There’s a mystique in audiophile circles about tube amplifiers. They can have a very nice sound which is attributed to their even-harmonic distortion, but they are often portrayed as requiring rare and expensive components. You don’t need matched gold-plated tubes and special transformers wound by Japanese monks with oxygen-free silver wire when the tube you’d have found in a TV back in the day paired with a repurposed mains transformer will do. [Mikremk] demonstrates this with a simple but effective amplifier using a PCL82 triode-pentode.
It’s a conventional tube amplifier circuit in which the triode is a preamplifier for the pentode power output stage. The pentode is running in class A mode, and the high impedance of its output is brought down to speaker impedance with that mains transformer. Best of all it doesn’t need a particularly high voltage, with the 40 V DC power coming from a DC-to-DC converter module.
In our occasional series charting audio and Hi-Fi technology we have passed at a technical level the main components of a home audio set-up. In our last outing when we looked at cabling we left you with a promise of covering instrumentation, but now it’s time instead for a short digression into another topic: stereo. It’s a word so tied-in with Hi-Fi that “a stereo” is an alternative word for almost any music system, but what does it really mean? What makes a stereo recording, and how does it arrive at your ears?
From West London Trains, To 3D Audio
As most of you will know, a mono recording uses a single microphone and a single channel while a stereo one uses two microphones recording simultaneously a left and right channel. These are then played back through a pair of speakers, and the result is a sense of spatial field for the listener. Instruments appear to come from their relative positions when recorded, and the sense of being in the performance is enhanced.
Stereo recording as we know it was first perfected as one of the many inventions credited to Alan Blumlein, then working for EMI in London. We have one of his stereo demonstration films in “Trains at Hayes“, filmed from the EMI laboratories overlooking the Great Western Railway, and featuring a series of steam-hauled trains crossing the field of view with a corresponding stereo sound field. His work laid down the fundamentals of stereo recording, including microphone configurations and what would become the standard for stereo audio recording on disk with the channels on the opposite sides of a 45 degree groove. Continue reading “Know Audio: Stereo”→
When it comes to vintage hi-fi stereo amplifiers, two units had particular meaning for [lens42]: the McIntosh MC275 Power Amp, and the Dynaco ST35. The Dynaco was a more budget-friendly amplifier, but looked like a plain box. The McIntosh, however, proudly showed off its tubes and transformers in all their glory. The “McIntosh 217” is design-wise basically a smaller McIntosh MC275, with the innards of a Dynaco ST35.
With so much needing to be designed from the ground up, CAD was invaluable. Component layout, enclosure design, and even wiring and labeling all had to be nailed down as much as possible before so much as heating up the soldering iron. Even so, there were a few hiccups; a vendor had incorrect measurements for a tube socket which meant that the part would not fit. A workaround involved modifying the holes and as luck would have it, the change wasn’t an eyesore. Still, [lens42] reminds us all that whenever you can, have the required parts in-hand for confirmation of dimensions before sending CAD files off for cutting or fabrication.
Many of us can relate to the fact that the whole project was a labor of love and made no real financial sense, but the end result is fantastic, and creating such a thing is something all of us — not just chasers of that elusive “tube sound” — can appreciate.
While high-fidelity audio has come a long way in the past several decades, a lot of modern stereo equipment is still missing out on some of the old analog meters that were common on amplifiers and receivers of the 60s through the 80s. Things like VU meters don’t tend to be common anymore, but it is possible to build them back in to your sound system with the help of some microcontrollers. [Mark] shows us exactly how to reclaim some of the old-school functionality with this twin audio visualizer display.
Not only does this build include two displays, but the microcontroller is keeping up with 170 channels in real-time in order to drive the display. What’s more impressive is that it’s being done all on a Teensy 4.1. To help manage all of the data and keep the speed as fast as possible it uses external RAM soldered to the board, and a second Teensy audio board is used to do the real time FFT analysis. Most of the channels are sent to the display hosting the spectrum analyzer but two are reserved for left and right stereo VU meters on the second display.
The project from [Mark] is originally based on this software from [DIYLAB] so everything is open-source. While it was originally built for a specific piece of hardware, [Mark] has it set up with a line in and line out plus a microphone input so it can be used for virtually any audio hardware now. For another take on the classic VU meter, take a look at this design based on an Arudino instead.
It’s a distressing moment for some of us, when a formerly prized piece of electronic equipment reaches a point of obsolescence that we consider jettisoning it. [Jon Robinson] ran into this dilemma by finding the Kenwood Hi-Fi amplifier his 17-year-old self had spent his savings on. It was a very good amp back in the day, but over two decades later, it’s no longer an object of desire in a world of soundbars and streaming music boxes. After a earlier upgrade involving an Arduino to auto-power it he’s now given it an ESP32 and an i2S codec which performs the task of digital audio streaming as well as a better job than the Arduino of controlling the power.
Inside the case is a piece of stripboard with the ESP and codec modules, but there was still the problem of seamlessly integrating it with the amp’s distinctly analogue-era controls. The output from the codec is wired into an audio input – quaintly labelled for a DAT player – and a simple cam on the input selector switch operates a microswitch to select the ESP32.
If you’re dipping your toe in decent audio then an old amp from decades past can make an excellent purchase, but you might wish to educate yourself through our Know Audio series.
As we’ve traced our no-nonsense path through the world of Hi-Fi audio, we’ve started with the listener, understood the limitations of the human ear, and thence proceeded to the loudspeaker. We’ve learned a bit about speaker cabinets and their design, so it’s time to venture further down the chain to the amplifier that drives those speakers.
The sharp-eyed will be ready to point out that along this path also lies the speaker cables, but since we’ll be looking at interconnects at a later date we’ll be making the dubious and simplistic assumption for now that the wires between speaker and amplifier are ideal conductors that don’t have a bearing on listening quality. We’ll be looking at amplifiers in enough detail to warrant more than one piece on the subject, so today we’ll start by considering in a slightly abstract way what an amplifier does and where it can fall short in its task. We’ll be introducing probably the most important thing to consider in any audio system, namely distortion.
The job of an audio amplifier is to take an audio signal at its input and present the same signal on its output at a greater amplitude. In the case of a preamplifier it will usually be designed to work with high impedances in the order of 50 kΩ at both input and output, while in a power amplifier designed to drive speakers or headphones it will drive a much lower impedance. Commonly this will be 4 Ω or 8 Ω for loudspeakers, and 32 Ω for headphones. Continue reading “Know Audio: Amplifiers And Distortion”→
As we’ve started out on our journey through the world of Hi-Fi audio from a strictly practical and engineering viewpoint without being misled by any audiophile woo, we’ve already taken a look at the most important component in any audio system: the listener’s ear. It’s time to move down the chain to the next link; the loudspeaker.
Sound is pressure waves in the air, and the purpose of a loudspeaker is to move the air to create those waves. There are a variety of “exotic” loudspeaker technologies including piezoelectric and electrostatic designs, here we’ll be considering the garden variety moving-coil speaker. It’s most usually used for the large bass or smaller mid-range drivers in a typical speaker system. Continue reading “Know Audio: A Loudspeaker Primer”→