Tuesday, 19 February 2019

When suppliers go the extra mile

Since I started building amplifiers, I've been reliant on one supplier in particular, for my chassis and casework.

Most suppliers of parts can be replaced - however when you're sourcing outwork services you enter into a relationship with your supplier that goes beyond a straight customer / supplier dynamic.




Introducing Embrace Design who have provided all the CNC and laser cutting and engraving services for the cases for my amplifiers.

The service doesn't stop there however. Henri has been a rich source of suggestions and ideas and has been completely cooperative in working with me to get exactly the look and aesthetics I have been looking for, as well as a good emergency weekend source of fasteners and other necessities.

Much of the exterior appearance of my amplifiers is down to Henri's skill with translating the designs into reality.

Worth acknowledging here.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Continuous Improvement

The last amplifier I built (the Matariki) has been my Daily Driver for the last 8 months or so, and it hasn't given me any problems...


The Matariki in service (Vinyl: Jozef Van Wissem - soundtrack to "Only Lovers Left Alive" - signed on the sleeve)


...Except for a few "bad manners" that needed attention:

  • The amp has quite an inrush current thump and hum when the B+ relays close after the heater delay, the hum lasts about 2sec
  • The amp has a buzz through the speakers when the mute button is activated, this disconnects all the inputs, but since the first stage is a bootstrapped cathode follower, it has a very high effective input impedance.
  • The Hammond power transformer gets up to about 60ÂșC which is too hot to comfortably touch, after ~2hrs operation

So I'd filed these ideas into the "if I ever build this one again" bucket.

Fast-forward to Jan 2019. I was contacted by someone from an online entertainment magazine who wanted an amp to write up and review.

So I decided I didn't want to send this prototype because of the bad manners identified above. Audiophiles tend to be very protective of their speakers, and rightly so. Any amp that puts a thump and brief hum on power-up through the speakers would be disadvantaging itself from the moment the power was turned on.

Not Good. So the plan of building another Matariki was conceived, which would address all of the above "bad manners" as well as add a bit of bling (gold-plated speaker terminals etc)

The reason for building another one, rather than just retro-fitting this one, was that to fix these issues, either an ugly (and obvious) hack would be needed on the PCB, or else a new PCB made. Having already done the design work on the PCB layouts, I saw this as an opportunity to test them.

So. The new design incorporates a better soft-start circuit in the power supply which should avoid inrush issues (and this necessitated putting arc-protection diodes on the phase splitter too). Also I've got a bigger power transformer for this one that will be used at only around 60% of its rating. Even though the existing one is nowhere near hot enough to represent any danger, I just didn't like it running that hot. 

Download the new schematic - it is too large to display properly here.

I'll post photos of the amp when it's finished.

And then after it's reviewed, it'll be for sale. Which will be a test as to whether it's possible to sell hand-build valve amplifiers for a cost that exceeds the parts. Watch this space.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

A tale of two products...

... in which I make myself unwelcome at a high-end hi-fi store.

This is a personal experience which happened over a decade ago, but I decided to put it here because it's still relevant.

These are the two products in question:


Audio Alchemy Digital Transmission Interface, US$ 1600


Generic 10/100 8-port auto-sensing ethernet hub, around US$ 40 – 60 (at the time) depending on brand.


On the day in question, I walked into a hi-fi shop and the proprietor greeted me with a wide smile. This was a real high-end place where the demo systems are set up with speaker cables as thick as fire hoses, and just the rack that the system is sitting on has a five-figure price ticket.

We got talking (this was years before I started designing and building gear myself, I was just looking at buying a new pair of speakers which is what drew me into the shop). Pretty soon he had figured out my system and had decided that it would be improved by the addition of the top product, above.

While extolling its many and varied virtues, he inadvertently tripped himself up by completely inaccurately describing the phenomenon of jitter ... seems he hadn't read up enough on the technical manual that accompanied the product.

After a little while, I attempted to summarise my understanding of this product back to him, to show him I'd been listening. He was all ready to sell me one until I started asking some questions which led me to explain the function of the second pictured device...


Conversation went something like this:

"So, this machine will take a PCM data stream at 1.4 megabits per second (Red Book CD standard), store and buffer it, then output an identical data stream according to its own internal clock, which is carefully designed to be high-accuracy and not susceptible to disruption, correct?"

"Yes, and [long spiel about how that makes it sound better, yada yada]"

"And it's $2200." [That was the $NZ price at the time]

"Yes, possibly the best value enhancement you can make to a digital system....."

"OK, so what then would you say about a device that does this at around 70 times the data rate, and not for one but eight separate inputs?"

"Well the DTI represents the cutting edge of digital transmission design, so perhaps in the future something might be designed that could do what you say, but it would be a very high-end piece of equipment, so only the most serious audiophiles would require it, and that's assuming there'd ever be a digital recording standard that would utilise such a bit rate"

"So you're saying it'd be expensive then?"

"Something with over 500 times the processing capacity of this machine? Very!"

At which point I explained the functionality of the 10/100 ethernet hub, and then its price.

He wasn't smiling any more.

In fact, I got the distinct sense I'd outstayed my welcome in that establishment.


– This is why I don't go into high-end hi-fi stores any more. –