Listening on someone else’s system

Like many audio enthusiasts, I have a general philosophy for audio that guides me when designing (or shopping for) new gear. In a nutshell, I value an objective and empirical approach to design, but this is tempered by the notion that music is art. At its core, art appreciation is a subjective, and often situational, experience. Objective design for subjective ends reads like a paradox; designers have egos too and so maybe conflict between engineering and ‘the feels’ is inescapable. If you’ve been on audio forums or blogs long enough, you know that objectivity and subjectivity do not usually mix in the audiophile hobby. I’ll steer clear of that morass, save to add one recently encountered perspective.

Last weekend I delivered a preamp (design write-up on the way) to its new owner, J. We spent a couple of hours listening to his system with and without the new piece. J’s system is different than mine and the music it makes sounds different, too (including recordings I know). We both had fun going through albums and cranking up the tunes. In a way, it was a little like seeing a favorite group perform live. You know the music but can appreciate fresh nuance all the same. That we got to do so together, on a social level, only added to the enjoyment.

Now what if we were all uncompromising in our objectivity? What if all systems and designers pursued the same goal and weighed compromises equally? Worse yet, what if compromises did not have to be made and all playback was “perfect?” While I know this is ostensibly what many of us seek in the audiophile hobby, where would it leave the hobby on a social and experiential level? I would visit J and hear the same songs in the same way that I always do.

The art in music is not a one-way street. The lenses and filters we use to experience and share art enrich both the art itself and culture as a whole. The process of internalization, expression, and rebirth keeps music relevant and vital. I’m off into abstraction, but there is a kernel of truth for audio here, too: how terrible the tyranny of ‘exactly as the artist intended’ could be if we took it too literally.

You are the artist of your listening, the world is your mixing console, seek out new stereos, and all that jazz.

 

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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):

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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

New 300B kit by Elekit (via diyaudio.com)

Note I have no affiliation with Elekit other than being an admirer of what they do for DIY audio hobbyists.

Elekit’s kits seem to hit attractive price points for what’s included (tubes, transformers, components, and a chassis) and the quality of the documentation. VK Music (Canadian importer of Elekit) just announced a new 300B amplifier on diyaudio.com here. Although details are sparse, we can maybe glean some ideas from the specs and the previous incarnation (Elekit TU-8300).

Specs for TU-8600:

• Tube Set : 12AU7 X 2 + 12AX7 X 1 + 300B X 2
• Now compatible with low to high impedance headphones
• Frequency response (-3dB) : 10Hz – 80kHz
• Max. output (THD 10%) : 8.3W + 8.3W (Input voltage : 250mV r.m.s)
• Residual noise : 42uV rms (IHF-A)
• Power consumption : 80W when no signal; 80W at max. output

The previous TU-8300 used MOSFET regulation for a B+ of 375V and because the new amp is rated for the same power, I think we can assume the new version operates at about the same voltage with a similar bias (-60V). Rather than two stages of 12AT7 on the input, the new design uses two 12AU7 and one 12AX7 triode per channel. So how are these arranged?

Let’s reverse engineer the numbers for an educated guess. We get full output of 8W from a -60V biased tube with an input of 250mVrms. If the 250mVrms (0.7V peak to peak) fully drives the output tube’s -60V bias (120V peak to peak), we have a gain of about 160x. That could be two successive stages of 12AU7, but then what is the 12AX7 doing? We appear to be using one half of the 12AX7 dual triode per channel. It would be an odd choice for a buffer stage, but it’s a plentiful tube and would make sense in that regard.

The other likely explanation is that we have some feedback at work and the 12AX7s are used for voltage gain. Maybe this is a grounded cathode 12AX7 into a 12AU7 SRPP. In terms of driving the Miller Capacitance of a 300B, this seems like a plausible arrangement. Gain would be in the 400-500x neighborhood, but feedback would knock this back down to the 160x overall and lower the output impedance.

Lastly, this amp includes a headphone output. Maybe the extra triodes are employed in some kind of follower specifically for the headphone section. A 12AU7 white cathode follower seems like a potential candidate. Whatever it is, I’ll be anxiously awaiting the manual and schematics to see what Mr. Fujita has come up with!

If you’re headed to the LA Audio Show (June 2nd-4th), the amp will be on display in the VK Music booth.

UPDATE 9/15/17: Here’s the first review I’ve seen, courtesy of Wall of Sound

Walking the line

When I got started with woodworking and amp building, cutting a straight line was the most intimidating part of just about any project. Not having the space or justification for a table saw, I tried more than one way of following a line with a jig saw and circular saw before I found something that works for me. Now I do not shy away from ripping boards to specific widths quickly and it only took some scrap and ingenuity.

What I found was a really simple circular saw jig made of a three or four inch wide 3/4″ board and some ten or twelve inch wide 1/8″ sheet. If you can find a board with a straight edge (preferably machined right from the lumber yard), you can cut a straight line. The jig is simply the 3/4″ board glued to the overly-wide thin sheet. You then zip your circular saw down the board with the shoe pressed against the straight edge to cut off the excess 1/8″ material. Viola. You now have a jig that will always cut just as straight as the board you used to build it.

saw jig

Here’s a picture of my jig (rebuilt this weekend because the old one was getting chewed up):

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My board is a bit wider because I also use this with my router for insetting panels.

To use the jig, I mark the piece that will be ripped or cross cut in two places and then connect the dots with the now arrow-straight edge of the 1/8″ jig base. Clamp it down and then let the circular saw ride against the thick portion of the jig. Because the saw’s shoe doesn’t change width, it will always faithfully cut along the edge of the 1/8″ material, provided you are making sure it is following snug against the thicker board. Straight cuts don’t get easier than this and I’d wager that this is at least as fast as setting up a table saw for every cut.

As far as measuring, I’ve always got a combination square near at hand (great for marking holes in top plates, too). This makes setting a repeatable distance from an edge quick and easy.

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If the thought of table saws and messy cuts prevents you from tackling your next amplifier or speaker project, hit the bargain bin at the lumber yard and whip up a simple jig.  This hobby doesn’t require expensive equipment if you get clever with the tools on hand.