How to design, simulate, and build a DIY SET amplifier

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Guest Post at Audio Primate: JDS Labs CMOYBB Review

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One part market research and two parts DIY hobby service: click here for another review of a small solid state headphone kit/board at Audio Primate. JDS Labs has done an excellent job with this kit. Everything is clearly labeled, the board is good quality, and the documentation is excellent.

If you want a place to start with DIY amps and line-level gear, look no further than the classic CMOY.

An Estudiante Build in the Wild

Estudiante-amp-P2P-01

XRK971, whose pocket amp I recently reviewed for Audio Primate, shares his Estudiante build at diyaudio.com here.

He had some issues with the LM317 CCSs and so I’ve decided to update the BoM to use the LM317HV (which was on the schematic but not noted specifically in the write-up). He’s currently listening with resistor loads, which will also work fine if you run out of heatsinks or space for the extra TO-220 packages.

Looks great, XRK!

Reference: WTF Amps El Estudiante write up.

DIY amplifier top plate easel

I wanted a better way to wire my amps and had been lusting after Decware’s amazing assembly room for a while.  While I can’t afford the custom extrusions and equipment that Decware has, I can get creative with common materials.  I decided to try a simple easel based on a couple of rails of t track and some standard angle and rod extrusion.

The basis of my easel is two 2ft sections of t track. Finding a 4ft section with bolts and knobs on sale at Rockler was what pushed me over the edge to build this daydream. The t track is 3/4″ wide by 3/8″ deep. Rather than trying to route a channel in a thick board, I sandwiched the t track in scrap with 3/4″ thick scrap under the track and 3/8″ to form the outside. These were glued and clamped face down so that I could be sure the t track would be flush with the top edge. 

My bench is cantilevered from basement joists with 2×6 vertical supports. I ran a 1/2 aluminum rod between the supports to provide lateral movement and adjustment to the t track rails. The rails simply have a 1/2″ hole through which the rod passes. By mounting the rod 12″ from the surface, the 24″ rails give a 30 degree angle. This leaves plenty of clearance for transformers and is comfortable to work on while standing or sitting). I purchased some 1/2″ washers and collars, but they may not really be necessary (I’ll find a use eventually). 

My horizontal ledges are 1/2″ by 3/4″ aluminum angle (3/4″ side is flat against the t track rails). I used self adhesive cork sheet to protect plates in the easel from scratching on the support. Depending on your knobs or wing nuts, you may have to trim some of the horizontal rails so that they can be completely tightened. I cut my rails to fit a 18″ wide top plate, but aluminum extrusion is cheap if I ever want to build something wider. 

All in all, this is a handy and relatively simple addition to my tube amp building bench. And it is a lot cheaper than custom extrusions or lab fixtures!

 

Letters to WTF: What kind of rectification am I supposed to use with this power transformer?

I was helping someone with an amp build over Telegram (chat app) yesterday when this question came up. He had in fact been trying to use a diode bridge with a center tapped transformer with both the center tap and the bridge grounded. He released the magic smoke from his transformer, though there were a couple of other issues that may have contributed to this.

When I was starting out, I had some confusion with power transformers and rectifiers, too. Probably like many others, I started with small solid state circuits, where center tapped transformers are rare. Once I started building with tubes, the secondary ratings of center tap transformers were another source of confusion. So here’s a by no means complete rundown of transformer configurations.

1. My transformer doesn’t have a center tap and I want a full-wave rectified DC output.

You want to use a diode bridge (figure 4-8). This is four diodes arranged to rectify both positive and negative phases of the power transformer’s AC output. Your ground will be taken from the bridge, NOT THE TRANSFORMER. This ground at the junction of the diodes creates a return path for current that ‘switches’ with the changing phase of the secondary’s AC output.

2. My transformer has a center tap and I want a full-wave rectified DC output.

You want to use a “conventional” full-wave rectifier (figure 4-5A). This requires only two diodes (solid state or a rectifier tube). Your ground is taken from the center tap of the transformer (which is then the return path for current). Many center tapped transformers are rated as the full end-to-end secondary voltage. For example, a 300VAC center tapped secondary would actually provide 150VAC into a conventional full-wave rectifier. You’ll sometimes see the same transformer listed as 150V-0-150V.

Here’s a great clarification of what’s going on with full-wave bridges and conventional full-wave rectification.

How much voltage do I get?

With either of the above, the unloaded DC output into a capacitor-input filter is approximately the AC output from the secondary times the square root of two, minus the voltage drop across the diodes (minimal for solid-state, can be considerable for tube rectifiers). Into a choke-input filter (unloaded, ignoring diode drop), the output will be approximately two times the square root of two divided by pi (about 0.9) of the AC output of the transformer secondary.

3. My transformer secondary has a center tap, but I want a bipolar power supply.

Here you can combine the center-tapped transformer and the aforementioned bridge style rectifier. See figure 5.1c here. This creates two separate full-wave rectified voltages, one positive and the other negative with respect to the center tap. If you read a lot of TubeCAD, you see bipolar tube circuits pretty regularly.

4. My power transformer is 300VAC (150V-0-150V) center tapped, but I want 400VDC!

Another way to combine the center tapped transformer and bridge rectifier is to ignore the center tap altogether. Do not connect it to ground; just SAFELY tape it off and tuck it away. Now you have basically a non-center tapped transformer and you can treat it like number 1 above. Note that current capacity in this configuration is typically half of what the transformer was originally rated for.

5. My power transformer is 120VAC without a center tap and I want 300VDC!

To achieve this, you can use a voltage doubler (see figure 4 “Delon circuit). This requires two diodes and two capacitors. Because the capacitors will see large pulses from the diodes and will be supplying the rest of the circuit continuously, they need to be a fairly large value. But because each only sees half of the supply voltage, their voltage ratings are a little more relaxed in comparison to what is required in a filter. The unloaded DC output into a capacitor-input filter is approximately twice the AC voltage from the transformer secondary times the square root of two. Current capacity must be de-rated at the output voltage by a factor of at least two.

6. My power transformer has dual matching secondaries and no center tap. What do I do?

This is common with toroidal power transformers in particular. You can wire the two secondaries in parallel (making sure the polarities are matching) and use a bridge rectifier like number 1 above. The AC output of the transformer will be the same as either secondary by itself (and current capacity will be doubled). You can also wire the secondaries in series by connecting a positive and negative from each secondary (not the positive and negative from the same secondary!). This creates a center tap at the junction. The AC output end-to-end will be twice the AC output of a single secondary if the secondary is not grounded (see number 4 above). If you ground the secondary you created, you can use a rectifier like number 2 above.

Letters to WTF: Why do “neutral” amps sound different?

One of the issues is that although we can measure a heck of a lot about an amplifier, we can’t express those measurements in ways that are easy to digest and interpret for the average reader. We end up with data that is easy to misinterpret or take out of context. Part of the blame lies with consumers, who want to compare and contrast specs as a replacement for firsthand experience, and part lies with marketing departments that are being deliberately selective or unintentionally incomplete with what they publish.

THD is one of the classic examples of this. The THD as a percent often appears in marketing specifications, but it is not nearly so often accompanied by the all-important context. To make practical sense of a THD specification, you need to know what kind of signal was applied during measurement (frequency, level, single sine wave, multiples for IMD, program material, etc) and at what level the output was measured (voltage or wattage). Even when that information is provided, judging % THD across devices doesn’t give you a good comparative idea of the sound unless you know the harmonic makeup of the distortion spectrum (very rarely provided by manufacturers). All 0.X% THD measurements are not created equal in terms of your listening perception.

Power output is another example of specs that tell less than they should if we want to make a judgement on numbers alone. Like THD, power output requires context in the form of % THD at the measured level, the load used to measure (reactive load, resistive load, etc), and the signal used to measure. This information is not often given and so apples-to-apples comparisons that would allow someone to say with confidence that “these are equally neutral amplifiers” really is not possible. To make matters worse, most of these measurements are interactive, making expressing the results in a practical way more difficult.

While we hope manufacturers would include this kind of information in specs as we shop, it just does not happen. A big reason for that is the average person just doesn’t care. The responsibility falls to the niche press that reviews products and is able to measure them with a consistent method. But there’s a diminishing return on the amount of work it takes to measure and share all the data needed to give a clear picture of how something sounds. Even if the measurement work is done, it takes a certain amount of technical knowledge and experience to interpret it, so we end up with catch-all terms like ‘warm’ or ‘neutral’ to paint the picture. This audiophile language is as much a shorthand for all the measurements that aren’t being done as it is flowery jargon.

TL;DR It takes a huge amount of work to measure and express the findings if you want to capture all there is to say about how something sounds. Few are willing to do it, so we have words like ‘neutral’ that are part subjectivity and part experienced evaluation by trained ears. Even then, it’s not a perfect substitute for hearing something yourself.

Guest post at Audio Primate: Pocket Class A

done with headphones

Click here to read my review of the Pocket Class A tin amp headphone amplifier over at Audio Primate.  This is a solid state project, but a very fun build that performs surprisingly well for the low cost.  In principal, it is like a shrunk down version of my El Estudiante amp. Board came courtesy of XRK971 (the designer) on diyaudio.com.