Like melon balls wrapped in prosciutto, playing an iPod through such a vacuum-tube amplifier sounds like a ludicrous combination until you actually try it. Perhaps it has something to do with the warm sound of the aged technology of tube amps — which can smooth out the tendency for MP3 files to sound a little harsh — but there's no doubt that a tube-based iPod dock and a pair of good speakers can deliver pretty decent sound.
Far from being one company's crazy idea, tube amps designed for iPods have multiplied in recent years. From the elaborate to the sexy to the gigantic, there are now a bunch of ways you can wrap your iPod in thermionic tubiness. Follow the Continue jump to check out a few of our favorites.
10. Fatman iTube: For Skinny iPods
The Fatman iTube is a neat little package, including an ultra-stylish iPod dock with a separate but matching 13-watt-per-channel tube amp. Unlike many of these systems, the iTube's dock delivers video as well as audio through its composite- and S-video output jacks. It also charges your iPod, and includes a 27-button remote offering control over all of the iPod's functions. We've seen it sold in various combinations both with and without speakers from a little over $400 on up, so it pays to shop around for the package that fits your needs.
Bluebird Music, via Macworld
9. Shanling MC-30: Hi-Fi for the 21st Century
Back when I was a kid, a stereo was a thing played both vinyl records and cassettes, along with an AM/FM radio. Now that I've aged myself, let's check out today's equivalent. The Shanling MC-30 still has the radio but packages it with an iPod dock and CD player for those old-skool shiny music discs you might still have lying around. The real kicker however is the MC-30's flealike 3-watt-per-channel output, putting you on the hunt for some mighty sensitive speakers
Elusive Disc, via Audiojunkies
8. RockridgeSound VTS-384: All-American Tubes, Direct from Japan
Hailing from the wild west region of Japan, the Rockridge VTS-384 puts all you need for music into one box — speakers and all. Think of it as a tube version of Apple's own short-lived iPod Hi-Fi
. Seeing as it has a pair of EL-84 output tubes for each channel, the 4 watts total of rated output seems decidedly wimpy, although I suspect those single-driver speakers are pretty efficient. You also get a remote for your iPod. The Japanese price translates to around $800.
RockridgeSound, via Electronista
7. Lars & Ivan PA-40Ti: Euro Chic Design
While the name and the look might suggest something from a Scandinavian design studio, Lars & Ivan are actually based in Hong Kong. Their PA-40Ti is a hybrid design using a tube line stage in combination with a transistor power amp to deliver a healthy 40 watts per channel from a slinky and stylish package. This is another well-equipped dock with a video output, a remote control and iPod charging included. It's about $450 bucks.
Lars & Ivan, via Grace Digital Audio
6. Acoustic Research AR4131: Old Tubes Are New Again
AR is one of hi-fi's most revered brands, with a history stretching back over 50 years to when everybody
used tubes. Who'd have thunk that in the 21st century some of us would be hitching their speakers back up to tubes again? The AR4131 BlackVault system includes a subwoofer, which also houses the iPod dock. While it's officially discontinued, if you look around you can pick one up for peanuts.
5. Roth Audio MC-8: Mother of all iPod docks
We've seen Roth Audio's cute little MC-4
before, but now they've pulled out the big guns. The MC-8 is by far the biggest and baddest iPod dock we've ever seen, pumping out 35 watts per channel through a pair of milk bottle-size 845 tubes. Just look at how tiny that iPod Nano looks tucked into the MC-8's 75-pound chassis. While the $5,000 price seems crazy for an iPod dock, the MC-8 is designed to work as a high-end amp with your other sources too.
Roth Audio, via American Audio & Video
4. The Goldster Audio Concertino: Emphasis on Gold
While it's generally not in the German psyche to do things by half-measures, some might accuse the folks at Goldster Audio of taking that thinking a bit too far. Their concertino iPod system uses a single-ended triode amp to deliver about 7 watts into single-driver speakers of their own design. While I have no idea what this all sounds like, at about $4,000 it better be pretty darned good.
3. Gini Systems iTube: This Gini's Got a Bottle
I guess it was inevitable, but this is the second system in this list called an iTube. In this case, it also has a visual similarity to another entry on the list, looking pretty much like a white version of the AR BlackVault (WhiteVault?). The main difference here is that the actual dock itself is a separate item, the Gini iConnec. Available individually or packaged together, the combo unit sells for a not-too-hideous $329.
Gini Systems, via Gini Direct
2. DIY iPod Tubes Part 1: Mono Maven
Building a tube iPod dock from scratch sounds ambitious, but Kurtis Berry's system looks deceptively straightforward. Using existing designs for an 8-watt tube amp and three-driver speaker, Kurtis married the parts together with an off-the-shelf dock connector to create his mono rig. While he originally intended to build a second channel for stereo, he claims that it sounds so good as it stands, that those plans are on the back burner for now.
KurtisB, via hackaday.com
1. DIY iPod Tubes Part 2: The Horny iPod Kit
While it's not specifically an iPod dock, the Gakken Self Build Vacuum Tube iPod Amp kit was clearly designed with iPod-loving retro-audio fetishists in mind. With a whopping 100 mW (as in one-tenth of a watt) on tap, it's a good thing it comes with hypersensitive horn speakers. Kits like this that you assemble yourself always bring a smug sense of accomplishment and pride in ownership. The best part? For a mere $150 you get the whole shebang, a downright steal for vacuum tube amps of any variety. Sold!