Simple Circuits: Turn a Tube Radio Into an MP3 Amp

Want to give your MP3 player vintage tube sound? You can with the proper circuits, an antique radio, and a little know-how. In addition to generating amazing sound, the design will be an eye catcher in your home or office.

Here I present excerpts from Bill Reeve’s article, “Repurposing Antique Radios as Tube Amplifiers,” in which he provides vintage radio resources, simple circuit diagrams, and essential part info. He also covers the topics of external audio mixing and audio switching. The article appeared in the May 2012 edition of audioXpress magazine.

Manufactured from the 1930s through the 1960s, vacuum tube radios often contain high-quality audio amplifiers at the end of their RF signal chain. You can repurpose these radios into vintage, low-power tube amplifiers—without marring them in any way or detracting from their original charm and functionality as working analog radios.

Wood-cased radios have especially good sound quality, and the battery compartments in antique “portable” radios (like the Philco 48-360 or the Zenith Transoceanics) provide perfect locations for additional circuitry. When restored properly, large furniture-style radios that were built for “high fidelity” (like the late 1930s and early 1940s Philco console radios) can fill a room with rich beautiful sound.

Simple Circuits

The simple circuits described in this article perform two functions. They mix an external line-level stereo signal (typically from an MP3 player or computer) and reference it to the radio’s circuit. They also use the radio’s on/off knob to switch this external signal to the radio’s audio amplifier.

There is not one circuit that will work for every antique radio. (Original schematics for antique tube radios are available on the web www.justradios.com). But the circuits described here can be adapted to any radio topology. All the parts can be ordered from an electronics supplier like Digi-Key, and the circuit can be soldered on a prototyping printed circuit board (such as RadioShack P/N 276-168B).

External audio mixing

Figure 1 and Figure 2 show some examples of circuit schematics that mix the line-level stereo audio signals together (almost all tube radios are monophonic), while providing galvanic isolation from high voltages within the radio. Figure 1 shows an inexpensive solution suitable for most table-top radios.

Figure 1: An inexpensive circuit for mixing an MP3 player’s stereo audio signals safely into an antique radio. None of the component values are critical. (Source: B. Reeve, AX 5/12)

These radios have relatively small speakers that are unable to reproduce deep bass, so an inexpensive audio transformer (available from on-line distributors) does the job. I picked up a bucket of Tamura TY-300PR transformers for $0.50 each at an electronics surplus store, and similar transformers are commercially available. Alternatively, the Hammond 560G shown in Figure 2 is an expensive, highquality audio transformer suitable to high-fidelity radios (like the furniture-sized Philco consoles). A less expensive (and fine-sounding) alternative is the Hammond 148A.

Figure 2: A high-fidelity circuit for mixing external stereo audio signals safely into an antique radio. (Source: B. Reeve, AX 5/12)

I use Belden 9154 twisted, shielded audio cable for wiring internal to the radio, but twisted, 24-gauge wire will work well. An 8′ long audio cable with a 3.5-mm stereo jack on each end can be cut in half to make input cables for two radios, or you can use the cord from trashed ear-buds. You can route the audio cable out the back of the chassis. Photo 1 is a photograph of a 1948 Philco portable tube radio restored and used as an MP3 player amplifier.

Photo 1: A 1948 Philco portable tube radio restored and repurposed as an MP3 amplifier. (Source: B. Reeve, AX 5/12)

Audio switching using the radio’s on/off knob

After creating the mixed, radio-referenced signal, the next step is to build a circuit that switches the voltage driving the radio’s audio amplifier between its own internal broadcast and the external audio signal.

Figure 3 illustrates this audio routing control using the radio’s existing front panel power knob. Turn the radio on, and it behaves like the old analog radio it was designed to be (after the tubes warm up). However, if you turn the radio off, then on again within a few of seconds, the external audio signal is routed to the radio’s tube amplifier and speaker.

The circuit shown in Figure 3 uses a transformer to create the low voltage used by the switching circuit. There are many alternative power transformers available, and many methods of creating a transformerless power supply. Use your favorite….

The next photos (see Photo 2a and Photo 2b) show our additional circuit mounted in the lower (battery) compartment of a Zenith Transoceanic AM/shortwave receiver. Note the new high-voltage (B+) capacitors (part of the radio’s restoration) attached to a transformer housing with blue tie wraps.

Photo 2a: The inside view of a Zenith Transoceanic AM/shortwave radio restored and augmented as an MP3 audio amplifier. b: This is an outside view of the repurposed Zenith Transoceanic AM/shortwave radio. (Source: B. Reeve, AX 5/12)

The added circuit board that performs the audio re-routing is mounting to a 0.125″ maple plywood base, using screws countersunk from underneath. The plywood is securely screwed to the inside base of the radio housing. Rubber grommets are added wherever cables pass through the radio’s steel frame.—Bill Reeve

Click here to view the entire article. The article is password protected. To access it, “ax” and the author’s last name (no spaces).

CircuitCellar.com and audioXpress are Elektor International Media publications.   

Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes

Want tips on designing electron tube amplifiers? Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes might be the book for you. The author, Rudolf Moers carefully details the science of hollow-state design as applied to amplifiers and power supplies.

The book is an Elektor group publication. So, I asked tube amp aficionado Richard Honeycutt to provide an unbiased review the book. (I asked him to do this prior to taking him on as a columnist for audioXpress magazine.) He agreed, and here’s the review, which is also available in audioXpress April 2012:

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, if you wanted to learn about vacuum tube amplifiers, you could read the Radiotron Designer’s Handbook, a 1,500-page behemoth that covered all kinds of vacuum tube circuits that were known at the time, and also included abundant information on passive components as well. Or you could use the introductory material and example schematics in the RCA Receiving Tube Manual—much shorter and less expensive, and also far less comprehensive. Of course, it did include data on most tubes then being manufactured by RCA. If you just wanted to build your own amplifiers, but were not interested in designing, there was the Mullard  Circuits for Audio Amplifiers. For a more scholarly approach, you could check out an electrical engineering textbook such as Analysis and Design of Electronic Circuits by Paul Chirlian.

Now, however, things are different. Although some of these references can be found on the Internet, they are no longer up-to-date. Happily, however, Elektor recently published Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes by Rudolf Moers, which presents a 21st-century perspective on the science of hollow-state design as applied to amplifiers and power supplies. Beginning with the principles of electron emission, the book progresses through standard vacuum tube varieties: diodes, triodes, tetrodes, and pentodes, after which it covers such general principles as frequency dependent behavior, non-linear distortion, noise, and negative feedback. The book concludes with a chapter on the construction of electron tube amplifiers. Unlike many of the earlier authors of books on electron tubes, Moers is not constrained by a need to cover such specialized tubes as pentagrid converters, or circuits specifically used in radio and TV receivers. Instead, he uses his 800 pages to discuss the physics underlying electron tube operation far more comprehensively than did any of his predecessors. He does this in a way that maximizes presentation of principles while minimizing unnecessary mathematics. In many cases, the physical explanations can be skipped over by those whose only interest is design methods. For the reader who does take advantage of the physical explanations, Moers’s inclusion of an eight-page listing/definition of mathematical symbols makes the explanations easy to follow.

The focus is by no means primarily on physics, however. None of the classic texts provides anything like so comprehensive coverage of the design and operation of half- and full-wave rectifier/filter circuits, or vacuum tube phase shifters, to mention a couple of examples.

Moers’s book assumes that the reader is familiar with basic DC and AC circuit theory, and therefore does not undertake the task of educating those who lack this understanding. The book is written from a scientific perspective in that, while mentioning the disconnect between measured and perceptual performance of an amplifier, the author makes no dogmatic claims about the relationship between the two, other than to opine that most of the “tube sound” results from harmonic distortion components that some people find pleasing to the ear. (Having followed this discussion for about four decades, your reviewer partially concurs, but believes that there are other elements involved as well.) The author lightheartedly introduces the quantity “cm2 of gooseskin/watt” as an example of a measurement of perceptual phenomena.

A consequence of Moers’ scientific approach is that specific catch phrases found in many amateur-oriented publications on tube technology are conspicuously absent. For example, it is difficult to read much about tube power amplifiers without noticing mention of the “Williamson amplifier.” This circuit was developed by D. T. N. Williamson and described in articles in Wireless World in April and May, 1947. It was unique in that it applied negative feedback around the entire amplifier, including the output transformer, thus reducing nonlinear distortion. Doing this required very careful design to ensure stability, including the elimination of interstage transformers such as the phase splitter transformer used in many prior designs.

Moers does not mention the Williamson amplifier by name, but the vacuum tube phase splitter design Williamson used is discussed in detail in the book, as is the method of designing a negative feedback loop encompassing the entire amplifier. Moers also gives a unique explanation of another pivotal power amplifier circuit: the ultralinear circuit invented in 1951 by Hafler and Keroes. It’s a case of content versus jargon.

In his otherwise excellent discussion of damping factor, Moers unfortunately makes the all-too-common error of ignoring the effects of voice coil  and lead wire resistance. He gives the common equation for damping factor: DF = (loudspeaker impedance)/(amplifier output impedance). Since the amplifier (modeled as an AC generator or Thevenin source), voice coil resistance, lead wire resistance, voice coil inductance, and reflected mechanical impedance form a series circuit whose actual damping is influenced by all elements, the lead wire resistance and voice coil resistance cannot be ignored. In fact, they can easily swamp the effects of the amplifier output impedance, at least for a pentode stage using negative feedback. However, Moers does not make the further error of insisting that the damping factor be a minimum of 100 as have some earlier authors. Using an 8-Ω speaker having about  6-Ω DC resistance, the effect of a combined output impedance and lead wire resistance less than 0.5 Ω is negligible.

Two shortcomings of Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes are more or less linguistic. English may well be the only Germanic language in which the verb in a sentence is not at the end of the sentence required to come. Thus syntactical intrusions from the author’s native language sometimes make the text difficult for native English speakers. Also, Moers has chosen to use terminology that is probably not standard in English (at least American English) books on electronics. For example, he uses the term “ anode static steepness” to denote “transconductance” (also commonly called “mutual conductance.”) A common-cathode (or “grounded-cathode”) amplifier stage is called a “basic cathode” stage in Moers’ book.

These three small complaints pale in the face of the outstanding job the author has done in bringing together the theory, design, and practice of vacuum tube amplifiers in a single volume. Anyone who wants to go beyond the Heathkit level of tube amplifier understanding owes it to him/herself to buy and study this excellent volume.

If you’re interested purchasing the book or learning more about it, click here to visit the book’s webpage in the CC Webshop.

Fundamental Amplifier Techniques (by Rudolf Moers), audioXpress, and CircuitCellar.com are Elektor group publications.

 

Voice Coil Parts & Production

Voice coils are essential elements in loudspeakers of all sorts. Thus, understanding how a voice coil works is essential for audio engineers and DIYers alike. The main parts the bobbin, the voice coil wire, and the collar. Mike Klasco and Steve Tatarunis of Menlo Scientific provide in-depth information about voice coils in the March 2012 issue of audioXpress magazine.

The parts of a voice coil (Source: Precision Econowind)

Klaso and Tatarunis write:

“The bobbin provides a rigid structure on which the voice coil wire can be wound and the collar can serve several purposes. It secures the coil lead-out wires, reinforces the bobbin, and provides a convenient material for diaphragm attachment … In some cases—headphone speakers, for example—a monolithic (self supporting no bobbin or collar) voice coil may be used. But this article will focus on the more commonly used bobbin, coil, and collar designs.

Loudspeaker voice coils are seldom considered critical elements that contribute to sound quality, and few technical papers have addressed this issue. But when designing a voice coil, the selection and application of materials can have profound effects upon sound quantity, quality, and power handling. The mechanical energy from the winding stack moves by transconduction through the bobbin and collar before reaching the diaphragm. Any non-linearities in this path are superimposed upon the response of the speaker. Intrinsic characteristics of materials such as internal damping and Young’s modulus create specific sonic signatures and contribute to the residual distortion spectrum of the transducer … In selecting a particular material, a coil winder makes important trade-offs on the winding process. Knowledge of these variables can ensure better, more cost-effective coils, avoid conflicts, and improve production yields. Torsional resonances, internal losses, and electrical conductivity of the bobbin materials are some of the factors effecting the distortion, sensitivity, and sound quality of the finished loudspeaker.”

A close-up view of both a good voice coil and a burned voice coil (Source: The Speaker Exchange)

You can read the entire article here. For subscription information, go to www.audioamateur.com.

audioXpress magazine, like Circuit Cellar, is an Elektor group publication.

 

DIY Audio Design with Tymkrs

With the growing popularity of embedded design kits and microcontroller-based platforms for rapid prototyping, it’s now easier and more affordable than ever for engineers, DIYers, musicians, audiophiles, and academics to customize electronics applications of their own. The March 2012 issue of audioXpress magazine will feature an interview with two DIYers—the duo behind Tymkrs.com—who do just that. “Atdiy” and “Whisker” provide details about Zombietech.tv, their design interests, and their recent projects. Here are some of their most interesting DIY designs:

  • SidCog Organ: Combine a programmable SID chip from the Commodore 64 and an old Hammond organ
  • Laser Audio Transmitter: Use a laser to transmit audio with a laser transmitter and a solar panel receiver
  • High-Impedance Preamplifier: A preamp designed with a JFET for loud and clean sound

Note: All photos courtesy of Tymkrs. The interview will appear in the March 2012  issue of audioXpress. audioXpress magazine (www.audioamateur.com), like Circuit Cellar, is an Elektor group publication.