I was expecting a bit of a struggle to get any kind of realistic levels out of the Minimax with the Coincident loudspeakers, but that wasn’t the case. I’m not suggesting that this is a match made in heaven, but the 8 Watts available were put to good use, establishing a surprisingly firm foundation in the bass, that was tight and controlled with a sense of purpose which made it quite satisfying without having to advance the volume excessively. Not quite what I had anticipated. Add to this a midrange that has the wonderful liquid quality that is so appealing in amplifiers such as the Leak Stereo Twenty, combined with a gentle, smooth treble and you begin to get the picture.
An interesting opportunity presented itself in the form of a pair of Vitavox Thunderbolts, ridiculous (from a domestic point of view) cinema /PA loudspeakers from the sixties, but with enough hi-fi cred for Living Voice to base the Air partner design on them. They are also frighteningly efficient at something like 108 dB for 1 Watt; the standing joke when I actually owned them was that you could literally blow the windows out with a Sony Walkman, and this is one of the reasons they ended up in the converted church in which a friend of mine resides, rather than my living room. The Minimax proved to be tailor made for the job, showing a degree of precision and timing that would embarrass most other amplifiers of a similar power output (meaning most of the SE triode designs that I’ve heard) along with a euphonic and dimensional mid and top and a real sense of 3-D dimensionality, a major achievement considering the nature of the speakers. If low-powered amplification is on your agenda, don’t be fooled by the Minimax’s diminutive dimensions. It’s a genuinely potent and highly musical package in the right environment I guess the ‘i’ prefix gives it away, but you won’t be surprised to learn that the Fatman 252 comes with a universal dock for your i-pod, should you possess one. While this might conceivably rob the Fatman of a bit of hi-fi credability (although probably not as much as a mention in the Sunday Mail) it might also serve to introduce the concept of specialist amplification to a headphone clad generation that haven’t the faintest idea of what a half decent hi-fi system can do, so it can’t all be bad.
Fatman is an offshoot of TL Audio, a company who have been around the pro industry for quite some time. Initially renovating and customising old Neve EQ modules for recording studios, as these became increasingly rare and expensive they progressed to manufacturing their own units with a particular slant on valves as a tonic for the hardness of the modern digital age. The Fatman follows a fairly traditional formula when it comes to aesthetics, with a chrome chassis flanked by black lacquered wood. The transformer housing at the rear is similarly clad; in front of this a black cage protects the nine valves and small fingers, but I guess most users would want to remove this to show the full glory of their thermionic amplification in action.
The circuit is based around an ultra-linear output stage utilising a pair of 5881 pentodes driven by a 6SN7 octal double triode, while the input stage consists of a 12AX7. Cathode (or self) bias is employed, while an interesting addition is what used to be called a ‘magic eye’ valve indicator of the type commonly found on cheaper tape recorders (and better radio tuners) in the 60s. This gives a fluorescent green indication of signal, and I confess that when I first used the 252 this briefly gave me a bit of a fright – any light coming from within a tube amp that isn’t a reassuring orange glow usually portends some kind of expensive firework display and impending disaster. Internally the Fatman is very neatly assembled with the bulk of the electronics on two circuit boards. The power supply uses a substantial, torroidal mains transformer and choke coupling with plenty of fuses in the rails for protection. Three line inputs are provided along with good quality binding posts for the usual four and eight Ohm loudspeaker outputs.
The supplied i-pod dock is finished to match the 252 amplifier (making a change from the more usual anaemic white plastic of most i-pod accessories) and is powered from a small plugtop supply and signal goes via basic phono leads into one of the line inputs. The remote offers more than just the usual basic functions of the i-pod, and once you get your head around it, it will allow you to navigate through the menu to albums and play-lists. There is also adjustment of bass and treble as well as volume that I guess is carried out through analogue circuitry within the dock itself. However, note that the Fatman amplifier on its own has no remote facility.
Driving the Coincident loudspeakers the 252 proved competent and well behaved without drawing attention to itself. Able to generate levels a little beyond what I would have expected from a mere 25 Watts, it was able to cope with a wide range of material and was just as happy pumping Massive Attack into the slightly bass shy Triumphs as it was with a Brandenburg concerto.