One thing carries across from product to product, however, and that's that the Carbon Mk2 looks stunning. It's gloss-black exterior and design are actually a little more understated than the ValveDock's illustrated chrome finish, and you can imagine the Carbon Mk2 sitting more comfortably with a wider range of décor and existing HiFi equipment. Build quality is extremely solid, and as before that translates to the supplied accessories. Our review unit came with a pair of rear-ported, two-way bookshelf speakers, and to connect them a set of thick, high-quality terminated speaker cables. Decent stereo phono cables are also supplied, and the bundled remote control is a huge improvement on the ones thrown in with lesser iPod speaker systems. The 19 buttons cover just about every navigation and control option you could want, though actually working your way through menus from across the room requires hawk-eye vision - even on an iPod touch. Fatman might also want to take another look at some of the button positions. Who expects to find volume up on the left and volume down on the right?
Still, any minor criticisms fade into the background once you get the Carbon Mk2 up and running. As with the iTube Valvedock, part of the pleasure is visual; there's something about watching those valves heat up and glow with life that warms the cockles of your heart, and most of us will rapidly remove the protective plastic cage that sits over them for shipping so that we can do just that. The long-term enjoyment, however, is all aural. Without the B&W Zeppelin here I can't tell you whether this is the best sounding iPod speaker system on the planet, but I can certainly tell you that it's in the top tier.
Admittedly, that comes with a pretty hefty caveat. If you buy the Carbon Mk2 as a system with the bundled speakers, you won't hear the amplifier's full potential. Even given some time to run in, the speakers are competent for rear-ported bookshelf jobs, particularly with some sympathetic positioning, but nothing more. The bass feels a bit boxed in, while the top-end feels slightly muffled. You get all the warmth you expect from a valve-based system, but not the clarity and refinement you'd expect from a half-decent HiFi, even at what we'd still call a budget level. What's more, you have to whack the volume up a fair way before you hit the sweet spot where your music sounds really good. Will the Carbon Mk2 with speakers knock most other iPod speaker systems or MP3-friendly micro systems for six? Undoubtedly. Could it replace your existing stereo components? Probably not.