April fools…

No, this isn’t really a joke as such. However, there’s something strangely appropriate about posting this today I think 😀

It’s an “extended” version of my ZenHP amp, but I went a little overboard and added the gigantic polypropylene caps I purchased on my last trip to Japan as the output caps. As mentioned then, I’d want to test if using film capacitors on the output made any sonic difference compared to the electrolytics that are normally used. We shall see how that works out later on….

The downside of this (perceived) audiophile greatness (…) is that in order to make everything fit in a 2U/350mm enclosure I basically had to cheat a bit on the PSU. It’s either going to be an internal IRM20 switching type from Mean Well as shown or a very simple linear one that can be fed from an external transformer. Obviously having an amp as big as this requiring an external PSU is a bit stupid, but hey – it’s an experiment! 😀

Also, since it’s an experiment I’m not going to order fancy front and rear panels for this amp yet. Once I’m through travelling for work in a couple of weeks I’ll have to do a bit of metalwork of my own instead. Not much else missing before it’s ready to play though, but with my current workload it might still take a while to do.

PS: I’ve you see any good audiophile April fools jokes online, feel free to post a link in the comments section.


Project files: The Zen Headphone Amplifier

What is it?
The board files for my Zen Headphone Amplifier “remake” shown here.

How big are the boards?
The board measures 3.575” x 3.75” (app. 91 x 95 mm). This is obviously for a mono-channel.

What is the status of the boards?
The boards are version 1.0. The prototypes seem to work well and there wasn’t really anything that needed changing in my view.

Does it use any special/expensive/hard-to-find parts?
Not really.

Anything else I need to know?
A few things:

  • Heatsinks: The basic type for me here in Europe is the Fischer SK129, but there are many manufacturers of this profile. The board is designed for the heatsinks to be soldered in place with pins, but screw-mounted versions might work as well. You can use 1″/25mm heat sinks, but in that case I recommend to tune the bias a little lower. My prototype measured app. 240 mA of bias and the heat sinks seemed to stabilise at around 55C in free air, which probably is a bit too much when the board is cased. So, either turn the bias down a bit and/or use taller heat sinks if your case allows for it.
  • Adjustments: Space around R10 and R12 is quite tight, especially with heat sinks/output caps taller than 25mm. In order to easily be able to adjust bias and balance of the amp, my suggestion would be that you don’t trim the leads of the two resistors completely flush but leave enough of the resistor legs that you can connect crocodile clips to them on the underside.
  • Output capacitors: The recommended value is 2 x 470uF from the original schematic, but if you’re using low-impedance headphones I think you should consider 2 x 1000uF instead. This is one place where I think “audiophile” capacitors can’t hurt, so look for Nichicon Muse (KZ/KW, FG/FW, ES etc.), Elna Cerafine/Silmic capacitors or similar. Bypassing the electrolytics with small film capacitors is easily done on the underside of the board if you want to.
  • Transistors: The Q3 footprint on the board is for a BC550C, but the original ZTX450 from the schematic can be used as well if it’s turned 180 degrees. Remember also to match at least the two Q2 FETs between channels as described in the build article. If you buy 8-10 of the IRF610 FETs you should be able to get a couple of very tight matches and the leftovers can be used for the current source (Q1).

Download design files here

Related information:
See the original post for some more information and links to the build article for this design. After posting I actually also managed to find the original headwize article cached here – amazingly it seems that most of the headwize library has been kept intact there! 🙂

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


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.

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 😀