Actually listening to the iTube ValveDock MkII is a striking experience. For the sound is genuinely different to the sort of sound we’re used to from ‘normal’ dock systems. So much so that you certainly don’t have to be a golden-eared audiophile to notice.
Quite how you define this difference appears to depend on who you are. A straw poll of friends, family and colleagues broke down into two quite evenly balanced camps, one feeling that the Fatman’s sound was a little imprecise for their tastes, while the other used words like ‘engaging’ and ‘friendly’. Or, in one memorable case, ‘like a mug of hot chocolate at bedtime’. Bless.
This massively in-depth (eight whole people) bout of research together with our own experience of the Fatman in action suggests two interesting things. One, that the valve sound is potentially a classic case of Marmite. And two, that people who like it really, really like it.
Having spent substantially longer living with the Fatman than our straw pollsters, though, this writer would like to add an extra dimension to the debate: a feeling that the valve sound is a grower. At first, its playback of our iPod and PC tune collection sounded a touch ‘baggy’, for want of a better word, with slightly uncontrolled trebles and what felt like slight timing issues. But the more time went by, the more we started to suspect that our initial resistance to the Fatman’s sound was just coming from it sounding so different to the more clinical sound we’re used to. In the end, to our surprise, the Fatman’s ability to achieve a quite warm, relaxing tone with our usual iPod fodder turned out to be quite endearing.
On a more objective level, we also grew to appreciate the Fatman’s volume flexibility. By which we mean the way it retains detail and balance across a noticeable wider volume range - including quiet levels - than you tend to hear with other types of amp.
If we have an enduring concern about the Fatman, it’s a nagging feeling that a system of this relatively casual sort, by its very nature, couldn’t possibly hope to reap the greatest advantage from the valve technology it so boldly employs.
But even as we write that, we feel guilty about hurting the iTube ValveDock MkII’s feelings. For while neither its looks nor its sound will suit everyone, it has enough character and eccentricity to actually make you feel a bizarre kind of kinship with it.
Indeed, the wrench we’re currently feeling at the thought of having to give the Fatman iTube ValveDock MkII back at some point is unusually strong. But then, if we’re honest, this sliver of wonderful hi-fi madness had us at 'Fatman'...