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):

IMG_20170530_192959089
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.

IMG_20170530_192910549

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.

Initial draft of Luciérnaga amplifier posted!

Got around to finishing the write-up of the amplifier section of the big two-chassis amp in the wee hours the other day.  There are plenty of great two-stage designs out there already but I hadn’t seen anything with a choke loaded input or a regulated power supply.  End result of this amplifier sounds great (on headphones or speakers), though it’s tough to say what aspect makes the most contribution.

If you want to try a SET that’s a little more off the beaten path, I recommend it! Amp and power supply can certainly be mixed and matched with other circuits, too.

The Luciérnaga PSU page

The Luciérnaga Amp page

Speaker sensitivity ratings and amplifier power

10 * log (power) = decibel

10 ^ (decibel / 10) = power

10db increase (10x the power) is perceived as twice as loud

Most desktop-size speakers are in the mid 80s db/W @ 1m sensitivity wise. We’ll call it 85db for the sake of calculating stuff. The sensitivity rating means that with one watt of power, you’ll get 85db of sound at one meter away. For reference, 80db is pretty loud. It’s about the level of a running garbage disposal or an alarm clock. You can listen at 85db for eight hours before you start risking hearing loss; this is also the sound level at which OSHA will fuck your shit up.

For nearfield listening, there may be less than a meter between you and the speakers. If you halve the distance, you can add 6db to the sensitivity rating. Now with the same speakers you’re getting 91db at half a meter with one watt of power. You should probably turn it down a touch to protect your hearing (2 hours at 91db is the maximum recommended duration). Every halving of the power deducts 3db, so one quarter of the power (0.25W) gets you back down 6db to a non-litigious 85db. If you want to listen at 80db (which is comfortably loud, believe me) you only need around 100mW.

Aren’t decibels fun?

This goes to say that you do not need a whole bunch of power for nearfield listening, even if the speakers have a low sensitivity rating. And if you have high sensitivity speakers in your “main rig”, a single-ended low wattage amplifier works there, too. Say you have speakers rated at 95 db/W @ 1m and like to listen around 80db. If you listen at one meter, you only need 32mW. If you listen at two meters, you need just 125mW of power.

The above discussion of power and decibels does not take into account dynamic headroom. It’s always good to have some power in reserve for music dynamics. Or for cranking it when OSHA isn’t paying attention. I try to have at least 10db to spare (10x the power) over what I expect my average listening levels to be. If you didn’t fall asleep while I fapped around with decibels and logarithmic math, you noticed that average, safe listening levels (80-85db) need only a fraction of a watt with average sensitivity speakers nearfield or high sensitivity speakers at a regular distance.  Ten times more power is just a couple watts and will often get you pretty comfortable listening levels with headroom to spare.

Just make them some high quality watts.

Back at it finally!  This is an excerpt from the first speaker amp write-up I’m doing for the site.  Happy Cinco de Mayo!

New Project: La Luciérnaga (PSU)

This write-up will have two parts.  The first (the PSU) is posted and hopefully I’ll have the amp write-up done shortly.  This project is the most ambitious one I’ve written up for the site so please excuse the omission of some of the finer calculations and details.

Although the power supply is rather complicated, the amplifier will be pretty straightforward (pinky swear). The supply can be used with other amps and the amp can be used with other supplies, which is one of the reasons I decided to split it into two pages.

Click here to descend into the madness!

WTF Daydreams: Going Commercial

I was thinking on this topic yesterday (while in an economics lecture). One of the issues standing in the way of making a living from building tube circuits (aside from capital) is that there are few concrete competitive advantages that can be maintained in the long run. Tube circuits are no longer patented for the most part and so any company that sees sudden success signals to other potential participants that there’s money to be made. More participants shifts supply up, which shifts equilibrium price down. So the market price hovers around a modest break-even (priced around marginal cost, like commodities).

Perhaps that is too textbook (and also sophomoric; I’m not pursuing a degree in economics), but I think there’s some truth to the idea that tube circuits are largely unprotected from copycats and so the tendency for successful ideas to become commodities is at play. So, what other potential competitive advantages are there?

  • Schitt seems to have found a place in the market as a low-cost manufacturer of some tube products (mostly headphone). In a way, they have a first-mover advantage here as they got into large scale production of tube headphone amps as the market began growing (still is, I think). The first mover approach is to grow as fast as possible to raise the barriers to entry for potential competitors. The caveat is that constant growth and diversification is necessary to stave off these nagging competitors (who are motivated by the amount of success they perceive you have).
  • Historic companies like McIntosh Labs have brand equity that simply cannot be replicated overnight. Although there are plenty of alternatives in terms of comparable products, McIntosh has done a really good job with their image and catalog (IMO). Failure for them would probably be more self-inflicted than competition-based if it ever comes (selling out, not keeping up with costs, poor management, etc). Their advantage is that they can charge a premium price that would be unrealistic for start-up competitors.
  • The most interesting example I can think of is those companies that thrive on outrageous claims and marketing (ie snake oil audio). Their competitive advantage is imaginary, but to a large amount of people that doesn’t matter. If a competitive product appears, these companies can simply wave it away because it doesn’t have their personal flavor of delusion baked into it. Not that I condone this approach, but there’s no denying it’s out there. Look at an audio commodity like cables and how they are marketed.

So I think getting into tubes as a business requires a very real evaluation of what competitive advantage a company could bring to the market and how it can be protected in the long run (there are more strategies than those above, to be sure). In the short run, coming up with a good sounding circuit or a cool look will always sell a few amps, but success will always invite copycats and push price down.