Circuit VR: Starting an Amplifier Design

Sometimes I wish FETs had become practical before bipolar transistors. A FET is a lot more like a tube and amplifies voltages. Bipolar transistors amplify current and that makes them a bit harder to use. Recently, [Jenny List] did a series on transistor amplifiers including the topic of this Circuit VR, the common emitter amplifier. [Jenny] talked about biasing. I’ll start with biasing too, but in the next installment, I want to talk about how to use capacitors in this design and how to blend two amplifiers together and why you’d want to do that.

But before you can dive into capacitors and cascades, we need a good feel for how to get the transistor biased to start with. As always, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news it that transistors vary quite a bit from device to device. The good news is that we’ll use some design tricks to keep that from being a problem and that will also give us a pretty wide tolerance on component values. The resulting amplifier won’t necessarily be precise, but it will be fine for most uses. As usual, you can find all the design files on GitHub, and we’ll be using the LT Spice simulator.

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Vintage Silvertone Cabinet Gets Bluetooth Treatment

This Bluetooth speaker is full of delightful surprises. The outer shell is an antique radio cabinet, but its practically empty interior is a combination of Dead Bug circuitry and modern BT receiver.

[PJ Allen] found the BT receiver on Groupon and decided to whip up amplifier and threshold detector circuits using only parts he already had in order to make this vintage-looking Bluetooth speaker. The cabinet is from a Silvertone Model 1955 circa 1936. Don’t worry, no antiques were harmed in the making of this hack, the cabinet was empty when he bought it.

LM4871 based amplifiers
LM4871 based amplifiers

The amplifiers, one per speaker, began life as a circuit from TI’s LM4871  datasheet. Some of the departures came about because he didn’t have the exact component values, even paralleling capacitors to get in the right range. The finished board is a delightful mix of “Dead Bug” and quasi-Manhattan style construction, “quasi” because he carved up the ground plane instead of laying pads on top of it.

Look at the front of the cabinet and you’ll see a rectangular display. Watch the video below and you’ll see that it throbs in time to the music. To do that he came up with a threshold detector circuit which started out based on a circuit from a  Sharp/Optonica cassette tape deck, but to which he made improvements.

Not all cabinets come empty though. Check out this post by our own [Gregory L. Charvat] about restoring these wonderful old radios.

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The Hot and Cold of Balanced Audio

A few summers of my misspent youth found me working at an outdoor concert venue on the local crew. The local crew helps the show’s technicians — don’t call them roadies; they hate that — put up the show. You unpack the trucks, put up the lights, fly the sound system, help run the show, and put it all back in the trucks at the end. It was grueling work, but a lot of fun, and I got to meet people with names like “Mister Dog Vomit.”

One of the things I most remember about the load-in process was running the snakes. The snakes are fat bundles of cables, one for audio and one for lighting, that run from the stage to the consoles out in the house. The bigger the snakes, the bigger the show. It always impressed me that the audio snake, something like 50 yards long, was able to carry all those low-level signals without picking up interference from the AC thrumming through the lighting snake running right alongside it, while my stereo at home would pick up hum from the three-foot long RCA cable between the turntable and the preamp.

I asked one of the audio techs about that during one show, and he held up the end of the snake where all the cables break out into separate connectors. The chunky silver plugs clinked together as he gave his two-word answer before going back to patching in the console: “Balanced audio.”

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Eight Transistor Stereo Amplifier From The Days Of Yore

Reading an article about the first transistorized Hi-Fi amplifier, [Netzener] got the itch to make one. But what to use for the starting point? Enter an old Radio Shack P-Box stereo amplifier kit. After a few modernizations and tweaks, the result is an 8-transistor stereo amplifier that’s aesthetically pleasing, sounds great, and is fully documented.

The Radio Shack kit used germanium transistors, but with their high leakage current and low thermal conductivity, he decided to convert it to work with silicon transistors. He also made some improvements to the push-pull bias circuit and limited the high-frequency response. As for the finished product, in true [Netzener] style, he assembled it all to look like the original completed Radio Shack amplifier. He even wrote up a manual which you’d think, as we did at first, was the original one, giving that old, comfortable feeling of reading quality Radio Shack documentation.

Check out the video below where he uses a 9 V battery and half a watt per channel to fill a room with clear, stereo sound.

This isn’t the first Radio Shack kit that [Netzener] has adapted. Check out his single tube radio and classic neon “Goofy Light” box.

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A Unique Microphone Preamp

We live in a world in which nearly any kind of gadget or tool you can imagine is just a few clicks away. In many respects, this has helped fuel the maker culture over the last decade or so; now that people aren’t limited to the hardware that’s available locally, they’re able to create bigger and better things than ever before. But it can also have a detrimental effect. One has to question, for instance, why they should go through the trouble of building something themselves when they could buy it, often for less than the cost of the individual components.

The critic could argue that many of the projects that grace the pages of Hackaday could be supplanted with commercially available counterparts. We don’t deny it. But the difference between buying a turn-key product and building an alternative yourself is that you can make it exactly how you want it. That is precisely why [Sam Izdat] created this truly one of a kind microphone preamplifier. Could he have bought one online for cheaper? Probably. Could he have saved himself an immense amount of time and effort? Undoubtedly. Do we care? Not in the slightest.

The amplifier is based on the Texas Instruments INA217 chip, with an Arduino Nano and 128×64 OLED display providing the visualization. [Sam] was able to find a bare PCB for a typical INA217 implementation on eBay for a few bucks (see what we mean?), which helped get him started and allowed him to spend more time on the software side of things. His visualization code offers a number of interesting display modes, uses Fast Hartley Transforms, and very nearly maxes out the Arduino.

But perhaps no element of this build is as unique as the case. The rationale behind the design is that [Sam] wanted to compartmentalize each section of the device (power supply, amplifier, visualization) to avoid any interference. The cylindrical shapes were an issue of practicality: the compartments were constructed by using a hole saw to make wooden discs, which were then glued together and hollowed out. The case was stained and coated with polyurethane, but due to some slightly overzealous use of glue and fillers, the coloring isn’t uniform. This gives the final piece a somewhat weathered look, in sharp contrast to the decidedly high-tech looking display.

Overall, this build reminds us of the modular 3D printed amplifier we saw earlier in the year combined with these speaker-integrated Arduino VU meters.

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Hybrid Lab Power Supply From Broken Audio Amp

The lab power supply is an essential part of any respectable electronics workbench. However, the cost of buying a unit that has all the features required can be eye-wateringly high for such a seemingly simple device. [The Post Apocalyptic Inventor] has showed us how to build a quality bench power supply from the guts of an old audio amplifier.

We’ve covered our fair share of DIY power supplies here at Hackaday, and despite this one being a year old, it goes the extra mile for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of the expensive and key components are salvaged from a faulty audio amp: the transformer, large heatsink and chassis, as well as miscellaneous capacitors, pots, power resistors and relays. Secondly, this power supply is a hybrid. As well as two outputs from off-the-shelf buck and boost converters, there is also a linear supply. The efficiency of the switching supplies is great for general purpose work, but having a low-ripple linear output on tap for testing RF and audio projects is really handy.

The addition of the linear regulator is covered in a second video, and it’s impressively technically comprehensive. [TPAI] does a great job of explaining the function of all the parts which comprise his linear supply, and builds it up manually from discrete components. To monitor the voltage and current on the front panel, two vintage dial voltmeters are used, after one is converted to an ammeter. It’s these small auxiliary hacks which make this project stand out – another example is the rewiring of the transformer secondary and bridge rectifier to obtain a 38V rail rated for twice the original current.

The Chinese DC-DC switching converters at the heart of this build are pretty popular these days, in fact we’re even seeing open source firmware being developed for them. If you want to find out more about how they operate on a basic level, here’s how a buck converter works, and also the science behind boost converters.

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A Guide To Audio Amps For Radio Builders

For hams who build their own radios, mastering the black art of radio frequency electronics is a necessary first step to getting on the air. But if voice transmissions are a goal, some level of mastery of the audio frequency side of the equation is needed as well. If your signal is clipped and distorted, the ham on the other side will have trouble hearing you, and if your receive audio is poor, good luck digging a weak signal out of the weeds.

Hams often give short shrift to the audio in their homebrew transceivers, and [Vasily Ivanenko] wants to change that with this comprehensive guide to audio amplifiers for the ham. He knows whereof he speaks; one of his other hobbies is jazz guitar and amplifiers, and it really shows in the variety of amps he discusses and the theory behind them. He describes a number of amps that perform well and are easy to build. Most of them are based on discrete transistors — many, many transistors — but he does provide some op amp designs and even a design for the venerable LM386, which he generally decries as the easy way out unless it’s optimized. He also goes into a great deal of detail on building AF oscillators and good filters with low harmonics for testing amps. We especially like the tip about using the FFT function of an oscilloscope and a signal generator to estimate total harmonic distortion.

The whole article is really worth a read, and applying some of these tips will help everyone do a better job designing audio amps, not just the hams. And if building amps from discrete transistors has you baffled, start with the basics: [Jenny]’s excellent Biasing That Transistor series.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]