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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: Raysonic CD128, Sony Playstation One
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan], Pro-Ject RM5/Dynavector 10X5 Cartridge
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Amp: Art Audio Diavolo
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Nines
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Shindo interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup
Review component retail prices: Fatman iTube $649; Rega R, $845; Music Hall CD 25.2 $599

Building a great hifi system is like raising crops down on de farm. Year after year you water and prune (invest and listen); fertilize and irrigate (read reviews, spend moolah and upgrade); all the while praying for rain and hoping for a windfall. Luck and good fortune plus serious knowledge of audio trends (the Audio Almanac?) also play a big role in raising a good stereo rig. Luck means that you will fall in with a sensible crowd of audio buddies to help guide you along the path; good fortune that the local dealer won't be a schmuck intent on deflowering your virgin status with crap, overpriced gear that reproduces great detail but bad music. Do the same rules apply if your budget is 2k instead of 20k? Most certainly.

Stumbling, as I often do, into Manhattan's In Living Stereo one hot and sunny day, I was intent on hearing the DeVore Nines long before I finally purchased them. As usual, they weren't there. I waited months for my Nines and am thrilled with the final results. But on my many visits to ILS in hopes of hearing these mighty beauties, I couldn't help but notice a small
rig stationed upfront near the store's entrance [above]. Seemingly used to support a small video screen that was usually playing Finding Nemo, the following small separates were housed in a wooden case that kept them hidden from real audiophools: NAD CD player, iTube Fatman amp and Rega R3 speakers. Individually priced at an average of $800, this rig had PRaT, warmth, jump factor and smooth style. It made listening to music fun. Even though positioned in the entrance way, this mighty mite system made good music. Since I was temporarily without speakers (I sold my Super 8s as soon as news of the Nines hit the web), I thought this system would be a good stand-in until the real thing made its way back into my room. Little did I know that this system would do more than that. I wondered, after years of spilling major bucks on upgrades and new gear, how a less expensive system would really stack up.

With the help of ILS's major domo Steve Mishoe, I made the appropriate calls and the components were promptly delivered to my MacDougal Street lair. A Music Hall CD25.2 replaced the NAD, otherwise all things were equal. Everything arrived very well packaged. The Fatman was especially surprising, coming as it did with an iPod dock and its own sturdy interconnects and banana-terminated speaker cables. Usually I would start rummaging for better cables than the manufacturer provides but these looked so cool and worked so well, I never had a second thought about them. But I couldn't resist juicing the components with my JPS and Shunyata power cords. Nothing cool about stock lamp lines.

Rega R3 Speakers
The venerable Rega Research Limited is a venture known to every serious listener worth his or her audio salt. The R3s are smallish floorstanders but they made a big sound in my smallish room. Outfitted with subtle Cherry wood veneer (Maple and RoseNut are also available) the R3s also feature black tapered bases to which four screw-out leveling spikes are sunk. I am 6' 1" and the R3s came to mid thigh. This caused the speakers to fire below the optimal sweet spot. Removing the back spikes tilted the speakers perfectly to suit my listening preference. The R3 uses a three driver setup: one five-inch Rega-made RR125 midrange driver located near the top of the speaker's front baffle above a one-inch silk dome custom-spec'd Viva tweeter joined by another side-mounted five-inch low end driver (covered by an irremovable grill) which is a different modification from the RR125. The R3 also use a front firing port, allowing them to be placed against a wall if needed. The R3 boasts a minimal crossover network and zero filter for the side-firing woofer. Approximate sensitivity is rated at 89db/6 ohms, the speaker measures 10¼" (d) X 6" (w) x 30" (h) and weighs 9kg (20 pounds). The manual suggests experimenting with the side woofers firing in and out so I did. I settled on woofers in.

As with all Rega products, the R3 is hand-built in the UK (Southend on Sea, England). Everything is soldered directly with no clip-on connections and the speaker is stuffed with real lamb's wool, not a synthetic substitute. A gasket material is used between drivers and cabinet to prevent leakage.

Music Hall CD 25.5
The 25.2 CD player looks as slim as a book (W 17" x D 14.5" x H 3") but weighs a surprisingly heavy 15 pounds. Packed with components normally found in more expensive players, the 25.2 features a Burr-Brown PCM 1738 24-bit/192kHz DAC coupled to a Philips VAM1202/19 transport with two digital outputs, one coaxial and one optical. The CD25.2 is finished in brushed aluminum, has an easily readable and dimmable florescent display and detachable power cord.

In 2006 I reviewed the CD25.2 for a West coast music mag, writing, "The 25.2, with its upsampling DAC, easily competes with CD players in the $1,000 range. Too often, less expensive components quickly reveal their deficiencies: muddy bass, harsh treble, drab soundstaging. The CD 25.2 avoided these gross errors by, again, delivering the essence of the music. When you've heard dozens of 3k CD players as I have, it is easy to nitpick problems with lesser components. For the CD25.2's price of $599, you can't expect pristinely smooth treble, pinpoint detail or laser beam bass but the Music Hall impressed me with its powerful presentation.

"While the CD 25.2's soundstaging abilities are rather flat, without much sense of back to front layering, it did an overall excellent job of revealing the micro and macro details of the recording. And, it was fairly neutral, though slightly tipped up in the treble. Though I have certainly heard more expensive CD players color the material to a similar degree as the CD 25.2."

How would the CD25.2 fare in a different system, a year later, with different system goals?
Fatman iTube
This mighty mite 13-watter among flea-wattage tube amps has made an incredible splash on both sides of the Atlantic. I've seen the Fatman iTube (a hybrid amp designed by TL Audio in the UK and manufactured in the Far East) written up on lifestyle sites selling women's unmentionables; iPod aficionado sites; jazz sites; even a hardware site hawking backpacks and plasma TVs. This is how you convert the masses to our hobby - by showing them that great sound needn't equal car payment prices. Arriving standard with an iPod dock (white gloves too!) separates the Fatman's functionality from that of the similarly constructed Dared MP-5 and ups the amp's worth to the nth degree.
The included remote for the iPod dock is another great surprise. It controls power on/off, volume, track selection and even bass and treble with ease and efficiency. A Carbon edition of the Fatman has been introduced in the UK, merging the amp and dock into one sleek chassis. The gorgeous chrome'n'wood-trimmed finish of the Fatman is complimented by three glowing tubes, one of which acts as kind of a VU meter, its light fluctuating to match the dynamics of the music. Round back one set of speaker jacks is accompanied by two sets of average RCA line inputs. Volume control, selector toggle switch, headphone jack and flip type power button round out the façade. The iPod dock will handle any model save the Shuffle and comes with an adjustable brace to lock down any and all units.

Fatman stats:
  • Power Output 13Wx2
  • Frequency Response 20Hz – 20KHz (±1.5dB)
  • Harmonic Distortion 0.5%
  • Signal-To-Noise Ratio 86dB
  • Input Impedance 100K
  • Output Impedance 4ohm, 8ohm
  • Valve Type 2 x 6N1(ECC85) 1 x 6E2(EM87)
  • Power Supply AC100~120V/50~60Hz AC220~240V/50~60Hz
  • Dimensions (l-w-h): Amp: 10.2" x 5.7" x 5.1", Dock: 6.1" x 5.1" x 4.8"
  • Weight: 9.5 lbs
Don't bogart that joint, my friend
Initially, I placed the mini rig in the living room directly in front of my Shindo/Art Audio/Devore/Raysonic rig but right out of the box(es) there was no oomph. The system failed to move me nor filled up the room with sound. So I moved it to the kitchen which is basically also where I work and write. Crammed into this smaller area, the Fatman/Music Hall/Rega rig jumped like mad and I had an instant blast, though of the non-critical variety. After a few months and many patient emails from manufacturers, I moved the rig back to the living room and holy cow, burn is real! (Remember the Louvin Brothers' album Satan Is Real? Okay, that's another story.) I placed the amp and CD player on the Salamander rack and the speakers (with woofers facing in) in front of my newly arrived DeVore Nines. Firing the woofers in provided solid bass and though they were far from the back wall, the Regas were generously warm. On to specifics.

As stated earlier and to no surprise here, the CD25.2 is slightly tipped up, creating more detail than midrange body. But the Fatman balanced this trait very well,
lending the overall sound great richness, warmth and not a little slam. Notes were reasonably well extended and the soundstage, though smaller than with the larger Nines, was more than ample. Did I achieve lucky system synergy? I would say yes, in spades. Some CDs sounded a little tart but again, I put that down to the energy and front row placement of the Music Hall. But the sound was extremely fast, very detailed and surprisingly warm and rich. The Regas were well balanced top to bottom, producing absolutely stellar bass for their diminutive size. Bass notes had an enjoyable snap and quickness if not the last word in tonal authenticity. Again, the soundstage was reasonably large if a bit round and fuzzy. Notes were a little foreshortened overall, with less than pinpoint accuracy and definition. But the presentation was transparent and decidedly so. Individual threads within the music were massed front and center without a lot of true depth but there was no sense of anything missing - or better still, nothing was rolled off or veiled in the least. The sound was immediate, fast, punchy and engrossing.

The Rega R3s created their own special magic. Playing the Beach Boys' Surfs Up produced a 3D effect particularly in the vocals. The Regas -- and this sounds like hyperbole -- established some kind of Sensurround effect, creating fat, nearfield vocal images that were larger than life and extremely impressive. I got lost in the sound as if I was smoking the weed of my youth. Again, the actual notes were rather foreshortened and perhaps a little flat tonally, but in nearfield position the R3s produced a thoroughly enveloping sonic presentation. The midrange was more flat than bloomy, bass notes were short but nicely warm and rounded and the treble was detailed and rosy but not rolled off. The R3s nicely coupled bass warmth to the detail and speed of a mini monitor. Overall, coherence was top notch!

The Fatman and Rega together imbued a very sweet, rich tonality to everything I put to them. Soundstage again was not very deep but very transparent, almost to the point of being lit up or illuminated. The smallish speakers were very well suited to my room. Though there are considerable trade offs in every area when compared to the DeVore Nines, the smaller soundstage of the Regas was very satisfying and allowed me to bask in detail if need be. I could almost see the outline of the Rega's smaller soundstage. With my larger rig, the stage was more all-encompassing. Such is typically the case between mini monitors and floorstanders but Rega has managed to pack in a bit more punch than the average small monitor and the speaker's slim, 6" front baffle makes them virtually disappear; the side-mounted bass driver being equally well integrated.

PlayStation Mojo
I figured I'd exchange the CD25.2 for the Playstation just for kicks. As it has in most every review, the Playstation fared very well. I am not of the camp that believes you must spend up to 10k to better the Sony -- that is nonsense in my book -- but I acknowledge that the Sony is a massive digital giant killer. With the Playstation in line, the Fatman/Rega system opened up in the treble and generally had a greater sense of flow, depth and slam. The Sony sounded a tad meatier than the Music Hall. It was also a little sloppier, like a garrulous uncle toasted on Scotch nudging out your detail-oriented, high IQ brother in law. Big and bouncy vs. controlled and exacting.

For a grand pre tax total of $2093, this system blew me away. If I'd been able to purchase this same setup when I began my audio journey in the late 80s, there is a good chance I would have stopped right there and then. Hats off to Mishoe, this li'l system had excellent synergy, no small thing to achieve.

What are the keys to system synergy if the Fatman is the main building block? Part of my goal in this review was to approach methods of system building where individual components were priced at less than $1000. What should be considered when matching at this price point? As in all things, one person's small budget is another's luxury item. My first ever upgrade from a Yamaha SS integrated amp to full-blown Cary monoblocks was a revelation and the change was beyond day and night. I felt like I had been released from the belly of a whale. But many punters build their systems slowly, moving up as finances allow.
The Mind of Mishoe
Curious as to a dealer's opinion, I queried Steve Mishoe on system matching with the iTube Fatman. He responded via email.

"Since the Fatman is only 13 watts, correct speaker matching is a must. I've had particularly good luck with speakers by Totem and Rega at my shop. Neither of these speakers I would consider high efficiency but certain models are easy loads, usually because of a simple high quality crossover design. Certainly both room size and listening habits (i.e. volume levels) will be significant factors in choosing speakers. The best way to determine correct speaker matching is to go and listen for yourself. Personal taste plays a gigantic role in how a system should be put together for you. As a store owner I like to offer a few high quality choices at each price range, the rest is left to the listener's ears. I remember how blown away you were when you heard the Fatman with the Rega R3s at the store. Again, nothing like hearing it in the flesh.

"The Fatman, being a very reasonably priced product at $649 is usually paired with speakers in the $350 to $1,500 range. Having tubes in the circuit doesn't necessarily guarantee great sound but I must say the Fatman does impart a sweetness that will help harsher recordings, especially MP3s downloaded from iTunes. This is not to say the Fatman is a sonic blanket covering up bad sound at the expense of muting otherwise fine recordings. Rather, the Fatman's sound favors tonal richness over incisiveness, body over ultimate frequency extension. Not to say that tube amplifiers and preamplifiers can't achieve tonal richness and body along with frequency extension and resolution. They can and spectacularly so but to get it all you have to enter a price point well above the 650 beans you'll plunk down for a Fatman. The Fatman can't save a harsh speaker from itself but if properly paired with a quality, easy-to-drive speaker, it can give the iPod generation a glimpse of why quality of sound was so important to earlier generations."

Well said - er, written, Steve!

System synergy, quality sound
This system took me by surprise for sure. It produced a rich, warm, very exciting sound with every CD I played. I didn't test the Fatman's iPod capabilities - that's for another review. But with proper source ancillaries (perhaps I should have hooked up a turntable), the Fatman/Rega rig was remarkable and for the price tag, an incredible, even frustrating bargain! Fatman, Music Hall and Rega have raised the bar by lowering the price. What more can an audiophool ask for?
Fatman website
In Living Stereo website
Music Hall website
Rega website
Fatman US import site