Years ago, I bought a “full stereo unit” – one of the original stack systems – along with a pair of wonderful speakers (which were almost as tall as me) from a good friend who was in the process of moving abroad.
And it was an amazing system. For the first time I learned the meaning of the term ‘sound quality’. You could sit down, and spend hours ‘actively’ listening to the most amazingly produced music, hearing every single nuance. It took you to another world.
As a result, over the years, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with hearing music as it’s meant to be heard – which owing to the fact that ‘mp3’ became the common audio format for consumer audio storage, as well as a de facto standard of digital audio compression for the transfer and playback of music on digital audio players, I very often thought just sounded terrible.
After a close 10 year relationship, I ended up ditching the stereo. But I soon mourned its loss. I then spent days. OK, if I’m honest, months on the net, researching how I could achieve similar sound quality – ideally by some kind of connection from my Vaio laptop.
And I’m over the moon to say the research paid off, and after trying various combinations of speakers and amps, I have finally achieved sound quality that I’m very happy with.
So… my new set up (connected to my laptop) is a Fatman iTube Carbon II amp – a chip amp with two 6N1 pre-amp driver tubes and a built in dock for the Apple iPod. It has two other line level inputs. The only audio outputs are the speaker terminals, but it has S-Video and composite video outputs that come off the iPod. I’d also like to point out that during the course of my research, I had occasion to contact the iTube manufacturers with a couple of questions – and got an immediate, friendly response from the Fatman ‘Big Cheese’ himself, James Roth, which, in these days of fast moving fmcg marketing, both impressed me, and convinced me that I was making the right decision.
It’s also worth adding, that having owned the Carbon II for a month or so, I experienced some ‘static noise’ issues. So, I called the TL Audio technical support, and within minutes had their head tech chap call back with advice that solved the problem immediately. Customer service to be proud of. And, reassuringly, his advice was “if this doesn’t work, take it back and we’ll immediately replace it”.
Why the choice of the Carbon II? Their website explains it much more succinctly than I could: “Fatman has quickly established its reputation for producing some of the best performing audio systems for use with Apple’s iPod, or indeed any portable or fixed media device. All iTube amplifiers have additional inputs for CD etc., making them fully comprehensive audio systems for all audio sources. But why valves? Well, as professional recording artists and producers discovered, digital with all it’s acknowledged advantages, was perhaps lacking in one direction… sound. It could be a little cold and harsh and lacked ‘warmth’. – That’s where valves come in. Correctly and sympathetically inserted into the signal path, the presence of a valves enhances signal quality. The skill in valve design is in knowing where to place the valves and how to combine them with state-of-the art solid state circuitry in order to achieve maximum sonic benefit.”
Here’s James Roth talking about the Carbon II in more detail: (update: James kindly pointed out he’s actually talking about the Carbon I on the video below).
And as for speakers, again, after a lot of research, I went for a pair of Bowers & Wilkins CM1 bookshelf speakers which are just astounding.
You can read a review of them here. I can only sum it up by saying when I first played the intro to Cinema Paradiso, I had to turn around to check that had a pianist hadn’t suddenly materialised in my living room…
So there we go, that’s my advice if you enjoy listening to music. PS any music you have on your system that is below 128kbps (unless it holds some kind of sentimental value) should be immediately deleted and replaced.