Big PP problems

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Hoffman’s Iron Law impacts all systems, regardless of the type of amplifier. It states that speaker designers may only optimize for two of three performance goals: efficiency, size, and frequency extension. Modern speaker design goals trend towards slim and minimally-intrusive boxes. Because few are willing to give up low frequency ability, this aesthetic trend has resulted in lower-efficiency speakers, requiring ever more powerful amplifiers.

When you have a set of bookshelf speakers or less-efficient towers, a single-ended triode amplifier may not cut it for power. Larger push pull (and parallel push pull) amplifiers are capable of using lower turns ratio output transformers and delivering more power to a load. That could be the difference between realistic dynamics and a more compressed musical presentation. Of course, there are some things to overcome when you upsize your tube amplifier.

  • The power supply – If building an amplifier with (parallel) push pull power tubes, you’re going to need a lot of heater current. You’ll also need a lot of high voltage current. This means solid state rectification is the way to go. Using a bridge rectifier (four diodes) rather than a full-wave (two diodes) also saves some efficiency in the transformer.
  • Size and weight – More current demands from the transformer(s) directly translates to a larger size and weight. Again, bridge rectifiers will help reduce the power transformer size slightly. A switching buck converter for heaters is also something worth looking into for efficiency’s sake. Building as monoblocks is a good solution, but you’ll probably spend twice as much on chassis, power supplies, etc.
  • Current sharing – To keep standing DC currents from saturating the output transformer core, we want all our output tubes to share current equally (or at least balance per phase in each channel). Bias servos, Blumlein garter bias, individual fixed bias, and individual cathode resistors all have their advantages and disadvantages. Careful consideration here is key.
  • Driving Miller capacitance – With a bunch of parallel output tubes, the input and driver stages will need some grunt to keep Miller Effect from rolling off high frequencies. This is especially true if you’re driving triodes in the output stage. A follower of some type may be needed to ensure a low enough source impedance.

If you haven’t already gathered, I’m a bit preoccupied with how I’ll utilize the big old chassis I picked up recently. Clearly something large is in store. The present question is octals or DHTs and two or four output tubes per side. The chassis originally held some monstrous iron, so there’s space for just about anything.

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Santa, the slave driver (and misc tube news)


Since May, the sun has risen and set on my beautiful baby girl. Daddy does not resent any of it for a second, but babies and the holidays make for slow progress on tube projects. I think my New Year’s resolution will be weekly posts, even if they aren’t all in-depth technical posts or finished designs.

I’m starting early because something that is [sadly] unusual has just occurred. Someone released a new tube audio kit/board:

I’ve used Boozhound Lab’s products in the past, but this is the first kit Jason has released for tubes. It’s a push-pull 6C45Pi amplifier that puts out about 6W. With just a pair of triodes sandwiched between input and output transformers, it’s also a minimalist’s wet dream (and similar to what I did with the Bad Hombre Mk 1 for headphones). I love it already and I hope it encourages people to pick up their soldering iron and bite the Edcor lead time bullet.

Jason has a great discussion of the design and building the amp here.

WTF Updates:

Chassis work for a TubeCAD headphone amp build is done: this will be a review and test of a circuit hack JB suggested (see SRCFPP), pretty paduak wood

Chassis work for a small SET amp is nearly done: this will be a published design, kind of a study in traditional cap-coupled single-ended amplifier design, goal of making this write-up very beginner friendly with a focus on applying fundamental concepts

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!