The difference between a headphone amp and a preamp

This is a question that, as a beginner builder, confused me quite a bit. While it isn’t too hard to understand why a preamp cannot drive power-hungry low-impedance headphones, it’s less obvious what separates an amp that can drive headphones from a low gain line stage. Headphone amps and preamps often share the same small signal tubes, usually Class A, and often single-ended.

Here are the modifications I would make to the El Estudiante headphone amp to make it better suited to line stage duty. While a purposely designed line stage might perform better, I can’t think of a way to do a halfway decent tube line stage any cheaper or simpler. If you don’t go mad on caps, this costs less than the headphone version.

Output Stage

Power requires both voltage and current. How much voltage or current required for a given amount of power depends on the load you intend to drive. Remember:

Power = Voltage x Current

But also:

Power = Voltage² / Impedance


Power = Current² x Impedance

To create power into low impedance headphones, we need current. This drives a lot of design decisions in tube headphone amplifiers. Common approaches to create power are push-pull output stages (eg SRPP, White Cathode Follower), output transformers, and solid state power buffering. The Estudiante creates the power required for low impedance headphones using the latter approach: a single-ended CCS-loaded MOSFET buffer. At a 100mA quiescent current, it can make about 150mW into 32 ohms:

0.1A² x 32 ohms x 1/2 = 150mW

(note RMS = Peak / √2)

On the other hand, with a 10,000 ohm input impedance on an amplifier, this current is unnecessary because the maximum ‘power’ is limited by the voltage, not the current:

24V² / (10,000 ohms x 2) = 25 mW

Now we don’t really look at power output per se in line stages and we’re rounding up the peak output voltage as half the power rail voltage, but it’s obvious that we don’t need all the current to drive the input impedance of an amplifier because we’re limited by voltage anyways. Consequently, we can lower the current in the MOSFET output stage to something that doesn’t even require a heatsink, making a preamp build that much simpler and cheaper.

With the LM317 CCS, we calculate the needed set resistor as 1.25V / Iq (where Iq is the idle current). A resistor of 100 ohms will give us 12.5mA idle current, which should be plenty for a reasonably low output impedance, but not enough to need a heatsink (I would probably still bolt my TO220 parts to the chassis though).

linestage estudiante

In addition to lowering the idle current in the MOSFETs, we can change the big nasty electrolytic cap found in the headphone amplifier to a higher quality film cap. Electrolytics are great where you need a large capacitance in a small and affordable package, like the output coupling cap in a headphone amplifier, but electrolytic capacitors have been shown to create distortion at low frequencies (see Douglas Self’s Small Signal Audio Design) and exhibit leakage current that creates a thump on power down (which may just be annoying on headphones, but potentially damaging on a high power speaker amplifier).

For an input impedance of 10,000 ohms and a -3db point of 5 hertz, Our new cap size in microfarads (uF) is calculated as:

1,000,000 / (2 x Pi x 10,000 ohms x 5 hz) = ~ 3uF

A film cap of this size at a rating of only 63V+ is not hard to come by. I’d probably buy an assortment just to see if I could hear a difference. We should also increase the size of the loading resistor on the output from the 1k in the headphone amplifier to something like 100k or 1M so that we aren’t rolling off the bass or unnecessarily loading down the MOSFET output stage.

Finally, because we’re reducing the current in the output stage, our power supply requirement is relaxed, maybe opening up more wall-wart options to power the project. So if you’re looking for a simple, low-voltage, and cheap tube preamp option, modifying a headphone amplifier like the El Estudiante may be a good option. I’ve even used the headphone amp to feed power amplifiers in a pinch and it sounds surprisingly good.

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