By Matthew Masters
Fatman iTube amplifier and iPod dock. $1300.
|The iTube amplifier comes with an iPod dock and a remote to control the iPod (click for larger image)|
|The iTube amplifier features two inputs and a headphone socket (click for larger image)|
|Rear panel of the iTube amplifier (click for larger image)|
It’s estimated that on 1 January each year, more than 27% of New Zealanders resolve to give up smoking. And almost 40% resolve to lose some weight. But why? It’s the same resolution they make every year, clearly without success.
By the same token, why is it that men of a certain age feel compelled to buy themselves Harley Davidson motorbikes then chug to cafés wearing fringed leather chaps? Why? Do they have any idea what they look like?
And on the subject of things that baffle, I’d really like to know why anyone thought to create the Fatman iTube that I’ve been listening to for the last few weeks.
What’s it all about?
The Fatman is a docking station and amplifier for Apple’s iPod. Much like the amplified speaker systems from Apple, JBL and others. But the Fatman doesn’t come with speakers. Err, why?
What you do get is a remote control, some reasonable speaker cables and interconnects along with a brush and cotton glove to keep the chromed casework free of dust and finger-marks. Yes, that’s right, chromed casework. Not perhaps an obvious choice to match the uber-modernist styling of your average iPod. So why do it?
The chrome begins to make more sense when you realise that Fatman specialises in valve-based electronics and is therefore legally obliged to adopt faux retro styling that would usually be restricted to 1930s horror and sci-fi movies.
More questions, few answers
The iTube sports three valves. Sadly, only two appear to have any audio purpose. The third provides a little illuminated display that wibbles up and down along with the music. Eh? why? It’s not even properly retro.
The other two valves are 6N1s (ECC85s) and are, I’m told, in no way capable of delivering Fatman’s claimed 13w per channel output. In fact, although it’s not stated anywhere in the manual or on the packaging, the Fatman iTube is a hybrid amplifier with some craftily hidden transistors that provide the real grunt. If 13w counts as grunt.
Valves are renowned for particularly good mid-range performance with gentle bass and soft detail. Nice and natural, for sure, but how does it work with digitised and highly compressed music?
The answer is – surprisingly well. Far from being mere cosmetic adornments, these valves seem to have a very noticeable effect on matters musical. They give the iTube a very pleasant and relaxed sound.
Using an iPod Nano and tracks ripped using the Apple Lossless codec, all the expected midrange sweetness is there, with more than a hint of something quite special going on. But there’s more too. Although this is in no way an amplifier for detail freaks, there is a delicacy to the top end that creates tangible space around instruments and allows an impressively deep, if not awfully wide, soundstage.
Listening for some answers
Listening to the WEA Best of the Doors collection was an altogether more pleasant experience than usual. Break on Through became a crescendo of softly fuzzy rhythm guitar and organ with Jim Morrison’s vocal sitting just to the fore. It’s a crude stereo mix, for sure, but there’s a sense of hearing the music the way the band intended rather than the teeth-grindingly harsh sound that can come from this poor, mid-80s remaster.
Mellifluous is the word and nowhere is this more obvious than with the viscous tones of Erykah Badu on 4 Leaf Clover from Baduizm. Her voice simply oozes from the speakers. But where the whole album usually seems ridiculously bass-heavy, with intrusive kick-drum and bass guitar that overpower the rest of the mix, this Fatman makes everything a good deal less, well, fat. And all the better for it.
Overall, the iTube adds a very analogue dimension to an iPod’s output that works especially well with acoustic music. Christopher Hogwood’s 1985 recording of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos (L’Oiseau Lyre, Decca 455 700-2) shows a gorgeous softness to the flutes and harpsichord. The violins do seem a bit heavy-handed, but it’s a testament to the iTube’s abilities that they never dominate.
Why do it?
The truly vexing thing about all this is that while I really do like what the Fatman iTube does, I still cannot see the point. Yes, it sounds surprisingly good, even at its $1,300 price. Yes it looks… striking. Yes it has valves, and they seem to complement an iPod’s output well.
But anyone who is sufficiently keen to spend $1,300 on an amplifier probably already has a decent one in their main system. A $50 iPod dock to phono cable is a lot easier to justify.
For me, that’s where it ends. Yes I like it and yes it really is very good indeed. But why would you? I mean, what’s the point of it? Really.
Post Script – and maybe a partial answer
Shortly after finishing this review I did something I should have done long before. I tried the Fatman in my main system, with Rega Planet CDP and KEF speakers. Suddenly it made a lot more sense. If you only want an amplifier with two line level inputs and have some reasonably efficient, floor standing speakers (90db min), forget the iPod dock and try the amplifier by itself. It’s worth every cent. Especially if you can hide it somewhere.