Phono Preamp Heaters

Heater supplies, even with indirectly heated tubes, are a potential source of hum with high gain circuits like phono preamps. In a grounded cathode gain stage, the tube will amplify any signal it sees between the grid and the cathode. The tube doesn’t particularly care if that is an audio signal or an induced signal from some other part of the build. Indirectly heated tubes have a cathode sleeve around the filament heating it. The close geometry creates a happy little environment for coupling between the two. Eliminating this source of noise may require running heaters on DC rather than AC.

Here’s a simple schematic adapted from something Eli Duttman suggested for his modified RCA phono preamp:

12V dc heaters

This circuit (now on a PCB waiting for a phono build) uses a voltage doubler to turn a common 6.3Vac input into ~16Vdc which is then regulated to 12Vdc by a LM7812. The regulator is limited to 1.5A, but this is probably enough for any sane phono preamp’s heater demands (the pair of 12AX7 in the El Matemático require only 0.3A). This is one way of producing a DC heater supply.

I was recently discussing truly budget-oriented tube phono preamps with another builder. They proposed a $100 parts budget. The first place I’d look to start cutting costs in such a build is on the relatively pricey purpose-built power transformer needed for tube projects. In the case of a simple phono preamp like El Matemático, I’d try the following cost-cutting measures to the power supply:

  • Solid state 1N4007 rectification
  • Use a 115/230V isolation transformer like Triad N-68X in reverse (115V in, 230V out) for B+ @ $16
  • Use a 12V SMPS like Meanwell EPS-15-12 for heaters @ $7
  • Triad C-1X choke @ $10 and 220uF 350V+ caps @ $4 ea as CLC filter
  • Add RC to end of CLC filter to lower B+ and/or clean up residual ripple

We can greatly lower the cost of the B+ supply with the isolation transformer trick but it leaves us without a heater supply. Rather than a separate 6.3V or 12.6V transformer followed by a regulator circuit like the one shown above, I’d be tempted to experiment with a switch mode power supply like this Meanwell unit:

EPS15-12

The EPS15-12 supplies up to 1.25A at 12Vdc with 80mV of ripple (peak to peak). One need just supply it with mains voltage (85-264Vac). Power supplies like this switch at a very high frequency, which is why their transformers can be made so small. If that switching is audible, capacitively coupled between cathode and heater, additional filtering may be needed. Meanwell does not specify the switching frequency, but it’s very likely well above the 20hz-20khz range.

The final, potentially very affordable power supply, would look something like this:

very cheap psu

DIY DHT filament strategies

Having a small stash of #26 tubes and always being curious about it as a preamp tube, I’ve embarked on some preliminary research of successful implementations. There’s a huge thread on diyaudio.com, but some choice references are Ale Moglia’s iterations and Kevin Kennedy’s classic implementation.

In general, the prototypical 26 preamp is a fairly simple single tube grounded cathode gain stage. Perhaps this topology simplicity is why there is so much experimentation in the support circuits. Gyrators, current sources, and line output transformers all make an appearance as the anode loading strategy. The B+ supply is similarly diverse: SS regulators, tube regulators, VR tubes, etc. It seems the popular consensus is for fixed bias: using the filament current drop across a resistor to set the cathode current. But there are fixed bias and traditional cathode bias implementations as well.

All of the above is fairly comfortable stuff coming from the general tube world of 9 pins and octals. The filament (AKA heater) supply, on the other hand, is something new for those used to indirectly heated tubes. In indirectly heated tubes, the cathode is a sleeve surrounding the filament heating it; this mechanical separation helps prevent heater hum (50hz or 60hz AC) from entering through the cathode. In a directly heated tube, on the other hand, the filament and the cathode are one and the same.

Depending on the circuit, AC filament power with balancing resistors and/or a ‘humdinger’ pot may be enough for an acceptable hum level. With the higher Mu (8-9) of a #26 and the need to keep front end noise/hum to a minimum (because it will only be amplified by everything following it), a DC heater solution is in order. We are looking at a requirement of about 1A at 1.5V for a #26 tube. The general approaches I have found are:

A low voltage SMPS and a dropping resistor requires no explanation if you know Ohm’s Law and can find something quiet with the right ratings (here’s a good read on this topic). Voltage regulation and current sources/sinks have been covered in principle a few times in projects and general information pages as well (see links above). Mixed strategies are what have piqued my interest the most.

Kevin Kennedy’s article suggests a 7805 followed by a LDO CCS to supply #26 filaments. From what I can gather, this is the principle also behind the Ronan Regulator (which I see mentioned frequently but I can’t seem to find the ‘official’ schematic). In these strategies the voltage regulator makes a first pass at cleaning up the raw DC and absorbs some power dissipation. The constant current source follows and sets the filament current to a fixed value (in turn setting filament voltage as per Ohm’s Law). Including a CCS to limit current has a protective side-effect as well: cold filaments are otherwise eager to soak up a lot of current, potentially stressing the power supply and filament/cathode itself.

Rod Coleman also has a very interesting approach to DHT filament regulation. You can find boards/kits for sale here (no commercial interest, just admiration for the design).

coleman regulator

This circuit feeds the filament from the ‘positive’ end with a gyrator, also known as a cap multiplier in this configuration. The transistor Darlington pair sees a low-passed capacitor at its base and works to amplify this smoothed signal at its low impedance emitter (effectively making the cap seem much bigger than it really is). This doesn’t regulate voltage because the gyrator doesn’t have a fixed reference, but it does reduce ripple drastically.

The ‘negative’ end of the filament is connected to a constant current sink. This is a ring-of-two CCS design which will have a lower operating voltage requirement than a cascode CCS or many ICs. Because our current is relatively high, low dropout voltage is a benefit in reducing overall power dissipation.

The filament is fed a low ripple voltage with a CCS setting the current. It’s simple, but reports seem universally positive for Coleman’s regulator approach. Whether filament bias or cathode bias, the filament supply should be left floating (it finds ground through the bias resistor or grounded cathode).

There’s little reason to reinvent the wheel here as far as I can tell. Although I’m still casually reading, I’ll more than likely try one or more of the above approaches to powering the filaments in my upcoming #26 project. More to come on this project as parts arrive and the ideas ferment.

P.S. here’s a FET version of the same gyrator-CCS one-two punch:

FET filament reg