Joys of Low-Voltage Audio: a journey begins

high-voltage lines

It turns out the world of low-voltage audio is a lot of fun, and I’d like to start sharing some of my journey through it.

I suspect everyone has a different reason for entering this world, lending each story a different color and set of priorities. Mine goes something like this.

Continue reading “Joys of Low-Voltage Audio: a journey begins”

Timestamps for KiCad footprints

I’m bulk editing a bunch of KiCad footprints (a.k.a. modules) in a text editor. Said footprints have a tedit field, which turns out is a hex-coded timestamp. This means to properly edit a KiCad footprint in a text editor, you should update that field when you save it.

A one-liner for producing a hex-coded timestamp in Linux bash is:

printf "%X\n" $(date +%s)

USBtiny on Debian

USBtiny error

I was able to clear a “Warning: cannot open USB device: Permission denied” error when using a USBtiny programmer on my Debian sid system by adding the suggestion at the end of this Adafruit page.

Specifically, as root create a file /etc/udev/rules.d/99-USBtiny.rules with the following single line:

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTR{product}=="USBtiny", ATTR{idProduct}=="0c9f", ATTRS{idVendor}=="1781", MODE="0660", GROUP="dialout"

The next time you log in, your USBtiny should work as expected.

You can confirm the ATTR{idProduct} and ATTRS{idVendor} values by plugging in your USBtiny and running dmesg (as root):

# dmesg
[404467.789928] usb 2-1.2: New USB device found, idVendor=1781, idProduct=0c9f
[404467.789930] usb 2-1.2: New USB device strings: Mfr=0, Product=2, SerialNumber=0
[404467.789931] usb 2-1.2: Product: USBtiny

Update (9/17/2018)

I received a new programmer that was identifying itself as “USBtinyISP” rather than “USBtiny”, and so the udev rule above wasn’t allowing user access to the new programmer. The solution was to add a new rule in the form of a second line to /etc/udev/rules.d/99-USBtiny.rules:

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTR{product}=="USBtiny", ATTR{idProduct}=="0c9f", ATTRS{idVendor}=="1781", MODE="0660", GROUP="dialout"
SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTR{product}=="USBtinyISP", ATTR{idProduct}=="0c9f", ATTRS{idVendor}=="1781", MODE="0660", GROUP="dialout"

AVA preamp chassis

AVA “SLR” remote controlled preamplifier chassis

A recent chassis redesign project I undertook for Audio by Van Alstine is now in production.

This project pushed “constraints as creative resource” to the limit. The client specified that the design language and elements from the product’s predecessor be maintained—down to the knobs, faceplate treatments, and typography.

The project brief revolved around electronic and industrial design work to bring the client’s preamplifer platform up to functional parity with current market offerings within a framework that fits with the client’s existing manufacturing capabilities. The result is a platform that is significantly more capable than what it replaces yet easier for the client to manufacture. It is also amenable to comprehensive appearance changes if and when the client deems the timing is right.

So while it might not seem there’s much innovation on the outside, there is a lot of innovation for the client on the inside.

Thoughts on balanced audio for hi-fi

Balanced audio was developed to fight noise and other issues common in professional audio contexts. But it was only a matter of time before high-end consumer audio companies picked up on it as a gotta-have marketing differentiator. Below I explore a number of issues any manufacturer should think about before deciding that they need to support balanced inputs and outputs in their consumer hi-fi equipment.

Balanced doesn’t mean differential

There’s a fair amount of confusion, or at least assumption, regarding what balanced audio is. The primary defining feature of a balanced topology is that output signals consists of two legs — a hot and a cold with identical output impedance — and inputs that differentially sum the hot and cold legs. This produces a net signal where any common mode noise picked up in the interconnection is canceled out.

The above doesn’t require that a balanced output be differential. The noise cancellation will work as intended if only one leg of the a hot/cold pair is driven, as long as the leg that isn’t driven is terminated with the proper impedance. Before you cry “Foul!” many classic AKG mics are configured this way.

So, a truly balanced output doesn’t need to be differential. Further, it’s expected that a truly balanced device will produce identical or nearly identical output behavior whether it receives a fully differential input or an “AKG-style” input. Contrast this with a topology that I refer to as “pure differential.” In a pure differential system, it’s assumed that both hot and cold are actively driven with differential signals all the way from the source to the system output (typically loudspeakers). This distinction is important in the discussion that follows.

Typical pro-audio style balanced topologies are useless for consumer hi-fi audio

A lot of line-level balanced stuff in the wild consists of a single-ended core with balanced to single-ended and single-ended to balanced converters on the front and back. This works well for professional sound setups where the main motivation is to eliminate E.M. noise and other issues resulting from long cable runs. But for consumer hi-fi, where cable runs are so short that E.M. noise pickup is negligible, this approach offers no benefit whatsoever. Worse, it likely introduces signal degradation owing to the additional balanced receiver/driver circuitry. In fact, the requirement that a balanced device produce identical output whether or not the input is active differential raises all sorts of constraints that mean the highest level of fidelity while maintaining pure balanced behavior may not be possible or practical.

Maintaining the highest levels of fidelity with a pure differential approach is much easier. Further,  a pure differential approach when implemented for the highest levels of fidelity may result in better performance than its non-differential equivalent. This is because a fully differential configuration has the potential to null even-order nonlinearities in the gain stages, something not true in general with pure balanced approaches. The problem with a pure differential approach is that it introduces use limitations the customer is not likely to fully understand.

Supporting balanced or differential audio gets very complex very quickly.

Will preamp inputs take only balanced/differential inputs or will there be provisions for single ended inputs as well? Supporting both potentially leads to a crazy lot of circuits and/or circuit switching.

Will outputs be both balanced/differential and unbalanced? Doing both probably means additional circuitry.

Will inputs and outputs be “truly balanced” or “pure differential”? Are you ready to educate your users in the proper use of pure differential devices?

Is it better to try removing the need to balance rather than use balancing to cover up the limitations of existing circuits?

The only thing balancing offers hi-fi, and then only when it is implemented as a pure differential topology, is the potential to null even-order nonlinearities generated by the electronics. Which is to say, any benefit seen by going to a pure differential setup means something in the system isn’t working as well as it could. This means you may be able to achieve the same benefit at much lower cost by optimizing your existing circuitry for better overall linearity.

Of course a pure differential topology will get rid of even-order nonlinearities even if they are small, and that might bring some added benefit after you’ve optimized things as much as possible. However, as with anything, be critical and weigh the costs. Directly following from this …

Is balancing line level signals worth it?

Running a pair of power amps differentially often results in better sound because power amps tend to be the most stressed devices in a system. They tend to operate more deeply in their nonlinear regions than other equipment. But you don’t need a balanced system to experience the benefit of differential amps — you only need to bridge your power amp setup. Note that many switching amp topologies are already bridged.

While it’s not uncommon for power amps to generate audible even-order nonlinearities in typical use, even-order nonlinearity in your line level designs may already be so low that turning them into a fully differential topology won’t give you any audible benefit. If there is a benefit, you may, as pointed out above, be able to achieve the same benefit at much lower cost by optimizing your existing line level circuitry for better overall linearity.

Are balanced systems still a thing?

There was once a lot of buzz (pun intended) in high-end hi-fi circles about balanced systems. But things have changed a lot in the last couple decades. What percentage of the market do the balanced-happy or balanced-sympathetic now represent? If it’s 10% or less, you will need to be become quite a hero in that circle if you’re going to make back your development costs. The alternative is that you have to commit yourself to convincing those outside the balanced circle that they need to get in. In deciding to do this, keep in mind that those folks abandoned the temptation at least once already.

AVA DAC MK 5 released

Berkeley investigates the DAC MK5

The new DAC MK 5 that I’ve been working on for Audio by Van Alstine has finally been released.

I am grateful to Frank Van Alstine for giving me the room to develop the best reasonably priced DAC I know how to design. The results have so far exceeded all expectations, including my own. We all learned a lot through the process of designing this unit, which is as it should be. Rapid prototyping turned out to be instrumental in exploring a number of early electronic design alternatives. Looking forward to the reviews!

Acrobotic’s ESP8266 Tips & Tricks

NodeMCU devkit

There’s a growing series of good videos covering ESP8266 Tips & Tricks on ACROBOTIC’s YouTube channel. The ESP8266 has become quite a darling in the IoT world, and a seriously cool community is growing around it.


NodeMCU devkit picture by Vowstar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

More KiCad modules

kicad-appicon-128

I’ve added a bunch of modules to my KiCad library. These have not yet been vetted, so approach with caution. Here’s what’s new or changed:

  • New library mfk-ipc-7351-diode.mod with:
    • mfk-SOD3716X135N (SOD-123 diode)
  • New library mfk-smd-not-ipc.mod with:
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT23 (Fairchild version of SOT-23)
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT23_213 (as above but with “BEC” pinout)
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT233 (Fairchild version of SOT-233)
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT23_2313 (as above but with “BCEC” pinout)
  • Changes to mfk-ipc-7351-transistor.mod:
    • Deleted mfk-IPC7351-trans-SOT65P210X110-6N_10mil
    • Changed silk width in mfk-SOT65P210X110-6N (SOT363) to 10 mil.
  • New part in mfk-vishay.mod:
    • mfk-Vishay-TSOP341xx-alt (alt version of mfk-Vishay-TSOP341xx)
  • New part in mfk-keystone.mod:
    • Added mfk-KEYSTONE-621

AVA adopts my audio module in new DAC and preamp designs

ava-silver

Audio by Van Alstine has adopted my discrete Class A audio module into two of their products. The Vision DAC uses the module in its differential anti-imaging filter and output stage and the Vision SL Preamp uses it for line stage amplification. The pair will be premiered at the Axpona Audio Expo in Chicago this weekend. Looking forward to feedback from the show.