First Watt F4 (part 1)

I don’t normally build class A amps in the summer because my apartment gets really warm, but this time is an exception. Partly because this summer in Copenhagen has been much more “class A amp friendly” (i.e. a lot colder!) than usual, and partly because this is a design I’ve been wanting to try for a very long time now.

The First Watt F4 is a classic Nelson Pass/First Watt design with JFET inputs and MOS-FET outputs. However, as with the other FW amps there is a twist here, namely that the F4 has no voltage gain. That means it’s essentially a buffer than can provide a full 25W class A output. What’s the point of that you might ask? Well, one point is that it can help get a better gain structure and that it’s possible to use some sources (such as DACs) which have a very high output. There are various other applications in the F4 manual as well.

Some will have spotted that the F4 boards are from the diyaudio store. They are good quality and a well-proven design, so I decided not to bother doing my own.

The chassis is sort of the usual from Modushop, but then not quite anyway. Partly because the heatsinks are predrilled 4U types from diyaudio (which did cost a bit more, but saved me drilling and tapping nearly 30 M3 holes) – because they match the boards 100%, and partly because I have decided to do a bit of “hacking” to make a non-standard size chassis (teaser! 🙂 )

So, in addition to the chassis hacking, I am also thinking about which preamp to choose to provide the voltage gain for this and obviously there are plenty to choose from, so it should be possible to come up with an intriguing combination for you guys 😀

Soundwise I also have quite high expectations because of my past experience with the First Watt F5 design – which I still consider one of the best sounding amplifiers I have tried in my home system – but let’s see if the F4 delivers on that front as well when it’s ready 🙂

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Project files: VFET PSU

What is it?
In response to a reader request, the project files for my V-FET PSU board shown here. Of course, this will also work for any other class A design you might think of, as it is a fairly standard CC-R-C configuration with onboard rectifiers and space for three 35mm snap-in capacitors per rail. On typical class A voltages that means you’ll be able to use capacitors in the 22-33mF range and the the onboard rectifiers are 15-25A plastic SIP types, which should be just fine for most applications.

Input and output connections are via FAST-ON tabs and there are two sets of output connections. Since we’re paying for the copper on the boards anyway, I’ve tried to keep as much of it as possible  with a top-side ground plane and the supply rails on the bottom. 🙂

How big are the boards?
The board measures 3.1” x 6.675” (app. 78 x 170 mm).

What is the status of the boards?
Since the prototypes worked fine I haven’t made any changes and the board is therefore version 1.0.

Does it use any special/expensive/hard-to-find parts?
Nothing worth worrying about really. The only possible exception is only really the rectifier which is in a small GBU-package. However, Mouser has them up to 25A (p/n 750-GBU2510-G) and they are available from many other sources in 10-15A variants as well.

Anything else I need to know?

  • If you want to use off-board bridges, bridge the AC and the DC-connections with as thick a wire as you can get through the holes. That should allow you to use offboard metal-cased rectifiers up to 50A. Since the average current draw of most class A amps is quite low and the surge ratings aren’t that different between package types I don’t see the need to use anything else than the plastic ones, but by all means complicate matters with offboard bridges if you must 😀
  • The four series resistors can be 3-5W types in parallel which should be plenty, even if you want to burn off a bit of voltage in them.
  • The (optional) 3W bleeder resistor discharges the two first capacitors while the LEDs will discharge the last ones. The series resistor for the LED can be a 1/2W or 1W type.
  • Last, but not least: Electrolytic capacitors in this sort of size aren’t to be trifled with, so make sure you mount them correctly and test the board properly before mounting it in your amplifier chassis.

Downloads:
Download design files here

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

vfetpsupcb-2

VFET progress…

Well, not that much progress on the Pass VFET boards themselves – hopefully this weekend something will happen – but I have managed to make a PSU-board for them. Plenty of those around already of course, but being a) particular about dimensions and b) a bit particular about PCB colour matching I decided to roll my own instead 🙂

The design is a pi-filtered CC-R-C type with space for 35mm electrolytics, which at the VFET-voltage are available up to 27-33mF. As I plan to use the boards in mono-mode (one per channel) that’s actually enough energy storage to be a bit frightening. The Pi-resistors can dissipate up to 12W per channel which should be plenty (at least I don’t plan to go that high).

Also included are a polyester decoupling cap, a bleeder resistor for the two first electrolytics and a pair of LEDs which, apart from indicating power, also bleeds the last pair of caps.

As the pictures show, I’m still missing some parts but this project was never going to be a rush-job anyway so that’s just fine. The days in Scandinavia are getting noticeably shorter now, so saving projects for winter will not be a problem 🙂

Pass V-FET kits are here!

Forgot to post this a week ago when they arrived, but I managed to secure a couple of the Nelson Pass V-FET kits which I am quite excited about.

In short, this is a low-power class A amplifier based on some complementary Sony V-FET (SIT) transistors that have been out of production more or less since before I was born. The actual devices were bought as NOS (new old stock) by Nelson Pass himself and offered to the diyaudio community through the diyaudio store as a (more or less) one-off opportunity. I was lucky enough to register my interest early on and so managed to secure a couple of kits to keep me busy on those long Scandinavian winter nights when they come around 😀

There’s a big discussion thread on diyaudio and also an article on the FirstWatt website about the design, in addition to the information in Nelsons previous articles on SITs (also on the FW website). As usual, I don’t really need these and the class A heat is a bit impractical in a small apartment, but a limited-edition amplifier kit with unobtanium transistors that was developed by Nelson Pass himself was an opportunity I simply could not pass up (pardon the stupid pun 🙂 ).

The Firstwatt F5 is still one of the best amplifiers I’ve heard in my system so I have very high expectations for this new design. The lower power of the VFET could be an issue, but I’ll have to build it and try I guess – with my current speakers it should be OK and if not, I can always get a pair of very inefficient planar magnetic headphones instead :D.

vfetpcb-1

The Zen of Headphones…

Oh no, sorry – it’s the Zen for headphones 😀

This is another project from the early days of my DIY-career that I have “resurrected” by remaking the PCB. It’s an adapted version of the Zen amplifier by Nelson Pass and optimised for driving (primarily low-impedance) headphones.

The design was developed by an Italian diy’er called Marcello Pellerano back in 2002 and you can still find the original diyaudio.com discussion thread here. In addition to the diyaudio-thread, the project was also later published as a project article on Headwize, the precursor to Head-Fi. Sadly the Headwize project repository is no longer available, but it seems the full text of that article is available here as well.

Fun fact I: Marcello’s project was the first time I ever saw the enclosures from Hifi2000/Modushop and therefore what originally led me to start using these cases.

Fun fact II: Although I haven’t copied the EQ PCB that is described in the build article, I actually own a pair of the original Grado SR-325 headphones that the amp and EQ were originally designed for. Even without the EQ, I can’t really think of a better excuse for getting the Grados out of storage and listening to them once again 🙂

My main changes compared to the original design is to use onboard heatsinks and some different footprints for the various capacitors. Especially on the output side I’ve scaled up a bit, because 32 ohm Grados aren’t as low-impedance as they were 13 years ago. Many modern headphones are lower impedance than that and so making space for bigger output capacitors seemed worthwhile.

I haven’t copied the PSU either, partly because I already have a few designs that can be used instead and partly because there are just so many other options out there now – more on that later!

Sound quality: We’ll get to that later on as well since I’ve only done bench testing so far, but it definitely works and first impressions are quite positive.

Evolution of a concept…

I’ve been playing with the (somewhat) unusual combination of a class A amp and a switching PSU before (here). The previous version worked quite well, but even as I was building it I though that there might be scope for optimisation and for making it smaller – which to be honest was my goal all along.

The amplifier section is now my own version of the JLH 1969 with MJL21196 output transistors (because I had them available). The heat sinks are the same surplus items I’ve used before – because they are cheap and exactly the right size for what I wanted to do 🙂

As I observed in the previous post, the chosen PSU was more than a little overspec’ed for the job, but as luck would have it a much better choice came up recently – the Mean Well EPP-150-27. These are “next generation” supplies (i.e. more compact at 2” x 4”), there’s a convenient 12V aux supply for a fan etc. and the 27V output voltage is spot on for the JLH. There’s a smaller 100W version that could be used as well, but since I could get these as surplus items off ebay there was no incentive to do that 😀

I’ve also been looking at getting some more quiet fans, but I’ve now realised that the most annoying noise from fan-cooling doesn’t really come from the fan itself but from the sound of air rushing through the various holes in the enclosure. Once I’ve done the final design I’ll have to test what can be done to keep the amps as quiet as possible. The noise level on the first iteration was OK, but definitely with room for improvement.

To marry the parts together I came up with a “central core” design where the amp and the PSU are bolted to the heat sink tunnel and that’s about what I have done so far. The rest of the mechanics are in the works and there are a few (as yet undisclosed) additions that I will add as well in due time 😀

Project files: Amplifier PSUs

Digging in the back catalogue a bit again here.…and found some of my power supply boards that I haven’t published yet 🙂

What is it?
Power supplies for amplifiers, d’oh! 😀 Two basic variants, namely a “class AB” type and a “class A” type. The “class A” type is intended to be used in a CxC configuration with resistors onboard for CRC and pads for a choke to make it CLC. The “class AB” one is a standard unregulated design for class AB or D amplifiers that allows using both small 16/18mm radial capacitors and large snap-in types (up to 35mm). Here there are two versions, one for 2 off 35mm caps (or 8 smaller caps) per rail and one for 3/12.

The picture below is of the large class AB board. It’s actually the board from the previous post that has had some caps mounted in the mean time 🙂

How big are the boards?
The AB board measures 3.55” x 3.9” (app. 90 x 99 mm.) for the standard version and 3.05” x 6.1” (app. 77 x 155 mm.) for the XL version. The CRC board measures 3.15” x 3.95” (app. 80 x 100 mm).

What is the status of the boards?
Both of the “class AB” boards are in v1.0. The “class A” board is in v1.1 as I made a couple of tweaks (including the pads for off board R/L) to my original version. The original v1.0 is the board that I use in my “Green Monstre” amps.

Does it use any special/expensive/hard-to-find parts?
Nothing, really. You can go overboard with expensive capacitors if you want, but even if you have the money to put NOS Black Gates in your power supplies I’d still suggest you spend them elsewhere in the circuit 😀

Anything else I need to know?

  • Unless you are building very small amplifiers I’d recommend that the CRC and the small AB boards are used in dual-mono configurations with one PSU per amplifier channel. The large AB board can be shared across channels for a medium power class AB or D amplifier (meaning anything with a rail voltage up to around 55V and 63V caps).
  • The boards all include LEDs that indicate power and bleed the capacitors when no load is connected (albeit very slowly). The corresponding resistor footprints should be large enough to allow fairly high LED currents but remember to calculate the power dissipation.
  • The CRC board has space for two resistors in parallel per rail, either axial types (up to around 3-5W will fit) or MPC7x radial types up to 5W.
  • The rectifiers are GBU-types which are available from Mouser up to a 25A rating.
  • Input connections for the Class AB “XL” board are via FAST-ON tabs. All other input/output connections are via 5mm spacing screw terminals.
  • The capacitors on the class A-board can be up to 30mm in diameter. Since class A amps tend to get hot, I’d recommend 105 degree types here. As mentioned above, the class AB boards use either snap-in caps up to 35mm diameter or 16/18mm  radial caps with 7.5mm pin spacing.
  • Needless to say, all capacitors should be rated appropriately for your amplifier’s rail voltage.

     

Downloads:
Download design files here

Related information:
These are very simple circuits, but there’s some god background on PSU design for amplifiers over on Rod Elliot’s pages (under “power”)

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

More JLHs…

Yeah I know, I should probably stop making these at some point 🙂

We’ll do this one quickly then: Standard JLH1969 Ebay-board with upgraded components and better transistors (MJ15003). Fan-cooled heat sink with temperature control (we’ll see how well that works…). Industrial-grade 10A switching PSU per channel. Monoblock configuration in Modushop GX288 chassis.

The PSUs (Artesyn NLP250) are overkill for this application but they were cheap (surplus items). And besides, more is better – right? Not necessarily here though, because some of these industrial-grade PSUs have a reputation for being extremely noisy at low power output. As a class A amp, the max. current consumption of the JLH should be twice its quiescent current (so app. 2.6A) and each PSU will deliver four times that before the limiter kicks in. Whether this is a real problem here or not I don’t know yet, but there are no audible artifacts at all so I am not overly concerned right now.

The heat sinks were also surplus items and I am not sure exactly what their rating is. At full speed the fans are a bit too noisy for my liking (the heat sinks add some flow noise as well) but if the fan speed is lowered a little I don’t think it would be really noticeable once the amps are seated in a rack. For the time being I have installed some small temperature speed control boards for the fans (hence the somewhat messy wiring) but depending on how well that works and how hot the amplifiers get, I may go back to fixed resistors. The PSU already has a dedicated 12V fan output so the resistor doesn’t need to drop a lot of power.

The heat sinks had a cutout in the side that was just too narrow for the angle brackets to fit into. The best solution would have been to mill the ends of the brackets to fit the cutout so there is only one contact surface. Unfortunately I don’t have access to a mill anymore so I had to find another solution: A copper “heat slug” to fill the gap. Just a piece of copper bar in the right thickness cut to size and with thermal grease on both sides and that should provide the best possible thermal transfer under the circumstances.

So, will I stop building these amps? Erm, no! 😀 I am out of the ebay-boards but I do however still have my own version of the 1969 JLH that isn’t cased up yet. This build has given me some inspiration for how I can build that into small monoblocks so while it might take a while to do at least I know what parts to keep my eye out for 🙂

Past projects: Pass Zen v4

It’s been quite a while since my last one of these “past project” posts, because honestly there isn’t a whole lot of stuff left in the “back catalogue” that I find worth showing off 😀

One of the exceptions is here, a version of Nelson Pass’ Zen v4 class A amplifier. I built the amp a couple of years ago and it worked but had terrible hum. I traced the hum to a combination of the transformer and my grounding scheme. I ordered a new transformer that was better suited (and higher quality) and then forgot all about it until a couple of weeks ago. After replacing the transformer with the improved one (an audio-grade model from toroidy) and wiring it properly, the amp is not only working but also completely silent 🙂

The PCBs are decent-quality clones from ebay but all the components are bought from reputable sources. The only exception is the softstart which is a premade module that is a bit illogical (= annoying) in that you must use the “standby” to turn the amplifier on, but you can’t use the button to put it back into standby-mode again….

The chassis is a 4U/300mm standard “dissipante” from modushop, albeit with quite a bit of mechanical reinforcement underneath to take the weight of the transformer. The 4U heat sinks are OK for this amp but only just, if left at idle I measure the hottest part of the heat sink to be around 35C above ambient.

My F5 is on loan to someone else at the moment, but when I get it back I plan to make a comparison between the two and see which one I like best. On second thought it might have to wait a few more months since both of these amps run a bit too hot for summer – even a Danish one 😀

Amp Camp Amp

Here is another one of Nelson Pass’ brilliant designs, the “Amp Camp Amp” or ACA for short, that I managed to put together (halfway at least – as usual…).

First launched a couple of years ago, the ACA was developed by Nelson for an “amp camp”, an audio maker event and the schematic since posted as a project article on his website firstwatt.com. The ACA is a very simple and easy to build class A amplifier that produces around 5W (which goes surprisingly far in most “at-home” applications). To make the ACA more “beginner friendly” it is designed to work off a 19V switching adapter from a laptop computer. This makes it cheap to build and ensures that an inexperienced builder does not have to worry about mains wiring etc.

For this build, I have used the “official” boards from the diyaudio store. There is also a very sexy looking custom chassis for the ACA in the diyaudio store, but since they would be shipped from the US and I would be hit with well over 30% extra in VAT, import duty and brokerage fees I elected not to go that route.

Instead I found some special heat sinks from ebay to brighten up an otherwise black chassis 😀 The main argument for choosing these was otherwise that they are 80mm long as opposed to the more commonly available 75mm ones which would be just a tad small for the ACAs recommended mounting. The quality is decent although the colour washed off a bit while I was threading them (using lots of spirit for lubrication). The aluminium alloy is also a bit softer compared to the Fischer or Alutronic heat sinks I normally use, but that isn’t necessarily a problem.

As usual with the Pass designs, the components for the ACA are completely standard “off the shelf” types and the only part that could be difficult to obtain is the 2SK170 input JFET. There are a few alternatives though (the 2SK246, 2SK369 and LSK170 should all work if you just respect the pinout) so even that should not deter prospective builders.

The original ACA design used external switching supplies but I prefer to keep the PSU internally in the chassis, because the laptop supplies are a bit impractical. Instead, I have got a standard “industrial grade” 20V/100W SMPS from Mouser in a 3″x5″ open-frame format.

Looking forward to the Xmas holiday where I should be able to make some more progress on this one 🙂