Some of you may remember a recent project that featured on these pages, a 555 timer reproduced using vacuum tubes. Its creator [Usagi Electric] was left at loose ends while waiting for a fresh PCB revision of the 555 to be delivered, so set about creating a new vacuum tube model of a popular chip, this time the ubiquitous 741 op-amp. (Video, embedded below.)
The circuit is fairly straightforward, using six small pentodes. The first two are a long-tailed pair as might be expected, followed by two gain stages, then a final gain stage feeding a cathode follower with feedback. It’s neatly built on a PCB with IC-style “pins” made from more PCB material, then put in a huge replication of an IC socket on a wooden baseboard.
The result is an op-amp, but not necessarily a good one. He looks at the AC performance instead of the DC even though it’s a fully DC-coupled circuit, and finds that while it performs as expected in a classic op-amp circuit it still differs from the ideal at higher gain. The frequency response is poor too, something he rectifies by replacing the feedback capacitor with a smaller value. Sadly he doesn’t look at its common mode performance, though we’d expect that without close matching of the tubes it might leave something to be desired.
It’s obvious that this project would never be selected as an op-amp given the quality of even the cheapest silicon op-amp in comparison. But its value is in a novelty, a talking point, and maybe a chance to learn about op-amps. For that, we like it.
We think of punched cards as old-fashioned, but still squarely part of the computer age. Turns out, cards were in use way before they got conscripted by computers. Jacquard looms are one famous example. The U.S. Census famously used punched cards for tabulating the census without anything we’d consider a computer. But in the 1950s, you might have had a punched card machine on your electronics workbench. The Hickok Cardmatic was a tube tester with a difference.
About Tube Testers
While you, as a Hackaday reader, might tear into a busted TV at your house and try to fix it, most people today will either scrap a bad set or pay someone to fix it. That’s fine today. TVs are cheap and rarely break, anyway. But this hasn’t always been the case.
In the “good old days” your expensive TV broke down all the time. Most of the parts were reliable, but the tubes would wear out. If you were the kind of person who would change your own oil, you’d probably look to see if you could spot a burned out tube and try replacing it. If you couldn’t spot it, you’d pull all the tubes out. If you were lucky, there was a diagram glued inside the cover that showed where they all went back. Then you took them to the drugstore.
The 90s were a dark time for audio equipment, literally and figuratively. Essentially the only redeeming quality from the decade of nondescript black plastic boxes was the low cost. Compared to the audio equipment of the 60s, largely produced in high-end enclosures with highly desirable tube amplifiers, the 90s did not offer much when it came to hi-fi stereo sound. However, those cheap black boxes from the 90s turn out to be surprisingly perfect for project enclosures for other amplifier builds, such as this 60s-era tube amp recreation.
This mesh of the best of two distinct decades comes from [Alvenh] and begins by preparing the old enclosure for its new purpose. This means a lot of work fabricating a custom metal face plate for the new amplifier and significantly modifying the remaining case. After the box is complete, the amplifier build began. It uses a tube-based preamp and a solid-state power amplifier since [Alvenh]’s experience suggested that the warm tube sound was generated mostly in the preamp. This means that his design is a hybrid but still preserves the essential qualities of a full tube build.
The build also includes a radio module that has the ability to cover the 2m and 70cm bands popular in ham radio. This module also has been found to have much better audio quality than the standard AM/FM receiver typically used in projects like this. With the radio module added to the custom enclosure, as well as a phono amp and a power supply, [Alvenh] has an excellent audio amplifier in an inexpensive case which preserves the tube sound from the true hi-fi eras of decades past.
At the extreme budget end of tube audio lie single-tube amplifiers usually using very cheap small-signal pentodes. They’ve appeared here before in various guises, and a fitting addition to those previous projects comes from [Kris Slyka]. It’s a classic circuit with a transformer output, and it provides enough amplification to drive a pair of headphones or even a speaker at low levels.
Most tube enthusiasts will instantly recognize the anode follower circuit with a transformer in the anode feed through which the output is taken. The tube works in Class A, which means that it’s in its least efficient mode but the one with the least distortion. The transformer itself isn’t an audio part, but a small mains transformer taken from a scrap wall wart. It serves not only for isolation, but also to transform the high impedance output from the tube into a low impedance suitable for driving a headphone or speaker.
The HT voltage is a relatively low 24 V, but it still manages to drive headphones acceptably. Speaker levels require a pre-amp, but even then it’s likely that this circuit is pushing the tube beyond what it’s capable of with a speaker. The more it operates towards the edge of its performance envelope the more distortion it will generate and the worse a sound it will produce. This isn’t such a problem in a guitar application as here, but hi-fi enthusiasts may find it to be too much. It would be interesting to subject it as a headphone amplifier to a series of audio tests to evaluate the effect of a mains transformer over a dedicated audio one.
Once a discarded relic, over the years the humble vacuum tube has been rehabilitated in the arena of specialist audio. There are plenty of tube amplifiers now being manufactured, with a popular choice being headphone amplifiers that use a tube as a gain stage followed by an op-amp as a buffer with a low impedance output. This forms the basis of [Ratti3]’s amplifier, but with the added interest of a battery supply and a Bluetooth connection.
The tube circuit is a very conventional anode follower using an EF95 pentode. This provides plenty of gain and of course that “valve sound” beloved of audio enthusiasts, but suffers from an output impedance too high to drive a set of headphones. An NE5532 steps in for the op-amp buffer role, making for a very simple circuit. Power comes from a set of four 18650 Lithium-Ion cells with associated charger and balance boards, while a little switching boost converter provides the 100 volt HT for the tubes.
Vacuum tubes ruled electronics for several decades and while you might think of them as simple devices analogous to a transistor or FET, there were many special types. We’re all familiar with nixie tubes that act as numeric displays, and there are other specialty tubes that work as a photomultiplier, to detect radiation, or even generate microwaves. But one of the most peculiar and distinctive specialty tubes has an intriguing name: a magic eye tube. When viewed from the top, you see a visual indication that rotates around a central point, the out ring glowing while the inner is dark, like an iris and pupil.
These tubes date back to the RCA 6E5 in 1935. At the time, test equipment that used needles was expensive to make, so there was always a push to replace them with something cheaper. They were something like a stunted cathode ray tube. In fact, the inventor, Allen DuMont, was well known for innovations in television. An anode held a coating that would glow when hit with electrons — usually green, but sometimes other colors. Later tubes would show a stripe going up and down the tube instead of a circle, but you still call them magic eyes.
The indicator part of this virtual meter took the form of a shadow. Based on the applied signal, the shadow would be larger or smaller. Many tubes also contained a triode which would drive the tube from a signal.
For most of us, circuits based on vacuum tubes are remnants of a technological history that is rapidly fading from our collective memory. To be sure, there are still applications for thermionic emission, especially in power electronics and specialized switching applications. But by and large, progress has left vacuum tubes in a cloud of silicon dust, leaving mainly audiophiles and antique radio enthusiasts to figure out the hows and whys of plates and grids and filaments.
But vacuum tubes aren’t just for the analog world. Some folks like making tubes do tricks they haven’t had to do in a long, long time, at least since the birth of the computer age. Vacuum tube digital electronics seems like a contradiction in terms, but David Lovett, aka Usagi Electric on YouTube, has fallen for it in a big way. His channel is dedicated to working through the analog building blocks of digital logic circuits using tubes almost exclusively. He has come up with unique circuits that don’t require the high bias voltages typically needed, making the circuits easy to work with using equipment likely to be found in any solid-state experimenter’s lab.
David will drop by the Hack Chat to share his enthusiasm for vacuum tube logic and his tips for exploring the sometimes strange world of flying electrons. Join us as we discuss how to set up your own vacuum tube experiments, learn what thermionic emission can teach us about solid-state electronics, and maybe even get a glimpse of what lies ahead in his lab.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.