Ok……I decided to sell amplifiers. One of the first things after having made a successful design and prototype was to make a website. Then the webmaster says I need to write up something for the “About Us” page. “What?!?!” I thought. First off, there is no “us”, just me. Second, no one is going to be interested in me, who I am, or what I am about. No one is really going to want to know about my meager education in electronics consisting of three years of technical school. My self education in audio, tube and solid state circuit designing. My audio journey of 30+ years, with all the DIY stuff, spending thousands of thousands of dollars on stuff I ended up losing almost as much as I spent on. All doing so chasing after something that seemed like it could never be caught.
I started asking my friends what they thought, what I should put here. Well, they all said they thought my story of how I ended up doing something I never thought I would, would be of interest of others. That, more than anything else, would be what others would like to know. But the more I thought about what to put here, I thought, “isn’t this just the same story with different places and different names?” In reality this is an “About Us” page. It is about you, and it is about me, it IS about US!! So here it is, My Story, and if we changed the names and places (to protect the innocent of course) this could very well be Your Story; except that I have an education that allowed me to go a few steps further in taking control of how my stereo system is making music.
The Early Years
I won’t bore you with all the details year by year, but you have to start somewhere so why not at the beginning. It all started way back in high school, when I was working at a restaurant as a dish washer. When things were slow, us employees would sit in this one corner booth back by the kitchen and talk. This old guy would come in, Mr. Mallard, and bringing in a piece of stereo equipment to sell. He talked of music in the most colorful way, and so I bought a used Pioneer receiver from him. Then he would bring in another a month or two later and offer to take my old one in on a trade for this more powerful, better piece of gear. So I did this over and over, upgrading/building a system; this, I had no idea, would start a quest that is still continuing.
The first big learning experience
Fast forward about eighteen years, I am newly married, and have a 380 watt per channel Carver amplifier, large speakers, and a Parasound preamp. For some reason I bought into the thinking that more wattage meant better sound, better dynamics and more realistic performance. After all, it was about more power for dynamic headroom. I also thought lower distortion measurements and other specifications on a sheet of paper meant things would sound better. I trusted what the sellers of audio said, the very ones lusting after my money. I can clearly see the conflict of interest now, but not back then. I also thought of the tube audio people as a cult, these guys that talked in this weird lingo about the music and things sounding warmer. I could not relate, what did temperature have to do with sound? I belonged to a camp that talked about technical aspects of the equipment. But it was said about Bob Carver’s amplifiers, that he voiced them to sound like tubes, so I wanted to try one, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on one, just to see if there is anything to this.
So I did what anyone with a computer in the mid 90’s would do, I did a search on the Internet. Up popped something very enticing, a small tube amplifier of not even 2 watts a channel that people were going on about being so nice sounding. It only cost, at that time, about $400.00, and attached to that site was a forum where you could write and talk to others. This was a first for me, I had never saw or posted on a forum before. Before long, one of the members of the forum offered to sell me one of his two amps, as he felt he really didn’t need mono-blocks with his speakers. I bought it and this little amplifier changed the way I thought about audio amplification.
Here I was with a little amplifier that made music loud enough to fill my room, and it sounded better than any other amplifier I had ever owned. It was the Decware SE84B. Along with this major shift in my thinking of what made good sounding music from my speakers, was a lot of anger, and disgust at the past and many existing audio manufactures. The sales people at audio shops would say the single biggest upgrade you could make to your system was more power. This, along with many other misconceptions, made me upset how there were people preaching this stuff as fact when it wasn’t. Two watts was bringing me more enjoyment that all the megawatt amps I had ever heard or purchased and owned. The truth is I was only using a few watts of all my previous amplifiers most of the time.
In a short time others were modifying their SE84B amps and soon the designer came out with a better version. So I started to modify mine. I put in some very expensive parts: in the power supply, a large Blackgate capacitor with two caps in one can, and some Teflon polypropylene coupling caps in place of the Wima ones. Every little thing seemed to make an improvement. So after having gone through school for electronics in the late 70’s early 80’s I knew something about tube electronics (Yes, they still taught tube electronics back then, and yes I am that old). But never had I thought that it would come in so handy, back then I thought it was something I would never use, like a lot of other things I learned in school. At this point though things were sounding very much better than I had ever heard them, and I was very happy, but something happened again to change how I thought of audio and changed my thinking again. I had developed this thinking that single ended triodes were king, either pentodes strapped as triodes, or triodes. I also thought simpler amplifiers were better, even if they were only a few watts. I was firmly against any sort of global negative feedback as this removed detail from the sound.
The Second big learning experience
Fast forward now to about 12 years, and Jerry Curtis is sending around one of his Spud amplifiers that he sells in batches in kit form. By this time I had developed into an audio minimalist, believing fewer parts and shorter signal paths was the way. I was firmly in the SET amp point source speaker camp, thinking pentodes just could never produce anything close to triodes. But still, a single gain stage amplifier appealed to me very much. I got the amp in my hands and it did some things very, very nicely which I had not experienced with triodes. However, I knew from previous experience that it could be made to sound the way I liked. I had grown to like detail, clarity, nuance, and I really craved a clean treble range (i.e. a splash of sound with cymbals). So I mentioned to Jerry how much I would like to modify this amp. He said go for it, and so for a month I held up this Spud amp tour modifying this single gain stage single ended pentode amplifier.
From modifying other amplifiers, to building my own designs.
It was at this point that I fell in love with pentodes. Most tube guys on the net didn’t speak very highly of pentodes, they were the outcast for the ultri-fi audio group, all believing in single ended triodes. But my own ears heard some things that I liked about pentodes, the treble was what I liked, the bass had more, for lack of better or any words, oomph. So I spent a year modifying other people’s Spud amplifiers, using their amps as my training ground, for which I was and am so grateful. I really don’t think I made any money modifying any of those amplifiers, as I spent probably a minimum of 100 hours on each amplifier trying all sorts of things. I read everything I could on the net, but not much existed about pentodes. So I bought as many old books as I could get my hands on, from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Each one would give me little nuggets of insight, and I learned something very important. Pentodes were triodes but with all the feedback inside the tube taken away. This had several advantages, more gain from the tube, but more valuable to me was that I could control the feedback externally.
The more I experimented I learned one very important thing: pentodes were entirely different than triodes. They needed different power supplies, they were easier to drive, and had higher internal plate impedance. I made a few Spud amps out of tubes like the 12HG7A, the EL84, and others that sounded quite nice. But soon I found that a simple driver stage really woke up their potential. One very important thing I learned, was that some distortions typically considered bad, were not bad at all. Some distortion actually made the music sound better. I would spend very long days making a small alteration in an amp and running back to my system and listening to what this did to the sound. I would listen to the same 30 seconds of the same song over and over, concentrating on one specific thing in the circuit and what it was doing.
I began to think of all the basic components of a tube circuit like a mobile hanging from a ceiling, with all these strings and wires attaching all these components together. You change one and the others slightly shift, so a careful balance was needed. I also learned that even in tube audio, and those feeling the way I did about SETs, have their own sets of misconceptions. I learned that you just cannot boil it down to “things” making good music, it is the combination of everything, the recipe that created the end result. People talk about system synergy, of components working nicely together to come up with a great sounding system, and although that is true it isn’t even as simple as that. In a tube circuit there is this synergy between all the components, and with pentodes this is both more complex and simpler. Pentodes and triodes were worlds apart when it came to designing them into amplifiers, and most amps just scratched the surface of what a pentode could do.
The straw that broke the camel’s back.
Then something very unexpected happened. At first, since pentodes have no internal feedback, like a triode, I added it back in with external circuits. The entire goal was to keep the treble and bass extension of the pentodes with lower distortion like triodes. So I continued to build pentode circuits, but lowering the distortion by three different types of local feedback, and one type of global feedback.
The fact that you can control the distortion, meant you could control the sonic signature and alter the way the music sounds. This had potential, because it could add back some things the recording process seemed to take out. A lifelike experience, the you’re there experience, music that sounded like it was real and no longer just a recording. I thought that reproducing the recording perfectly was unattainable for me, with my limitations, so I chose something I thought attainable. I found that adding back specific distortion actually made the music sound better. Because it was not doing so in a linear fashion the amplifier measured worse, but sounded better to me.
This though was not easy, because the balance in the circuit is delicate. I also discovered that smaller output transformers sounded better. Why? Because they produce better treble. The higher in frequency the amp could go the more nuance and texture to the instruments. This added to the realism. I quickly found that as they say, the devil was in the details. To have life-like music you need detail, gobs of it, as much as anything could give you.
Am I delusional?
At this point here I was, with no engineering degree in electronics, an audio nut that would do anything to get great sounding music. A broke DIY audiophile that made these amps that I thought sounded really good, and I wanted to share them to find out. But several questions came into my mind. Are these really that good or is it just me? Am I so proud as the creator of it that basically anything I make would sound good to me? So I talked a friend, who has a very nice system, into listening to one of my amplifiers. The response I got back was much more that I was expecting. This guy sounded like he experienced more than I did with my amplifier. So I sent him another, and I sent another guy one of my amps to listen to; so far all of them felt like I had something very special, and they could not believe I was getting this sound with the parts I was using. The decision had to be made: should I start selling these amplifiers? and how? If it were not for the input from others, including my wife, I don’t think I would have been able to make nearly as nice sounding amplifiers.
That brings us to now, the start up of this web page, and a new tube amp company. I don’t know if I am at the end of my journey to experience music in the way I crave, or at the beginning. I don’t think I am exceptionally smart; I don’t have the education or resources other have in this business. I have spent a lot of time trying everything I could think of. I have listened to far too many people and spent far more money than I should have in audio. I have been blown about by almost every craze in hi-fi audio that has come along, hoping that perhaps this one new thing will be IT. I have felt robbed, betrayed, preyed upon, lied to, and misdirected more often than not. But it is not I is it? Is it not WE?
I feel so very much like Sir Isaac Newton who said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” And who also said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Are my amplifiers the best you can buy? I certainly hope not, because then I would have nothing more to aspire to. I hope there is much more to discover, and I think there is. There is no hocus pocus here, there is no spiritual experience attached to these amplifiers, they are not Zen, or being at one with anything, they aren’t even based on quantum physical properties (that I know of). But they are intended to make music, but not necessarily faithful to the recording.
So I am making single ended pentode amplifiers, an audiophile making products for other audiophiles. There is one thing that I have found so true in this field, more money doesn’t mean better sound, but better design and quality does. Although in SEP audio more wattage does require more expensive parts, but it doesn’t mean they will sound better, just produce more wattage. Much of the iron I have in these amps is custom made for me, so it isn’t off the shelf. I firmly believe in some things like interleaved wound output transformers, and byfilar wound interstage transformers. I can’t say it is any specific thing that makes these amps sound the way they do, but how all the pieces are put together, that is what design is all about.
Owner and Sole Proprietor
La Dolce Audio