Lady Ada Turns NeXT Equipment Into Something Useful

From the late 80s to the early 90s, [Steve Jobs] wasn’t at Apple. He built another company in the meantime, NeXT Computer, a company that introduced jet black workstations to universities and institutions, developed an incredible emphasis on object-oriented programming, and laid the groundwork for the Unix-ey flavor of Apple’s OS X. Coincidently, there is a lot of old NeXT gear at the Adafruit clubhouse – not that there’s anything wrong with that, we all have our own strange affectations and proclivities. Recently, [Lady Ada] turned one of the strangest components of the NeXT computer ecosystem into something useful: a computer speaker.

The item in question for this build is the NeXT ‘sound box’. When not using the very special NeXT monitor, the NeXT computer connects the monitor, keyboard, and speakers through this odd little box. There are two versions of the NeXT sound box, and peripherals from either version are incompatible with each other. ([Jobs] was known for his sense of design and a desire for a simplified user experience, you know.)

In [Lady Ada]’s initial teardown of the sound box, she discovers a few interesting things about this peripheral. There’s an I2S DAC inside there, connected to an unobtanium DB19 connector. Theoretically, that I2S device could be used to drive the speaker with digital audio. The only problem is the DB19 connector – they’re rare, and [Steve] from Big Mess o’ Wires bought the world’s supply.

Without these connectors, and since it’s only an hour-long show, [Lady Ada] went with the most effective hack. She grabbed a USB audio dongle/card, added a small amplifier, and soldered a few wires onto the power and ground pins of an IC. It’s simple, effective, fast, and turns an awesome looking 30-year-old peripheral into a useful device.

44 thoughts on “Lady Ada Turns NeXT Equipment Into Something Useful

    1. These are rare pieces though … i’m just happy this was achivable in a non-destructive way. I seek these out to unite them with matching systems and get them to collectors who love them!

      1. Yep. Every time somebody destroys a piece of computing history to turn it into a toaster, or a case for a modern PC, or some other inane bit of future landfill, I cringe. Don’t do that! If you don’t want your old computing devices, I’m happy to take them off your hands!

        1. Are you happy to pay for shipping, too?

          I cringe every time I send electronics off to the scrap yard (why would I pay to landfill them?), but I dread the concept of paying through the nose to give the stuff away, much less managing the ordeal.

      2. Trash or treasure? It’s in the eye of the beholder.

        Regardless, these computers used to be quite expensive. I don’t know about this particular model, but I saw a NeXT Computer for a cool $6500 in 1988—more than $13k in 2015 dollars.

    2. Useless? I periodically use my NeXT cube to type letters that print out on a NeXT laser printer, and find the keyboard, interface, and overall experience a nice change from my newest Windows work laptop.

    1. I wonder if you could use a laser cutter to make that plastic piece. You’d still have an issue with the metal shell though.

      Making a small number is easy but making any significant number will get annoying very fast.

    2. I used hand tools – saw blade + file for both the plastic parts and the metal (copper + tin plating). If I can do it by hand and eyeballing the measurements, then it should be workable with better tools. I cut and rejoin the outside metal shell by soldering so that the connector can be secured with screw posts.

      If you are making more than 1, like I said get the whole thing 3D printed. You can either reuse the contacts from a DB connector or get new crimped pins.

      Star War reference are lame if you have nothing better to say.

      1. I’m sure I’ve had to deal with D-whatever connectors where the pins / holes weren’t supplied fitted into the shell, you had to do that yourself. Sure, there’s some advantages to that. So one of those would do well as a supply of the relevant metal bits for a 3D printed shell.

    3. I’ve found that they’re the same connectors as the old Mac display cables. You can get them from Amazon for 6 bucks each or 11 from ebay with the shells. I just need the pinout at both ends so I don’t fry anything when I make one.

  1. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t passed up that box of 1,000 DB19 connectors a few years ago at the flea market. If only $5 hadn’t been the difference between financial stability and eating….

    1. Nah, it’d just have ended up as a lesson on the difference between “rare” and “valuable”. Things that are only useful to 5 people in the world, once every 20 years, might be rare but are rarely valuable. If someone has to do without, they improvise some other way of doing it. It’s not like Limor put out an offer to pay thousands for anyone who had the right connector.

  2. So this hack was to buy a USB audio dongle, connect it to a PAM8302 module, and connect that to the speaker.
    And since she did not check for DC offset, course her direct connection to the original chip amp sounds awful, perhaps even damaging it. A coupling capacitor fixes that.

    Also, is this a another ad for Adafruit? That single mono PAM8302 module costs $4 + Shipping at Adafruit. You can get 10 stereo PAM8403 modules for <$5.00 shipped.

    Even if half of them were bad, you'd still get a better deal.

    1. This is probably too creative, but I don’t understand your bash on ladyada (and her products).

      Everyone knows ebay is cheaper than adafruits, but she didn’t advertise it to be cheap, and no one forced you to buy it from her, and isn’t it true for almost anything you get in the US in 3 days, not shipped from China in a month? She didn’t even tried to advertise her product, so I don’t see the problem here.

      I am one of those people would buy stuff from ladyada to support her cause, knowing it is more expensive.

      1. There’s markup, and then there’s gouging. Nobody has problems with marking up something for convenience of faster delivery, etc. You can pay extra for fast delivery from any ShenZhen retailer as well. No difference. But when you’re talking about 10x or greater price increases for “convenience”, that’s a scam. The Rasbperry Pi Zero is a good example. How much does that slick retailer markup that thing? What’s the shipping? Even Apple doesn’t pull stuff like that. Being part of the “community of hacks” is to inform others about alternatives to what is being advertised and avoid scams when you see it. IMHO, Adafruit is legitimate company but cannot survive by offering ordinary electronics at “boutique” prices. In this case, the PAM8302 is an inferior device to the PAM8403. It should not be 10x more expensive. Adafruit gets their electronics from the same Chinese manufacturers as any other retailer. Call me an idiot, but last I checked there was no Adafruit semiconductor fabs, even in Guangzhou. I looked, but could not find..

        You’re also very wrong when you say “She didn’t even tried to advertise her product”. It’s called product placement. A very common advertising and marketing technique. “Gosh, that original sound chip sounds kinda bad (after I hooked it up wrong but didn’t tell anyone), but looky here, in our parts drawer it just so happens we have this little module. It’s better “. Go ahead, google search for PAM8302, what do you get? That’s strategic advertising. This video *IS* an advertisement. She’s an MIT grad. She’s not naive and not “not too creative” as you think.

        So I ask you, what is ladyada’s cause? What is the “cause” of any corporation? A: To make a profit. And there really is no such thing as benevolence in the tech industry. Think about it.

        1. It’s the same old argument, wages are much lower in China, in New York where Adafruit is based rent would be much higher, staff wages are higher, insurances are no doubt higher, web hosting, the list of expenses goes on, Adafruit are also buying in much lower quantity thus getting a higher buy price, and are you sure the China parts are using genuine chips and quality capacitors or the cheapest clones/caps they can get their hands on? Bricks and mortar stores cannot compete with online Chinese wholesalers. The part in question is made by Adafruit, not imported and massively marked up but in the end you’re talking about a $4 part… some people spend more on a cup of coffee. For someone building a one off gadget $4 is perfectly acceptable.

          And what do you mean Apple don’t pull that kind of stuff? Many people have done cost estimates on the iPhones and estimate that the iPhone 6 Plus 128GB costs approx $263USD to build, which sells for $949USD at that is 3.6x the build cost.

          1. So how do you explain those ebay shops that operate out of Chinatown and still keep their prices low? Same new york city. It’s all about connections to the manufacturers, and those are (mostly) in China. If you don’t have the connections, you will never have a competitive advantage, especially in tech. Adafruit is following in the footsteps of Radio Shack, except worse. Same rip-off prices but without any of the convenience of a local store.

            For mission critical stuff, of course you want genuine parts with stringent testing. Mind you most of those “genuine” parts you fuss about will be made in China, same for Adafruit. Diodes corporation (the maker of the PAM audio chips) has two fabs in Shanghai. My guess is 50/50 chance that the ebay amps are a copy, but likely out of the same fab or with the same design as the original part. And people who have bought these ebay/alibaba amps have confirmed the parts do perform as expected. Search PAM8403 on youtube.

            Apple has that 3.6x markup in part because of marketing, but also because of the r&d, test, support, and 3rd party licensing agreements. Sure, 3.6x is costly, but not sorely unreasonable. You also get a product that’s innovative and pretty state of the art. And 3.6x is not 10x.

            But for this? Any way you slice, it, how can you honestly justify the price? $4 for one may not seem like much, but if you want 10? 20? And for something like that Raspberry Pi Zero, how much r&d and test goes into some cables, power supply, sd card, and a breakout board? Yet it sells for how much?

            I’m sorry, that is a rip off.
            and that.. and no free shipping.. my goodness.

          2. So Adafruit doing R&D, testing and supporting their own product costs them nothing? I Agree the pricing on the Pi Zero’s is rather high and I wouldn’t buy that but in the same sentence most resellers stocking them did the same thing, and when Adafruit had the bare Pi Zero listed it was $5. Stores have to build they’re running costs into their products else they’ll go broke, plain and simple.

            For stuff I can wait for I’ll buy from China, but bits I want quickly I have no issue with buying from places like Adafruit/Sparkfun (through an Australian reseller). I also find the stuff they build in house to be of exceptional quality and well designed, you can tell the $0.87 amps from China came off a batch run of hundreds of thousands, the quality in them is just so low, sure they work and will probably work fine for their life span but the nice gold plated boards from Adafruit look great. Plus if an Adafruit product fails they replace it, with no arguments. I once bought they’re Ultimate GPS breakout, expecting to receive the one with the antenna connection (given that’s what I ordered) but received one with the ceramic antenna, a couple of emails is all it took for them to send me the correct one and they let me keep the original one. You don’t get that sort of support from China you get arguments and them trying to weasel out of replacing it or offering some shitty free gift because the profits in the sales are so low they can’t afford to replace it.

      2. Only sucker will pay more. But I love adafruit website. Just getting started learn arduino. Dude i love creating thing but in the end I am only one that is using it and I don’t like it. but well I belive that learning is fun specially … Long post.. Got bored after this.

    2. The only way AdaFruit is going to make YOU happy is if they become just like your dear ebay sellers: ditch the Support team, move to lower-rent, discontinue their tutorials and advocacy, and just shovel imports over the wall.

      When I go to the grocery store, I might think to myself that most of the beer there is junk for people with no taste. But I wouldn’t say that to them. It’s not helpful, and would make me look like an ass. So it is with you and your AdaFruit comments.

      For what it’s worth, I agree the Pi Zero kit is a lot of money. I also know AdaFruit got very few if these boards. So it is wise to sell what they HAVE in a kit because “most” people will need those parts, and AdaFruit can support the whole thing.

      You just know that maybe half the Pi Zero buyers won’t be strong technical people, and then AdaFruit will be stuck supporting a $5 board that “crashes” when used with someone’s generic power supply. Invoke support just once, and now the sale is a loss.

  3. Usually I never comment on the “hackiness” level of other people’s projects but let me see if I got this right.

    The face of one of the biggest proponents of d-i-y, making, hacking, etc. took a (rare?) piece of computing history and used a usb sound card and ready made amp module to turn it into a crappy usb speaker?

      1. This IS a crappy USB speaker, in a box from something that’s considered a work of art. Even if Jobs sucks, his Next boxes were pretty nifty.

        Would it have killed her to feed it an I2S signal? Maybe a micro could convert from S/PDIF? Or emulate a USB soundcard? Would’ve needed more brains than soldering, but I thought she had those. Somebody could’ve whipped up a convertor box, putting aside the issue of the connector, so that the speaker could function on a modern computer, without needing to damage or disable it’s original components.

        I dunno about the DAC in question, but knowing Jobs and his pretentious aesthetics, I’d guess it’s a good one.

  4. What a weird connector. The link is to a guy who bought up DE19 connectors I think. I think he calls them wrong, but DB shells are wider than what he shows. DE shells are still pretty common in VGA cables. And in RS232 communication, though that’s becoming less common on the consumer market.

  5. as this board is also used in the Megapixel b/w monitor, the “mysterious jack is the video output to the monitor. the blue connector is also for the monitor, providing at least power to the video monitor. we ave a few next systems at our space, including a abundant amount of monitor cables and keyboards.

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