Soviet Tubes

Soviet Tubes Pic.png

I have spent way too much time this week researching soviet tubes but at least I have a reference sheet to show for it. These are the tubes that seem to me to be the most interesting and commonly available through either NOS vendors or current production. Lots of interesting stuff here and many are still very cheap (<$5 USD). I’ve got a couple packages on the way already.

Soviet Tubes Reference (PDF with datasheet links)

Letters to WTF: how do I know what size potentiometer I should use?

This is a dang good question. Different values of pots don’t attenuate any more or any less than one another. A 1M pot is not inherently quieter/louder than a 10k pot. So why the eff are there so many values of potentiometers? It has to do with input and output impedance.

A pot is a made up of a resistance and a wiper making contact with the resistance. The point where the wiper makes contact divides the resistance into two parts. We usually take our output at the wiper and connect one end of the resistance to our source and the other end of the resistance to ground. As we turn the knob, the wiper moves to make one resistance larger or smaller relative to the other. You can think of it just like a resistor divider:

generic poteniometer

The arrow is our wiper, R1 is the portion of the resistance between the wiper’s contact and the input, and R2 is the portion of the resistance between the wiper and ground. The resistor marked “A” is standing in for the output impedance of the source connected to the pot. The resistor marked “B” is standing in for the input impedance of the next stage or amp.

From the perspective of A (the source), the pot’s value looks like R1 in series with R2 and B in parallel:

Zin = R1 + R2||B

When you have the volume very low, R2 is very small and so the impedance is basically R1 (or close to the pot value). When you have the volume turned up high, R1 is very small and so your impedance is dominated by R2||B.  This is where it gets more interesting.

If B (the input impedance of the following stage) is large relative to R2, the input impedance of the pot is basically R2 (again, close to the pot value). If B is a relatively small value, the term R2||B is closer to B. Because the volume is all the way up, R1 does not add to the input impedance of the system as a whole. The input impedance in that case would be about the value of B.

Now, what about output impedance of the pot? From the perspective of the wiper, R1 and R2 are in parallel, so the output impedance is R1 || R2. If we also include the output impedance of the previous stage, the output impedance of the pot from the perspective of the wiper is:

(A + R1) || R2

The worst case scenario for the output impedance is when the two terms A + R1 and R2 are equal.  This gives the largest value. If A is small relative to R1 and R2, the highest output impedance of the pot is therefore at half of its travel (linear pot). Here, the value of R1||R2 is 1/4 the value of R1 + R2 (or 1/4 the pot’s value). As A gets larger, the maximum possible output impedance also gets larger.

We want the pot value (R1+R2) to be much lower than the input impedance of the next stage or device (B) because that will let the pot behave most consistently in terms of impedance. We also want the pot value (R1 + R2) to be much larger than the source impedance of the preceding stage (A) because it keeps the maximum output impedance at or below 1/4 of the pots value.

Think of it all as a system. We want B much larger than 1/4 the pot value and the pot value much larger than A. A factor of 10x is pretty good. So, if you have a 25k input impedance on the stage following the pot (B), you’d want a pot value (R1 + R2) no larger than 10k. If your pot’s value is 10k, you’d want the source impedance feeding (A) it to be no larger than 1k.

Or, just add buffers to everything and let impedance math be damned.





(power) supply chain

Postponement is a powerful supply chain concept employed to minimize inventory/capital for a business by delaying configuration of a specialized product until as close as possible to delivery to the end-user. For great examples, see Dell’s made-to-order computer business or Edcor’s made to order transformers.

In vacuum tube land, the transformer is a critical component. Tubes come in all shapes and sizes, requiring a variety of voltages for optimal operation. This has lead to many different power transformers and filter configurations for various circuits. We even have transformer companies whose entire business strategy is founded on servicing the myriad of transformer configurations and custom options.

What if we could find one power transformer that could be used with any circuit? What would it look like? Well, if I were to build one it would probably look something like this:


Looks pretty simple to be universal, doesn’t it. But what’s up with the 50V winding? It’s not a heater tap but it could be used for bias, I suppose. The use I have in mind is something like this:

In conjunction with the 300V winding, the 50V winding will allow you to create 250V and/or 350V outputs (all voltages AC of course). Using the extra winding and some filter math, you could easily tune in any target B+ from low max voltage tubes like 6V6/EL84 to higher max voltage tubes like EL34 or KT88. Careful attention would need to be paid to phase labeling and any power supply would use a bridge rectifier, but those are pretty small prices to pay for more flexible parts.

A transformer like this with a 250mA current rating might be the only transformer a builder would ever need for a variety of projects. Fewer parts means less money tied up in iron for users and fewer SKUs means more economies of scale for transformer manufacturers. That’s the beauty of postponement.

Bench update:

  • Aikido Headphone amp is underway
  • Push-push octal monoblocks are in design phase
  • Working on write-up for latest peanut watt SET “El Cacahuate”

Class A FET power buffers

I’ve been kicking the hybrid amplifier can down the road for quite a while. In essence, I’m looking to do a bigger EL Estudiante. An amp capable of driving speakers to a dozen or two watts using a MOSFET follower output stage for current gain and a tube handling the voltage gain. While this is not especially difficult on paper, making something that is an interesting and practical alternative to tube output stages is not necessarily so straightforward.

On one hand, one should consider the target user. Most tube enthusiasts do not need so much power, so we can bias in Class A and avoid a whole lot of AB headaches and worry about bias adjustment, crossover distortion, etc. This has to be balanced against heatsinking and thermal considerations, of course. Coming from the world of tubes, our audiophile anti-bodies have already pretty well encysted any commonsensical tendencies we may once have harbored, but the smoke point of drywall hasn’t changed. That is to say solid state does not magically make Class A cool, efficient, or pragmatic, but why make something hotter, more wasteful, and more burdensome than vacuum tech? We’re hoping to make something that is more than the sum of its parts.

ccs load se

The Aikido Hybrid 16W SE by John Broskie has about as much power as most probably need. Sixteen is two to the fourth watts, so four times three decibels per doubling of power for a 12db increase over nominal speaker rating (eg your 90db speakers peak at 102db). The quiescent current is a very serious 2A. It is a single-ended MOSFET source-follower loaded by a current source. There’s little not to like other than the coupling caps (contrast this with output transformers for AC coupling in full tube amps). See also Rod Elliott and Pavel Macura’s CCS-loaded follower here.

inductor load se

We can make single-ended more efficient with an inductive load.  Just like a choke load with tubes (eg Luciernaga), an inductive load on a MOSFET lets it swing voltage past the power rails.  The MoFo is an example of a single-ended source-follower MOSFET with a simple passive choke load (50-150mH and very low DCR). This is much more efficient than an active CCS in an absolute watts dissipated sense (note the much lower supply voltage), but chokes ain’t cheap and you still need a good dose of current.

diode bias pp

If you want to lower the quiescent current needed, but stay in Class A, push-pull source-followers are the way to go. Papa Pass’s F4 power buffer does exactly this to cut the quiescent current needed in half. The need to match FETs may be unappealing, but compared to his single-ended F3, F2, or Aleph J, the power delivery into 4 ohm loads is much improved. Note Broskie suggests the same push-pull MOSFET approach (with a different biasing scheme) in the Moskido amp design.

Any of the above would probably sound pretty good: like a tube feeding a very transparent solid state amp. If the amount of power you need is modest (and it probably is if you’re a tube enthusiast), these approaches have made very nice speaker amps. Hopefully I’ll have my own design to contribute soon. MOSFET followers would also make a great multi-watt amp for low sensitivity and low impedance headphones, like the HIFIMAN HE-6.

The HE-6 are rated at a sensitivity of 83.5db at 1 mW.  With 1000x more power (1W), we’d make 103.5db (a 20db increase). Around 5W input makes it a cool 110db. Coincidentally, this is the power rating of the amp HIFIMAN recommends as a pairing.  The HE-6’s 50 ohm impedance lowers the quiescent current needed in a MOSFET output stage, though still requires a voltage rail high enough to prevent clipping. A quick approximation for voltage would be:

power = Vrms²  / impedance

5W x 50 ohms = 16 Vrms²

16 Vrms x √2 x 2 = 46 Vptp

So about a 48V power rail (or +/- 24V) gets us in the neighborhood. Doing the same for current:

power = Irms² x impedance

5W / 50 ohms = 0.32 Irms²

0.32 Irms x √2 = 0.5 Ipeak

We only need about a 48V power rail and 0.5A quiescent current per channel to get us 5W into a 50 ohm load if using a CCS loaded MOSFET. If we choke load, cut the 48V in half. If we use Class A push pull, cut the current in half. The heatsinks aren’t going to be tiny, but a desktop size amp isn’t out of the question.





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.

Ode to the ST-70

dynaco st70.png

The ST70 is a beautiful and historic amplifier (and surprisingly compact if you see one in person). It’s also the best selling power amp of all time (at least so says Wikipedia). All things Dynaco inspire much talk here around the water cooler at the WTF Amps institute of higher learning about vacuum tube stuff. Here are some loosely organized tidbits and thoughts on amplification!

Generalized Topological Design Trends in Discrete Amplification

Forget for a moment that some amps are made with tubes while others are made with transistors. Deep down in their vacuum or silicon hearts they are really both just simple three-pin devices used to accomplish the same thing (gain). Forget all the audio-speak we abuse in our efforts to approximate the many facets of circuit performance. Forget the preconceptions we file away in our minds under “T” for tube or “S” for solid state. We aren’t thinking about tubes or transistors, right? Good.

To SE or PP (tee-hee)

Beyond all other aspects, the amplifier topology choice that impacts a design the most -in performance, efficiency, and cost- is whether the amplifier will be single-ended or differential. The difference can be boiled down to whether the amplification devices handle the entire signal through to the output (single-ended) or “split” the signal phases and re-combine them at the output (differential). Differential amplifiers are sometimes also referred to as push-pull. There is no such thing as balanced amplification, but that’s another discussion.

Single-ended amplifiers tend to be more inefficient in both a power consumption and economic sense. Because they are Class A by necessity, they dissipate more heat per watt of amplification. Single-ended amplifiers need a squeaky clean power supply to achieve a respectable noise floor because they do not benefit from the same kind of ripple rejection as differential amplifiers. They tend to produce more distortion, but the distortion that they produce usually has an even-order-dominated harmonic spectrum. Studies say even-order distortion harmonics are less offensive to most listeners.

In contrast, differential amplifiers produce less distortion when designed well, but what they do produce is dominated by odd-order harmonics, which are less pleasing to most listeners. Differential amplifiers are capable of far more efficiency than single-ended amplifiers because both output phases do not need to be “on” all the time. By nature, differential amplifiers reject power supply noise because they only amplify the difference between the phases and any power noise appears equally in both.


The distinction between single-ended and differential is the most fundamental taxonomy that can be applied to amps. The next most important design choice with regards to the circuit and its behavior is whether the amplifier will be open-loop or closed-loop. A closed-loop amplifier injects a portion of the output back into the circuit in order to correct non-linearities created by the act of amplifying with non-imaginary devices. This requires extra gain from the amplifier to be spent on suppressing these distortions. An open-loop amplifier is able to get by with less overall gain and enjoys more polite clipping behavior at the expense of generally higher THD. We are very deliberately avoiding the term ‘negative feedback’ here, by the way.

If you’re following along, you see that less-efficient single-ended amplifiers with less-objectionable distortion spectrum might naturally gravitate towards open loop circuits. Furthermore, you can imagine that more efficient differential amplifiers, with power to spare but a less pleasing distortion spectrum, are logical candidates for closed loop circuits. Your powers of comprehension do not fail to impress, dear reader. In practice a blend of single-ended and differential, open loop and closed loop, choices are made at the stage/component level in order to balance the relevant strengths and weaknesses, but the broader structure of amplifiers is usually one or the other.

WTF were we talking about again?

I’m going to tell you a secret now. Please do not react too loudly or cause a commotion. Come closer… Single-ended, differential, open loop, and closed loop has nothing to do with whether an amp uses tubes or transistors. Yes, that’s quite something isn’t it? While it’s true that historically certain devices and topologies are strongly associated one to another, this is a question of device availability coinciding with design trends and market demands, not choices dictated purely by the devices used.

This brings us back to the topic of the Dynaco ST-70. This is a closed loop differential amplifier running in Class AB, much like the earlier Williamson or Leak tube amplifier designs. The overall topology is not much different from current Class AB transistor amplification because these solid state amps are simply a continuation of the same design trend (AB differential, closed loop). While today we associate tubes with single-ended open loop design and transistors with differential closed loop design – and all the baggage these topologies drag about – the reality is that performance has more to do with circuit choices than with the devices used.

The ST-70 was in some ways a pioneer. Though it was not the first of its kind, it was the standard bearer of the contemporary design values. Today we prize much of the ST70’s topological progeny in solid state Class AB (whether integrated on a chip or built with discrete components) but we also revere designers such as Nelson Pass who is charting his own course through both open loop single-ended transistor and Class A low feedback differential amplification. Amplifier design is not so much a timeline as it is a spectrum; the limits to what constitutes good amplification (subjective as that may be) are found not in the parts choices, but in the creativity of the designer.

TL;DR: Design, not device, makes the amp.

Here’s Dan Fraser’s write-up on the launch of the modern ST-70 series 3 (Dynaco was purchased by Radial Engineering in 2014)

Letters to WTF: why doesn’t anyone include tone controls?

Tone controls get (an undeserved) bad reputation in a lot of DIY hifi circles. They are very difficult to get close to technically perfect (eg exactly Xdb boost at all frequencies above Xhz) and they’re math heavy, so you don’t often see them fully detailed in audio DIY.  And in principal all the equipment we’re building is supposed to be perfectly flat and transparent, right?  Well that’s what the engineers say, but others might say that transparent is the enemy of fun. I would say that you don’t see tone controls because that’s just not how hifi “is done.” No, that’s not a good reason. And maybe the world needs a simple preamp design with bass & treble…

Here’s some good reading from Baxandall, the papy of modern tone control:

Here’s a good article from John Broskie on his Tilt Control board/kit:

That Tilt Control is a different take on tone controls, but I think it’s pretty elegant.  Broskie’s boards and kits are top notch too (not affiliated, I just have a engineering crush on him):

Ideally you’d sandwich this kind of tone control between two cathode followers (or one low gain stage and one follower).

New page: grounding

If you didn’t already catch it, I’ve added a page to the power supply section on grounding. This is a hard topic to do justice because there is no one approach, there are just approaches that work for individuals/projects. I try to give a rough outline of my thought process and strategy for grounding projects on the new page.

Here are a couple of other good reads on the topic:

David Davenport “Audio Component Grounding and Interconnection” on

Bruce Heran “Grounding and Shielding for your DIY Audio Projects” on