Sold only as a system, the Valve 80 includes two bookshelf speakers. They’re solid, weighty and come in an expensive-looking gloss black finish, and with the grilles removed you could easily pretend that they came from a more renowned Hi-Fi brand. Rubber domes on the bottom help isolate the speakers from whatever surface you sit them on, and the cables provided are good, thick and come with gold-plated banana plugs – not the sort of nasty bell-wire provided with some speaker systems we see. The units match a 4in Kevlar bass/mid-range speaker with a 1in silk tweeter, the latter rising out of the top in a manner you might recognise from certain Mordaunt-Short or B&W speakers. Rated at 50W per channel, these speakers should be able to handle the 40W per channel output from the hybrid vacuum tube amplifier (like the Fatman iTube ValveDock, the Valve 80 uses a combination of tubes and mosfets for amplification).
So how does it sound? Well, hooking up my 1G iPod Touch I gave the speakers time to run in overnight before running through a wide selection of favourite tracks. On the positive side, the sound emanating from the Valve 80 easily puts the majority of iPod docks to shame. There’s a real power to the sound, along with body in the bass and mid-range and plenty of bite at the top end. Listening to The Bones of You from Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid, you can hear how confidently the Logic3 kit deals with the syncopated drums and twisting, electronic bassline while allowing the strummed acoustic guitar and adventurous vocal to cut in through. It’s a beefy, lifelike sound, and warmer and richer than you’d get from a cheaper, smaller iPod system. On the John Legend/Corrine Bailey Rae duet of Where is the Love from the Live in Philadelphia album, the Valve 80 does a fine job of capturing the sort of nuances that might convince you that you’re listening to a live performance. Vocal tones sound smooth when they should and raw when they shouldn’t, while the backing band sounds tight, playful and lively. In the end, poorly encoded or strongly compressed music is never going to sound great – a good system only highlights the weaknesses – but feed the Valve 80 good material and it usually produces decent results.