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.
Prior to the development of CD-quality audio hardware in the mid-1990s, home computers and consoles typically made do with synthesized music. Due to the storage and RAM limitations of the time, there weren’t a whole lot of other practical options. If you’re willing to ignore practicality, however, you can do some wonderful things – such as playing high-quality audio on a Commodore 64!
The project is the work of [Antonio Savona], who set out to play hi-fi audio on a Commodore 64 using only period-correct hardware. That means no 16MB RAM expansions, and no crazy high-capacity carts. The largest carts of the era were just 1MB, as produced by Ocean, and [Antonio] intended to cram in a full 90 seconds of music.
Targeting a sample rate of 48 KHz with 8-bit samples would mean the cartridge could only fit 20 seconds of raw audio into its 1MB of storage. This wasn’t good enough, so the audio would have to be compressed, with the target being a 4:1 ratio to reach the 90 second goal. With the C64’s CPU running at just 1MHz, there are just 21 clock cycles to deal with each sample when playing at 48 KHz.
Obviously, [Antonio] had set quite the challenge, and some masterful assembly coding was used to get the job done. The final result has the audio sounding impressively good, given that it’s being pumped out by a 6502 that is surely sweating to get the job done.
A hi-fi amplifier used to be a rite of passage for the home electronic constructor, back in the days when consumer electronics was still dominated by analogue entertainment. It’s unusual then to see [carbono.silício]’s stereo amplifier project, constructed in an open-wire circuit sculpture form on a log. You didn’t read that incorrectly, it’s built not on a breadboard but on a piece of Olea Maderensis, or Madiera Olive wood, complete with bark. This endangered tree was not felled, instead it was a piece blown down after a storm.
The circuit is slightly unusual for a project such as this, in that it uses a pair of LM386 audio amplifier chips. This isn’t an unusual component, but it’s one more commonly seen providing the amplification for a small speaker project than in a stereo hi-fi amplifier. But the construction is beautifully done, with very neatly routed wires, a single central volume knob, and a blue LED power light. A particularly nice touch are the aluminium electrolytic capacitors, we suspect having had their plastic sleeving removed.
Initial attempts involved creating a laser-cut MDF outer mold, with a styrofoam core inside to be removed later. This was unsuccessful, and [Marek] developed the design further. The second revision used an inner core also made from lasercut MDF, designed to be left inside after casting. This inner mold already includes the mounting holes for the speaker drivers, making assembly easier too.
Once cast, the enclosures were fitted with Tang-Band W4-1320SIF drivers. These are a full-range driver, meaning they can be used without needing crossovers or other speakers to fill in the frequency range. Each cabinet weighs just over 10kg, and they’re ported for extra response in the lower frequency bands. Sound tests are impressive, and the rough-finished aesthetic of the final product looks great in [Marek]’s living room.
We’ve seen concrete used for all manner of projects, from furnaces to USB hubs. Video after the break.
There are few limits to the extent audiophiles will go in their quest for the perfect sound. This applies in particular to the loudspeaker, and with that aim [Heine Nielsen] has created an eye-catching set of 3D-printed egg-shaped enclosures.
The theory of a loudspeaker enclosure is that it should simulate an infinite space behind an infinite plane in which the speaker driver is mounted, and the reasoning behind spherical or egg-shaped enclosures goes that they better achieve that aim through presenting a uniform inner surface without the corners of a more conventional rectangular enclosure. [Heine]’s enclosures 3D-printed ported enclosures achieve this more easily than traditional methods of building this shape.
A loudspeaker enclosure is more than just a box though, whatever material it is made from must adequately dampen any resonances and absorb as much energy as possible. Conventional speakers try to achieve this by using high-mass and particulate materials, but 3D-printing does not lend itself to this. Instead, he created a significant air gap between two layers which he hopes will create the same effect.
This is an interesting design and approach to speaker cabinet construction, but we think from an audio perspective its one that will be well served by more development. What would be the effect of filling that air gap with something of higher mass, for example, and should the parameters of the egg shape and the port be derived for a particular driver by calculation from its Thiele-Small parameters. We look forward to more on this theme.
If you are a devotee of audiophile-quality analogue hi-fi, switching between sources simply can not be done through a solid-state device. Only physical switches will do because they come without the risk of extra noise or distortion that their silicon equivalents might bring.
That is the philosophy that lies behind [Skrodahl]’s relay-based audio switching board, which boasts 5 high-quality relays each handling a stereo input, with their control passed either to a rotary switch or to an ESP32 module. The ground connections on audio and switching sides are isolated from each other to avoid transient noise finding its way to the speakers.
You might think that an audio switching board is a very simple device indeed and thus not worthy of Hackaday’s attention, but it’s surprisingly easy to make a mess of a module like this one and they have put in some effort to avoid the pitfalls. The metal-can version of the switching transistors seems a little overkill, but fancy audio is a funny business.
If the ESP isn’t your bag, we’ve brought you another relay based audio switcher in the past that used an Atmel chip.
There are few greater follies in the world of electronics than that of an electronic engineering student who has just discovered the world of hi-fi audio. I was once that electronic engineering student and here follows a tale of one of my follies. One that incidentally taught me a lot about my craft, and I am thankful to say at least did not cost me much money.
It must have been some time in the winter of 1991/92, and being immersed in student radio and sound-and-light I was party to an intense hi-fi arms race among the similarly afflicted. Some of my friends had rich parents or jobs on the side and could thus afford shiny amplifiers and the like, but I had neither of those and an elderly Mini to support. My only option therefore was to get creative and build my own. And since the ultimate object of audio desire a quarter century ago was a valve (tube) amp, that was what I decided to tackle.
Nowadays, building a valve amp is a surprisingly straightforward process, as there are many online suppliers who will sell you a kit of parts from the other side of the world. Transformer manufacturers produce readily available products for your HT supply and your audio output matching, so to a certain extent your choice of amp is simply a case of picking your preferred circuit and assembling it. Back then however the world of electronics had extricated itself from the world of valves a couple of decades earlier, so getting your hands on the components was something of a challenge. I cut out the power supply by using a scrap Dymar Electronics instrument enclosure which had built-in HT and heater rails ready to go, but the choice of transformers and high-voltage capacitors was something of a challenge.
Pulling the amplifier out of storage in 2017, I’m going in blind. I remember roughly what I did, but the details have been obscured by decades of other concerns. So in an odd meeting with my barely-adult self, it’s time to take a look at what I made. Where did I get it right, and just how badly did I get it wrong?