For most of us, vacuum tubes haven’t appeared in any of our schematics or BOMs in — well, ever. Once mass-manufacturing made reliable transistors cheap enough for hobbyists, vacuum tubes became pretty passe, and it wasn’t long before the once mighty US tube industry was decimated, leaving the few remaining tube enthusiasts to ferret out caches of old stock, or even seek new tubes from overseas manufacturers.
Sitting on a train leaving the Hackaday Berlin conference, and Hacker News pops up Julian Shapiro with a guide to HiFi. What Hackaday scribe wouldn’t give it a click, to while away the endless kilometres of North European Plain!
Everyone knows we’re big fans of displays that differ from the plain old flat-panel LCDs that seem to adorn most devices these days. It’s a bit boring when the front panel of your widget is the same thing you stare at hour after hour while using your phone. Give us the chunky, blocky goodness of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) any day of the week for visual interest and retro appeal.
From the video below, it seems like [Posy] certainly is in the VFD fandom too, rolling out as he does example after example of unique and complicated displays, mostly from audio equipment that had its heyday in the 1990s. In some ways, the video is just a love letter to the VFD, and that’s just fine with us. But the teardowns do provide some insights into how VFDs work, as well as suggest ways to tweak the overall look of a VFD.
For example, consider the classy white VFDs that graced a lot of home audio gear back in the day. It turns out, the phosphors used in those displays weren’t white, but closer to the blue-green color that VFDs are often associated with. But put a pink filter between the display and the world, and suddenly those turquoise phosphors look white. [Posy] does a lot of fiddling with the stock filters to change the look of his VFDs, some to good effect, others less so.
As for the internals of VFDs, [Posy]’s look at a damaged display reveals a lot about how they work. With a loose scrap of conductor shorting one of the cathodes inside the tube, the damaged VFD isn’t much to look at, and is beyond reasonable repair, but it’s kind of cool to examine the spring mechanisms that take up slack as the cathodes heat up and expand.
Thanks to [Posy] for this heartfelt look into the VFDs of yesterday. If you need more about how VFDs work, we’ve covered that before, too.
We always enjoy the odd things that people do to try to get better audio reproduction. Exotic cables, special amplifiers, and higher resolution digitization come to mind. Most of this is dubious, at best, but [Techmoan] brings up something we must have missed back in the day: shaving CDs with a gadget that was marketed as the “CD Sound Improver.” The theory is that bad CD reproduction comes from light scatter of the laser. The solution, according to the maker of this vintage equipment, is to cut a 36-degree bevel to act as a light trap. You can see the gadget in the video below.
The device claims it reduced vibration, improved audio, and even helped DVDs playback better video. As you might imagine, this has little hope of actually working. The box is essentially a motor-driven turntable, a razor blade, and a port for a vacuum cleaner to suck up the mess. You were told to color the edge with a marker, too.
As a writer, I have long harboured a dream that one day an editor will buy me a top-of-the-range audio analyser, and I can set up an audio test lab and write pieces debunking the spurious claims made by audiophiles, HiFi journalists, and the high-end audio industry about the quality of their products. Does that amp really lend an incisive sibilance to the broader soundstage, and can we back that up with some measurable figures rather than purple prose?
An Audio Playground You Didn’t Know You Had
Sadly Hackaday is not an audio magazine, and if Mike bought me an Audio Precision he’d have to satisfy all the other writers’ test equipment desires too, and who knows where that would end! So there will be no Hackaday audio lab — for now. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play around with audio analysis.
Last month we carried a write-up of a Supercon talk from Kate Temkin and Michael Ossmann, in which they reminded us that we have a cracking general purpose DSP playground right under our noses; GNU Radio isn’t just for radio. Once I’d seen the talk my audio analysis horizons were opened up considerably. Maybe that audio analyser wouldn’t be mine, but I could do some of the same job with GNU Radio.
It’s important to stress at this point that anything I can do on my bench will not remotely approach the quality of a professional audio analyser. But even if I can’t measure infinitesimal differences between very high-end audio circuitry, I can still measure enough to tell a good audio product from a bad one.
Audiophiles have worked diligently to alert the rest of the world to products with superior sound quality, and to warn us away from expensive gimmicks that have middling features at best. Unfortunately, the downside of most high quality audio equipment is the sticker price. But with some soldering skills and a bit of hardware, you can build your own professional-level audio equipment around an ESP32 and impress almost any dedicated audiophile.
The list of features the tiny picoAUDIO board packs is impressive, starting with a 3.7 watt stereo amplifier and a second dedicated headphone amplifier. It also has all of the I/O you would expect something based on an ESP32 to have, such as I2S stereo DAC, an I2S microphone input, I2C GPIO extenders and, of course, a built-in MicroSD card reader. The audio quality is impressive too, and the project page has some MP3 files of audio recorded using this device that are worth listening to.
Whether you want the highest sound quality for your headphones while you listen to music, or you need a pocket-sized audio recording device, this might be the way to go. The project files are all available so you can build this from the ground up as well. Once you have that knocked out, you can move on to building your own speakers.
Why build your own stereo speakers? Some people like to work on cars in their garage. Some people build fast computers. Others seek the perfect audio setup. The problem for a newcomer is the signal to noise ratio among audiophile experts. Forums are generally filled with a vocal group of extremists obsessing on that last tiny improvement in some spec. It can be hard for a beginner to jump in and learn the ropes.
[Ynze] had this problem. He’d finished a custom amplifier and decided to build his own speakers. He found a lot of spirited debates about what was important for good speakers. He tried to wade through the discussions and determine which things had real practical value. The results and his speaker build are documented in a post that you’ll want to check out if you would like to design and build your own speakers.
Some of the topics ranged from solder type to capacitor construction and 700 Euro capacitors. [Ynze’s] goal was to build something that sounded good while keeping costs in line. He claims he spent about 250 Euro and wound up with speakers equivalent to 750 Euro store-bought speakers.