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.