Fatman iTube ValveDock MkII - Performance and Verdict

John Archer

By John Archer



Our Score:


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'...


March 3, 2011, 1:58 pm

No iPhone 4 docking? Fail. Pity, as this is a thing of beauty.


March 3, 2011, 2:15 pm

I used to own the Carbon MKI. Grudgingly had to sell it after moving in with the other half who had a Zeppelin and at the time with a kid on the way thought glowing valves would be more hassle than it was worth.

But, I sorely miss the sound it generated. I spent a huge amount of juniors uni fund on a proper hi-fi plus speakers but the sound the Fatman can make was a joy - and that was with "low quality" mp3's. It won't be to everyone's taste but with the sort of synthy indie/rock stuff I love it simply sounded awesome - and that was through both the included book end speakers and when trying out with my MA RS6's.

And for the record I think it sounds better than the Zeppelin - though not by much.


March 3, 2011, 5:12 pm

This review could have used a bit more info with all the, um, enthusiasm. Judging by the images, there's a headphone port in front -- did you try it (with decent, high impedance headphones)?

And how exactly does the USB port work? Does it appear as a USB DAC ("sound card") when you connect a PC? Now that I've zoomed in on one of the images, the port is labeled USB DAC, so that's apparently how it works. That's actually extremely cool; USB DACs are one of the best ways to improve audio quality on PCs by getting the process out of the (electronically) noisy computer. It'd been interesting to know what DAC chip they're using.

Other people might have preferred a way to connect their non-Apple MP3 players via USB instead of a USB DAC. Though I guess you can always connect other MP3 players (or anything else for that matter) in place of the dock. In fact, it's a huge shame that they don't also sell just the tube AMP/DAC module!

Personally, I don't (yet) buy into the whole tube thing. I understand that it does alter the sound and people like that, but it seems to me that it should be easy enough to replicate the sound alterations as a digital filter. I guess that just doesn't have the same panache...

Lee Horner

March 4, 2011, 1:29 am

Does anyone know if the Usb input is compatible with the Ipad using the camera connection kit as not all USB dacs are compatible.
If not could you test this as it would greatly increase the usability of this dock.


March 4, 2011, 1:20 pm

I'm confused about the connectivity options. Could I use my Squeezebox Touch with this without unplugging the iPod Dock ?


March 4, 2011, 2:53 pm

@drittenorn - if anything like the MKI then yes. The dock plugged into a seperate set of interconnects on that model and there was a couple of other aux connections. So, I would say that the squeezebox would work fine.

@morsch - It all comes down to personal preference but I would suspect it would take a digital amp of considerable cost to get to the sort of sound that a valve amp can produce. Like I say, it very much comes down to the sort of music you like. If you prefer more electronic, dancey sort of stuff then stay clear. Digital amps offer a sort of precision sound (Im hopeless at describing sound as you can tell!) to my ears. I hate the term "warmth" for valve amps but to be frank, it sums up the sound pretty much spot on. And I guess if it was easy enough then valves would have died out years ago.


March 4, 2011, 6:44 pm

Thanks @Jones. I had another think and it looks like it would have to via the USB DAC (which the SB Touch supports as an output) since it looks like there only one line input with this model rather than the two of the previous model.


March 4, 2011, 7:25 pm

I've owned the iTube Red-i with Speakers for three years which is very similar to this model, just without the USB DAC and separated iPod dock. It's ideal for my bedroom where a softer and more subtle sound is required. I love it but will say that there is a slight lack of bass from the accompanying speakers unless you turn it up on the controls.

Murdo Mathewson

March 23, 2011, 7:57 pm

@Greg, re your iPhone 4/Fail comment, you can dock your iPhone 4 if you like. And, remember, any iPod/MP3 player/mobile phone you can't dock (such as an iPod Shuffle) you can simply hook-up via the line inputs on the amp's rear panel.


March 27, 2011, 3:48 pm

The Fatman website says that these are iPhone compatible in Flight Mode. Is that correct? Is that normal when using an iPhone in a dock?

Murdo Mathewson

April 15, 2011, 2:17 pm

@Spencer 34: that's not unusual. The original iTube design pre-dates the iPhone launch so, without Flight Mode switched on there is the potential for some occasional background noise. In practice, though, I haven't heard it - this is especially true of this model where the iPhone, when in the dock, sits apart from the amp section anyway. (I handle UK PR for Fatman.)

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