The hearty, reassuring glow of valves was once a common sight inside electronic equipment. These little beacons to the electrical age still hold a romantic appeal today. They're the open-hearth fire of the information revolution. Many modern musicians use valves in their Marshall stacks, and some of the most sought-after studio equipment is packed full of the bright glass bulbs.
The Sonic Gear i-Steroid uses a single valve to alter the tone of the music amplified from your iPod (or other MP3 player). Purists will have several problems with the £130 i-Steroid's approach. First off, the valve is part of the unit's sub-woofer component. Valves are highly sensitive to vibrations, so it seems odd to put the valve stage in the most vibration-prone part of the unit. Secondly, valves vary wildly in quality and simply using a generic valve will offer little benefit.
So, does the i-Steroid fall foul of the cruel hand of physics, or is this a rare exception to the general rule that inexpensive valves offer little advantage over solid-state electronics?
The iPod's influence here is clear. The i-Steroid's integrated amplifier-sub section looks very much like an iPod that's been passed one too many saveloys through the school railings. It's about the size of a car battery. What looks like a Click Wheel on the front of the unit is in fact a simple volume rocker.
The i-Steroid's valve is very much of the "Hey! Look at me!" variety, and sits in pride of place at the top of the unit. The Sonic Gear designers have made it look like some precious crystal at the top of a gleaming white monolith. This gives the impression that, like the Golden Idol on the plinth at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, touching it will cause a giant boulder to chase you to a grisly death. To think that valves were once considered ugly enough to hide deep inside a radio chassis. Now they're revered.
The i-Steroid's speakers are equally lardy: each one is about the size of a house brick. There's a solid feel to the components -- they're made from a dense plastic similar to the type Apple used on the iPod Hi-Fi. The cones are exposed, making them vulnerable to damage but also improving acoustic transparency (not that this tends to be an issue at the more affordable end of the hi-fi market anyway).
The i-Steroid also comes with a remote control, although our review unit didn't, because a rival technology reviewer had apparently lost it somewhere.