Ebay headphone amplifier kit

A while ago I bought the following headphone amp on Ebay as it looked like a nice small project. The included case and battery are also quite nice and the price was very affordable. A few weeks later the parts arrived in a very recognizable china envelope. In the package I found, exactly as pictured on Ebay, A nice looking PCB, a bunch of parts, a battery and a case. The first downside is the lack of documentation. There are no build instructions, making it a bit less nice for beginners.

All the values of the parts are printed on the PCB silkscreen and written on the parts whenever needed. So building it takes a bit of figuring out but is very doable. 2 issues arise fairly quickly though. The diodes have no anode or cathode marked on the PCB and the IC that is surrounded with diodes has the marking removed. I think it’s clear where this is going, I soldered all three diodes incorrectly and after correcting the IC got insanely hot in less then a second. Lovely.

WP_20160123_15_48_37_Raw_LI WP_20160123_15_09_23_Raw_LI

The rest of the PCB went OK to build, the parts are from a good quality brand and the PCB looks nice with the gold plating on it. The only issue where the diodes.


But now I’m stuck with a non working PCB as the IC that generates the voltages for the opamps is well, dead. After emailing the seller they couldn’t give me the schematic. So well, time to reverse engineer the schematic :)

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Tinycortex, part 3. Offline compiling

The MBED IDE is an online IDE, which is less pleasant if you want to work without internet or prefer your own editor. Luckily it is possible to export an MBED project and use an offline compiler. It can export to KEIL, GCC and a few others.

KEIL is a well known IDE now owned by ARM. They offer a free 32KB limited version and with the Tinycortex having 32KB of flash memory that limit is no issue. KEIL is Windows only and the unlimited version is quite expensive. A guide on exporting to KEIL can be found here. Because KEIL just works it’s the recommended way for offline compiling.

It is also possible to export to a GCC makefile which is especially nice for people using Linux or OS X.  An ARM compiler is required, the most used and free one being GCC ARM Embedded, which is being maintained by ARM employees. On a Linux system with make and the ARM compiler installed compiling the code is just typing “make” in the terminal. After a few seconds the output for the Blinkaled project you can find on my github is:

Sadly enough it’s not possible to just copy the generated .bin file on the tinycortex. With just the makefile the binary file isn’t checksummed. A small script in the “Tools” folder called checksum is used to checksum the file. Place it in the folder with the binary and run it with the command “./checksum filename.bin”. The checksum script is compiled for Linux, OS-X or Windows users need to recompile it using the command “gcc -o checksum checksum.c”.

Linux and OS-X users have to use the dd command to place the binary on the Tinycortex.

Tinycortex, part 2.

The last post described the dev board now called the Tinycortex. In this post I’m going to explain how to use it. All files can be found on the following github page. On this page you can find the hardware design files, a few scripts to make using them in Linux easier, a blink a led project that can be compiled offline and the pinout. The pinout of the Tinycortex is the following:


It has 32 IO pins, 3 UART, 2 SPI, 1 I2C and 8 analog inputs. It also has 1 LED and 1 button on the PCB for small tests and projects.

To use the Tinycortex in the MBED online compiler the MBED LPC11U24 can be selected. One header file needs to be included. It can be found on the github page or in the example blink a led project on the MBED website. After the header is added the pin names IC1 to IC33 and LED1 can be used in the code. Or you can import the blink a led example and modify that.

After compiling the MBED environment will generate a .bin file. To place this file on the Tinycortex connect it to the USB port with the ISP button pressed. Release the button after plugging it in and you should see a 32KB flash drive with one file, firmware.bin, on it. Remove this file and place the new .bin file on it. After that press the reset button (labeled RST) and the new code will be executed.

A tiny MBED compatible dev board

I like the MBED boards, they are small, fast and the libraries and community are great. The only downside is the price. The cheapest official MBED board is around 50 euro’s and some cheaper supported boards like the ST nucleo boards don’t fit in a breadboard. I wanted to make a small MBED compatible dev board that fits in my breadboard and costs a lot less then the real MBED boards so I can just leave them in a project without caring too much.

I decided to use the LPC11U24 as this is one of the two microcontrollers that is also used for the real MBED boards. I have had some bad experiences with the MBED libraries for the ST microcontrollers so I’ll stick to the well supported NXP one.  For the rest a SMPS 5V to 3.3V was something I’d wanted. A linear regulator would get a little bit too hot if more then 250mA of current would be requested from the 3.3V line. I also made everything SMD, including the pinheaders. It just feels a bit cleaner for me to have zero through hole parts :)

The end product looks like this and I shall call it: the Tinycortex, because I suck at making names:


It is even a bit smaller then the real MBED, has 32 IO pins and looks cute. What more to wish for :)

In the next post I will show the pinout and how to use it in case anyone makes one and for the people I gave one as a reference.

Measurement gear

After building a few project and with some of them actually working, always a pleasant suprise, I though it was time to invest in some gear to measure the stuff I build. Just listening is only so good of an indication if a project works like it should. After some searching online I found a second hand Creative E-mu Tracker pre USB sound interface.


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Weekend project, an oldschool preamp/headphone amp

My current power amplifier is very simple. It has 1 input, 1 output and 1 LED to show it’s on. Which was fine until I got a record player. This required me switching cables and without a volume control between the record player and the power amplifier the only volume I had was well, deafening. Time to build a small preamp with the following features:

  • 3 inputs, PC, record player and an extra one.
  • Volume control
  • Buffer build in so a headphone or low impedance amp can be connected.
  • 1 rca output to go to my power amp and 1 3.5mm output to connect a headphone, switch able.

I had almost everything laying around, a pre-build PCB for a headphone amp based on an LME49710 opamp and a LME49600, an enclosure that should just fit the components and a 2*12V transformer for powering the thing. Sadly enough the enclosure was just too small, the pre-build amplifier oscillated and got way too hot to be usable.

After a some cursing and a look in my random parts bin I found 2 OP07 opamps, precision opamps with specs more then good enough for a simple audio application. It’s a bit old and a bit slow compared to newer opamps but it should do the trick. I also found 2 perhaps older buffers. The burr brown 3329/03, now replaced by the, still manufactured OPA633 buffer. The specs are overkill compared to the OP07 but hey, 100mA output current, short circuit protected and a full power bandwidth response of 1Mhz. And that in 1988. The datasheet can be found here.

First step, breadboard it:


Well, that worked, no oscillations but it does look like spaghetti, luckily I had a PCB breadboard from Adafruit laying around.



Well isn’t that much tidier :-)

To make this a pre amplifier some things still have to be added, an input selector, a volume potentiometer, an output switch and of course a power supply. Fast forward a weekend and it’s finished. And I again got reminded that I should order enclosures instead of doing it myself as everything is as straight as the gay parade :-(




Ah well, at least I did a half decent cable job I’d say. The schematic is the one from the datasheet of the buffer, a simple non inverting opamp, in my case with a gain of about 4. Power supply is a simple 7812/7912 build. I was missing a few RCA plugs and will probably make a new back for it as the RCA plugs are way too close to each other. I still need to drill mounting holes for the PCB. The amplifier sounds nice and very clean and it has more than enough power for my 250 ohm headphones.

And an action show:


Now time to finish my tube headphone amplifier and see what sound I prefer :-)

Headphone amplifier power supply

The amplifier can run on a single 300V power supply. A downside of most tube amplifiers, this one included is the poor power supply rejection rate, or how much noise on the power supply ends up in the output signal. The White cathode follower has a fairly good PSRR for a tube amplifier but the ECC83 input stage has a poor PSRR. To test this in simulation I used a 310V power supply with a 1V 100hz or 10Khz sine wave on it. With no input voltage applies a 10mV sine was visible on the output at both 100Hz and 10Khz. This is about 100x less then the power supply noise or an PSRR of 20db. Compared to the 100db PSRR opamps can reach 20db is fairly low.


To make sure there won’t be a audible 100Hz noise from the power supply on the headphone the power supply has to be well designed. With 32 ohm 100db/mW headphones an 1mV 100Hz signal still generates 0.3nW, 30nW sounds like nothing but with 100db/mW this equals almost 40db, enough that it is audible. With 20db PSRR this means that 100mV of noise on a 300V power supply is hearable in some headphones. A standard tube power supply with a few big caps and resistors is not going to cut it here.

The better option is a regulated power supply, a bit like an 7805 or LM317 power supply but then running at 300V. As a normal LM317 is not capable of going up to those volatages without some tricks it’s time for an MOSFET follower. There are more then enough cheap MOSFETs that have no problems with 300V or more, even at 100 or more mA’s. Add a few high voltage zener diodes and a simple regulator is born.


After rectification and the big 47uF capasitor there still is 15Vpp of 100Hz noise at the input of the MOSFET. At the output with an 100mA load, just 40mV. As the tube amplifier uses about 50mA’s this power supply is good enough for the job. With different zener diodes different output voltages can be used making it a versatile schematic.

Tubes need to get warm and cozy inside before they start working so an 30 second delay was added using an NE555 timer and a relay that run of the 6.3V filament power supply.

An LT1085 was added to regulate the 6.3V filament power supply. After all the effort for a clean 300V the last thing we want is the tube filaments ruining our amplifier.


PCB’s where made for the power supply and ordered at elecrow in china. A few weeks later they arrived and building and testing a power supply was a piece of cake.

Everything worked as expected, the only issue is that I forgot a resistor that empties the big caps over time. Luckily the tubes use a constant 20mA per channel so when the power supply is in use this shouldn’t be an issue. The Eagle files can be downloaded here and are CC-BY-NC-SA licensed.

All tube headphone amplifier

As a hobby project I decided to build a tube headphone amplifier.

Why tubes you might ask, well, because they are awesome. Looking at efficiency, distortion etc transistors are vastly superior. But tubes are fairly simple to work with, look cool and it’s something different then all the opamp designs.


  • Can drive 32 ohm headphones
    • Some tube designs without an output transformer has issues driving low ohm headphones, as I also use normal 32 ohm headphones I need to have an amp that can drive them
  • Can drive 250/600 ohm headphones
    • As I also use a Beyerdynamic 990 pro with an 250 ohm impedance the amp also needs to be able to drive these headphones.
  • Low(ish) distortion
    • As it will be a tube headphone it’s impossible to get the ghastly low distortion figures that are possible with an opamp or transistor design. Still the distortion has to be low
  • Low noise
    • headphones tend to be extremely sensitive, 100db of sound with just 1mW of input power is nothing special. So the noise on the output has to be low, even 1mV of noise will be heard through some headphones.
  • Low(ish) price
    • It’s still a hobby project and I’m still a student. I can’t really spend hundreds of euros on an amplifier.

Circuit topology:

I want a fully tube design, not a hybrid design. Getting tubes to drive low low impedances like 32 ohm is not a problem with an output transformer. The downsides of output transformers is that multiple tabs are needed when you want to drive 32 and 250 ohm headphones, meaning they will have to be custom made. This means they will be expensive and hard to get.

An output less tube amplifier is quite common for headphones, designs using an 6AS7 or 6080 tube as cathode follower with half a tube per output are common. The downside is that the 6AS7 needs quite a bit of juice to get glowing, 2.5 amps to be precise. The other downside is the distortion. Simulated it went over to 1% at a 1Vpp output.

A better approach is using a so called “White cathode follower”. This is a topology that uses 2 tubes per output in a push pull configuration. This topology can deliver more current then an cathode follower and has a lower output impedance. It is a bit complexer and it requires two tubes per output but it has no problems driving an 32 ohm headphone. After a bit of searching online I found this schematic using an ECC99 tube per channel:


They claimed it can deliver 2V rms into an 32 ohm load. This is more then enough to generate over 120db of music. The other nice thing is that I had a few 6N6P tubes laying around. These cheap Russian tubes are very similar to the more expensive ECC99 tubes. I didn’t have an ECC82, only an ECC83, a tube with a much higher amplification factor.

Luckily this design uses some negative feedback to lower the output resistance, meaning the amplification factor is adjustable. After messing around a bit in LTSpice I came up with the following schematic:


It can deliver 45mA’s or about 3Vpp into an 32 ohm load or a massive 20Vpp into an 250 ohm headphone. 600 ohm headphones can expect a silly 42Vpp, which will fry most headphones with ease. Simulated distortion levels are low for a tube amp. About 0.3% @ 2Vpp in 32 ohm or 0.1% @ 10Vpp in 250 ohm. That looks good enough to try in real life.

The ECC99 design is designed by Menno van der Veen and found on his website which has a really nice tube preamplifier: http://www.mennovanderveen.nl/eng/ts-vv-2006.html

The real deal

Time to build up the circuit idea from the last post on a breadboard. I decided to use an LM317 and a LM2670. These are both fairly easy to get, inexpensive and available in a TO220 package.  There are multiple versions of the LM2670, for this application the –adj version is needed.

The schematic is as following:


The schematic is fairly simple and is based on the schematic from the LT3083 datasheet.

And a breadboard picture:


As Farnell forgot to ship me the low ESR capacitors I ordered I used normal ones, so I expect quite some noise. The schematic works as expected, I can change the output voltage between 1.2 and 7V and the output of the SMPS stays roughly 2V higher. All photos are takes with 3.3V as output in a 10 ohm load, 330mA current flowing. As I said in my previous blog the noise using this should be lower than just using the SMPS, let’s have a look if I am right:


The noise at 3.3V 330mA output are small peaks that are roughly 200mV peak peak. The peaks are very narrow and are in the MHz range. When we look at the frequency it’s about 260Khz, which is the switching frequency of the LM2670, no surprises there. These peaks are caused when the LM2670 switches the internal MOSFET on. Now have a look at the noise from the SMPS.


The peaks are visible again but there is something extra, a triangle waveform, this is the capacitor charging and discharging. This is so clearly visible because of the fairly high ESR from my rubbish capacitors

As this is a lower frequency noise then the short peaks they are not visible after the LM317. This is because of the ripple rejection of the LM317. At 120 Hz the ripple rejection is 80db, this means a 1V ripple of 120 Hz will be lowered by 80db, or 10.000 times. Any ripple of 120 Hz will be almost completely removed by the LM317. But the higher the frequency the lower the ripple rejection. At 250 KHz it is roughly 30db or about 31 times. This would still lower a 100mV ripple to just 3mV, but the LM317 is just not fast enough to do something about the peaks.

As I said in the beginning of the blog I used normal capacitors, 100uF electrolytic capacitors. I also added a 1uF film capacitor as they have a low ESR. If I remove the 1uF the noise almost doubled, adding a second peak, a big peak where the LM2670 switched the internal MOSFET on and one where it switched off. With better capacitors the noise should get lower but this already shows the difference a small good 1uF capacitor can make. The fact that it’s build on a breadboard doesn’t help for the noise either, but all in all a successful experiment.


Power supply ideas

Time for the first actual blog. I’m working on a lab power supply at the moment and I’d like it to be efficient but still low noise. The best way to make an efficient power supply is a switch mode power supply or SMPS. Making one with a variable output voltage is not too hard. The big downside is noise. If the SMPS uses a switching frequency of 1 MHz, something quite common with efficient SMPS’s, making it low noise is difficult. Not only you need a fairly big capacitor to get the ripple low, the capacitor needs to have a very low ESR, if the ESR is too high the capacitor won’t be able to charge in the short time it has with the 1 MHz switching frequency. A lower frequency helps a bit but achieving a low noise of something around a 1mV is almost impossible.

Cheaper power supplies use a linear regulator like the LM317. These devices have a low ripple and noise output without using expensive low ERS capacitors. The downside is the efficiency, with a 20V input and a 5V output at 1A a loss of 15 Watt is happening, meaning a big heatsink is required.

Why not combine these two, giving the low ripple of a linear regulator but the efficiency of a SMPS. making an SMPS that has an output voltage of 2 to 3 Volt higher than the requested output voltage would be great, this would only mean a 2 to 3 Watt loss in the linear regulator.

This kind of circuit is possible and called a tracking pre-regulator. An example of this is mentioned in the datasheet of the lt3080 or lt3083 device from Linear Technology.


Using the 10K and 200K resistor the output voltage is set to roughly 16.5V. But they also put a MOSFET in there. This schematic actually uses the threshold voltage of the MOSFET to set the output of the SMPS. The output of the SMPS is roughly Voutlinear regulator + Vthreshold. Using this schematic there will be a loss of 1.5 to 3V depending on the used MOSFET, much better then with just the linear regulator. The downside is the extra costs and more complex schematic because of the extra parts. The noise will be more then with just the linear regulator but much better then with only a SMPS.

It also works wonders in LTSpice, the LTSpice can be found here: http://sdrv.ms/13vRUDb

The SMPS in this schematic is an LT part as it’s from an LT datasheet. Linear Technology makes great IC’s but most of them are a bit expensive, the LT3680 is not different at almost 10 euro’s in singles. The schematic should work with quite some SMPS IC’s like the cheaper LM2670 from Texas Instruments. The LM2670 is also available in a TO220 package, great for a hobbyist. Time to order one and build it up!