Meeting your heroes…

There’s an old saying that ”you should never meet your heroes”, because you might be disappointed. I understand where the saying comes from, but it’s actually something I have been trying to do – at least meeting some of my various “audio heroes”. There are a couple of examples here and here, and this post is another example (plus there are a few more I haven’t gotten to yet… 😊 ).

At first look, this is simply another discrete headphone amplifier. However, the design was published in 1985 in a Danish magazine called Ny Elektronik so it was already fairly old when I started reading about it in the mid-90’es or thereabouts (the magazine itself folded in 1989…). It’s one of the designs that I remember reading about and being very intrigued about even before the internet and before I started building headphone amps “for real”.

Back then, a dedicated headphone amp was really a “niche” item, but as a teenager without the space or the budget for expensive speakers I had already found out that headphones were a “shortcut” to good sound that I could not otherwise afford or use, so I had already “caught the bug” which then only became stronger when I found headwize and later head-fi online in 2000/2001.

I actually still have a photocopy of the original magazine article – made at my local library back when you had to buy photocopies by the page – but a few years ago someone pointed me to an online library of all these old magazines (back to the mid-70’es) so I have an electronic copy as well, which is what I stumbled upon on my hard drive again a few months ago.

Part of the reason I never built this amp originally was that I could not make the PCB from my photocopied magazine article and also because the article mentions using low-noise (2SD737/2SB786) transistors. However, when I looked at it again more carefully I actually realized that everything I needed is still available (the low-noise transistors are an option, not a requirement) and so all that was needed was therefore a new PCB layout which wasn’t too much of a problem once I got started.

Apart from making the board single-channel and removing some onboard voltage regulation that I did not think was necessary I’ve left the design as-is. The only change otherwise was to reduce the gain – the original gain is a poweramp-like 28.5x, which I guess makes sense if you had high-impedance headphones and a 1980’es turntable as the source, but I’ve dropped it down to about 5x which is much more reasonable for today’s use (and honestly still a bit on the high side).

The technological development hasn’t been all bad though, because where the original design mostly specified 5% resistors (except the gain resistors), now 1% is pretty much standard. I’ve also “uprated” the power ratings a little bit, so where the original resistors were 1/8W and 1/4W I’ve used 1/4W and 1/2W. I did some outline calculations on the dissipation and the original bias setting seems quite high, so in the interest of reliability I changed the resistors and I plan to bias the amp a bit lower.

Now I’ve only had time to do basic testing on this, but it powers up, biases up well, the DC-servo works as expected and it plays clean audio – so thus far I am very happy. Still need to check thermal stability and listen to it a bit more and then I’ll make the files public in case anyone else wants to have a go at it.

A blast from the past…

Recently I was rummaging around one of my (many) boxes of half-finished designs looking for something else when I found this – a Sijosae Gilmore board which I never put to any use.

For those of you that haven’t been doing DIY for as long as I have: This is a version of the original Kevin Gilmore class A headphone amplifier modified by Korean diy’er Sijosae to fit a much smaller board. Sijosae was an absolute artist who made miniaturised versions of pretty much all the popular headphone-amp designs of the day while also experimenting with different topologies for buffers, rail splitters and similar circuit components. Even if he is no longer actively posting you can still see his characteristic schematics pop up in google searches and being referenced in new designs as well.

Sijosae’s version of the Gilmore amp could (theoretically at least) be squeezed into an Altoids tin like a CMoy-amp. In reality there would be no space for batteries and the battery life would be very short because this amp runs in class A, but at least mechanically it would fit. He also made a simplified “EZ-gilmore” version of the Gilmore circuit which I cloned as well (but also never used, now I come to think of it…)

The Gilmore design is back from the headwize-days and the final PCB layout was done by an american user called Subsonic who subsequently offered it as a “group buy” on Head-fi in 2003. As I recall, this was the first group buy I ever participated in and one of the first headphone amp PCBs I bought internationally – if not the first. To say this started a tradition for me is something of an understatement (“avalanche” is more like it 😉 )

The board has been in storage for so long I don’t remember exactly why it was put away in the first place, but now that I have dug it out I am actually going to test it. I seem to remember it had offset-issues that I found very puzzling at the time, but I am thinking that the 15+ years of diy-experience I have added since might help me solve them this time… 😀

Testing the F3 amplifier…

Earlier this year Nelson Pass graciously started distributing batches of the Lovoltech LU1014 Power-JFETs for free to diy’ers. You could get 4 pcs. and only pay for shipping and of course that offer was hard to turn down – all the more so since I had been looking at trying an F3 amplifier at some point. There are no “official” group buy boards for the F3 at the moment and the few redesign/group-buy initiatives I have seen have been false starts, so I picked up a set of amplifier boards from ebay instead.

The F3 amplifier is one of Nelson’s “unusual” First Watt amplifiers, in that it uses a Power JFET as the gain device. Power JFETs are rare, and as a result for those of us who were a bit slow on the uptake the LU1014 came and went without me buying any. Otherwise the F3 isn’t a very complicated design, but it’s got normal First Watt class A heat levels and even-lesss-than-First Watt levels of output and gain. As a result i am not sure whether I actually have any practical use for the finished amplifier, but as a listening experiment I am still going to give it a try 🙂

The F3 is also a single-rail amplifier, which quickly led me to the realisation that I didn’t really have a PSU board suitable for a single-rail power amp. When you have a good “back catalogue” of designs then that’s quite helpful and so taking one of my existing class A power supply boards and chopping it up to create a single-rail version wasn’t that hard. The end result should hopefully – at some point – end up as a (nearly) dual-mono F3 amplifier (meaning a single transformer is used).

Another complication is that for reasons I can’t really remember I decided to try using 3U heatsinks for this build which may end up being a mistake – they are going to get very hot I guess. Anyway, for now it is an experiment and hopefully I will have it (electrically) completed by the Christmas break so I can hear what it sounds like before I put time and money into finishing the mechanical design 🙂

Project files: The “MoFo” power follower

I did this version of the “MoFo”-design a while ago and also mentioned it briefly (here) but didn’t manage to complete it or even test the boards. In the mean time the “official” boards have become available from the diyaudio store, but since I now finally got round to testing my boards I still thought I’d share my version as well.

Read more of this post

Building an(other) F5…

Although I recently built a new type of F5 amplifier, I haven’t completely abandoned the original F5 design 🙂 Hiding in one of my many boxes were a pair of half-finished F5 boards and some matching matching fan heatsinks that only needed the last bits of assembly and calibration. That honestly didn’t take long to do once the right parts showed up and I then managed to confirm the boards were indeed working.

The boards were originally bought from ebay and are more or less the same as my original F5 build – nothing special there. I have some matching PSU boards as well, only missing the last few parts which are now in the queue for my next order and that’s going to be a standard C-R-C type thing as well.

The mechanical design is from the same time as my JLH mono blocks, so the idea is also more or less the same. This heat sink profile is too large to fit in most enclosures though, so cracking what to do took some time but I think I have it figured out now. It’s also going to be monoblocks, but much larger ones than the JLHs. From my first tests during calibration of the boards I think a slow-speed fan should be enough to keep the heat under control, so hopefully they will be living-room friendly when they are done 🙂

Building a different F5…

As I have mentioned a few times, the First Watt F5 is one of my favourite amplifier designs (and of course I am not the only one who likes it). It’s very simple to build, it’s reasonably priced and it sounds exceptionally good. The only drawbacks are the heat and the relatively low power (which is why I sold my original build), but with both new speakers and a new room comes new opportunities so I wanted to try the design again.

I actually have a few F5 clone boards more or less done, but that’s a story for another time because the original F5 design has spawned a few variations. One of them by diyaudio-user Juma is based on using several smaller output devices in the form of Toshiba 2SK2013/2SJ313 (which of course are obsolete…). For reasons I don’t really pretend to understand these devices are very linear and so the sound of this F5-version should be even more special – we’ll see about that I guess.

I’ve looked at this particular F5-design before and it’s not exactly new, but sometime you have to wait a (long) while for inspiration to strike and in this case it only did a few weeks ago, so the finished boards turned up only this week.

My version has four device pairs in the output to allow a bit more idle current for low-impedance loads. Also included is some additional rail capacitance close to the outputs (mostly because it seemed wasteful not to use the board space for anything), but otherwise it is that same as Jumas original circuit. I’ve only bench-tested it for now and I can’t do proper trimming of idle current and offset until I’ve drilled some heatsinks to mount the board on, but it powers up like an F5 and it responds to the trimpots, so hopefully it should adjust properly when the time comes. For now I’m just excited to have gotten it this far 😀

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 🙂

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