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August 17, 2018

Octal OTL DIY Tube Headphone Amp

Another day, another headphone amp :) One of my life's pleasures is digging around on eBay for exciting finds, whether it be obscure vintage tube equipment or interesting/useful PCBs. This article covers the latter, a very nicely made PCB which features an octal (8-pin) tube OTL headphone amp circuit. Specifically, this is an Aikido input with a White Cathode Follower output, based on John Broskie's design. The circuit is designed to power most headphones, including those with a 32 ohm impedance. This is relatively uncommon with OTL headphone amps, which usually get along best with headphones ~300 ohms.

Top and Bottom of PCB

The tube compliment is a pair of  6BX7 or 6BL7 output tubes, a pair of 6SN7 input tubes, and a 5AR4 rectifier... because tube rectifiers are fashionably old school. Using all these tubes requires a hefty transformer, the 8.6lb.Hammond 272JX, which has a 5V, 6.3V and 600V secondary outputs. Yes, 600V, so this is not an amp for beginners. 

One can utilize the 6BX7 or 6BL7 tubes by switching two pairs of jumpers on the board, or the circuit can be configured to only work with one of the two tubes, but you can select between 32 and 300 ohm outputs using the jumpers. I personally chose the 6BL7 tubes and two different impedance outputs. 

One nice thing is that getting pairs of vintage 6BX7 / 6BL7 tubes is pretty reasonable ... $25-30 a pair for many different brands and vintages. Same for the 6SN7. You can get the GTB variants which are built to a slightly higher spec. For the 5AR4 you'd probably want to get new construction from Sovtek or similar. Guitar center is a good source. 

All the stuff on the BOM is of great quality: WIMA film caps, Vishay resistors, Nichicon electrolytics... all the good stuff. I ended up digging around the workroom to see what I had first... mostly Kiwame and carbon comp resistors, hand matched as carbon comp values can vary by 10% or more. Film caps are compact Panasonics. For the power resistors I think I went with Koa Speers as the Vishays were oddly overpriced on Mouser.

PCB populated with the smaller components

Ceramic tube sockets soldered in place

For the larger film caps, I wanted to incorporate some of the EVO oil Mundorfs. The sizing is tough, as the Mundorfs are fairly compact, but wide, and the chassis is about 3" tall, so some unique fitting was required. As most of the area underneath the caps on the circuit board doesn't have any traces running through it, I used a cutting disc and Dremeled away the area on each side... this would give an extra 1/4" to 1/2" height lost from the PCB and standoffs for extra clearance. I drilled a hole on each side of the PCB as well so a zip tie could hold each cap in place. 

The chassis I selected is from IAG DIY Tube Audio Products. He lists his chassis on ebay and on his website. Hand-made in the USA and built like a tank. The chassis gauge is relatively thick, but aluminum so easy to work with. I chose to cover up the pretty polished aluminum with painters tape to try and prevent any scratches.

Using a step drill bit to make holes in chassis

Using a Greelee punch to make the holes for the headphone outputs

Dremelled out area for IEC power inlet

I accidentally inverted the drawing when punching the holes, so we have an extra hole here. No big deal, it can be covered with a 1 1/8" Hillman hole cover.

Interior of the chassis

The populated PCB slips right in place. There aren't too many wire connections needed, just the transformers, pot controlled RCA input, and headphone output. Shielded Cardas 2 x 21.5 was used for the input and output (as they no longer make the 2 x 24 for some reason). I also wired up a pilot light to the 6.3V heater. The Hammond comes with a 115V and 125V primary. Typically you use the one that closest matches your house's voltage. As mine is 120V on the dot, I used the 125V as it didn't really matter. You dial in the voltage via the two adjustable resistors inside anyway.

When adjusting the 300V secondary, I noticed R24 was dissipating a bit too much heat and starting to smoke. Per the seller, R24 has been changed to 22K, so I went ahead and swapped that out. 

By default for a tube amp, I wired in a filtered IEC outlet, however these are incompatible with this design as there is a ground isolation circuit built in. Once everything was corrected, I ensured the secondaries were dialed in correctly, but was getting a high DC offset.

To be continued!

Please remember that building/modifying circuits can be dangerous to you and/or your surroundings and should only be performed by a certified technician. The owner of this blog and all associated parties can not / will not be held responsible if you attempt a build or modification posted above and cause physical harm to yourself or your surroundings. Many electronics contain high voltages that can kill, and mods, if performed improperly, can be a fire hazard.