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Mixing retro technology with the latest Apple gear, this is sure to shift heads

Screen shot 2010-02-08 at 15.36.41The idyam:zeus is a serious piece of kit. On first appearance it resembles a frightening mix of retro technology and modern aesthetics, with an iPod dock to boot. We’re sure you’ve glanced at the image above and are wondering ‘what on earth is that?’ It’s a valve (aka tube) amplifier intended for home audio use. If you’ve never used a valve amplifier before then we’ll briefly explain how they work. They’re similar to the old- fashioned light bulb. A filament in a vacuum emits electrons when a current is applied, but whereas a light bulb produces light, a second filament is used within a valve amplifier to attract the electrons and boost the audio. Valve amplifiers were replaced by solid- state amplifiers somewhere between

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the Sixties and Seventies, so as a result you’re not likely to see them in a music or computer store. So why go back to using a valve amplifier? There are a number of reasons: they’re capable of very high frequency ranges (great if you have the hearing of a young child or a canine), they reduce the harsh sound often found in most hi-fi systems, they enable you to hear the silence in between notes and, in general, produce an incredibly realistic sound output. The downside? Valve amplifiers can be incredibly expensive and are very power hungry. This is idyam’s first valve amp. The company has further products, including an iPod/iPhone dock with a built-in valve amp system coming later this year.

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The name idyam:zeus reflects the Greek king of gods and ruler of Mount Olympus. A grand name that suitably reflects the product. As we’re sure you’ve noticed already, this is a striking piece of equipment. When it was first unveiled in the iCreate office a swarm of people quickly gathered around it to prod, stare, ooh and ahh. The main unit itself comprises eight glass valve amps, two round windows that display the audio output, an auxiliary selector wheel and a volume wheel. On the side are two gold-plated handles, which will be useful as this is a heavy set of amps! Around the back you’ll find three stereo input jacks, right and left channel outputs and the power socket. The input and output jacks are gold plated, ensuring the highest audio quality. As a whole,
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the black and chrome finishing helps the amp to blend in well with the rest of your Mac equipment.

When turned on, the two dial windows light up and the filaments in the amps begin to glow, and within a couple of minutes the valves are giving off a low level of heat. As soon as audio is pumped through the amp, whether from your computer or iPod, it’s immediately noticeable that the sound quality has improved. It really took us by surprise. There’s a new depth to the audio coming from your speakers – even the small, tinny types that are often included with computers. The richness of the audio almost erases any need for a subwoofer. We noticed that as sound is amplified by the idyam:zeus, the filaments

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brighten with the audio level, and the dials flicker back and forth. Combined, it’s an entertaining way to monitor the output of the audio. Be warned however, the idyam:zeus gets hot when it has been amplifying sound for more than a few minutes in length. Metal and plastic enclosures ensure that you can’t accidentally touch the valves – but even these could burn skin with prolonged contact.

For a limited time the idyam:zeus includes an iPod/iPhone dock, called idyam:blue, which includes stereo and s-video outputs that hook up to the main unit. There are a few limitations, however. The volume controls on your iPhone or iPod won’t work while docked, so you’ll need to use the wheels on the main unit. The limited volume control might sound unusual, but we imagine this is to allow the amp to choose a constant volume level – all the better for your ears’ health. There’s also some other small issues, like the

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dock not being fully compatible with an iPhone. That’s not to say it won’t work though; by simply turning on Airport mode you can enable audio output. Finally there’s no click when you insert an iPod or iPhone into the idyam:blue dock, and instead it wobbles slightly when moved.
While reviewing this kit we were left pondering one interesting question: why use an iPod or iPhone – with its middle-of-the-range MP3s and AAC files – with such a rich and high-quality audio system? Surely the average MP3 file is lacking the crystal clear notes and high frequencies that we experience with live music? As it turns out, the idyam:zeus improves even these low quality files. Voices in particular are given a more realistic sound.

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If you enjoy nothing more than sitting back and basking in crystal clear music and total silence in between notes, then this could be the ultimate amplifier for your Mac. It stands out among other amps with its unique appearance and retro features, but brings with it a hefty asking price.