But don't get us wrong -- we're not part of the crowd that claims the introduction of the transistor was fundamentally detrimental to the shape and sound of music.
The Fatman genuinely offers a beautifully smooth and warm sound quality, however. It sings with an excellent, tight low end and shimmering highs, balanced with a natural mid-range, gearing it ideally towards reproducing the human voice.
Eva Cassidy's 2008 posthumous release Somewhere was particularly enjoyable, as were recordings ranging from Jeanne Newhall and Alison Krauss to KT Tunstall and Dire Straits.
High volume didn't seem to be an issue either, with some terrific live performances from Dashboard Confessional still free of distortion at close to maximum output.
This didn't remain the case, however, during high-volume sessions of Pendulum's second album In Silico -- a heavily electronic, ultra-synthesised drum 'n' bass recording. We felt this was a genre best left to transistor-based amps, which with their razor-sharp sound quality can better deliver such intense synthetic performances. That said, lighter electronic music such as rap and R 'n' B sounded great.
Naturally, if using an iPod, you should be using Apple's Lossless encoder, or at least 256Kbps MP3s or AAC files. But there's a larger stumbling block in terms of sound quality that we were not expecting: the Fatman's separate ValveDock. The difference in sound quality between using the iPod's headphone socket and using the ValveDock is subtle, but noticeable. With the ValveDock you lose some of the smoothness of the mid-range, making it slightly imbalanced and muddy.
This issue is no reason to be put off, as the vast majority of the money you're spending is going towards the amp. But we advise that you use the ValveDock to simply power the iPod and use a high-quality 3.5mm-to-RCA lead to transmit audio from its headphone socket. Better still, get hold of Arcam's superb-- probably the only audiophile-grade, integrated pre-amp-equipped iPod dock on the market. Our testing showed it's a stunning match with the iTube 452.
Valve-based amps may always be less preferable to comparable solid-state amps as a result of their size, weight and fragility. But the benefits are obvious if engineered well, and Fatman's iTube 452 is just such a system.
If you solely enjoy your electronic and dance music, give it a miss. But if you adore the musical worlds of vocals, classical, acoustic, jazz, soul, folk and even rock, this is a terrific performer, and testament to the sonic advantages valves can offer.Edited by Nick Hide