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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Audiophile Components

Audiophile Components

Do audiophile components really work as claimed? 

Sometime people are so obsessed with audiophile grade components that if it is a normal component, it is not worthy to be used on their equipment. 

I’ve used a lot of non-audiophile components on my amplifier design. Most of them are at less critical sections of the circuit (I’m obsessed too, guilty as charged! But, I’m a partial believer!). My principle is, concentrate on those critical areas and prioritize those versus other not so important components. 

My priorities in electrical equipment building are: circuit design, tubes, transformers, power supply, capacitors, wire, resistors, and etc.  The front few will make a big difference but those at the end will matter at a lesser extent.  

The non-audiophile components I used most commonly are the white color cement type resistors. They’re easily available at 5W, 10W and 20W versions that are very useful on high power applications such as plate load, voltage dropping at filament or B+ power supplies, voltage regulators and etc. 

Are they that bad? I don’t really think so. With their extremely reasonable price, I can overrate them many times and lower the temperature of the components significantly that thermal noise will not be an issue, especially important when being used as plate load resistor. 

On the other hand, it’s time to bring out the LCR analyzer to measure the resistor. What? LCR analyzer? Why not just a multi-meter? Well, only LCR meter can measure the resistor inductance! What? Measure resistor for inductance? Yes! In order to see the frequency response of the resistor, you need to measure the inductance at high frequency to see if the value remains the same. LCR analyzer is a very useful tool especially for true blue advance builder. They’re not cheap but they’re definitely worth the price if you want to dig deeper into this path. 

Below is the famous Agilent E4980A LCR Analyzer that can be used for this purpose. 

LCR Analyzer E4980A
Agilent E4980A LCR Analyzer

LCR Analyzer E4980A
Agilent E4980A LCR Analyzer

A 1,000 Ohm cement resistor measures about 0.5uH at 100 kHz. So, on the impedance side at 100 kHz, it calculates to be 2pifL = 1 / (2*3.142*100k*0.5u) = 0.03 Ohm. Compared with 1,000 Ohm, that is nothing! Therefore, do you think it makes a difference? If it does, congratulations! If it does not, save your money and invest on those areas that bring better ROI! If you still are not convinced, perhaps I should do a impedance analysis from 10 Hz to 100 kHz for the cement resistor to check for impedance change in the audio spectrum, perhaps followed by a frequency response analysis too.

You don’t have to use a quarter Watt resistor that cost USD$10 a piece, unless you’re in those scientific research or NASA where that 0.01% absolute performance really matters to you. Worse case is that a coupling capacitor that cost over USD$500! What logic is that? Why don’t I just buy a high quality inter-stage transformer and get even better results? 

Don’t be obsessed with audiophile components. Those ordinary ones will work just fine, or even better. Some audiophile components manufacturers are just part time amateurs. They can’t really compete with true blue manufacturers (with high tech equipment and technology) that had built billions of parts for industry use and really paid attention to the design of their products, not just hyperbole! Of course, some can argue that mass production is all about low cost and cutting corners. This I can’t deny too.

So, what should one do now? Open your eyes wide and trust your ears, if possible, measure your components too!  One of the most obsessed components that I see now is audiophile capacitors. Don’t just rely on the look and what the manufacturers say! Not all capacitors are built equal. And not all expensive capacitors are as good as it is marketed. 

You can easily see how good it is with an LCR analyzer. The DF (dissipation factor) can be easily measured and it is directly impacting the frequency response/performance of the capacitor. It should be as low as possible and consistent across the audio spectrum (or more), same with the capacitance too where it should be consistent across all the frequencies. 

J&K Audio Design

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