I used to think that high end audio and modern digital music were completely incompatible concepts, but over the past two or three years, this olde-worlde outlook has gradually been worn away. Like the sea eating away at a crumbling chalk cliff, music compression, streaming and downloads are slowly but surely changing even the way hardcore audiophiles see the musical world.
As if to prove this we're beginning to see 'proper' hi-fi manufacturers making iPod-compatible products, and even higher end, boutique manufacturers such as Ferguson Hill and its FH007 system, have acknowledged the rising importance of the increasingly DAP-centric view of the music world.
The Fatman iTube ValveDock iPod music system is one of this new breed of products, marrying hardware that's traditionally been seen as the preserve of expensive audiophile hardware with the ubiquitous digital media player.
It has a pretty impressive pedigree. Though Fatman is a relatively new company, it's actually a sub-brand of TL Audio, a firm that has been producing valve-based pre-amps and processors for the professional market since 1993.
And you only have to clap eyes on it to see that there's something special about this product. I'm not talking about the fabulous chromed finish, or the stonkingly solid build quality, though the ValveDock has both of these things in abundance. I'm not even talking about the wonderfully retro toggle switch on the front, the glowing green vacuum fluorescent tube that pulses in time with the music, or the pleasingly smooth volume control knob, though these are all lovely touches. I'm talking, of course, about those three glowing protrusions on the top - good old fashioned valves.
It's been a long-maintained opinion of a certain section of hi-fi fans that valve-based equipment has a warm, lush sound that transistor-based equipment simply can't match, and I'm one of them. It's this 'warm' sound that the ValveDock aims to exploit. In fact, the ValveDock uses a hybrid of transistors and valves to produce its 13W per channel output. It's an approach that has been taken advantage of by various audio companies in recent years, notably Shanling in its outrageous seventies-spaceship-style valve CD players.
Unlike other iPod hi-fi systems, the iTube ValveDock comes in two parts. The business end is the hybrid valve amp and the second part in question here is the iPod dock. It's designed to work with all iPods (apart from the Shuffle) - you just drop your player onto the connector and adjust the cunningly-designed sliding metal bracket so that it fits.