Once upon a time, hi-fi gear used valve amplifiers with vacuum tubes to boost their power and/or amplitude. And then dastardly silicon turned up in the 1970s with its all-conquering transistors, and poor old valve amps slipped away into the shadows, loved by nobody but a few stubborn hi-fi die-hards who refused to move with the times.
Cut to 2011, and it’s fair to say valve amps are undergoing a pretty major renaissance. That 'stubborn few' mentioned earlier is turning into a growing tide of hi-fi aficionados who’ve had enough of the supposedly ever more clinical sound coming out of ever more digital hi-fi kit, and are turning back to the 'old ways'. So much so that what was only a few short years ago a seriously esoteric valve amp market, signified chiefly by terrifying price points, is now starting to get mainstream. Well, maybe not mainstream in a Comet or Currys kind of way, but certainly mainstream in terms of it being something you can now buy without being either rich or obsessed with old-school hi-fi.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of just how far the valve rebirth has progressed is the gloriously named Fatman iTube ValveDock MkII, from TL Audio. For as well as being an iPod dock that uses valve amplification, we’ve also found it selling for just £266. Which includes a pair of rather fetching piano-black speakers. Bonkers.
Actually, bonkers really is a very appropriate word to associate with the Fatman iTube ValveDock MkII. For absolutely nothing about it could remotely be considered normal.
For instance, the iPod dock and valve amp come as two striking separate units, with their own individual power supplies, and joined by nothing more extravagant than a (supplied) stereo audio RCA lead.
Then there are the three valves that jut out of the top right side of the amp like some kind of hi-fi sentinels, creating a warm glow when the unit’s on that inexplicably creates a matching glow somewhere in the recesses of your music-loving heart.
Add to this a big lump of black 'seriousness' looming up from the amp’s left side like some kind of mini nuclear power station, plus an extraordinary 'mirrored' finish for both units, complete with a repeating wallpaper-like motif, and there is no doubt that you won’t have seen anything quite like the Fatman iTube ValveDock MkII before. Um, unless you happened to own the original MkI version, that is. In which case you can at least attest to the impact this crazy-looking system has on friends and family who behold it.
Perhaps the craziest thing about it all, though, is that to our eyes the whole system is actually rather gorgeous. Especially in a dimly lit room, when the glow of the valves can clearly be seen. Go figure.