Note the 'usually' and the 'decent' - not 'incredible', 'excellent' or any other big superlative. On the one hand, the speakers can't handle a lot of bass. Give the Valve 80 something with some big bass notes, like the Timbaland remix of OneRepublic's Apologize and all those low notes can begin to create distortion, particularly if you set your iPod's EQ to one of the more bass-heavy presets. More seriously, the sound has limitations that true audiophiles might find unacceptable. On a rocky number, like Velvet Revolver's Let it Roll, there's not enough beef in the guitar and there's something a little mushy around the edges of the sound, as if some of that old-school warmth has come at the expense of clarity. Play the Act 1 prelude from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and the Valve 80 is left doggy-paddling out of its depth. While the brass section comes through with strength and precision, the string section loses some of its crispness and richness of tone. The overall effect is - I hate to say it - a little boxy. This is not the kind of stuff that most iPod docks can handle, but with a product like this at this kind of price point, you have the right to expect a little more.
And you can get it, too, but only if you ditch the supplied speakers and plug in alternative units. Hooking up a pair of much loved, much used (and rather old) Wharfdale Diamonds. Suddenly, the sound from the Valve 80 amplifier comes alive. There's nothing soft, confused or woolly about the Wagner, Let it Roll is rollicking and raunchy, and The Bones of You threatens to raise hairs on the back of your neck. Gravity, from Alison Krauss and Union Station's Lonely Cuts Both Ways, sounds warm and intimate, just as it should, with the rich tones of the vocals and acoustic instruments balanced perfectly. Listening to Strawberry Wine from Ryan Adams' 29 is practically a spooky experience, its tale of druggy self-destruction almost painfully raw and real. Slap on Justin Timberlake's Lovestoned and there's a party going on in your living room (hot chicks sadly not supplied), the Valve 80/Wharfedale combination getting down with the infectious groove, then sobering up to dish out the gorgeous, string-led coda. In short, with the right speakers the Valve 80 can sound brilliant.
The problem is that you can't buy it with the right speakers - you have to pay for the ones that come bundled in. Here the Fatman iTube ValveDock scored by giving you the option to buy the system with or without speakers, meaning you can now pay around £180 for the ValveDock, wander down to your local Hi-Fi emporium and buy a pair of decent bookshelf speakers that suit your own sonic and musical tastes for around £100, and come away with a pretty tasty system. Buy the Valve 80 and that's not an option; you can upgrade your system, but you'll have to cough up for the speakers anyway. While this is the case, it's hard to recommend investing in the Valve 80 when you can buy the iTube ValveDock and roll in your own speakers for the same money or less, and there are other strong alternatives now hovering around at the same price point. While the Valve 80 certainly brings you an iPod system that comes close to true Hi-Fi quality, there's still a little too much ground in between for comfort.
A well-built, beautifully finished and decent sounding valve-based iPod speaker system, but one that's let down by the limitations of the bundled speakers. If you want the warm tone of valves and true Hi-Fi quality, the Fatman iTube remains your best bet.