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Hybrid Headphone Amplifier

Potentially, headphone listening can be technically superior since room reflections are eliminated and the intimate contact between transducer and ear mean that only tiny amounts of power are required. The small power requirement means that transducers can be operated at a small fraction of their full excursion capabilities thus reducing THD and other non-linear distortions. This design of a dedicated headphones amplifier is potentially controversial in that it has unity voltage gain and employs valves and transistors in the same design.

Normal headphones have an impedance of 32R per channel. The usual standard line output of 775 mV to which all quality equipment aspires will generate a power of U2 / R = 0.7752 / 32 = 18 mW per channel across a headphone of this impedance. An examination of available headphones at well known high street emporiums revealed that the sensitivity varied from 96 dB to 103db/mW! So, in practice the circuit will only require unity gain to reach deafening levels. As a unity gain design is required it is quite possible to employ a low distortion output stage.

The obvious choice is an emitter follower. This has nearly unity gain combined with a large amount of local feedback. Unfortunately the output impedance of an emitter follower is dependent upon the source impedance. With a volume control, or even with different signal sources this will vary and could produce small but audible changes in sound quality. To prevent this, the output stage is driven by a cathode follower,based around an ECC82 valve (US equivalent: 12AU7).

This device, as opposed to a transistor configuration, enables the output stage to be driven with a constant value, low impedance. In other words, the signal from the low impedance point is used to drive the high impedance of the output stage, a situation which promotes low overall THD. At the modest output powers required of the circuit, the only sensible choice is a Class A circuit. In this case the much vaunted single-ended output stage is employed and that comprises of T3 and constant current source T1-T2.

Circuit diagram:
Hybrid Headphone Amplifier circuit schematic
Hybrid Headphone Amplifier Circuit Diagram

The constant current is set by the Vbe voltage of T1 applied across R5 With its value of 22R, the current is set at 27 mA. T3 is used in the emitter follower mode with high input impedance and low output impedance. Indeed the main problem of using a valve at low voltages is that it’s fairly difficult to get any real current drain. In order to prevent distortion the output stage shouldn’t be allowed to load the valve. This is down to the choice of output device. A BC517 is used for T3 because of its high current gain, 30,000 at 2 mA! Since we have a low impedance output stage, the load may be capacitively coupled via C4.

Some purists may baulk at the idea of using an electrolytic for this job but he fact remains that distortion generated by capacitive coupling is at least two orders of magnitude lower than transformer coupling. The rest of the circuitry is used to condition the various voltages used by the circuit. In order to obtain a linear output the valve grid needs to be biased at half the supply voltage. This is the function of the voltage divider R4 and R2. Input signals are coupled into the circuit via C1 and R1.

R1, connected between the voltage divider and V1’s grid defines the input impedance of the circuit. C1 has sufficiently large a value to ensure response down to 2 Hz. Although the circuit does a good job of rejecting line noise on its own due to the high impedance of V1’s anode and T3’s collector current, it needs a little help to obtain a silent background in the absence of signal. The ‘help’ is in the form of the capacitance multiplier circuit built around T5. Another BC517 is used here to avoid loading of the filter comprising R7 and C5. In principle the capacitance of C5 is multiplied by the gain of T5.

In practice the smooth dc applied to T5’s base appears at low impedance at its emitter. An important added advantage is that the supply voltage is applied slowly on powering up. This is of course due to the time taken to fully charge C5 via R7. No trace of hum or ripple can be seen here on the ‘scope. C2 is used to ensure stability at RF. The DC supply is also used to run the valve heater. The ECC82 has an advantage here in that its heater can be connected for operate from 12.6 V.

To run it T4 is used as a series pass element. Base voltage is obtained from the emitter of T5. T4 has very low output impedance, about 160 mR and this helps to prevent extraneous signals being picked up from the heater wiring. Connecting the transistor base to C5 also lets the valve heater warm up gently. A couple of volts only are lost across T4 and although the device runs warm it doesn’t require a heat-sink.
Author: Jeff Macaulay - Copyright: Elektor Electronics