Saturday, 28 July 2018

Build completed

The EL84 amp is completed and has been removed from the workbench and is now in the living room where it's been entertaining us the past few days.

This one went fairly well, however there were a few problems.

First, a few pretty pictures

This is the best looking amp I've made so far. Great care was taken with centring and spacing.

The translucent hole to the left of the volume control covers the IR detector

About the name

The amplifier is named "Matariki" which is in the Maori language of New Zealand. Literally translated, it means either "Eyes of God" or alternatively "Little Eyes". 

In more common usage, it is the name given to the Pleiades star cluster, when it becomes visible (which is mid-year, mid winter here) and has traditionally become associated with renewal, the Europeans decided to call it the "Maori New Year"

There was also a rare southern right whale which made an unusual appearance in Wellington Harbour recently, during Matariki, and the whale was thus informally named Matariki.
While all this was happening, I was designing this amplifier.
Hence the name

The case is aluminium, sourced from AliExpress, of the type I usually use. The front panel is 8mm thick, brushed aluminium. It required pockets being milled on the CNC from the back to accommodate the controls mounted through it.

The lights are 3mm LEDs but I decided I don't like the bulging appearance they give when pushed through the front panel, so we laser-cut some 2mm clear acrylic into 3mm circles, so the lights on the front could be flat and flush. They press-fitted perfectly and the look was 100% what I was wanting.

The STBY LED is red, and the PWR led is dual-colour, it starts red at power-up and then when the HT switches on after 30 sec, it turns green.

The power switch and input selector are a rotary encoder: push to toggle power, rotate to cycle through the inputs. 

Inside the case

Pic taken with phone under workshop fluorescent lights, sorry for quality!

Inside the chassis there's the amplifier mainboard, which contains 6 tubes and is the phono, tone, gain and phase splitter. To the left of that is the base of the output valves, the long thin board contains the bias and cathode shunt resistors, test points, and on the track side, the four trimmers for adjusting the bias voltage.

The green boards are bought-in components: input selector, mains switch/standby, remote volume, and microcontroller.

The power supply contains the usual array of resistors and capacitors needed to provide the various voltages, as well as the usual 30 sec startup delay timer relay circuit I always use.

The DC voltages provided by the power supply are:

+6.0V (DC heaters for Phono stage, rectified from the 5vac secondary with Schottky diodes)
-27V for fixed bias

In addition there's the standby transformer which provides 9vac at around 200mA to power the microcontroller and standby board.

Things that went wrong in this build

1. Phase splitter grid current

I have a continuous improvement philosophy in that each build needs to be better than the last. I don't profess perfection in any of these projects, but provided each shows improvement, I am happy.

In this one, I built it essentially to the same circuit as the previous, but owing to finding a supplier of NOS Soviet valves, I changed the circuit replacing the 12AX7 with 6N2 and the 12AU7 with 6N1.

This is where the problems began. The different characteristics of these valves meant that my original choices of operating points and voltages (I like to DC-couple the cathodyne phase-splitter) were wrong. I thought I knew how to work this stuff out, turns out I didn't, and the results on the scope were disappointing.

This was the kind of nonsense I was seeing on the output from the cathodyne

This was the output from the gain stage (yellow) with input inverted, scaled and superimposed (blue)

The initial gain stage was running into clipping quite badly as it went positive. This was disappointing; it meant that I was inducing grid current into the phase splitter and the gain stage couldn't drive it. If I pulled the phase splitter tube the waveform immediately reverted to an undistorted sinewave. Back to the drawing board to figure out what I'd got wrong.

This is how you learn. After some head scratching and calculating, I arrived at a set of voltages and operating points that - while not eliminating this problem - shifted it beyond the range of signal levels that I would need in this amp. So now at 28V p-p it looks like this

Which no doubt purists will jump all over me for, but I can live with it. We're driving EL84s here, so we don't need huge levels.

2. Gain Deficit

So subbing in the 6N2 in place of the 12AX7 resulted in lower overall gain, despite the two having on paper the same ยต

The result of this was that when applying 10dB NFB, it was taking something like 1.0 vrms (2.8v p-p) to drive it to full output. On quieter passages of music this meant that even at full volume, it was too quiet.

In the end, I had to reduce the NFB to around 7dB, a figure which according to some is worthless, the advice I had was to try for 20dB but realistically in this amp it would mean adding another gain stage.

This issue is unresolved in that I've left the NFB at 7dB but even at that level, you have to crank the volume control over more than expected. It makes me think twice about building this design again

On the plus side, it sounds absolutely wonderful, and it leaves me asking myself why I really need to add more NFB. Is it to satisfy some purist urge to get to the holy grail 20dB or what? I need to understand more about NFB - in this amp the bass is solid and tight, not flabby at all, and the sound is the purest of any amp I've built so far (to my uneducated 47 year old ears at least)

3. Low voltage timer delay and LED colour reverser circuit

In each of my amps I use the same 555-based startup delay circuit. It's based off a rectified 6.3 volt using a W02 rectifier which then feeds the 555

The output to the power relay is taken from pin 3 of the chip and also this feeds another small DPDT relay which reverses the polarity of the dual-colour LED. Except that this smaller relay when switched on, buzzes like a bumblebee for the first 4 or 5 sec, and I measured its coil voltage, it's only getting 3V which is weird because the 555 is being powered off the rectified 6.3 volt... somewhere there's a ton of voltage drop happening. 
Measured the positive pin of the rectifier, only 5VDC. That was surprising, I'd have expected 7.5 volt, even allowing for the 1.4volt forward voltage drop. Then there's the voltage drop through the 555.
So somehow I need to re-design this circuit for my next amp so that the relay coils are getting 5 volts. This is currently an unresolved, work-in-progress - I'll leave it like this for this one but re-design the circuit for the next one.

Things that went right in this build

This was the first all-on-one-board amp I'd made and it was successful. Everything worked exactly as expected on the first power-up. All the components fitted on the board, the board itself was a success (first project with the new temperature-controlled PCB etching tank) and the board looks fine (although there's no soldermask or silkscreen on it, it really is just single-sided naked copper tracks on FR4)
Likewise for the power supply.

The level of tidiness inside the case is better than anything I've achieved before, although I don't think I'll ever get to the level I am looking for... which is OK, because when you shoot for the moon you're not gonna hit it, but you will end up in the treetops, which is a whole lot better than being on the ground.

The level of aesthetic appeal on this one is better than any of my previous projects as well. I am completely happy with that aspect.

From a technical standpoint, on this build I'd designed the board to allow phase compensation into the NFB loop. This is because NFB produces high-frequency ringing which you can see on the oscilloscope if you put a 10KHz squarewave into the input. At the output you get something like this:

Nasty ringing through the NFB

The prescribed method to resolve this is to phase-compensate the NFB with resistors and capacitors, the values of which are determined by experimentation. After doing this, the 10KHz squarewave output now looks like this

NFB after phase compensation added

Which would again probably prompt some scorn and ridicule from purists, but it represents around a 99.7% improvement, which I am happy with.

Finally, one aspect I am well pleased with is the listening test. Subjectively this is the cleanest sounding amp I have built to date.

Remaining to do

The last steps before I can call this one finished is just to complete the performance measurements. Input sensitivity, Freq response, noise, and THD all need to be measured.

Thereafter, the remaining to-dos are:
  • Fix the Low-voltage 555-based circuit so the relay coils get 5v not 3v (or else just use 3v relays if they exist, that'd be a quick and ugly hack!)
  • Track down and understand the source of the remaining hum in the RIAA stage and modify the next design accordingly
  • Increase the gain so the NFB can be increased
When performance measurements are completed I'll post up the final project page.

Schematic as built

Click to enlarge. Might need to download / Save-As, to be able to read it

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