Comparing valve-based amps to transistor-based amp is like comparing vinyl to the compact disc -- both have their strengths, and a preference is subjective. TLA Audio's Fatman brand produces valve-based amps, backed up by years of experience building for professional recording studios.
The iTube 452 is its latest and greatest product, aimed at iPod users and audiophiles alike. It'll cost you £1,500.
Art can only be art if it serves no function but to exist. For this reason, the iTube 452 could justifiably be categorised as art if it ever broke internally. It's a beautiful piece of kit, precisely constructed with tank-like solidity. And at around 25kg it's one of the heaviest amps we've ever held.
The super-hot valves that drive the system reside behind a solid metal grille, both to protect them from knocks and to prevent you from burns.
A total of nine valves drive the 452, and four line-level inputs allow for way more than just iPods to be connected with the bundled 'ValveDock'.
The ValveDock's retro styling will appeal to many, no doubt, but we don't feel its construction adequately mirrors that of the main amp, mainly due to its light weight and relatively hollow feel.
This mains-powered ValveDock outputs audio via gold-plated RCA connections, and will output video via composite or S-Video cables. It's compatible with most iPods except the iPhone (both original and 3G), and we successfully outputted video to a TV from an iPod classic and fifth-gen iPod video with excellent results.
The amp itself is a push-pull system. These offer greater power efficiency in comparison to single-ended systems, with the only downside being that they typically produce a small element of distortion as a result of their electrical design. This is inaudible, however. Note that a single-ended system of equivalent power would easily be twice as expensive.
Fatman's iTube 452 derives its '452' moniker from having two 45W output channels, but will also output to a subwoofer via RCA cable. To the rear are superb, heavy-duty wire terminals, with impedance outputs of 4 Ohms or 8 Ohms to assist power matching with speakers.
As a performer, the 452 boasts a seductive, rich voice, proving once again that, while cumbersome, delicate and back-breakingly heavy, valves do offer a sonic difference over modern transistor amps.
But don't get us wrong -- we're not part of the crowd that claims the introduction of the transistor was fundamentally detrimental to the shape and sound of music.
The Fatman genuinely offers a beautifully smooth and warm sound quality, however. It sings with an excellent, tight low end and shimmering highs, balanced with a natural mid-range, gearing it ideally towards reproducing the human voice.
Eva Cassidy's 2008 posthumous release Somewhere was particularly enjoyable, as were recordings ranging from Jeanne Newhall and Alison Krauss to KT Tunstall and Dire Straits.