The Nuvistor and Bob Katz’s Audio Blender (via Inner Fidelity)

Bob Katz has been writing a series of articles over at InnerFidelity for several years and they’ve recently taken a turn down a more experimental path. His most recent article details a device that mixes a transparent solid state signal and a Nuvistor signal biased to provide a distortion spectrum with just a small percentage of second harmonic. Check out his write up here!

nuvistor

A Nuvistor is a small metal and ceramic tube released by RCA just as transistors began supplanting vacuum tube technology in most electronics. They are a true vacuum tube with familiar triode operation and characteristics and an indirectly heated cathode. The most common Nuvistor in consumer electronics was the 6CW4 (high Mu) though there are several triode flavors and even a couple of tetrodes.

nuvistor cutaway.png

Because they were originally intended for radio and TV usage, Nuvistors enjoy very good bandwidth, low noise, and high gain (high Mu variants).  The metal envelope is integrated with the basing and the tube plugs into what RCA dubbed the Twelvar base. You can probably guess how many pins that had. With the Nuvistor, RCA also introduced the RCA Dark Heater, a lower temperature filament that guaranteed higher stability and less AC leakage. Despite this innovation, most Nuvistor heaters require around 1W to light (e.g. 150mA @ 6.3V).

The 8056 used in Bob Katz’s project has the following characteristics:

8056 characteristics.png

And the following very respectable plate curves:

8056 plate curves.png

With a modest Mu, low plate resistance, and very low B+, it’s no wonder Bob decided to marry this interesting tube to a solid state partner for his Blender. The 8056 heater requires 6.3V at 135mA. At this voltage and heater requirement, it’s close to being practical for modern portable devices. In their heyday Nuvistors were used in battery-powered and efficiency-critical applications like the US Space Program and military radios and communications equipment.

Would I ever build something with Nuvistors? It’s tough to say.  I’ve been on a casual hunt for tubes that might be suitable in a portable battery-powered application. Other candidates are the Korg Nutube or the sub-mini 6088. Like all things in this hobby, there are trade-offs. The Nuvistor 8056 heaters are hungry relative to these other options, but the other characteristics are very attractive. In all likelihood, I’ll try them all eventually. This is why I DIY.

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

AND

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.

Simple high current VR tube regulator

VR and transistor regulator

If you’ve looked through many of the designs on this website, you’ll see I have a love of glowing things. A current project of mine requires a ~150V supply and my mind immediately went to the beautiful purple glow and sultry curves of the 0D3 VR tube.

close up 0d3

The problem was that I wanted around 40mA from the supply. In the usual VR tube shunt regulator configuration, we’d size the ballast resistor based on the load current and the current we want through the VR:

vr resistor calc.png

With a large load current, the ballast resistor (Rb) will be small. But at start up with a tube amp/preamp, the load current will be zero until the heaters are warm. This will force the VR to pass the entire load current (in addition to its own quiescent current) until the rest of the circuit is warmed up. VR tubes are generally specified for only 5-40mA. Too much current at start up will stress the VR, leading to a shorter lifespan and potentially arcing.

Transistors to the rescue. The simple schematic above uses a VR tube as a voltage reference on the base/gate of a BJT/MOSFET. The emitter/source provides a very low output impedance to the load.  The output voltage is the VR tube reference voltage (150V for 0D3) less the Vbe of the transistor (approximately 0.7V for BJTs and 4-5V for MOSFETs). The current limit in this configuration is limited by the pass transistor and heatsinking, rather than the VR tube.

I’ll be building and testing this supply in the near future with an 0D3, but I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t work with 0A3, 0B3, 0C3, and/or series combinations of these voltage references. Just be wary of the transistor max voltage.

Guest Post at Audio Primate: JDS Labs CMOYBB Review

023

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.

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.

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

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!