The British Fatman iTube is a two-piece iPod system consisting of a retro-cool iPod dock and matching 13Wpc tube-powered integrated amplifier. The dock comes with an iPod-specific remote control, while the amp provides two analog inputs—one for the dock and the other for an alternate source. In simple terms, Fatman’s iTube aims to restore the warmth and musical expressiveness sometimes lacking in iPod listening experiences—a mission the iTube beautifully fulfils. The iTube is available either with speakers (for $795) or without (for $649). The standard Fatman speakers would make fine alternatives to traditional “computer” speakers, but to hear the iTube at its best listeners should plan on springing for something better. To get the full measure of the iTube, I tested it with Neat’s excellent Motive 3 monitors ($1599/pair).
The Fatman proved exceptionally easy to use thanks to a dock that is a model of simplicity, and a remote that’s flexible and intuitive. More importantly, the iTube sounded terrific, serving up compelling tonal purity, rich textural and transient details, and surprisingly deep soundstaging. The iTube softens highs ever so slightly and adds a touch of bass warmth with some speakers, but these characteristics help tame the overly bright treble and thin bottom octaves that iPods sometimes exhibit. Though its power output is limited, the iTube’s overall refinement made it by far the best purpose-built iPod system I’ve yet heard.
Together, the iTube and Neat speakers delivered levels of musical warmth, delicacy, and nuance that were remarkable. I put on “This Old Guitar” from Neil Young’s Prairie Wind [Warner Brothers] and was struck by the ease with which the Neat/iTube combo teased out inner details of Neil Young and Emmylou Harris’ interwoven voices, and by the way the rig captured the big, full-bodied sound of Young’s acoustic guitar. Though the system cannot play extremely loudly, its evocative clarity pulls listeners into the music as if by tractor beam.
Is this the best iPod rig available for the money? The answer depends on your priorities. On one hand, good entry-level A/V receivers with matching iPod docks can be had for about the same price as the iTube. If you need an iPod-enabled system that supports music and film playback, the AVR would plainly be the better way to go. But for “music first” listeners who crave sound quality a giant cut above the norm, the iTube is a great way to make your iPod sing. TAS