I’m a sucker for valves. They look great, sitting there and glowing magnanimously while they amplify your music just as they’ve done for the past century.
More importantly, they sound great as well, producing a warmer, sweeter, more musical sound than most modern electronics.
If you’re one of those who doesn’t believe that the sound can be so different, grab a couple of your favourite CDs (or LPs) and head down to your local hi-fi shop. These guys will be more than willing to show you the difference … after all, a convert to the world of decent audio is just as important as a convert to Mac!
A wonderful entree to the world of the valve (or vacuum tube) is this lovely looking Fatman iTube from TLAudio. TLAudio is a leader in the world of tube mixing consoles, and the company’s expertise really shows.
The iTube consists of a separate amp and iPhone/iPod dock, both made of metal and plastic with a pleasingly modern-yet-retro design.
The amp is a hybrid solid-state/valve design, with the pre-stage driven by two 6N1s and a 6E2. The 6E2 is a very cool ‘magic eye’ valve featuring two phosphor strips that elongate according to the signal strength. They sit under a protective black metal cage which can be removed.
A remote control is provided which controls the dock but not – as is often the case with valves – the amp. The latter has an On/Off switch, a two-way input selector and a volume knob.
The iTube has been around for a few years but now boasts a few improvements, including iPhone compatibility. The model I tested didn’t have USB iTunes syncing available, but a soon-to-appear new model will.
I gave the amp/dock/speakers combo a run with all genres of music over a few weeks, and it proved to be more than able at its price point: clear, musical and gentle, with the valves’ warmth clearly noticeable.
It shone particularly well running laid-back jazz a la Herb Ellis and Ray Brown’s Soft Shoe or blues such as J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton’s The Road to Escondido.
Classical and opera (particularly the Irish tenor Placid O’Domingo) showed remarkable depth for an amp of this size and price. When playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor while doing this review, I found myself getting lost in the music instead of writing – a testament to the sound.
If I was to find one fault in the sound, though, I would say that when it comes to pop music – and particularly female singers such as Beyonce – the Fatman’s laid-back presentation might not sound sharp enough.
Besides the rich sound, another big advantage the unit has over other iPod docking speaker systems is that the detached speakers can be placed further apart for better audio imaging.
While the bundled speakers are good value, the iTube (13Wx2; 8 ohms; 20Hz-20kHz) can also drive larger and better speakers. So you could just buy the amp/dock combo and match your own speakers.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice
Part of a larger valve-meets-iPod range, the iTube is a stunner at its price point of $849 with speakers and $599 without (prices for the new model may differ). We’ve had a run of five-mouse reviews recently, and this is another to add to the list. It just goes to show what great audio – and bang for your buck – you can get these days.
This review originally appeared in the May issue of Australian Macworld magazine.