Ipod and Vacuum Tubes

Andre Kesteloot andre.kesteloot at verizon.net
Mon Apr 16 09:00:14 CDT 2007

  International Herald Tribune <http://www.iht.com>
The iPod and the vacuum tube sing a warm duet
By Anne Eisenberg
Sunday, April 15, 2007

*NEW YORK:* 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 boombox, 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 warm 
tones that the tubes offer. 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 is 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."

To enjoy a full range of sound, it's still better to use lossless 
formats - vacuum tubes cannot restore data that has 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 Roth, managing 
director of Roth Audio. But in the costly world of high-end vacuum-tube 
audio equipment, that is 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 
U.S. market: the Fatman iTube ($649), distributed by Bluebird Music in 
Toronto. The Fatman has a different look from the Cocoon's.

"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 grille 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 white cotton gloves, to be worn 
to protect the high-gloss metal surfaces from fingerprints during handling.

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