Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Advice comes at a cost

This post is a bit of a rant, and also a warning to those embarking on this craft and seeking the advice of experienced or expert designers and builders.

No pictures in this one sorry.

I've debated whether to post this for a while, but recent events have compelled me to.

When I started this blog, I was completely new to designing and building amplifiers and valve gear in general. I was delighted to see all of the resources available on the internet, and I joined one or two of the more popular forums. After sitting and watching for a while, and reading as much as I could, I started posting up a few questions, and a couple of schematics I'd designed, to get some input and opinion from the wise and experienced folks.

The input and opinion I got was not quite what I was expecting or hoping for. In my mind I'd imagined that the experienced folks would be tolerant of – or even welcoming – to the newbie, and take time to give explanations or point to resources to further my understanding.

Instead I was the recipient of sarcasm, scorn and ridicule. Both on the boards, and in private messages. It became quickly apparent to me that the prevailing attitude seemed to be that unless you know all of the common topologies by heart, you have no business even picking up a soldering iron. 

My particular approach has been that I don't want to just find a schematic and build it, I want to understand how it works. I'll only build something I can describe the working of to another person. So I'm gonna ask questions... that's how you learn.

Besides the condescending remarks, another thing I had to contend with was opinion stated as fact. Some examples:

  • "Hammond Sucks. Edcor all the way"
  • "No audio circuit has any business using the 12AU7, it's so non-linear."

So one of the first skills I had to pick up was the ability to discern fact from strongly-held and expressed beliefs.

The next problem I encountered was a peculiar way of offering recommendations. The most recent example was concerning the use of a Constant-Current Source for preamp tubes. This particular recommendation was given to me in an email by another old-timer in a way that implied that any amplifier without a CCS is some kind of useless toy. When I questioned this, my question was taken as a challenge, and I received an insulting and profanity-laden email in return.

Here's the thing, though. If someone tells me I need a CCS - or any other such recommendation - they should expect me to ask why. This is not to challenge or disagree – but rather because I want to know the reasoning. I need to know if this is another opinion-stated-as-fact, or whether there is some basis for the recommendation. I want to know:

  • Why would I need a CCS?
  • What problem does it solve?
  • How bad is that problem?

This helps me build understanding and further my knowledge. I did not profess to be an expert in this area - it remains a hobby which I fit around a career and a family. I do strive to learn something from each project, and make each one better than the last.

To that effect, I have made a decision which I should have made back in 2016 and this is the reason for this longwinded post. From now on, I am receiving my knowledge from books, or the small number of personal sources I trust, and I recommend anyone else starting out do likewise. 

Either that or develop a thick skin against the attitude you're likely to encounter.

For my part, if anyone asks me for my knowledge, I'll happily share it without condescension, such as it is.





Saturday, 14 July 2018

PCB party

The demo amp is taking shape... the chassis is back from laser engraving and milling, the back panel is assembled, and the PCBs have been made.

Some photos for now.


The amp main board.

 About 10 hours design work went into this at the PC in several sessions. Then another hour on the exposure and etching (hooray for the new Etching Tank!) then about two hours on the drill press (I do this all manually and this one has about 346 holes) then about four hours stuffing and soldering.
  • The right-hand third of this board is the phono/RIAA stage. 
  • Bottom half of the left two-thirds is the Active tone controls
  • Top half of the left two-thirds is the gain and phase splitter stages



Flip side

The tubes are at 50mm spacing. As you can see it's a single-sided board. The unfilled holes at the bottom left (in this view) are for the phase correction in the NFB loop. These component values will be determined by experimentation



The total size of this board is 160 X 100mm (or 4" X 6.25" if you insist)


I'm using Soviet military NOS surplus tubes which I found a supply of. So this is configured for 6N1 / 6N2 tubes.


We also have a power supply. This one is a bit of a squeeze because I had a 100 X 100mm cutoff bit of PCB which I thought of using. Ideally it should be bigger but I didn't feel like cutting anything.

The supply contains my usual start-up delay (that's the IC and relay you can see) where the AC power to the rectifier diodes is switched on after about 25 sec, to give the tubes warm-up time. I've also got my usual 2-colour LED driver (it reverses the polarity to the LED when the B+ power comes on, turning the LED from Red to Green. I designed this in the last amp and I liked it, so I bought a few 2-colour LEDs and this can now be a permanent feature in my designs)



Touch the capacitor with blue writing and you'll jump across the room. These are 2 caps of 470µF in series (since they're only rated 250V and my B+ is 330). They have Balancing Resistors.



The cap lying down is too high to fit into the case upright. It's 47000µF at 10V, it's for the DC heater supply for the phono stage. The top right semiconductors are the schottky rectifiers for it (since I'm using the 5V secondary for this, low voltage drop diodes will keep my filament supply within voltage spec)


Loving how clean the tracks are using the new etching tank




Finally there's the chassis. The drilling and punching was done by hand on the top panel, since this is a one-off the setup time on the CNC would have been not worth it. If I am gonna make 5 of these amps then I'll CNC it.

The front panel is adhesive vinyl, laser-cut then peeled, and then there's three coats of clear lacquer to protect the vinyl letters.


Not all of the controls are installed yet.


This one will have a motor-driven remote controlled volume and the input selector is a Rotary Encoder which will cycle through the inputs, with indicator lights to show the selection. The knob will also push to turn the main power on. This is also accessible through the remote control, the perspex window for which is to the left of the volume control.


Around the back

The back panel, nothing especially amazing here. The lettering is laser-etched into the aluminium.

The transformers will be Hammond. 370FX for power and 1650E for OPTs.

More photos as the build progresses.



Thursday, 5 July 2018

Measure twice, cut once

It's been too long without a project on the workbench, and I've got a few leftover parts from previous projects. Plus, I happened across some NOS Soviet military-spec 6N1 and 6N2 tubes. It would have been a grave sin of omission not to do something with them.

So, the idea of building a new amplifier took shape. This one doesn't have a new owner waiting for it, but rather I'm making it as a demo unit. Idea being to use it to hopefully drum up a few orders and to test the market to see if I can sell it at a price that recovers the parts cost and makes a profit.

Topology-wise this will be a tried-and-true amp, I'm not breaking any new ground electronically with this one, but I am refining the construction as far as my skills will allow, and hopefully the results at the end will be worth the effort.

So, we're looking at (yet another) EL84 push-pull amp in ultralinear with fixed bias, a split-load phase splitter, preceded by a gain stage, the same active tone control as I've built twice before, and a Phono (RIAA) stage, again the same one as I made before.

This time, however, I've spent a bit of time on the board design. My photosensitive board blanks are 160mm X 100mm, so I decided to see if I could fit the RIAA stage, tone controls, gain and phase splitter stages, all on that board.

Several hours of editing on the PC later, and I had a design which has passed 3 stringent eyeball checks. I am happy to build it and see what happens.

Circuit-wise it's the same as the previous one I made but those were all on separate boards. Also in the Gain stage I've incorporated phase compensation in the NFB both on the cathode and the load resistor.

I'm even using the exact same chassis as the last one. So, the first job was to work out the component placement. 

So, I printed out my PCBs onto paper at 100% size and placed them in the chassis. Then I added the PCBs for the remote control volume, standby, and input selector (thanks Aliexpress!) Finally, the connectors and other things that go inside the case to complete the job. It's all a big jigsaw puzzle, and I find this the easiest way to visualise what the inside of the case will look like, and whether there's anything that'll need re-arranging.



Luckily there's enough room and I don't need to stand anything on its edge. This case only has 50mm height so this is good news.

So the printed board at top left is the RIAA / Amp / Tone Control board. That has 6 tubes on it in two rows of three, with 50mm spacing.
The sockets for the EL84s are next, proceeding clockwise, and the long thin printed board is the bias board. Same design as I've used previously each time.
then we have the volume control which will be mounted to the front panel. Continuing clockwise, this is a cardboard cut-out of the 9V transformer which will supply standby power for the remote control board, giving us the ability to turn the amp on remotely. Then there's the mains relay. 

The 100 X 100mm printed board is the power supply incorporating all the resistors and capacitors and usual power supply things. It also incorporates my usual 555-based startup delay with the driver for the 2-colour LED, like in the previous project. (It turns on red to begin with but then changes to green when the high voltage switches on)

The remaining two boards are the input selector and the driver board for the remote control receiver.

My next job is to score up the case and cut the holes needed, then make up the three boards.

I got tired of using a dish for etching boards, it takes too long and is a bit hit-and-miss. So I bought an etching tank with a heater:



The heater keeps the etchant at the correct temperature and should improve the process. When I get to making these boards, I'll do a video of it to publish here.

More entries as this build progresses...

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Hammond Power Transformer temperature problem

The last EL84 amplifier I built (with the phono stage, tone control and headphone stage) has a Hammond 370FX power transformer. It was noticed this transformer gets uncomfortably hot to touch after about one hour's use of the amplifier.

Being unfamiliar with how-hot-is-too-hot, I've adopted a cautious approach and ordered a higher spec transformer to replace the current unit. However this is a few weeks away (coming from Canada) so in the meantime I decided to measure the temperature rise to gain a deeper insight into the problem.

First thing I tested, before doing any measurements, was to pull the tubes from the headphone stage, thereby relieving the power supply of 44mA of B+ and 1600mA of 6.3volt. As expected, this resulted in a much slower heating up of the transformer.

With all tubes plugged in, the quiescent current on the B+ is 140mA
This is a centre-tapped transformer, so conventional wisdom is that in this mode of usage, the secondary should be rated at 1.2 times the desired DC current, which in this case would be 168mA

In the case of the 370FX the secondary is rated at 173mA

Assessment: OK


On the Low voltage side. the 6.3volt is rated at 5A and the total draw on it is 5.2A so a little over (by 5%)

Assessment: Not ideal
(The replacement unit ordered has an extra 1000mA there).


So. Down to the measurements. I ordered a digital pyrometer (infrared surface temperature measurement gun) and when that arrived, I ran the amplifier for 3 hours, measuring the surface temperature on the top of the transformer, every 5 minutes.


(Posed photo. Te measurement target shown was not the actual measurement location due to radiant heat from the output tubes).


Over the three hours, this was the result:



The measurements were made each time at the same spot on the top of the transformer, from the same distance.

After around 45-50 mins the transformer became uncomfortably hot to touch if resting the hand on it. This corresponded to a temp of mid-to-high 40s. Once the temperature was in the low to mid 50s it became uncomfortable even to a fingertip.

Conclusions

1) This is an unscientific test with a cheap uncalibrated instrument from AliExpress. I have some confidence in it because the baseline temperature reported (22ºC) at zero minutes was exactly the ambient temperature in the room reported by multiple other thermometers.

2) Electronic components are rated at 105ºC. I do not know what the temperature difference between the windings and and the outside of the transformer would be, so I am going to make a totally wild and uninformed guess of 20°C. Therefore the windings are at around 80-85°

3) From reviewing others' experiences with Hammond power transformers, it seems a commonly reported phenomenon that they run hot. Therefore this transformer is behaving as expected, although it is causing considerable unease in doing so.

4) Because of my wild assumption in (2) above, I have no confidence that this transformer will be safe or indeed what detrimental impact sustained running at high temperature will have on it.

5) When the new transformer arrives and is installed, I will repeat the experiment.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

EL84 Amp II: Progress Post 6 – Listening Tests

With electronic construction complete the amplifier has been moved from the workbench to the listening room to get some initial listening impressions. 

The speakers it's running into are floorstanding KEF C95s from around 1990. Efficiency is quoted at 90dB. These are sealed bandpass.

The amp has 3 line inputs and one phono. So the source used for listening tests was the Chromecast Audio and my turntable with its Audio-Technica AT11 MM cartridge.

First up - the line input. An easy test. Passed with flying colours. The measurements on the workbench were showing around 15 watts power into the 8Ohm dummy load before any sign of clipping, and the THD was reading less than 1% rising as the power level approached maximum. So expected behaviour, in other words.

The EL84s are biased to about 8 watts dissipation, which at the B+ of 365V means 22mA. The cathode shunt I am using is 10Ohm so that's a reading of 0.22V at each cathode test point.


EL84s with bias adjusters

The topology of this amp is that the first thing the line-level input signals encounter is the Cathode Follower which forms the first stage of the tone control. This means the input impedance is around half a meg. So a very easy load to drive. Most amplifiers route the input signal to the top of the volume control pot, so the input impedance is effectively the track resistance of that pot, usually 50 or 100K.



Hum levels are acceptable. There is a barely detectable hum if pressing the ear to the front of the speaker cabinet when no music is playing. However since I don't know anyone who would use the amplifier in this manner, I'm not going to allow myself to get too worried about it.

Sound quality assessed subjectively is clean, pleasantly detailed, no trace of any distortion or harshness in the treble, and with plenty of power to the bass. I would be happy having this sound quality as my daily driver.

The tone control behaved exactly as the previous build of this circuit, this is the second time I've built this one.

The phono stage however was not such a stellar performer.

The only problem with this one is an unacceptable level of hum. This is normal with phono stages and simply indicates a signal grounding problem somewhere.

Other than the hum, the RIAA stage sounded well. So I am confident some simple experimentation with the earthing will resolve the hum.

I tested the RIAA compliance on the workbench and found it to be within 1dB from 45Hz to 15KHz. This is acceptable.



One aspect of this build I am less happy with is the power transformer.

This is a Hammond 370FX and it's loaded to its rate current. Around 140mA DC load on the B+ and around 5A load on the 6.3v

However this transformer runs hot. After 30 mins run time it's noticeably warm and after 60 mins you can touch it but if you wrap your hand around it, you'll want to remove it after 3 or 4 seconds.

I found a few discussions on DIYAudio commenting about the heat output of these transformers, and to be honest it makes me reluctant to use them again, either that or I'll be sure to apply a generous de-rating margin next time.

Cosmetically I still have some work to do





The person who I am building the amplifier for has indicated his dismay at the power switch. Something with a chrome toggle is preferred. Finding something that will a) fit without fouling the adjacent EL84 socket and b) fit the existing 20mm hole, is going to be a challenge.

Secondly, on the right hand side, the hole in the front is for the remote control sensor. This needs to be permanently fixed in place internally and a piece of translucent white acrylic press-fitted into the hole.

Electronically I need also to arrange a mute circuit to avoid switching spikes going through to the speakers when toggling the speakers/headphones switch, and to avoid the open-circuit hum going through to the speakers when the switch is set to headphone (thus disconnecting the input to the preamp)

First order of business though: cure the ground-loop hum on the phono stage...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

EL84 Amp II: Progress Post 5 – Confessions!

It's been a little while since I posted an update on this project, and there's been a lot of progress, as well as one or two hiccups.

Thought I'd put up a few photos today since I've been taking plenty.

First up - I've had a few requests from people (offline, as well as on) for some photos of the PCB fabrication process. Since I took photos during the etching process of the power supply PCB, I submit for the admiration of sev'ral viewers [anyone get the obscure reference?] the PCB etching process in stages...


Etching is just starting



Copper exposed to the UV light is being slowly etched away


A few more minutes and it's nearly done


Finished! Ready for washing and drilling


The completed Power Supply board was already shown in the previous post, so these photos are a trip back in time *by popular request*

I did make up another little board though, by necessity. The motorised remote control volume control board I bought from AliExpress didn't work, so I had to buy another one, only this was a different type, and of course it needed a different voltage, that I didn't have to hand. 

I needed 9V DC for that board, which I also needed for the signal relay which switches the signal to the headphone stage. So necessity being the mother of invention, this was the result


5vac in - 9V DC out. 

A voltage doubler and regulator board. A couple of diodes, some capacitors, and a 7809 regulator. Plus a switch (on the other side) and on a board that's smaller than a SD card. 

So – on with the amplifier. 

First order of business was to get the top panel of the chassis ready. This involved a lot of measuring and drilling - the mounting holes for the boards and transformers, then the chassis punch for the valve sockets. A lot of swarf ended up on the floor during this process.



After getting the top panel ready, it needed to go to the laser etching workshop before I could do anything with it. This is to get the identifiers for the valves etched on - this design uses four different types, so it's important to know which type goes where!

Once that was back, it was time to begin assembly. Mounting up the transformers and sockets to the top, and circuit boards underneath. A delightful jigsaw puzzle, but everything fit together nicely and it was not necessary to utter any curses.


Transformers and output valve sockets in place



Starting to assemble the business end



All boards in place, ready for wiring up


Next the back panel needed drilling - this design will have four sets of inputs – three line-level and one phono, with the necessary separate earthing point. Also the speaker terminals will expose 4Ohm and 8Ohm outputs, and of course the standard IEC Mains connector.

Everything was mounted onto the back panel, just to make sure it all looked OK and didn't foul anything inside the case when in place (it didn't, so again, no cursing necessary!)

Then it was a case of removing all the terminals and sending the naked panel off to the laser engraver to get the descriptions and other vital pieces of information added to it.


The back panel, before laser engraving


Then, just because it would be remiss not to, it was time for a photo session


Front panel legend - this is a valid design technique and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!






Showing the bias adjusters and test points for the output valves (same design as the last EL84 amp I made)


So at the top of this post I mentioned one or two hiccups. This firmly comes under the category of "learning from mistakes". Those who are more experienced at this may choose to laugh at my misery if they are of a vindictive nature, or sympathise if they are more empathetic... but I screwed up the low-voltage side of this amplifier rather badly and it's going to need a rather ugly (and obvious) rescue.

I will disclose my thinking and why it didn't work here, in the hopes it might help someone.

Warning: There are no more pictures, and it gets a bit technical from here on.

So going by the previous pictures you will see there is a lot of glass here – 13 valves to be exact. This is because of the configuration - a RIAA stage, Tone control, headphone stage, and push-pull output.

Long story short, the amount of 6.3 volt needed exceeded the rating of the transformer. Plus, in a RIAA stage, it is preferable to run the heaters on DC. Handily, the transformer I am using (Hammond 370FX) has a 5v winding. So I thought I could run the RIAA stage off an arrangement like this - the capacitor is 47000µF













Then, to relieve the load on the 6.3v I thought it might be possible to run 3 more filaments from this arrangement, for a total of 5 12A*7 tubes running on DC heaters.

Sadly this arrangement was not suitable – the DC voltage dropped to 5.5V which is too low to run filaments on, plus that diode was running rather warm, to make an understatement.

If I removed all load from the DC except the RIAA stage, the DC voltage was closer to 6.1 which is tolerable. But this leaves me with the following problem:












The transformer is rated at 5A on the 6.3V winding. So, my original plan was to use the DC to take about 900mA of that load. Alas this plan did not work so now I need to find around 1000mA of 6.3v ac from somewhere.

Worse, I also discovered that the tracks on the PCB I'd set up for the 6.3vac were not thick enough for the 5A load. They were dropping around 0.44v which at 5A equates to 2.2 watts of heat.

Having PCB tracks dissipating 2.2 watts of heat is a Very Bad Thing.

Clearly some thought and remedial action required!

The initial idea - swiftly dismissed - was to re-make the PCB with larger tracks. However in the end I opted to rework the connection to the EL84s so that they don't go through the PCB. That will save the board from burning up.

Only problem is that it will look ugly. It will work fine but I am not pleased.

Second problem. Where's that extra 1000mA of 6.3v going to come from?

Only one possible solution. A second, smaller, filament transformer.

As luck will have it, a transformer rated at 6.3v 1000mA was sitting in my box of spare parts. And with a small amount of re-shuffling, will fit inside the chassis.

However. It will add weight, and it will forever bear testimony to the error made in the calculation. So I am doubly not pleased.

However, the happy ending to this awful debacle is that it doesn't set the schedule back too far, and the amplifier will work completely as intended, and I do not need to re-make the board. So not a total disaster.

But definitely some lessons learned for the next project.

Here endeth the confession. 

Ending on a good note

Before the Great Filament Supply Disaster of 2018, I had the output stage and the amp board running and the B+ and other HT voltages were exactly where I planned them to be (so my high voltage design is fine, just the low voltage stuff I messed up!) and the amp was running with a signal source (=old iPod) connected, through a small pair of speakers. It sounded great, and the quick measurements through the oscilloscope with the function generator showed the response and power exactly where they were supposed to be. And there was no hum!

More later when the panels are back and more building is completed...

Sunday, 11 February 2018

EL84 Amp II: Progress Post 4

A bit more activity on the amplifier as time permits, and a few trials and errors later... we have a power supply board.

In the previous post, I showed the design. I made the board, using my new hand-made UV exposure box with 120 UV LEDs in it, and after etching and drilling, began to build the circuit.

I began with the low-voltage parts: the delay switch-on and LED colour reverser.

Long story short, it didn't work. Due to two errors on my part.
  1. I'd omitted the reverse-biased diode across the output of the 555 IC (which I've never used in previous designs, and thus far gotten away with. This time it didn't work)
  2. I'd accidentally used a relay with a 9V coil voltage instead of the required 5V for the LED colour reverser.
So, it didn't work. And worse, in soldering and de-soldering components to test it, I ended up stripping some of the tracks off the board.

So it was back to the design. Make up a new board that rectifies these omissions (I ordered a relay with 5V coil and of course its pin spacing was different)

So, a new board was designed and exposed, developed and etched.

I use the Mega / Farnell UV-sensitive boards, and Ammonium Persulphate as an etchant. These boards are not specified for this solution so while it works, it's very slow, etching a board takes around 30-40 mins. Of course during that time, the etchant bath cools down and the process slows as a result.

//TODO: Buy an etching bath heater!

Anyway, my UV exposure lightbox gives a much more consistent light than my previous approach, which frankly is too embarrassing to describe here. So the boards produced with it look a lot better.

After etching, it was to the drillpress to drill around 145 holes of various sizes, then back to the soldering bench.

First test was to stuff and solder just the components for the low voltage circuit. Make sure the revised delay switch-on and LED colour reverser was working.

Success. It worked as planned! This meant I could then continue to stuff and solder the rest of the components.

This is now done and the results are in the pictures.

Bit of a squeeze to get everything on the board - the size dictated by the chassis. During testing I'll be watching carefully for any heat stress


Closer view of the low-voltage switching section




Dimensions: 140 X 75mm, about the size of your smartphone



47,000µF - to smooth the DC heaters for the phono stage. Because bigger is always better


How clean is this?!


Next steps: Metalwork - case drilling - and a bunch of connectors to make up.