Tube Amp

I have dipped my toe into the world of tube (or valve) audio.  The first thing that I learned was that in general, tube amps are expensive.  It seems that the least expensive amps run about $1,000 US, and from there it seems the sky is the limit.

There are a number of less expensive Chinese versions floating around, most of the tube audio experts call them garbage.  Myself; I am not so sure.  There are also a lot of somewhat dubious claims made by the same experts about speaker cable, AC power conditioning and so on.

I was going to build a single ended tube amp based on the KT88 design found here:

That is a whole series of videos, eighteen in all I think, on the design and construction of a single ended KT88 audio amp.  If you have the time, well worth it to watch.

Then I decided that I really do not have a lot of time for that and I just wanted to try a tube amp and see if there is really that big of a difference.  Thus, I purchased one of the Chinese designs based on the RCA 829B tube, which is kind of exotic looking:

FU-29 Chinese equivalent to RCA 829B dual pentode tube
FU-29 equivalent to RCA 829B dual pentode tube

That is the Chinese version FU-29, there is also a Russian радиолампа ГY-29.  The good news is that there are lots of these tubes available for not too much money.  New Old Stock (NOS) RCA 829Bs run about $25-30 each.  A Ulyanovsk GU-29 (NOS) runs about $10.00 (made in the USSR).  Somewhat more rare are the 3E29 tubes, which were designed for VHF pulsed radar.  These are dual pentode tubes which can be run ether parallel (single ended) or push pull.  They were originally designed for VHF transmitters, but have been put into use in HF transmitters and audio amplifiers.  The USSR versions are long life militarized versions and designed for aircraft radar; flying upside down at Mach 2 in -50 C temperatures 18,000 meters AMSL…  My Russian friend tells me I am joking.  I am joking.

Reflector factory, 6N3P-E dual triode tube
Reflector factory, 6N3P-E dual triode tube

The driver tubes and phase inverters are 6N3P-E (6N3, 6N3P, 6N3P-EV, 5670, 2C51 or 396A can also be used) which is a double triode tube, made by Reflector in Sartov, Russia.  These tubes are also militarized long life versions.

Audioromy M828A push pull tube amp
Audioromy M828A, power transformer and output transformers

The Audioromy M-828A amplifier seemed like a good compromise between price, power and workmanship.  I ordered the amp from Amazon and it took about a week to arrive.  The first thing I did was take it apart and look at it.  I was expecting poor workmanship and cheap components, etc.   Overall, it seems to be pretty well made. There are two printed circuit boards; one for the power supply, the other for the front end before the two power amp tubes.  The power supply uses solid state diodes, which some view as a compromise to a tube amp design.  There are also several power supplies on one board; 460 VDC B+ for power tubes, 220 VDC screen supply, a -25 VDC grid bias supply, 12 VDC for the audio switching relay, +6 VDC for the driver/phase inverter filaments.  I like the idea of DC filament voltage on the driver tubes.

Audioromy M828A underside
Audioromy M828A underside

This amp is configured for push pull and rated at 30 watts per channel.  I will test all of that plus measure THD, frequency response and so on.

There is no manual, which I find a little bit annoying.  Also, there is a lack of a schematic diagram nor any instructions on biasing and balancing the tubes when they are replaced.

Being thus annoyed, I did some deep diving on the intertubes and found that some people had posted on how to re-bias and re-balance the thing after tube replacement.  There where also several modifications suggested.

  1. Replace the input potentiometer with something a little more substantial.  It does seem to be a little bit cheap and I do not like the notches in the volume adjustment.  I will do this mod.
  2. Replace the coupling caps with oil filled units.  Not so sure about this one, but I might try it just to see if it makes a difference.
  3. Install a bias regulating circuit using an LM317 voltage regulator between the output tube cathode and ground.  This seems like a good idea.
  4. Roll (replace) the input and power tubes with better versions of US made or Russian made tubes.  The input tubes are 6N3P-E tubes from Reflector (Sartov, Russia) which are already pretty good tubes.  I might replace the FU-29’s with a set of GU-29’s at some point.

There appear to be several schematic diagrams with slight variations based on the changes in design over the years.  Several designs have different input and phase inverter tubes.  Some have different power supplies, still others show no anode resistors or a cathode resistor.  This is the diagram for the amp that I own, which was produced circa 2018 or so:

Audioromy M-828A schematic diagram
Audioromy M-828A schematic diagram

Full schematic here: http://www.engineeringradio.us/blog/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/M828A_full.pdf

After all my investigations where finished, I put the amp back together and plugged it in.  I then ran my known CD’s though it and it sounded a bit rough.  I was a little bit disappointed until someone said that it takes about 10 hours or so for a tube to break in.  I connected it to my speaker test load (8 ohm, 50 watt resistors) and let it run for a day.

What a difference a day makes.  The second listen to the same CD proved to be much, much better.  There is definitely some coloration from the tubes.  A side to side comparison between my solid state Kenwood VR-309 amp and the Audioromy M-828A has the tube amp sounding much richer.  There is no real way to say it; it sounds full while detailed and clean all at the same time.  Playing though my homemade speakers, which are mid range deluxe, stringed instruments sound very detailed.  You can hear the pick hit the strings on an acoustic guitar.  You can hear the bow scrape across the strings on a cello.  It is unlike any amp that I have ever owned.

I am enjoying very much listening to Dave Mathews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther College CD as I am typing this.

Now, I don’t know what the difference between this amp and the $10,000.00 version of the same tube amp made in Canada, other than the $9,500.00 difference in price.

A few comments about this amp and the 829B push pull amp design.  First of all, since the screen grids are connected internally, there is no way to run this tube in ultra linear mode.  Usually, ultra linear mode involves taking feedback from the output (anode) or the output transformer and feeding it into the screen of the power tube.

Secondly, it is widely commented on that these amps are notoriously difficult to bias and balance.  One or both sides of the output tube will red plate due to over current.  I am hopeful the the LM-317 bias regulator circuit will take some of the difficulty out of this.  With an ordinary push pull amplifier, the balancing issue is taken care of with matched tubes.  Since both tubes in this push pull circuit are in the same envelope, getting a matched pair is not likely.  So, the tricky act of balancing the two outputs from the same tube will have to be carried out each time the tubes are replaced.  That being said, hopefully a set of those Soviet tubes will last for a long time.

One thing that I did do is make a bunch of voltage measurements and noted them on the schematic diagram.  If there are every any problems with this unit, having a set of base voltage measurements should go a long way toward troubleshooting and repairing it.

Finally, while the 829B is a rather exotic tube, it likely does not perform to the level of an EL86 or KT88 single ended design.  That being said, I have no problems with purchasing this amp and I am enjoying the toob audio sound very much.

Hearing test

This was on the Wheatstone news letter a few months ago. NPR has an interesting test to see if one can hear the difference between various quality .mp3 and .wav files.  There are six cuts with three versions each; a 128 kbps .mp3, a 256 kbps .mp3 and a .wav file in no particular order.

That NPR article can be found here: How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?

I listened to all of them and found the 128 kbps .mp3 was pretty easy to pick out.  On the newer material, it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the .wav file and the 256 kbps .mp3.  Keep in mind that most radio stations stream at 64-128 kbps.  Online music services like Pandora (64 kbps for free listeners, 192 kbps for subscribers), Spotify (96-160 kbps for free listeners, 320 kbps for subscribers) and Apple (256 kbps for everybody) offer slightly better quality, especially for paid subscribers.

It is too bad one cannot simulate 15 IPS analog tape.  I would bet that a well mastered recording on analog tape would stand out above anything even remotely compressed.

Others have compared streaming audio to analog FM audio and found that fairly high bit rates are needed to make the quality equal: What bitrate is needed to sound like analog FM?

One more thing to keep in mind, HD Radio runs 96-144 kbps on the main channel and 20-60 kbps on the sub channels.

Cable Porn

On occasion, the company I currently work for does installation work. Thus, I am always keeping my eyes open for new equipment and tools to make that job easier. The cable comb seems like it is just such a thing:

ACOM tools cable comb
ACOM tools cable comb

Instructional video from youtube:

Then there is this:

Which is simply amazing. It is described as “1320 Category 6 cables, dressed and terminated.”

Incidentally, there is an entire sub-reddit: reddit.com/r/cableporn for all those cable geeks that like to look at neat cabling work.

What bitrate is needed to sound like analog FM?

As it turns out, 300 kbp/s or greater.  At least in critical listening environments according to the paper titled Perceived Audio Quality of Realistic FM and DAB+ Radio Broadcasting Systems (.pdf) published by the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. This work was done by group in Sweden and made various observations with different program material and listening subjects. Each person was given a sample of analog FM audio to listen to, then they listened to various audio selections which were using bit reduction algorithms (AKA CODEC or Compression) and graded each one.  The methodology is very thorough and there is little left for subjective interpretation.

In less critical listening environments, bit rates of 160-192 kbp/s will work.

I made a chart and added HD Radio’s proprietary CODEC HDC, which is similar to, but not compatible with AAC:

System Codec Bit Rate (kbp/s)
HD Radio FM; HD1 channel* HDC (similar to AAC) 96 – 144
HD Radio FM; HD2 channel* HDC 24-48
HD Radio FM; HD3 channel* HDC 24-48
HD Radio AM* HDC 20-60
DRM30 (MF-HF) AAC/HE-AAC 34-72
DRM+ (VHF) AAC/HE-AAC 700
DAB+ AAC/HE-AAC 32 – 128
DAB MPEG II, Dolby digital 192 – 256
Blu-ray PCM** ≥6 Mbp/s
DVD PCM, DTS, Dolby digital >800
CD-A PCM 1,411
Web Streaming MPEG I,II,III, WMA, AAC, etc 32-320, 128 typical
iTunes AAC 128 – 256
Spotify Ogg Vorbis 96 – 320
Wimp AAC/HE-AAC 64 – 256

*Hydbrid mode
**PCM: uncompressed data

This is the composite Mean Basic Audio Quality and 95% confidence intervals for system across all excerpts:

digital-analog-audio-compar

Over the years, we have simply become accustomed to and now accept low quality audio from mp3 files being played over cheap computer speakers or through cheap ear buds.  Does this make it right?  In our drive to take something good and make it better, perhaps it should be, you know: Better.

Special thanks to Trevor from Surrey Electronics Limited.