Fifth anniversary!

Yes, this blog is now five years old! I’ve made over 200 posts – mostly on the intended topic of the blog – and I still plan on continuing.

So, what else has happened in that time?

  • I’ve moved into a house, so I have much better working space than when I started in the apartment (and much less money to spend on DIY audio…).
  • I’ve learned how to program an Arduino (well, sort of anyway…)
  • I’ve tried to program a Raspberry Pi (and decided that I really can’t be bothered learning that…)
  • I’ve had my designs copied and sold on ebay (although I should stress that this was solved amicably)
  • I’ve had one of my designs referenced in AudioXpress!

…but most importantly, I have received a lot of great feedback from people, a lot of positive responses to designs and builds, and had a lot of opportunities to connect with other people around the world that share this hobby. That in all honesty counts for a lot more than many of the other things and is what really motivates me to continue writing (which I definitely plan to do).

Last but not least – and in response to a question that no one has asked in five years 😀 : The grey background for nearly all of the pictures on the blog is my coffee table which is made from recycled slate roof shingles by a local-ish Danish designer. Originally the table was just the best place that was close to natural light, but now I think it provides a good contrast to the green PCBs – not to mention that it makes the pictures easy to recognize in google image search results 😉


Meet the BalBUF…

For a while I have been looking for a simple buffer/preamp circuit that could be used with balanced inputs. In general it would be nice to have, but I have a specific project in mind that would need it (no, I am not going to tell you just yet 😀 ). Also, it would have to be compact and would have to operate on existing supplies. An obvious candidate that I have been interested in for a (long) while is a Fully-differential Amplifier (FDA) in the form of the TI OPA1632.

The OPA1632 includes a Nelson Pass patent called SuperSymmetry (SuSy for short) that gives an inherently balanced topology and therefore allows for all combinations of Bal and SE to be used on both inputs and outputs. To supplement the FDA is what’s called an instrumentation amp front end using a dual opamp. This performs input buffering to keep the FDA happy and can add gain if needed.

The OPA1632 isn’t a new IC by any means, but it is still interesting and something I have been fiddling with for a while (actually for years). However, it had remained on the drawing board and as some prototype boards that I for a long time didn’t really dare assemble and test – I didn’t fully understand the concept of an FDA and so I could not really be sure I had the schematic figured out correctly as I was starting from bits and pieces collated from other designs.

When AMB picked up the OPA1632 again for his Alpha24 (A24) and KappaDCX designs then I finally had a very clear schematic to work from and so I decided to dust off the old board designs and see if I could get it to work this time. In comparison to the A24 I have omitted some of the configurable options of the A24 and deleted the last stage that sums the balanced signal back to SE – that would be rather pointless here 🙂 I was also going to break out and use the enable-pin as well, but as AMB reported (here) that it doesn’t really work well as a mute circuit I decided not to bother.

Technically I haven’t actually used the OPA1632 yet, but instead its “industrial” cousin, the THS413x. There were speculation when the ICs were released that these two are actually the same die but just tested and marked as two different parts depending on achieved specs. Even if that isn’t the case (I don’t think it was ever actually confirmed) they chips are pin compatible and close enough in specs that the differences should not matter.

For the front end I used an OPA1642 which is TIs current highest-spec FET input opamp. It sounds great, but just about any dual SOIC opamp should be fine as a substitute – I just happened to have 3 left over from something else.

As the pics show I’ve just built a single prototype for now which I will keep for testing, but I need to build a new pair as well. Now, as mentioned I am not going to reveal exactly what these are going to be used for because there is a still a piece missing, but if everything works then I think this is actually a very important design (or designs I should say because there is a second PCB on the way as well…)

Project files: Simple power-on delay (with 555 IC)

As mentioned in a couple of previous post I have been looking for a simple delay circuit for headphone amps for a while. The original trigger was the Borbely amp project, but many other circuits benefit from a delay on the output to protect speakers and headphones against turn-on and turn-off transients. My (renewed) search led me to this page which has a great circuit. However, the board also has an onboard headphone jack which I don’t want, so roll out Eagle to do another layout 🙂

I already have made an ATtiny-based delay board that could be used but sometimes you want the bulletproof reliability of a design that doesn’t contain any software 😀 And honestly, using a microcontroller for a simple delay circuit is a bit unnecessary – a standard 555 is just fine.

What is it?
A simple power-on delay circuit that can be used to mute headphone outs, speaker outs or similar to protect against DC transients and also potentially e.g as a B+ delay for tube amps and so on. The board is based on the 555 timer IC in monostable mode.

There are two board versions, one with an onboard relay for headphones and line level signals, and one without a relay for use in other applications and for speakers etc. that require high-power relays. The two boards are identical apart from the size (of course) and the fact that the high-power version has bigger voltage regulator and a bigger protection diode because the relay current may exceed the 100mA that the 78Lxx regulator on the low-power board can supply.

The design has two intentional limitations: One is that the regulator powers the 555 directly, meaning you are in practice limited to using 5V-12V relays. The 555 can handle from 3-18V, but relays are mostly 5V and 12V so normally that’s your choice. However, for most of the intended applications this is just fine and the onboard voltage regulator increases the flexibility a bit (and it can be omitted). The other limitation is that there is only one fixed resistor to set the delay time, so no way to shorten it for testing. However, given the intended application I think that should be OK.

How big are the boards?
The no-relay board measures 1.25″ x 1.75″ (app. 32 x 44.5 mm) and the relay-version is a little longer at 1.25″ x 2.45″ (app. 32 x 62 mm)

What is the status of the boards?
Both boards are v1.0. I haven’t tried the no-relay version yet (prototype boards are in the mail), but the circuits are so close to each other that I am fully confident it will work.

Does it use any special/expensive/hard-to-find parts?

Anything else I need to know?

  • The equation for the delay time is 1.1*Rt*Ct, meaning that a capacitor of 22uF and a resistor of 470k gives a nominal delay of app. 11 seconds (not accounting for component tolerances). If you are unsure about the exact times you need/want, size up the capacitor to the next larger size. Partly because tolerances and leakages in the capacitor may reduce the time and partly because it’s always easier to parallel a second resistor on the back of the board to get a lower value 🙂
  • The header marked “MT” forces the output into mute by simply disconnecting power to the relay. You can skip this feature by simply soldering a bridge across the pads or you can use it for a mute switch. The intention is to have a physical mute switch here, but it can actually also be an electrical switch (transistor) from another circuit. This makes it possible to keep the delay function separated, but still disconnect the output in case of a fault.
  • If you are building the no-relay board an isolated 78xx regulator is recommended to protect against unintentional shorts. If you draw a lot of power (with big speaker relays) or if you use the regulator to drop a lot of voltage, a small piece of aluminium as a heat sink would be required. If you don’t need the regulator because you already have a suitable regulated voltage available, just bridge the input and output pins.
  • If for whatever reason, you need the opposite function of this board, namely that the relay is on during the delay period and then it turns off, then you can simply replace the PNP transistor with an NPN-type with the same pinout (such as a BC54x). Don’t bother asking how I found out that this actually works quite well… 😉

Download design files here (EDIT 11th May 2018: File updated to v1.0a to include a BoM-file as well)

Related information:
Note: Always read the “intro post” for additional important information about my designs.

Building a Kuartlotron… (part 1)

No, I don’t know where the name “Kuartlotron” comes from either, but I can assure you it sounds scarier than it really is 😉

I wouldn’t say simple buffer circuits are a mainstay of this site, but they are definitely both useful and enticing and so when a reader pointed me to the Kuartlotron and its accompanying (and quite massive) diyaudio-thread a while ago, it did pique my interest. A bit of reading later and I was a) still interested and b) deciding to have a go at my own PCB-layout.

The Kuartlotron is the work of diyuser Keantoken and unlike most other simple discrete buffer circuits, it doesn’t employ traditional feedback but instead a type of error correction invented by Professor Malcolm Hawksford. I’ll be honest – I haven’t bothered too much with reading the theory and the technical details, because it’s a simple circuit so it was easier to just have a go at building it.

What I have done in comparison to the original circuit is to lose the thermal coupling between the transistors (which may or may not be a good idea), lose one of the trimpots (because I don’t have the ability to measure THD anyway) and try to minimise the board layout as much as I can.

Now the status of the project so far is that it more or less works. First off I had some major offset-problems and some weird noise issues. Making sure all 4 the transistors were hooked up correctly mostly cured that (…), and so now the noise performance is definitely where I would expected it to be (i.e. there isn’t really any noise 😀 ). The DC-offset is lower than before, but still higher than I would prefer at 25-30mV and the offset adjustment pot doesn’t seem to work as I expected. A few more tests to go then and potentially a rerun of the PCB and then I might publish my final work here, but if I can get it to work then it’s potentially a very interesting circuit either for class D modules in SE-mode or as a simple “no-gain” preamp.

As usual, if you can’t wait for my experiments or if you want something that is tried, tested and supported then I highly recommend buying a PCB from Keantoken instead.

Naim the clone…

Yes, sorry for that terrible headline 😉 One of the ebay-kits I mentioned I my last post is this one.

It’s (supposedly) a clone of the Naim NAC152XS preamp. Now, I’ve not spent a lot of time working out the circuit details (a bit of information available here), but apparently it consists of a simple gain stage and an active filter which also serves as a buffer (and a volume pot in between). It could well be that this is a somewhat bastardised version of the original Naim circuits, but that’s not terrible important for me.

Although part of what made this kit interesting to try was that Naim is one of those hifi-brands that have a distinct sound signature – and a loyal following because of that (some would undoubtedly claim that you definitely don’t buy Naim gear for the looks so it has to sound good… 😀 ). What really caught my eye was that it is a very simple discrete circuit and it is single-supply. Discrete is always fun and while single supply circuits do have some drawbacks (additional capacitors in the signal path etc.), they also have some advantages for DIY’ers. One large advantage is that the single supply rail is normally easier to make and certainly easier to transfer between boxes, so an external PSU suddenly becomes a more viable/desirable option – and that’s where this will go as well when I get that far.

My contribution to this project – apart from soldering all the parts in the right places – consisted of replacing the capacitors in the signal path with Nichicon ES bipolars which are a bit better suited to the job (and nice and green!), and then just matching the supplied transistors as good as I could to make two identical channels. I also supplied the four board-mounted RCA connectors which I had left over – and then immediately after soldering them in place I remembered I had actually put them aside for another project 😉

Now, as usual I don’t post detailed impressions of the sound quality (mainly because I don’t have any right now), but my initial impressions are definitely positive enough that I’ll go forward with finding a suitable enclosure for these boards because I think they deserve that 🙂

Spring cleaning…

Although spring is still some way off weather-wise around here, the Easter break certainly gives time for some (much-needed) spring cleaning. We’ve got quite a few official holidays in Denmark already, so with just three extra holidays from your allowance you can get a full 10-day break – nice!

As the weather most of the week turned out to be well-suited for indoor activities (…) this meant I had time to work on getting my “lab” in order and actually start work on some of the various “backlog” projects that my moving uncovered. Highlights worth mentioning 🙂

I mentioned a while ago that I was building an F4 and that is a backlog design that I would really like to finish and try out. I managed to confirm that the boards are working correctly so more or less all that’s left now is to fix a stupid mistake that I made in the (otherwise nearly completed) chassis work.

Another “no-gain” amplifier design is the “MoFo”. As I alluded to in an earlier post I have made my own board which I would also like to finish and test. I’ll be using the smaller 193T chokes as per the build article, so it’s not much power but it should still be an interesting listen. As you can see from the pictures I have the heat sinks sorted, but a few parts are still missing (incl. the chokes). Of course my plan to get the last remaining board parts here in time for Easter did not work when Mouser shipped late, so they should turn up next week instead. But hey, then there’s something to do for next weekend as well 🙂

I also managed to half-finish a couple of new ebay-kit designs, so another Mouser-order is called for to secure the remaining parts. No ETA on either of these, it’s just stuff I bought because I thought they looked like interesting designs.

Last but not least, since I’m not the only one spring cleaning I’ve been keeping my eyes on the local classified sites and picked up a couple of interesting (for me) products that I have been testing. That experience has (once again) convinced me that I am not looking for absolute sound quality, but more an optimal match between the various parts of the system to get the most pleasing result. Maybe a bit contentious for some, but the difference in musical enjoyment is enough to convince me that I am right 😀


Fame and fortune here I come!

Well OK maybe not, but it looks like I’ve made it to audioXpress magazine and surely that counts for something? 😀

I didn’t subscribe to their newsletter (I do now! 😉 ) so I found out a bit late, but they seem to have open-sourced the Borbely Hybrid Headphone-amp design (kudos for that) and referenced my post as one of the examples of the usage of the circuit. That’s really great and very much appreciated, but next time guys let me know in advance and I’ll provide you with a better board picture, ok? 😀

Since that discovery gave me time to reread the original post, I started googling for turn-on/turn-off protection and delay circuits and maybe it’s time to see if something can be done here? That the amp had dangerous levels of DC offset at turn-on and turn-off was more or less the only real flaw with an otherwise great and very interesting design. Google did provide some inspiration that I am going to look at and see if I can come up with something good. I was tempted for a moment to use a uC, but putting software in a Borbely-design seems inappropriate in some way 😉

Slow-turning wheels….

I’ve been complaining about my pile of unfinished projects for the last few posts, but now I am at least at a stage where I can start to do something about it. The first step was of course to add cupboards where I can hide the mess ( 😃), but obviously the only really viable solution is start finishing up some of these projects, so I will try to get started on that during the Easter break – fingers crossed!.

Meanwhile, there are also other stuff to be worked on. One of the projects I did start warming up to has been my ICEpower700ASC-based amplifiers where I have managed to decide on an overall architecture. It’s going to be monoblock chassis with two switched inputs, provision for some form of buffering and an external trigger option. The ASC-board has a whole host of useful features and connections which it would be a shame not to exploit, but in order to avoid too many air wires I decided that a small breakout-board was in order. This will put the control signals and the aux power on more easily-accessible headers. Prototypes have been ordered! 🙂

Buffering isn’t 100% decided yet but since the 700ASC-module has a balanced input, the requirement was really for a fully-balanced buffer – ideally with Bal/SE conversion built-in. The obvious choice for that (and one which I haven’t really used before) is a fully-differential amplifier (FDA) such as the OPA1632. I’ve previously looked at this IC and done some sample board layouts, but nothing ever really came of it. This time, I’ve started from the schematic of AMBs excellent “Alpha24” design and started hacking it to suit my usage. The starting point for the board layout is one of my old ones, but significantly cleaned up compared to those previous experiments so hopefully everything works as it should (the OPA1632 is fairly high-speed and so board layout is a bit critical to get good performance and low noise).

I’ve also made rough mechanical sketches which are only really waiting for the boards etc. to become available so that the dimensions and placement of the various holes can be 100% finalised – paper mockups are a great way to do the initial prototyping though. The turnaround time for board deliveries from China seem to have slowed down a bit lately, but since all the Danish public holidays are basically in April and May there should be a chance to make some more progress when the boards do show 😀

Signs of life?

This turned out to be a longer break than I had expected – sorry. Turns out that buying a house and moving is a bit of a slow process (at least for me) and throwing in a job change, a holiday and a few other things as well probably didn’t help…

So, what has been been going on since last time? Well, not as much as I would have liked, but a few things nonetheless:

Back in October diyaudio member Michael Rothacher posted this article on the “MoFo” class A MOS-FET follower and kicked off a very long thread on diyaudio. The MoFo is a very simple design that is immediately appealing to me and so rather than wait for “official” boards (which are now for sale at the diyaudio store) I decided to do my own. To be honest, even if the design hadn’t appealed to me I would still be interested because of the article and its obvious nod to Corey Greenberg’s original Stereophile article on a buffered passive preamp which I really like (if you are lost now, read that here 🙂 ) I have most of the parts for the MoFo on hand except the transformers, so hopefully I can put the boards together and check whether they work in the not too distant future. This is just an experiment for now anyway, so I just have to get it to produce sound and then we’ll see about a chassis later on 😀

Also, for whatever I eventually end up doing with my ICEpower 700ASC modules, I will probably at least experiment with adding an input buffer. A very nice design suggestion arrived some time ago from a blog-reader, namely the “Kuartlotron” (which sounds like a device used by a mad scientist in a sci-fi movie by the way). I’ve made some boards, but haven’t tried them yet. They should sound marvellous, so I am looking forward to that – loads of impressions from others here by the way 🙂

Another diyaudio-thread that I managed to keep up with was on a small and very cheap DAC-board based on the new ESS ES9038Q2M dac chip (the “cheap” version for e.g. mobile devices). I mainly bought a board because there is a simple onboard volume control, but the sound quality I think warrants further investigation. Unlike most other of these boards I buy, I actually have something approaching a real need for this one 😀

Last but not least I am – slowly but surely – working my way through the piles of half-finished projects I moved out of my apartment and I am finding plenty of things where I don’t really have many good excuses for not just finishing them. so fingers crossed I will be able to start making some progress here as well. I don’t plan on spending all of my easter holidays doing gardening, but let’s see if that holds 😀

Happy New Year!

Once again a new year is upon us and I’l like to wish everyone reading the blog all the best for 2018! 🙂

The new year also means that I will hopefully start posting audio topics again soon. My house move is more or less completed and all that remains is to unpack and sort about twice as many DIY-related moving boxes as I was expecting to have 🙂

First up though is a couple of weeks of travelling, so the new year for me started 7 hours earlier than usual and also meant I could watch quite a different fireworks show at midight than what I usually see at home. Fireworks coming off a 500m tall building is really quite impressive!