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.

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.

Another Muchedumbre lives

I finished another Muchedumbre build with some slight variations.  This has two outputs and two inputs (easily switchable back to the 1+3 arrangement).  The power supply CLC filter uses all motor run caps instead of a mix of motor run and electrolytic. Other than these small tweaks, it is built as designed.

The wood apron is a very nice piece of walnut with a lot of prominent grain motion and color variation and the panel is inset rather than sitting on separate interior spacer boards. This is going to live a very happy life in Madison, WI.

I love kits, too

Especially when they are high quality kits.  Here are the contents of a TubeCAD Aikido kit that just arrived. John Broskie’s boards are top notch, the parts are bagged and labelled logically, and the included manual is excellent.  I’ll be building this kit up in a unique way (see TubeCAD’s article on the SRCFPP) and will post a build and my impressions in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, if you aren’t subscribed to and reading The TubeCAD Journal, you should be. Also consider contributing to John Broskie’s Patreon: for less than the cost of a Netflix subscription, you’ll support excellent vacuum tube DIY content and resources for everyone in the hobby.

USB interfaces for DIY audio measurements

USB interfaces

Looking for a better way to measure my line-level and amplifier projects, I decided to investigate some USB prosumer interfaces. Rather than options like the QA401 with its required software suite, the Keithley 2015 with uninspiring THD specs, or HP 8903 with a footprint and compatibility penalty, I wanted something small, flexible, and with performance good enough for tube audio. A USB audio interface will require voltage dividers for many measurements (whereas the lab equipment usually allows a higher Vrms input), but recording interfaces are inexpensive and flexible with software. Also, I don’t have the play money for an AP or dScope rig.

RMAA interfaces screenshot

These were all measured back to back on the same laptop with latest drivers and the same unbalanced cables. The same -1db level was used for all interfaces to get a relative distortion/noise baseline. RMAA doesn’t necessarily give an absolute and repeatable spec, but it is good enough for relative comparisons. All interfaces were measured several times; the displayed specs capture the “average” performance (calculated by eye).

  • The MBox 3rd Gen is an obvious winner in just about every regard. It was also a much more expensive interface when it was new.  MBoxes are no longer produced, but used interfaces aren’t difficult to find. This would be a decent basis for THD measurements of amplifiers (my intended use).
  • The M-Track 2×2 did rather well (as much as I hate to admit it) but doesn’t have two identical channels for this kind of thing (one TRS and one combo jack with mic pre). Wouldn’t recommend it for measurements for that reason.
  • The old Fast Track Duo (Avid branded bu made by M-Audio) blew chunks. Can’t rule out that my unit has some kind of issue.
  • The AudioBox USB looks good but there is a cross-talk issue. Possibly grounding with the unbalanced cables. The knobs are also too fiddly for fine adjustment in my opinion.
  • I really wanted the iConnectivity to perform the best here. In my opinion it’s the nicest piece of hardware. Unfortunately, the relative measurements don’t make it the best choice. It can be run from a 9V supply rather than the USB bus though and I may try that to see if there’s any improvement. No supply handy for this test.
  • The AudioBox 44VSL does pretty well (this is what I had been using for measurements). It also requires a 12V external supply and is a larger 4 mic pre interface, making it a little less convenient for a bench-top test setup. The 22VSL is smaller and may measure just as well (don’t have one to play with).

Here’s after some fine tuning the MBox levels in REW (sampling rate set to 96khz):

mbox-96k.png

This is close to the -110db THD Avid spec’d. All in all, I think I can live with the MBox for a while for my testing. Although all the caveats of RMAA and testing conditions/methodology apply, performance is on par with some specs I’ve seen on the cheaper audio analyzers and definitely a cut above the other USB interfaces here.

Link to RMAA software

Link to REW software