Reviewer: Anthony Fordham
Everything old is new again; has been for a while actually. Vacuum tube (or valve) amps go hand-in-hand with the vinyl resurgence, but here’s something a bit different: a range of valve-based integrated amplifiers with a cool design that come with an iPod dock. Analog sound reproduction meets digitally compressed music. Is it a match made in heaven, or a case of the odd couple?
From Fatman – made in China but designed in the UK – the range includes several amps, including the entry-level iPod-focused iTube with three valves, the mid-range iTube 182 with seven valves, the iTube 252 (reviewed here) with nine valves, and the aptly named MotherShip which comes in three parts including two mono bloc amps that weight more than 50 kg each!
The MotherShip costs $15,000, and distributors, Leaf Audio, say it’s not worth purchasing unless your speakers cost more than $10,000, but for the more modest music lover, the iTube 252 costs a more realistic $2099, while the entry-level iTube kicks off the range at $799.
Valve amplifiers are all about analog sound reproduction, so creating a clean analog signal is all up to your source. The iTube 252 has only three controls: an on/off switch, an input selector, and a volume knob. There’s no remote, no onboard EQ, no nothing.
Three RCA inputs are offered, one of which is intended to be used by the included iTube iPod dock, which does have a remote to control audio and various iPod functions ? and yes it works with the new iPod Touch for the ultimate in old school/new wave synergy.
The amp is rated at 25 watts per channel, but the standard wisdom is that a valve watt is ‘worth’ about four transistor watts, so output – in terms of raw volume – from this system is more than respectable.
Unlike some valve amps, the 252 is analog all the way from source to output, rather than having a valve-based prestage and transistor-based output as seen in the baby of the series, the iTube.
The coolest component on the 252 though is the central 6E2 valve, which includes a phosphor strip that pulses in time with the audio signal passing through it.
The first thing any iTube 252 owner will do is remove the black grille that covers the valves to protect them during shipping. The grille is supposed to stop little fingers from burning themselves on the tubes, but in practice the grille heats up as well so all it does is ruin the look of your cool retro amp.
We tested with a pair of Fatman’s own Fatboy speakers, which like the amp use banana-plug cables. The amp doesn’t include cables in the box, and because everything here is analog it’s definitely worth spending up on good wires.
Apart from the extra shopping trip for cables, setup is extremely straightforward, with a refreshing lack of fiddly inputs.
While the benefits of valve technology over a high quality transistor-based system at a similar price point are, at the end of the day, mostly subjective, this is nevertheless a very clean-sounding amp.
Output through the Fatboys was tight and beautifully detailed, and the promised ‘warmth’ from the valves was most noticeable. If you don’t know what ?warmth? is supposed to mean in an audio context, take a listen to this and you’ll understand at last.
You might think 25 watt per channel a little anaemic, but this amp can rattle the windows with the best of them, without any loss of detail or distortion. However, there is little point hooking this up to cheap speakers. The Fatboys at $1,499 for the pair probably represent a more basic solution: they are monitor speakers essentially, and higher-end floorstanding units will allow the 252 to stretch its legs even more.
For us, it’s the style that makes the iTube 252 a winner. The iPod dock is a gimmick, albeit a well-built one, and serious owners will only use a phonograph or high quality CD player with this amp. The inputs are limited, but you won’t want to use many devices with this – it’s high quality recording, uncompressed stereo music or nothing at all thanks!
It can be a challenge to integrate the 252 into your existing stack, and it’s probably even worth restructuring your AV setup so the amp can sit proudly on top of a cabinet for all to see. The dim glow of the valves in a dark room brings something to the listening experience that the featureless grey box of an integrated amp just can’t.
Yes, a similarly priced (or even slightly more expensive) ‘modern’ amp using transistors will do just as good a job through the same speakers, but for retro-chic, the 252 is hard to beat.
The FatBoy speakers aren’t the focus of this review, but here are the specs:
- Price: $1,499
- Warranty: 12 months
- Frequency response: 60?22000Hz
- Impedence: 8 ohms
- Sensitivity: 85dB
- Recommended power: 35 watts per channel
- Tweeter: 25 mm silk, shielded dome
- Bass-mid: 12.7 cm Kevlar shielded cone
- Dimensions: 300 x 200 x 340 mm
- Weight: 7 kg each
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