That Elusive Valve Amp Sound, For Not A Lot! (There Has To Be A Catch)

It was with considerable interest last month that I set out to track down where in the world there are still factories making tubes. My research found them in Slovakia, Russia, and China, and it’s fairly certain I didn’t find all the manufacturers by any means. There appeared to be a whole class of mundane tubes still in production that weren’t to be found on their glossy websites. A glance at any outlet through which Chinese modules can be bought will find this type of tube in small audio amplifier projects, and some of them can be astoundingly cheap. When faced with cheap electronics of course I’m tempted to buy some, so I parted with about £10 ($12.50) and bought myself a kit for a two-tube device described as a stereo preamplifier and headphone amplifier.

An Unusual Tube Choice For Audio

What I received for my tenner was a press-seal bag with a PCB and a pile of components, and not much else. No instructions, which would have been worrisome were the board not clearly marked with the value of each component. The circuit was on the vendor’s website and is so commonly used for these sort of kits that it can be found all over the web — a very conventional twin common-cathode amplifier using a pair of 6J1 miniature pentodes, and powered through a +25 V and -25 V supply derived from a 12 VAC input via a voltage multiplier and regulator circuit. It has a volume potentiometer, two sets of phono sockets for input and output, and the slightly naff addition of a blue LED beneath each tube socket to impart a blue glow. I think I’ll pass on that component.

The 6J1 seems to be ubiquitous throughout the Chinese kits, which is surprising when you understand that it’s not an audio tube at all. Instead it’s a small-signal VHF amplifier, a rough equivalent of the European EF95, and would be much more at home in an FM radio receiver or turret TV tuner from the 1950s. I can only assume that somewhere in China there’s a tube factory tooled up for radio tube production that is targeting this market, because another tube you will see in audio power amplifier kits is the FU32 or QQV03-20 in European parlance, a large power beam tetrode that might have been found in a 1950s military radio transmitter. Still just as if you were to use an RF transistor in an audio circuit it would give good account of itself, so it is with an RF tube. There is no reason a 6J1 won’t do an acceptable job in a circuit such as this one.

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This Tube Preamp Has A Nixie Volume Display

The pursuit of audiophile hi-fi is one upon which many superlatives and perhaps a little too much money are lavished. But it’s also a field in which the self-builder can produce their own equipment that is as good or often better than that which can be bought, so it provides plenty of interesting projects along the way. [Justin Scott]’s tube preamplifier is a great example, with its novel use of a pair of Nixie tubes to indicate the volume to which it has been set.

The audio side of the preamp comes courtesy of a four-tube kit from tubes 4 hi-fi, in which we notice another tube as power supply rectifier. The case is a beautifully made wooden affair with a professional front panel, but it’s the Nixies which make it a bit special. A high quality motorised potentiometer is used as a volume control, one of its multiple outputs is used as a simple potential divider to provide a voltage. This is read by an Arduino, which in turn drives the Nixies via a BCD-to-decimal decoder. The attention to detail in the whole project is at a very high level, and though he’s not shred any of its audio measurements with us, we’d expect it to sound as good as it looks.

If tube amplifiers interest you, we’ve delved into their design in the past, and it’s worth directing you to Justin’s matching amplifier, as well.

A 3.3 V Tube Preamp Without An Inverter

If you’ve ever worked with vacuum tubes, you’ll probably have a healthy appreciation for high voltage power supplies. These components require higher potentials to get those electrons moving, or so we’re told. It’s not the whole truth though, as [Albert van Dalen] demonstrates with his tube preamplifier running from only 3.3 V. If your first thought is that he must have made a flyback converter to step that voltage up to something more useful then you’re in for a surprise, because the single 6J6 pentode really does run from just 3.3 volts. Even its heater, normally supplied with 6.3 V, takes the lower voltage.

The circuit appears at first sight to be a conventional single-ended design, but closer examination reveals a grid bias circuit more reminiscent of a bipolar transistor. This results in a positive grid voltage rather than the more usual negative, and an unusually high 0.3 mA grid current. The cathode current is only  0.15 mA, but the preamplifier delivers a 3.5x gain. There is more detail on his website.

It would be interesting to subject this circuit to a full audio analysis and comparison with a more conventional design. As with so much in the world of audio there’s some smoke and mirrors around what constitutes the so-called “valve sound”, and it’s a question whether the satisfaction comes through the sound itself or the bragging rights of having a unit with a vacuum tube on show.  Still, this is a simple enough design which takes few resources to build, so we look forward to seeing further experimentation. Careful though – down the vacuum audio route can lie folly.