A while ago I started looking at DC-DC converters for powering some of my audio circuits. I am not quite sure what triggered this to be honest, but mainly it was because I wanted to be able to make some more compact headphone amps and preamps than what the usual linear supplies can provide. At least around here there are very few external dual supplies available and so building a preamp or a headphone amp with an external PSU can be a bit tricky. Another option is a single-rail amplifier design, but they are often compromised because they need big input and output caps, so what do you do then?
Enter the DC-DC converter, a switching device that chops up a DC voltage and then transforms it up or down as needed. Most types include regulation of the output and galvanic isolation as well. The DC-DC converter gives tremendous flexibility because instead of needing a 2×12-15V PSU with a transformer, rectifier/caps and a wasteful linear regulator that must be heat sinked, you get a very small PCB that only needs a single DC input from a wall adapter or other DC source to work. Some, like the Traco THN-series I have used offer a 4:1 input range and up to 20W output from a 1″x1″ brick, meaning you can get a fairly powerful regulated +/- 15V PSU in a tiny form factor and with just a single 9-36VDC input – that’s pretty impressive I think!.
Another useful feature is that many of the converters have a remote on/off feature to put the converter into standby-mode. This means that if you are using a circuit that already has a micro-controller built in you can turn the converter (and the circuit it powers) on and off using the uC or even by a simple low-voltage mechanical switch.
The downsides of this power and versatility are mainly that DC-DC converters can be quite expensive and then that they (like most switching supplies) have rather a poor reputation for audio use. In some cases that is probably well-deserved, but I don’t like ruling out a whole technology just because of a few poor examples – in my world there are very few absolutes like that in audio. However, using switching technologies of any kind doesn’t really eliminate problems, it just replaces one set of well-known problems (heat, space, weight etc.) with another, perhaps less common set (EMI, high-frequency noise, inrush currents etc.). Depending on the application these “new” problems may be significantly harder or easier to deal with than the “traditional” ones.
So, after a bit more digging, reading datasheets and application notes etc. I have built some prototype boards for various DC-DC converters. Below are some pictures of my prototype boards, using industry standard footprints for 1”x1” and 1”x2” converters (more versions in the works). I’ve followed the application information from a few different Traco and Recom application notes but the boards will generally fit converters from a variety of manufacturers – one of those pictured are some old Tyco ones I bought a few years ago without really being sure what I wanted to use them for.
As for audio quality I can’t really say anything just yet, but as one of the pictures below show I have tried to power my universal preamp/headamp from a +/- 12V converter and I think it sounds pretty good. There are no audible artifacts such as hum or noise from the converter and the remote on/off feature works great as well. So while more testing is definitely needed, I am already starting to look at look at some of my current projects in a new way :D If anyone has used standard DC-DC converters to power audio circuits I’d love to see some examples :)