Fatman is, perhaps, best known for its compact valve amplification, often seen at A/V shows and dealers with Apple's iPod close by.
The company has become synonymous with valve-based docking stations and brought 'analogue' to the diminutive digital device, but now it has upped the ante with a £1,500 no-nonsense valve amp.
Traditionally, Fatman products have comprised a dock with a small valve product attached, but the iTube 452 is different. The designed in the UK, made in China, 45-watt per channel, full-sized integrated amp is beefy enough to stand on its own.
As such, it's conceivable that people will buy one on the basis of its audio performance and may never even take the iPod dock out of the box. It joins – at the top of the tree – the iTube ValveDock, iTube182 and 252 as standalone (read: speakerless) amp and dock systems; the range-topping iTube Mothership preamp and monoblocks are bigger still, but the flagship lacks the iPod docky component.
The amp is certainly cute. Resplendent in rich black matt paint, with a piano gloss top-plate and a layer of gold finish beneath the valve cage, the half-moon-shaped amplifier really looks the business.
The valves (5x 12AX7s in the preamp stage and two pairs of self-biasing 6L6's in the power amp) are inset into the brushed-gold finish, which makes extracting the preamp tubes next to impossible, but gives them a low profile.
This low profile is also aped in the source selector and volume control, which are on the glossy black top-plate. A VU meter on the front and a power switch on the right side of the amp complete the deal (a remote control comes with the unit, but don't get your hopes up – it only drives the dock).
Behind the four equally sized potted transformers lay four sets of phono sockets, an IEC socket for mains and two sets of speaker terminals. These have separate taps for four and eight-ohm loudspeakers and getting the impedance right does make a small difference to the sound. If in doubt, use the eight-ohm tap (better yet, experiment).
Read the Manual
Repeat this like a mantra – Read The Ruddy Manual – because here it makes the difference between a perfectly working amp and replacing 13A fuses at a fair lick. The manual states the amp needs a five-minute cool down between power-ups. Miss this at your peril; the tubes will survive, but it will protect itself by taking out the mains fuse. We went through four mains cables before falling back on the manual.
Similarly, the dock will power up (from its own plug-top power supply) and then turn itself off in a second, unless you turn it on from the remote and only the latest manual will tell you this. The latter does seem to be a limitation, though; a dock should spring to life automatically, not wait to be awoken by a gold handset.
On the subject of design, there seems to be a clash here. The predominantly black and gold, curvy amp is at odds with the black and chrome, angular ValveDock and the remote looks like it belongs to the amp, not the iPod product.
This is not a big clash and is only skin deep, but there's not much in the way of family design, in the way other Fatman products mesh together. Part of the reason for this is the dock is common to the basic iTube, the iTube 182 and 252 amps, all of which are styled more in line with the 'ValveDock' (there are no valves in the ValveDock).
Given the Fatman name, it's only appropriate that we played tracks from late, lamented blues lard-tub, Freddie King. King's ability to wrest a groove out of a guitar was an inspiration to the likes of Clapton and all that followed down that path, so any potential flat spots in the amp's rhythmic performance.
Fortunately, the iTube 452 turns in a very sweet sense of rhythm, or more accurately a very sweet sense of the melodic. No, it's not as tight as a solid-state amp, but what you lose in precision, you gain in fun factor.
Those 45 watts deliver one hell of a thwack, too. You can get to really turn up the wick to party levels, although you do get an extra dose of creamy-smooth even-order distortion when you decide to really raise the roof.
This only makes things sound harmonically richer than usual (it's why guitar players still cling to valve amps). Not only can you turn the amp up to meaty levels, you find yourself drawn to the upper regions of the volume dial; not because the amp doesn't cut the music mustard at lower volumes, but just because you can.
You have to be canny in partnering up the iTube 452 though. The speakers need to be reasonably efficient and capable of handling a lot of power, but not the sort of boxes that explore the bottom of the deep-bass ocean as a matter of course.
This is because the amplifier is not good at delivering deep, well-controlled bass. We suspect this is down to iron, or the lack of it; the transformers could do with being bigger to help with the low notes. However, used with a pair of speakers that better match the amp, the rewards are potentially great.
There's a visceral sense to the sound of the iTube 452. No shrinking violet here, music is presented red in string and stick; big, powerful and gutsy. The accent is on the 'big' as the amp throws out a large-scale sound with a big, deep soundstage.
These are not vital aspects to the sound though, what it has is 'mojo'. This elusive quality – part coherence, part dynamic range, part boundless energy – all adds up to an amplifier that just won't leave music alone.
The Fatman's mojo
All this talk of 'visceral' and describing the amp's 'mojo' underlies its one biggest flaw; it's not the most transparently neutral amp on the planet.
Everything sounds really, really good through the iTube 452 and that's the problem; it pretties up music that sometimes doesn't need prettying up. Stick on something with plenty of boogie and you'll end up tapping your foot and playing air guitar; replace it with Schoenberg... and you'll end up tapping your foot and playing air cello. Every now and then, even the most heads-down of us want a brief view of the cerebral.
Oh yeah, there's an iPod dock, too... this is essentially neutral and the tone of the iPod sound is largely informed by the amplifier itself. This helps smooth out anything recorded in 128kbps AAC or less.
Like the girl with the curl, when the iTube 452 is good, it's very, very good and when it's bad, it's horrid. But if you like the enticing and downright funky (in a 'hot damn' not 'last year's stilton' sense) presentation, make a date with the Fatman and try it for size.