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|iPods are fine for listening to music on the go, but sometimes people want to cast headsets aside and hear their playlists piped through the living room by a sound system.
Manufacturers offer dozens of devices that do this: the iPod pops into a docking station in an updated version of a boom box, and can be flicked on from the sofa by remote control. But the quality of the music will depend in part on the system that amplifies the signal from the iPod.
Now, to create the special rich sound that audiophiles love, manufacturers are selling docking stations for iPods and MP3 players with amplifiers based on an old but resilient technology: vacuum tubes.
Most people think of vacuum tubes as relics, long replaced by transistors. But a pocket of audio enthusiasts still values the tubes' warm tones. Guitar heroes favor vacuum tube amplifiers in their instruments, many recording engineers tend to use vacuum-tube equipment in their studios, and some listeners pay thousands of dollars for high-end tube-based stereo systems and CD players.
Now Roth Audio, a company based in Reading, England, is appealing to the inner audiophile of iPod users with its Cocoon MC4, a compact docking station and amplifier topped by four vacuum tubes that glow when the power is on. Pop an iPod into the dock, and you have an odd couple: The iPod, apotheosis of the slim, portable and digital, and the flanking vacuum tubes that are fat, stationary and utterly analog.
Despite the retro look of the tubes, their audio characteristics may give iPod-stored music an additional, welcome dimension. That's because most people store their music in compressed formats rather than in "lossless" formats, where data is not removed. Given these limitations, said Mark Schubin, an engineer and media technology consultant, "a vacuum tube can deal with the degradation in a potentially better and more pleasant way than a non-vacuum-tube amplifier."
o enjoy a full range of sound, it's still better to use lossless formats--vacuum tubes can't restore data that's been stripped away. But regardless of the storage format, "if you put an iPod into a docking station with good pre-amplification, it's going to sound a lot better than putting it into a cheap one," said David Chesky, a composer and co-owner of Chesky Records in Manhattan, which uses vacuum-tube-based recording equipment.
The Cocoon isn't cheap: it will sell for $649, said James A. Roth, managing director of Roth Audio. But in the costly world of high-end vacuum-tube audio equipment, that's a relatively modest price. After the tubes in the Cocoon do the pre-amplification, the audio signal goes to a solid state amplifier for additional power.
The Cocoon has audio inputs at the back for a CD player or a generic MP3 player. The docking station handles all types of iPods except the Shuffle. The units began shipping this month, Roth said.
He has already introduced another brand of vacuum-tube amplifier to the United States market: the Fatman iTube ($649), distributed by Bluebird Music in Toronto. The Fatman has a different look than the Cocoon.
"The Cocoon goes well on a desktop," Roth said. "The Fatman is more for the living room."
The Fatman comes in two parts: an amplifier and a separate docking station. The vacuum tubes are covered by a grill that can be removed for an elegant look, but popped back on if fingers need to be protected from the tubes' considerable heat. The Fatman has a 27-key remote control that handles not only standard functions like play and pause, but also treble volume, bass volume and even backlighting.
The Fatman has two amber vacuum tubes, as well as a green tube. "I added that third, green tube for fun," Roth said. "It shows you the music level. The higher you turn it up, the more it bounces up and down."
Both the Cocoon and the Fatman come with a pair of white cotton gloves, to be worn to protect the high-gloss metal surfaces from fingerprints during handling. To assemble and try out both machines, I donned a set of the gloves, as did a friend who helped me.
The Cocoon hooks up easily to speakers, by using the red- and black-ringed connectors called banana plugs that come with it. We selected 110 volts as the setting for the transformer, rather than the 230 volts used abroad, and plugged the transformer into the AC wall jack.
Then we turned on the transformer and started the machine. Gradually, the tubes began to glow. Then we popped my iPod into the dock and tried out recordings in both compressed and lossless formats. A Brahms sextet poured out in an impressive stream, even in the compressed version.