn Leaves” track from his So Real disc, I was impressed with the persuasive ease with which the Evolution 100A reproduced the track. The tonal color and tactile “feel” were present in satisfying measures, albeit not up to reference standards. But during the solo portions I felt the imaging between the bass and the percussion could have been expressed more cleanly. As mentioned earlier, the Evolution 100A by nature doesn’t extend; rather, it subtracts. Thus, acoustic bass misses the resonant shudder coming off the soundboard.
My most favorable impressions were reserved for the Ruby DAC, an affordable option at $599 that I would consider a must for all but the most hard-bitten analog fans (JV, for instance?). Although limited to 24-bit/96kHz sampling rates, I found its performance fluid, focused, and dynamic. The spread of backing vocals during Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” was pristine and transparent; voices combined without smearing the distinctive timbre and attack of the individual singers. And during soprano Audra McDonald’s rendering of “Lay Down Your Head,” the individuation and space among the backing group’s players was refined and delicate. Overall, the Ruby DAC gamely held its own—even against some of the most stellar digital I’ve had in hand, such as the soon-to-be-reviewed Esoteric K-03x. It was not quite as open or color-saturated as the big K, but it came closer than I would have expected.
High-end doctrine dictates that we eventually aspire to à la carte audio—hand-selected-and-prepared component separates. It’s a bit of nose-in-the-air snobbery that many of us succumb to at some point. I know I have. However, when you allow yourself to fully experience music reproduction as we all innocently did when we first got into the high end, you more fully appreciate what a compact, nicely sorted-out amp like the Evolution 100A accomplishes. The Creek Evolution 100A reminds us of just how satisfying ordering up a single classic entrée can be. A tasty product that will keep you coming back for more.
SPECS & PRICING
Power output: 110Wpc into 8 ohms (170Wpc into 4 ohms)
Inputs: Five RCA, one XLR
Power-amp inputs: RCA and XLR
Dimensions: 17″ x 2.4″ x 11″
Weight: 20 lbs.
Price: $2195 (Ruby DAC, $599; Ambit AM/FM tuner, $250; Sequel Phono, mm, $200, mm/high-output mc, $250)
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023