Creek Audio Voyage i20 Integrated Amplifier Review
This swish new high end integrated is a sign of changing times, says David Price…
Voyage i20 Integrated Amplifier
AUD $7,995 RRP
Meet Creek's twenty-first-century reimagining of the nineteen-eighties 'super integrated' concept. From the brand that helped pioneer 'affordable audiophile' amplifiers nearly forty years ago – many readers will know and love the old CAS4040 – comes this compact, attractive and powerful one-box design now. The new Creek Audio Voyage i20 costs $7,995, which puts it in the upper echelons of today's market, and is interesting in a number of respects…
Company founder Mike Creek says this is his company's most expensive amplifier ever. One reason is that he's moved manufacturing out of China, and back to Europe. “Our business model has changed”, he explains. “We have ended a long-term arrangement of building thousands of products in advance and selling from stock. This has enabled us to save on storage costs and concentrate instead on manufacturing to order, in smaller batch sizes. Trying to match competition from UK-branded companies that are now Chinese owned and built en-masse in huge factories, is no longer desirable to me. Instead, I have decided to develop advanced products like this in the UK, and assemble them in Europe in a specialist factory.”
Yet production logistics are only partially responsible for the move upmarket because the Voyage i20 is a step-change for the brand in terms of its technical capabilities and engineering depth. As we shall see, it boasts operational sophistication unseen in any Creek product before. Yet still, there are hints of that 'puritan' Creek Audio ethos – it's refreshingly sparse and unassuming in its basic design. “It's not what I call hi-fi jewellery, with pointless bling”, Mike says. “Instead, the money has been spent inside on state-of-the-art circuitry and top-notch materials. There has been zero compromises to the audio engineering.”
So the new Voyage i20 is aimed at a new, higher-end market, as well as existing customers wishing to upgrade. It's about delivering operational sophistication and sonic performance in a discreet and elegant package. “And there will be those”, Mike adds, “actively looking to buy from a British company that's still managed and run by the person – or family – behind the brand name.” In today's multinational corporate world, that stands for something.
Expertly designed by Mike's son Luke, the i20's fascia gives complete control of all the amp's functions from just two rotary controls and a large, centrally mounted, paper-white on black, fine-pitch OLED display. It's a really pleasing user interface, the sort that would have hi-fi hacks breathless with praise were this from Scandinavia. The aluminium front panel is delicately surfaced, and the controls have a silky yet positive action. The black metal casework behind is done to a high standard, with a utilitarian quality you'd expect from Hegel as opposed to glitzier Japanese brands. The Voyage i20 is impressively compact at 430x80x350mm, and not too heavy at 9kg – so is listening room-friendly too.
Powerful amplifiers either need lots of heatsinking and therefore a large case, or you have to go the Class D way. Mike says that Creek has developed Class D prototypes in the past, including Zetex/CSR DDFA types of digital feedback circuitry. “But with one exception, Class D amplifiers suffer from the negative effects of needing a large series inductive filter in the output, that dominates their potential sound quality”, he tells me. “I feel I am not quite ready to abandon linear amplifier design work and simply plug-and-play with off-the-shelf modules, regardless of how good they might be…”
I'm not sure that Creek fans would be ready for him to do that either, so he's chosen a Class G design that runs for the most part in Class AB. “Voyage uses a more advanced version of the Class G output circuit used in the Evolution 100A. The main difference is that the Voyage uses six high-current MOSFETs to lift the power supply rails compared to the Evolution 100A that used four bi-polar transistors, instead.” This improves thermal efficiency; for the Voyage to be pure Class AB and capable of developing the same power, it would need to weigh quite a few kilos more to dissipate the heat generated by the standing bias current.”
Mike explains that Class G – in the form used by Creek – has two power supply rails. “Let's say there is a full voltage rail (upper) and a half voltage rail. When the signal demands higher voltage rails to track signals at higher power levels, the power MOSFETs in the Class G output circuit switch from half rail voltage to full rail voltage. Immediately that peak is passed, the voltage that supplies the bias current drops too. Half the power supply voltage allows for a quarter of the power so in effect it's like having a 120W into 8 ohm amplifier when peak signals demand it, or a 30W amplifier when not producing peaks. So the heatsink size can be reduced substantially. Class G circuitry leverages the dynamic nature of music to reduce wasted heat.”
Because lots of power can be developed in a relatively compact space with less heatsinking, the amplifier is cheaper to make in terms of casework and heatsinks, but requires more expensive semiconductors. So why isn't every amplifier Class G? Mike says the system has been around since the sixties but has been hard to implement until recently because of technological limitations. “The speed at which the Class G's 'lifting' diodes operate, overcome most of the negative effects that were insurmountable in the sixties, when it was first developed. Semiconductors today are far more advanced than those available sixty years ago. Once that skill has been learned, it makes perfect sense to leverage it.”
Only if you know what you're doing of course. “It takes a special skill to get it right”, Mike adds. Yet we're seeing ever more such designs, and things are moving on apace. What sets his implementation apart is its special, high-frequency power supply. “The i20 is the first Creek amplifier to use this advanced technology. Apart from significantly reducing the size of the power supply compared to more conventional designs, it stabilises the voltage. That means the voltage required to develop the quoted power output can be fixed at a lower level, as it will not change either on or off load. Therefore, less wasteful heat is dissipated compared to conventional amplifiers producing similar power outputs.”
To achieve the rated output of 120W into 8 ohms, the power supply is limited to 1,500W maximum, but Mike says it could easily produce considerably more juice if needed. Interestingly, into half the load the claimed output power doubles to 240W, and doubles again into 2 ohms. “The stability of this power supply is equivalent to the ultra-low impedance of the mains, which is rock-solid regardless of load. I believe this alone is responsible for the amp's dynamic power delivery, when driving any type of speaker.”
The Voyage i20 uses powerful Sanken STD03 bipolar transistors augmented by multiple MOSFETs to deliver prodigious power output if required. Thermal tracking is used to correct idle current and minimise crossover distortion. Being DC coupled, decoupling capacitors are eliminated to optimise sound. An electronic servo circuit compensates for small DC offsets and maintains the amplifier's output at zero volts DC. Three forms of fault protection are included – overcurrent, DC offset and temperature; the output will be muted until the fault has gone away, to save your loudspeakers.
Despite having just two fascia control knobs, the i20 is highly versatile. The preamp section sports ten analogue and digital inputs, with three pairs of RCA phono and one pair of balanced XLRs. These are all relay-switched and are selected by the left fascia knob, which can also be pushed in, in certain ways, to get the amplifier's assorted menu settings. For example, users can vary the gain of the inputs in 3dB steps, and the amp can be set to bypass the preamp and volume control via Direct mode. The right-hand volume knob also doubles up as a mute button and a balance control, also depending on how and when it's pushed in. There's also the option of the £129 plug-in Sequel mk4 phono stage, offering MM or MC connectivity with 40 or 50dB gain, 100pF or 200pF capacitance and RIAA filtering. Prior experience of this impressive-sounding device tells me that it's a worthwhile extra to have.
The fascia sports a full-size headphone socket powered by a dedicated headphone amplifier stage. The amp also has a built-in DAC that gives two pairs of both coaxial and optical digital inputs, plus USB and aptX HD Bluetooth. Mike has chosen an AK4493EQ DAC chip able to handle PCM up to 32-bit, 768 kHz and 22.4 MHz DSD. The USB's circuitry is galvanically isolated from the DAC to eliminate ground loops and RF noise. Another use of the USB input is for software updates, meaning the Creek can gain new functionality later in life. Via the S/PDIF ins, the DAC plays up to 24/192.
The menus offer all sorts of choices – for example, you can choose whether you want the amp to switch to standby after a preset time or not, vary the display brightness and do firmware updates. The display has comprehensive information about the source and volume levels selected, and digital resolution of incoming signals. You can even check the operating temperature of the heatsinks. It also has a little 'G' legend that flashes when the amp is delivering more than around 50W RMS per channel. Only the slightly pixelated display font let the side down, to my eyes.
Even though I've reviewed most over the years, two Creek integrated amplifiers stand out as iconic to me. First is the original CAS4040 itself, and second the Destiny of a decade or so ago. The former laid the template for the Creek sound, with a smooth, even, open and musical nature that – if we're being honest – was a little 'softly sprung'. It certainly wasn't as biting as some rivals of the time. The Destiny was like this on steroids; a big, rich and sumptuous sound with a lovely musical lilt to it, plus lots more power. This new Voyage i20 sounds far more modern than both of these – with dramatically increased resolution and detail – yet it still retains the brand's enjoyable musicality across all its inputs.
For example, when fed by my Cyrus CD Xt Signature transport and Chord Hugo TT DAC via a line input, the classic sixties pop of The Letter by The Box Tops came over with a super-keen sense of rhythm and drive, as the speed and immediacy of those opening rim shots showed. There was great transient speed to the proceedings, underlined by the rhythm guitar part that was brilliantly syncopated to the cymbal work. The bass guitar was tight and taut, really pushing the song along in a propulsive way. Brass stabs kicked in on the beat with real impact, and the overall feel was of an open window into a vibrant live performance.
Where the Destiny would have given this track a panoramic but slightly hazy soundscape, the Voyage i20 proved altogether more accurate in its handling of space. It still served up a wide soundstage left-to-right, but image location was laser-focused rather than 'in the general direction of'. This was even more apparent with the acoustic jazz of Herbie Hancock's lilting I Have a Dream. The recorded acoustic was beautifully spacious, while the amplifier provided a super-sharp rendition of the respective positions of the drum kit, double bass, trombones, flugelhorn and piano.
The track also underlined this new Creek's superlative detail resolving ability; things were extremely atmospheric, with an almost 'glass-clear' quality to the midband. Conspicuous clarity isn't really a traditional Creek thing; historically its amplifiers have always been a tad opaque and dreamy sounding, lending a warm colouration to the sound. Nothing wrong with that of course; many prefer it to the gritty and forward midbands of some rivals. Yet the Voyage i20 leaves behind the brand's traditional sound to an extent, while never appearing hard or 'metal-plated'. Feed it the nineties grunge rock of Sugar's Changes for example, and there's no need to hide behind the sofa. The cranked up riffing of Bob Mould's multiple layers of effects pedal-soaked electric guitars delivered a bracing performance that swept me along it its wake – aided and abetted by copious crashing hi-hat and ride cymbals. Yet I found myself stirred by the music rather than scared by it; instead of caricaturing that crazy, ringing guitar tone, this amplifier accurately conveyed it.
This proved a fascinating point; instead of having 'a nice tone' like classic Creeks of yore, the Voyage i20 has a finely resolved and accurate one. It's not sugaring the pill, but neither does it any way sour it – you're just handed it on the proverbial plate. This inherent transparency lets you peer right into recordings to discover their dramatically different studio conditions. For example, I could easily tell a Stax recording such as the original soundtrack album to Shaft by Isaac Hayes, from the dry British studio sound of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy. The former was so sweet it could have been made with marshmallows; with Cafe Regios its bass was thick and fulsome, and there was a deliciously creamy midband. Yet The Rain Song from the latter was all about big, crashing drums, while the arpeggios from the steel-string acoustic guitar were rendered with a crispness and edge that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Although no match for the Chord DAC, the Voyage i20's internal digital to analogue converter still proved impressive. Rush's Subdivisions was recorded digitally in the early eighties, and a long way from the band's warmer analogue early work like Take A Friend. It's a complex, multi-layered production that's dominated by processed guitars, synthesiser backing, taut and tight bass guitar work and of course the band's trademark virtuoso rock drumming. Because of the recording technology of the time and the production, it actually sounds a good deal smaller and more densely packed than early Rush, and harder to enjoy. Yet, this amplifier was able to bring the recording out of itself, unravelling the layers of instrumentation to get at the heart of the music. The Destiny – one of my favourite solid-state amplifiers of the past two decades – would always try to flatter this track's sound, but the Voyage i20 had a serious go at accurately conveying it. True, it did come over as a little less saccharine sounding, yet still ended up more enjoyable.
This was all the more apparent when I turned the volume up; I'm lucky enough to live in a detached house and enjoy the occasional blast. The new Creek was at home working at high levels, and I found myself getting that 'G' legend on the display flashing more often than perhaps I should. Particular fun was had with electronic music, for which the Voyage i20's character is perfectly suited. Some mid-evening blasting of Goldie's Timeless– a vintage slice of nineties drum 'n' bass with blistering transients and vast swathes of bass – was quite special. I was impressed with the way the Creek grabbed the twelve-inch bass drivers of my Yamaha NS-1000M loudspeakers by the scruff of the neck (or should that be voice coil?) and threw them around like a dog playing with a rag doll. This amplifier has serious speaker driving ability, and it's most obvious on a torture track such as this.
Creek Voyage i20 Preview (2019 Bristol Hi-FI Show)
One great benefit of having power aplenty is that you can use smallish, hard-to-drive standmounters with impunity. I had a pair of infinite baffle ATC SCM19s to hand, and these eat small integrated amplifiers for breakfast – yet the Creek wasn't on the lunch menu. It pushed them to silly volumes when playing LFO's Low Frequency Oscillation – a nineties techno track that's not far off being a 20Hz test tone set to music. It was also able to accurately signpost the changes in dynamics during the track too, tracking the musical accents very faithfully while never getting flustered. Interestingly, as it got louder, it didn't get audibly harsher; I was struck by its good manners at all times. This was even the case with sub-optimal sources such as Bluetooth, which the Creek made surprisingly listenable.
The downsides? In sonic terms, this Creek is not what some would call a 'character amplifier'. It doesn't have a dramatic persona that's easily recognisable and instantly and pithily summed up. At this price – and indeed in the high end integrated amplifier market in general – many people want the hi-fi equivalent of a Harley Davidson motorcycle, something that's full of itself. The Voyage i20 simply is not this, instead being self-effacing and unprepossessing across all its inputs. If you want to listen to the music and not the amplifier – perish the thought – then this may well be for you.
It's a major move to up sticks and bring production closer to home, and then launch a new integrated amplifier that introduces lots of new technology. So Mike Creek obviously hasn't had much tinkering time with his beloved classic Mini Cooper of late. Yet the Voyage i20 is an unalloyed success – it's far more versatile than his products of yore, is lovely to use and really does sound the part. This new integrated may have a premium price tag, but it's a top-tier product and an essential audition if you're in the market for such a thing.
For more information, visit Creek Audio.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.