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End Of Year Research Paper

SAE Paris

Considerations In Transistor
Amplifier Design
Topologies, Component Choice, Power Supplies and
Quality vs. Price Considerations

Table of Contents
Introduction and History……………………………………. 5
Introduction………. ………………………………………………………………... 5
History……………………………………………………………………………….. 7

Part I – Amplifier Classes and Topologies……………….. 9

An overview of amplifier topologies…………………………………………….. 9
Class A………………………………………………………………………………. 10
Class AB…………………………………………………………………………….. 13
Class B………………………………………………………………………………. 14
Differential amplifiers…………………………………………………………….. 15

Part II – Operational Amplifiers…………………………... 16

An overview of operational amplifiers………………………………………….. 16
Stages of an op-amp……………………………………………………………….. 18

Part III – Component Selection……………………………. 19

Resistors…………………………………………………………………………….. 19
Capacitors…………………………………………………………………………… 20
Transformers……………………………………………………………………….. 21
Transistors………………………………………………………………………….. 22
Op-amps……………………………………………………………………………... 23
Other considerations………………………………………………………………. 23

Part IV – Power Supplies………..………………………….. 24

Topology……………………………………………………………………………... 24
Component choice………………………………………………………………….. 25
Construction………………………………………………………………………… 26

Part V – Fabrication and Assembly……………………….. 27

Introduction………………………………………………………………………… 27
PCB design principals…………………………………………………………….. 27
Component placement…………………………………………………………….. 29
Enclosures and grounding………………………………………………………... 29

Conclusion……………………………………………………... 30

References……………………………………………………... 31

Introduction and History


preamplifier has been one of the most important and
tools in all domains of the recording and audio-based
fields. Since the creation of the microphone, there has been a need to
amplify the tiny currents and voltages that are generated by the
microphone’s capsule. Without the ability to amplify a signal, there
would be no telephone service, no recorded music, no large concerts…
The preamplifier is everywhere. Whether we realize it or not, we
use them nearly every day – telephone, television, radio – and for
sound engineers, they are the base of nearly all equipment. While the
standard “microphone preamplifier” is probably the best known,
similar if not identical circuits are used in compressors, equalizers and
buss summing applications among many other circuits. The most
common compressor uses a special type of amplifier known as voltage
controlled amplifier (VCA), although there are several compressor
designs that use a topology almost identical to standard microphone
preamplifiers with only small changes used to add control of the
amplification via an external DC signal. An uninformed individual
looking at schematics of a compressor and a microphone preamplifier
side-by-side would have a hard time noticing the differences. The same
similarities are true for equalizers. The equalizer is nothing more than
a unity-gain amplifier with a resonant circuit in the feedback path.
While it is not the purpose of this text to describe in detail the
workings of compressors and equalizers, their similarities to a basic
microphone preamplifier are worth noting. The three schematic
diagrams below show very basic representations of a standard
microphone preamplifier (fig. 1a), a basic compressor without control
circuitry (fig. 1b), and a basic equalizer (fig 1c).

Figure 1a – A basic amplifier

Figure 1b – A basic compressor Figure 1c – A basic equalizer

It is also important to note that in the design of compressors,

gates, limiters, equalizers and active filters, nearly all the
considerations in terms of the importance of certain components,
printed circuit board (PCB) design considerations and the price/quality
issues are identical to those encountered in microphone preamplifier
design. As these topic areas are the most important and will result in
the final sound and “character” of a certain preamplifier, each section
will be covered in-depth.
The first section treats different topologies or “classes” of amplifier
and preamplifier design. Today there exist many classes of
amplification, though only several of these present the qualities needed
or desired for a good microphone preamplifier. Each topology has it’s
own strong and weak points. Each has hundreds of different “sub-
designs” attempting to correct a certain problem, or give the amplifier
a special character. The choice of topology results in certain
components requiring more attention than others, and so good
amplifier design requires a vast knowledge of the pros and cons of each
Since the final sound of a microphone preamplifier is based mostly
on the choice of components, an understanding of these – resistors,
capacitors, inductors, transformers, vacuum tubes, transistors and
operational amplifiers – is key to fully comprehending amplifier
design. Each component will be covered in detail to explain the
different choices available, special consideration for certain classes of
amplification, and traps to watch out for.
After choosing a topology and the various components, the
preamplifier needs to be assembled. While this may seem to be an easy
last step in the construction of an amplifier, much care needs to be
taken in the placement of the components on the PCB to achieve the
best performance of the final product. Choices in component placement
and general PCB design will be covered.
Since this text uses fairly technical language and diagrams, a
glossary of terms and symbols is provided to aid in understanding all
material presented.


Thehastruebeenneeda driving
for an easy and effective way to amplify small signals
force behind research and development of
amplifier circuits since the dawn of electronics. The greatest advances
came with the development of the telephone system; tiny signals from
a microphone needed to be amplified thousands of times in order to be
transmitted across the lines from the source to its destination.
The original vacuum tube (fig. 2) that could be used as an amplifier
was invented in 1907 by Lee
De Forest. De Forest created
Audion the device when he took an
existing version of the
vacuum tube that only acted
as a diode, and inserted a
wire between the two
electrodes. This new “grid
electrode” permitted to
proportionally control the
number of electrons flowing
between the two electrodes
Figure 2 – A prototype Audion tube from 1906
by applying a voltage to it. De
Forest named his new device the Audion. Improvements to the device
came rather quickly and by 1915 the American Irving Langmuir
created the modern version of the device which at the time was called
the Pliotron – now know as the triode – while working for the General
Electric company. The triode, and later the pentode, were the mainstay
of the telephone and radio industries until the next most important
discovery – the transistor.
The inventors and physicists working at the time were sure there
was a way to exploit the semiconductor properties of silicon to create a
device similar to the triode vacuum tube. Research at Bell Laboratories
in the United States finally paid off in December 1947 when William
Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain succeeded in creating an
effective amplifier now known the world over as the transistor. Today
the transistor is used in many more applications than simply
amplification. All modern electronics are based around circuits
designed around the transistor be it an automobile or a personal
computer. Because of its innumerable applications in today’s
electronics, many consider the transistor to be the most important
discovery of the 20th century.
The processes for electrically recording sound began to develop
around the same time. The first true system was presented by Bell
Labs in 1924, and bought by Columbia Phonographs Co’s and Victor
Talking Machine, the leading record companies at the time. Both

realized the importance of the possibilities of the new recording system
that used a Wente condenser microphone, triode amplifiers and a
“rubber line” wax disc cutter. At this point, the number of
improvements and new applications of triode then transistor
telephone, radio and recording equipment became nearly impossible to
track. With the democratization of recorded music came a revolution in
devices for storing, transmitting and reproducing audio. Soon radios
and phonographs, and telephones were everywhere…
Preamplifiers in recording studios became the centerpiece of
quality and robustness. New large format consoles were built with
better and better preamplifiers integrated into the channel path right
from the start. These new advances were made possible by new
technologies and new materials. Bulky vacuum tubes could now be
replaces by transistors, which meant smaller packages and better
power performance, since tubes need their filament to be powered. This
led to more channels, and quieter consoles.
Outboard preamplifiers rose in quality as well. The success of
several consoles led manufacturers to make rackable copies of their
products for those who wanted a certain sound but had a different type
of console, or for those who could not afford a large console but wanted
the same lever of quality. Many new brands were born and soon no
single engineer could be familiar with every piece of equipment on the
market. This meant that several favorites from certain, well liked
brands. Some chose their gear based on the particular warmth, some
chose transparency, and others chose their preamplifiers based on the
way it interacted with a certain microphone.
By the 1970’s, hundreds of microphones and preamplifiers to go
with them existed. Engineers began creatively mixing and matching
mics and pres to create their own personal sound, and many engineers
were sought out specifically or the sound they were known for. Since
all engineers and producers had nearly the same choice of material, it
was through hours of use and an in-depth knowledge of what they were
doing that allowed so many to make a name for themselves.
More recently, the prices of well made preamplifiers and recording
equipment in general have made it possible for nearly any aspiring
musician to purchase enough equipment to make a quality recording
on a shoestring budget. While home and project studios may someday
become the most often used method for music production, for the
moment, the large studios with their large selection of microphones,
preamplifiers, large format consoles and pristine digital converters has
kept them at the top of the game.

Part I
Amplifier Classes and Topologies

Amplifier topologies – an overview

T he first amplifiers all worked basically the same way. Since they
all used vacuum tube triodes, there was a standardized approach
to amplifier design, and since it was a relatively new invention, no one
at the time was looking for a device with a certain “character”, but
rather the cleanest most effective and simplest design possible these
were “class A” devices. Though these class A amplifiers were the most
precise in their restitution of the audio signal, as we’ll see they are only
efficient to a maximum 25%, meaning 75% of the power needed to drive
the device goes to waste (with inductively coupled class A amplifiers, a
theoretical maximum of 50% can be achieved). While still widely used
in high quality preamplifiers and several Hi-Fi systems they have been
largely replaced by class AB, C and D topologies anywhere more than a
few Watts are needed.
The next item on the agenda was improving on power performance
and efficiency. A very large signal was needed to transmit a message
between two distant points or to drive a large loudspeaker, and the
preamplifier used to amplify the signal from the microphone was
certainly not going to provide the power needed to drive long
transmission lines. A new “class B” amplifier was designed to provide
the power needed with as little as possible going to waste. While this
new topology provides for efficiencies around 78%, the reproduction
was not as precise due to crossover distortion, a phenomenon we will
consider in the following sections. While we now have an amplifier
with greater efficiency, the crossover distortion is not acceptable for
microphone preamplifiers. The class AB provides one solution.
The class AB is, as one would infer, a cross between both the class
A and B topologies, providing slightly higher distortion than a pure
class A, and lower efficiency than a class B. In today’s electronics, the
class AB is the most common type of discreet amplifier circuit, discreet
meaning made from individual components on the PCB, and not
fabricated from tiny components stuck together in an integrated circuit
(IC) or chip. (NOTE: While all these classes of amplifiers can be built
around vacuum tubes just as well as transistors, we will not be
covering the use or application of tubes in this paper. They were
presented in the introduction because they were an integral part in the
development of electronic amplification. Due to needs based mostly on
power supply considerations and impedances, they require quite a
different approach in both design and assembly and will be left for
others to write about.)
While we have addressed both distortion and efficiency, another
very important topic is gain. The gain of an amplifier can be expresses

several ways; in audio circles, by far the most common is in decibels.
Another way to describe gain is with a simple factor (e.g. 1 volt in and
2 volts out gives a factor of 2), but since microphone preamplifiers can
often have very large gain factors they are not always practical, so the
decibel remains the preferred method. An example of how quickly the
gain factor can grow very large is a simple dynamic microphone
connected to a preamplifier connected to a mixing console. Let’s say the
microphone has an output of around 1mV, and the line input we are
going to use on the console wants 1.23V. A simple calculation shows we
need to amplify the signal 1,230 times to achieve the desired level. The
same value in decibels is 20log(1,230) ≈ 62dB. Decibels are also useful
in audio amplification calculations since their logarithmic progression
is a good representation of human aural perception.
The need for large gains (1000 times and more) lead most
designers to use a fourth type of amplifier; the differential or
operational amplifier. The operational amplifier cannot be defined as a
class of it’s own. In the following pages we will see that it is possible to
act as either a class A, class B, or class AB amplifier, while having a
topology of quite a different nature. The gain of a single class A
amplifier is limited by several factors – its power supply voltage, the
hfe (hfe is used to denote voltage gain in manufacturer’s datasheets. The
symbol β is used in equations.) of the chosen transistor, the desired
input/output impedances and the amount of negative feedback used.
The discussion of each topology in this section will address all these
factors. For a quick example, a simple class A amplifier using a single
transistor with a hfe of 200 and a 12Vdc power supply will not be able
to provide a gain of more than about 50 ~ 70, not nearly the 1,000+
needed for a usable device. This means that multiple amplifiers (or
stages ) will need to be connected in series to provide enough gain –
raising cost, distortion, and power consumption.

Class A amplification

B efore diving into the innards of the different classes of

amplification, it will be useful to know exactly what a “class” is. In
the section above it was mentioned that an operational amplifier can
“act” as either a class A, B, or AB while having a different topology.
The class of an amplifier is defined by the way the transistors used
handle the signal they are given, and the DC conditions around them.
These DC conditions are known as the bias of the transistor and
determine several factors such as the maximum input and output
voltages (clipping voltages), the gain, and thermal stability of the
amplifier. Poor DC biasing can lead to an amplifier with low clipping
voltages, low gain, high consumption and large variations in gain with
changes in temperature.

A class A amplifier is one in which the transistor or transistors
used for gain conducts non-stop, even while it has no signal present at
the input. To illustrate this let’s imagine a water faucet turned on all
the time, whether we need the water coming out or not. The advantage
would be no need to turn it on when we want some water, but large
amounts go to waste the times we don’t need any water. This image
can help to understand why 75% of the power used by the amplifier
goes to waste. Below is a simple class A amplifier. The exact name is
an common emitter (CE). It uses a single transistor, three capacitors
and four resistors (fig. 3).

Figure 3 – A class A CE amplifier

First we will look at the circuits DC conditions, or bias. The two

resistors R1 and R 2 create a voltage divider across the base of Q 1. A
transistor basically acts as a switched diode, so it is only capable of
passing electrons in one direction. If we look at a basic sine wave
moving up and down across the 0V axis it can be seen that there are
both positive and negative voltages. In order to get around this, the
base of the transistor is held at a positive voltage, or biased. The base
bias needs to be high enough so that the negative-going portion of the
input signal never goes below 0.7V. The reason for the voltage to never
go negative should be obvious, below zero, the transistor acts as a
reverse biased diode, and no current flows to the output, but where the
0.7V come from might be less obvious. Semiconductor devices such as
diodes and transistors have a turn on voltage usually around 0.7V. If
the negative swing of the input falls below, the transistor will “turn off”
or act nonlinearly inducing distortion.

Since we elevate the incoming signal with a DC offset, the output
will be offset as well. Since it is undesirable to send this on to another
machine, measures must be taken to remove it. This is the purpose of
CIN and COUT. These capacitors should be premium audio quality, since
many believe that poor capacitor selection can quickly degrade the
integrity of the signal. A second way to remove the DC offset is with
inductive coupling, meaning expensive transformers. While this is still
used in vacuum tube designs, it is vary rare in today’s transistor
designs. Capacitors act as high pass filters, and a large value is needed
to assure full audio bandwidth coverage, but too large and the
deviation from linear phase (DLP) becomes a problem. DLP means the
low frequencies are slightly behind the higher frequencies, which
muddies up the signal, and transparency and clarity are lost.
The idea of linearity is important in transistor amplifier design.
We want the output to be an exact replica of the input, only scales to be
about 1,000 times larger. Since most transistors have only a certain
region of linearity (if any), the base needs to be biased to work at this
point. If we know that a certain transistor starts to misbehave above
5V and under 1V, we will bias the base at or around 3V to have the
most linear swing at the input. While this is all well and good, anyone
with some experience in electronics will see that there are nearly an
infinite number of values for R1 and R 2 that could provide the desired
voltage. With a 12V power supply, we could use 3Ω for R 1 and 1Ω for
R2, or 300Ω and 100Ω, or 3kΩ and 1kΩ… So how do we choose the
correct values? Two new parameters need to be considered – the input
impedance of the amplifier and thermal noise.
Impedance is a complex subject and often misunderstood, the most
basic definition being a resistance that changes with frequency. In
audio circuits, good matching of output and input impedances is crucial
to the frequency response and level of a signal. Improper impedances
can lead to a filter in the high end of the audio spectrum and a loss of
level that needs to be made up by the amplifier. While an in-depth
discussion of impedance is beyond the scope of this text, we will
assume that for a microphone with an output impedance of 200Ω, the
ideal input impedance of our preamplifier should be around 1kΩ at
1kHz (remember, impedance is a resistance dependant on the
frequency it sees).
The thermal noise is another parameter to consider. Resistors
dissipate energy as heat. By resisting the flow of electrons, the resistor
acts in the same way a light bulb or electric heater does, transforming
the electrical energy it sees into heat. The bouncing electrons generate
thermal noise in the resistor that can actually be heard when
amplified. Since an amplifier immediately follows the input resistors,
too much thermal noise may dirty the signal at the output – the higher
the resistance, the more thermal noise.
Now the output must be considered as well. If this were a perfect
world, all we would have to do is set up the base bias of our transistor

and the output would be a perfect, amplified copy of the input. Alas
this is too good to be true – just as we need to consider the DC and AC
conditions of the input, the same must be done for the output. The first
thing we should look at is the maximum output voltage.
The input swings in the region we have chosen with R1 and R2, and
the output is expected to follow, but just as the input cannot go below
0V, neither can the output. Since we have biased the input to never go
below 1V, the output will never go below 0V either since it is simply
multiplied by the transistor. Next is the maximum voltage seen at the
output. Looking at the schematic, we can see a voltage divider created
by Rc and R e in parallel with the load RL. From these values we can
determine the maximum voltage across RL. Just as we considered the
linearity of the input, the same must be done at the output. At either
extreme of the output swing, the signal begins to be “squashed” and is
At this point, one might ask, “If the output is simply a copy of the
input multiplied by the output, how can the output be controlled?” The
answer lies in negative feedback. As we can see, the output of the CE
amplifier is the inverse of the input. If a small portion of the output is
fed back into the input, it will reduce the signal, thus reducing the
amplification. But negative feedback does so much more as well. The
transistor voltage gain parameter β mentioned above can vary wildly,
even within a batch of the same transistors! Lets look at how negative
feedback can fix this. If the gain of an amplifier circuit varies, the
output will vary, but the input does not change. Since the negative
feedback is a percentage of the output, it varies by the same factor. The
input receiving the feedback will be reduced by the same factor and
after being amplified the final voltage seen by the load remains the
same. This same stabilizing action helps prevent the output from
drifting with changes in temperature as well. As a transistor gets
hotter, more electrons are passed through the semiconductor material
and the gain goes up. Negative feedback corrects this just as does for
the variations in β.

Class B amplification

C lass B amplification is rarely used except in situations where its

inherent advantages (higher efficiency) outweigh the
disadvantages (high distortion), such as small radios or televisions.
Where the class A amplifier conducts all the time – even with no signal
present – the class B amplifier only conducts when it needs to. By
using two transistors the positive half of the incoming signal is
amplified by a NPN transistor, and the negative half by a PNP,
eliminating the need for a biased base. This leads to a small problem.
With our class A amplifier, we saw that there is a “turn-on” voltage for
transistors. When the incoming signal crosses 0V, there is a lapse

between the time the NPN stops conducting and the PNP starts. This
is known as crossover distortion and is shown in fig. 4.

Figure 4 – A class B amplifier

The two transistors also need to have their β values as well

matched as possible so that the top and bottom halves of the audio
signal are amplified by the same amount. Most common transistors
exist in both NPN and PNP versions, a very common example being
the 2N3906 and 2N3904 small signal transistors found in countless
applications. It was also mentioned that the β for a batch of transistors
can vary wildly, so each transistor needs to be tested to match as best
as possible with its complementary partner.
Since the crossover distortion of the class B amplifier is too audible
for professional applications, it will not be discussed any further in this

Class AB amplification

the most common class of amplification used today is class
biggest reason being its use as an output stage in
operational amplifiers. As the name suggests, the class AB amplifier
sometimes works as a class A, and sometimes as a class B. The diodes
D1 and D 2 across the bases of Q 1 and Q 2 provide a bias equivalent to
the turn on voltages of the transistors. Since each transistor is still
conducting all the time while the input remains below the bias, the
amplifier is functioning in class A. When the signal leaves the bias

voltage, one transistor will stop conducting, and the amplifier is works
in class B.
Combining the two modes of operation allows for a lower bias,
since a single transistor does not need to assure all the amplification in
both positive and negative directions. This means less energy is wasted
while no signal is present at the input. The transition between positive
and negative going voltages is assured by both transistors. The only
real nuisance to a perfect signal is the mismatching of the transistors;
since from time to time a single transistor will be assuring the
amplification just as with class B they need to amplify exactly the
same amount.
While amplifiers working as a class AB are the most common, few
topologies are used employing a purely discreet class AB amplifier. In
most cases, this kind of circuit is used as the output stage of an
operational amplifier. Since we rarely see this type of class AB alone
we will wait for the discussion on operational amplifiers to take a
deeper look.

The differential amplifier

differential amplifier does exactly what its name implies; it
the difference between two signals. For a sound engineer,
this should be seen as a huge advantage in a microphone preamplifier.
When amplifying the balanced signal of a microphone, a differential
amplifier inherently has twice the gain of a single ended amplifier.
Also, the output of a differential amplifier is single ended, so not only is
the signal amplified twice as much, it is also unbalanced for the
following circuitry.

Part II
Operational Amplifiers

An overview of operational amplifiers

T he operational amplifier or op-amp, is an active integrated circuit

driven by equal positive and negative voltage rails which uses tens
of tiny resistors, capacitors, diodes, and transistors. Op-amp integrated
circuits generally have eight or fourteen pin dual inline package (DIP)
housing, the fourteen pin version provides four op-amps in one package
without the offset control offered by eight pin varieties. All op-amps
have an inverting input, a non-inverting input, one output, positive
and negative power supply rails, and the eight pin version often has
two “offset adjust” pins which can be used with an external trim
potentiometer to null the small bias voltage, canceling the need for
inter-stage dc blocking, either with capacitors or transformers.
Operational amplifiers have forever changed the way audio circuits
are designed and manufactured today. The design process is now
easier than ever and many key parts of circuits can be replaced with
op-amps. Besides their phenomenal gain, good performance (for quality
parts) and low cost, operational amplifiers can easily fulfill tasks alone
that required many components before. Unity-gain buffer stages are a
common configuration for op-amps, and because they offer both
inverting and non-inverting inputs, they can be configured as unity-
gain, active polarity inverters.
While it is easy to praise the advances offered by operational
amplifiers, they are sometimes looked upon as too easy by circuit
designers. Today, with only a few components, a good quality
microphone preamplifier can be built, but in listening tests, they are
often described as “cold” or “dry” sounding. While listening tests are
purely subjective, these observations are understandable, since for
many years now it is known that certain transformers, transistors, or
discreet circuit designs largely influence the sound, and give the
preamplifier its character. Another way to integrate operational
amplifiers is to choose good quality operational amplifiers coupled with
excellent circuit design and top quality complementary components, as
in the schematic on the following page.
Many vintage pieces of equipment have their discreet operational
amplifiers replaced at some time or another by a NE5534 operational
amplifier. While it is arguable weather or not the difference in sound is
shocking or not, most industry professionals believe that the most
important parts of the circuit all work together, meaning transformers,
dc conditions, output stages, unity-gain buffers, as well as the
amplifiers, so that not one single component can claim to provide all
the character of a specific device.

Neve 83022EQ from 1981
All active components are either NE5532 (dual) or NE5534 (single with
adjustments possible) operational amplifiers.

Stages of an op-amp

O perational amplifiers are built in three stages – a differential input

stage, a last voltage amplifier (LVA), and a class AB output driver
stage. Each stage has its own importance and compromises to work out
at the design stage. In discreet op-amp design, meaning those made
from “real” transistors, resistors, diodes and capacitors, fewer parts
can often be used, as the gain does not need to be as important, and in
IC op-amps, many protection diodes and resistors need to be used to
prevent damage from static discharges and the like.
The first stage, the differential input, provides nearly all the gain
of the operational amplifier. The precise matching of the input
resistors, and the transistors used in the differential amplifier will
determine in large part the quality of the operational amplifier. The
input stage also determines the input impedance, and therefore most of
the equivalent input noise (EIN). This EIN results from the noise
generated by large resistors used in the input stages. Recent
developments have seen large input resistors replaced by special
current bootstrapping techniques, which allow for very high (and
therefore desirable) input impedances, and negligible EIN.
The is usually built with matched input transistors, in a
differential configuration with the collector and emitter resistors
replaced with transistor current mirrors as active loads. These active
loads further reduce the noise floor of the amplifier.

Figure 6 – An operational amplifier

Part III
Component Selection


Resistors are simple, passive components that are often taken for
granted by a designer with not too much experience, yet the choice
of resistors used in a circuit can be crucial. The resistor is an element
which resists the flow of electrons. While obviously the most important
parameter is the resistance in ohms, secondary values such as power
rating and tolerance can be just as
important. Since the value of resistance
is selected using calculations during the
conception of the circuit, we won’t be
covering values here. The value of a
resistor can be determined by the colored
bands around it, and the silver or gold
band at the end defining the tolerance.
Only 5% and 10% resistors have gold or
silver bands respectively. For resistors
with a higher tolerance (1% or 0.1%) the
color of the resistor’s body defines the
tolerance. Each color band represents a
number, and the last colored band is a multiplier (10n). The values are
0, black; 1, brown; 2, red; 3, orange; 4, yellow; 5, green; 6, dark blue; 7,
purple; 8, gray; 9, white. An example is a resistor showing yellow,
purple, red, gold. Decoding the bands gives 4, 7, 102, 5% – a 4.7kΩ
resistor with a tolerance of ±5%.
After its value in ohms, the tolerance of a resistor can be seen as
the next most important characteristic. The tolerance of a resistor can
be defined as its maximum deviation from the nominal value. If a
100Ω resistor has a tolerance of ±5%, its value can be anywhere in
between 95Ω and 105Ω. If the resistor is assuring a critical function,
such as delivering phantom 48V to a balanced microphone line, perfect
matching of the resistors is very important. If we are using two 5.1kΩ
resistors to distribute the phantom power using 5% resistors with one
at the minimum and the other at the maximum, there is a difference of
510Ω, which ruins the balancing of the microphone line and lowers the
common-mode rejection ratio (CMMR). The same can be said for any
resistors in a balanced signal path, such as those used for switching in
a pad or changing the input o low impedance.
When a resistor is to assume a critical function such as those listed
above, care needs to be taken to match them the closest possible. A
simple way to do this is to use high quality, 0.1% resistors in critical
applications. While on might ask why not all constructors use high

quality components, the answer is cost – 1% resistors cost two to five
time more than 5%, and 0.1% resistors can cost 100 times more. For
most products, the sacrifice in quality is made for substantial savings
in production costs.
A final parameter to consider is the power rating of a resistor.
When a resistor with a current passing through it causes a voltage
drop, the extra power is dissipated as heat. Simple calculations permit
a designer to determine the power rating needed for a particular
application. For the collector resistor in a class A CE amplifier with
VCC = 12V, RE = 1.2kΩ and R C = 4.7kΩ, the voltage drop across R C is
9.6V. Using Ohm’s Law, the current through RC is 2mA. Calculating
the power dissipated by the resistor as I×V, we get a value of 19.2mW.
The common power ratings for resistors are 1/2W, 1/4W, 1/8W and
1/10W. In this case, a 1/8W or 1/10W resistor will do, since the power
dissipated is only about 1/50W. In power amplifiers, some output
resistors need to dissipate up to 10W, in which case special high-power
resistors must be used.


After resistors, capacitors are the most common passive component

in audio amplifier circuits. Capacitors store a charge between two
electrodes in a dielectric material. Capacitors are values in farads, a
unit of charge. Capacitors can be both a blessing and a curse to circuit
designers. They make it possible to simplify design and lower cost, but
at the expense of both
bandwidth and distortion.
While many pro audio
manufacturers pride themselves
on using circuit designs without
capacitors in the signal path,
some of the most prized vintage
equipment uses many
capacitors in their circuits.
Many types of capacitors are
available to designers today,
from the most basic such as
electrolytic capacitors (those
blue cans) for values above
around 0.47µF and ceramic disc
capacitors (those little yellowish discs) for values below. Both types
exist in many different varieties ranging widely in price as well. For
electrolytic capacitors, several special audio types exist as well,
supposedly offering greater tolerance and thermal stability. Ceramic

capacitors come in many different forms based on their particular
substrate, each substrate having its own characteristics.
Capacitors should be chosen with extreme care because of the way
they can alter the signal passing through them. Most of today’s
preamps have several capacitors in the signal path, usually at the
input to stop the phantom power from entering the amplifier circuit,
and at the output of each stage to prevent the dc bias offset from
entering the next stage. This is known as “capacitive coupling” and is
partly responsible for the poor efficiency of class A amplifiers.
Besides their capacitive qualities, capacitors also have a reactive
component labeled XC. This reactive component acts as a resistor at
certain frequencies, or a high-pass filter . While it would seem
reasonable to simply use a vary large value to have a lower corner
frequency at 1Hz, there is yet another secondary capacitor effect to
consider – deviation from linear phase (DLP). A DLP means that the
low end of the audio spectrum is dephased or delayed with respect to
the rest of the bands. Since the signal leaving the capacitor is slightly
different from the signal entering, the signal is distorted.
As with resistors, one would expect all manufacturers to use high
quality capacitors in their products, but the high cost of good audio
capacitors often rules them out for mass produced consumer products.
Another option is to used balanced differential circuits, but these can
be difficult to design, and require more components than a simple op-
amp design. Another option is to use “servo” circuits to compensate for
the dc offset, but they require at least three external components, and
if cost is an issue, won’t be viable.


Fewer and fewer transformers are found in audio electronics these

days. They have largely replaced by integrated circuit substitutes
in balancing applications, and often the CMMR of these silicon devices
can be superior to mid and low quality transformers. These new
devices also have the advantage of being smaller, lighter, more
transparent, and much,
much less expensive. The
difference is that good
transformers, while
costing up to 100 times
more, impart their own
personality to the sound
passing through them.
Good transformers
usually have better
CMMR as well and provide a total isolation of the input from the rest
of the circuit. Transformers also block dc currents, such as the

phantom 48V, from passing into the following stages of the amplifier.
As mentioned in Part I, inductively coupled stages of a class a have
twice the efficiency as similar but capacitively coupled circuits.
Sadly, the high cost of well-made transformers often rule them out
of designers plans. Today, they are only found in expensive pro-audio
equipment made by companies who make no concessions when it comes
to quality.


Atorthemoreheartoftenof every transistor amplifier is its namesake transistor,

transistors. Silicon transistors come in thousands of
different varieties, each with its own flavor. The most common types
are bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) and field effect transistors
(FETs). FETs tend to be labeled as warmer or “tube sounding”. This
comes from the
nonlinearity of FETs
transfer functions which
slightly distorts the audio
signal. BJTs are often
described as cold, or
“transistor sounding”.
While this is often the
case, it is because good
transistors can provide
amplification with nearly
no distortion (0.001%
THD is not uncommon).
This transparency is often
labeled as “cold”. Metal
oxide semiconductor FETs
(MOSFETs) are common
in power amplifiers, but
rare in low signal level applications. MOSFETs are often less linear
that normal FETs and while this is not too much of a problem in class
D power amplifiers, it can sound unnatural in preamplifiers.
Good transistors are easy to come by, but as with good resistors
and high quality transformers, fewer circuits incorporate them,
turning instead to low cost, easier to integrate op-amp circuits. Still,
the best equipment is the best for a reason, and it’s often the attention
to detail, and no compromises in quality that lead to a professional


A s mentioned above, op-amps have largely taken over the task of

amplifying audio signals in our day and age. They are simple to
use, provide massive amounts of gain, and require few external
components. Something to mention here is that a circuit designed
around an operational amplifier is not necessarily worse than a purely
discreet transistor design.
Many of the most revered
audio manufacturers use
them throughout their
products. While there are
thousands of different op-
amps, only a few have made a
name for themselves in the
industry. The NE5532 and its
cousin the NE5534 have been
used in the most prestigious
consoles and outboard
hardware to have marked the audio engineering community. Even
today most hardware going in to have its discreet transistor op-amp
serviced will come out with a NE5534 instead.

Other Considerations

B esides the components making up the main circuit of the preamp,

all other elements that the signal passes through need to be
considered with care. Jacks and switches, relays and even the wiring
need to be the same quality as the rest of the circuit for the signal top
remain intact. If a $100 transformer is to be used, it would be silly to
have the signal pass through a $0.12 switch just after. Each element in
the audio path must be the best possible.
All components in a n amplifier could fail at some time or another,
so maintaining equipment is necessary. Capacitors can begin to leak,
and short circuit over time. It can also be necessary to replace
switches, potentiometers, relays and jacks. If a piece of equipment is
dedicated to being on the road, it should have wide-ranging
temperature components.

Part IV
Power Supplies


E ach type of amplifier need to be powered, and some require as

many as five different voltages plus their grounds. The signal
leaving an amplifier is generated from the power supply current, so
any ripples in the supply current will entail ripples in the output
signal. For the purest signal, a highly regulated supply is needed. This
is usually done with large capacitors and integrated circuit voltage
The mains current is fed directly into a power transformer which
drops the 120V or 230V mains to the level to be used. Common
voltages used in audio circuits are ±15V, ±17V, ±18V, ±24V, and +48V
for the phantom power. Many also use a separately regulated +5V for
LED’s and relays, since both these components can add noise to a
circuit. The most common configuration for professional equipment
requires ±15V for the operational amplifiers supporting the circuit
(servos, input and output buffers…), ±18V for the amplifier itself (such
as a discreet op-amp or discreet class A amplifier), +5V for the LED
indicators and relays, and +48V if phantom power is to be offered. A
common power supply is shown below.

The ±24V comes from a transformer that is followed by a bridge

rectifier – a configuration of four diodes – and then filter capacitors.
More filter capacitors are used after.
In order to have both positive and negative voltages, as well as a
+48V, most power transformers used in these circuits have both 120V
and 230V primary windings, and two 24V secondary windings. By
connecting two of the ends of the 24V secondary windings, and using
this point as the ground, one of the opposite ends of the winding will be
at +24V with respect to the new ground, and the other at –24V. The
two extremes will have a potential difference of 48V, which can be
rectified and used as the +48V phantom power.

Component choice

T he choice of components in the power supply of an amplifier is just

as important as the component choice of the amplifier itself. Using
poor quality components can deteriorate the quality of the electricity
the circuit receives to produce its
amplification. The key components
in a clean power supply are the
power transformer, the bridge
rectifier, the filter capacitors, and
the voltage regulators.
The transformer needs to be
able to supply enough current to
successfully drive the circuit. Power
transformers are rated in volt
amps, or VA. This is essentially the
same thing as a wattage, but since
there is no consumption of energy,
and thus no time duration involved,
the unit is called a VA. If a double
24V transformer is rated at 16VA, a single winding can provide
670mA, or 335mA into two windings or series connected windings. The
consistency of the voltage provided is important. A 24V transformer
should provide 24V. With lower quality transformers, the windings
may not be consistent, and therefore the output voltage will not be
consistent either – the fewer adjustments a filter capacitor or voltage
regulator needs to make, the better the final electricity provided will
be. Transformers also need to
be efficient, as some energy is
lost in the transformation. High
quality transformers are
consistent, efficient, and long-
The bridge rectifier of the
power supply “rectifies” the ac
current coming from the
transformer windings into a
single-sided current. A bridge
rectifier is made from four
diodes connected in a square pattern. Integrated bridge rectifiers are
common in today’s circuits, but discreet diodes have better cooling,
usually have higher ratings, and can be easily replaced.
The filter capacitors take the rectified ac and smooth it into a dc
current. They need to be a large value to ensure a stable dc current.
The capacitors filter by storing energy, and then releasing stored
energy when the supply dips. Since there is a small ripple even after a
large capacitor, several are used to filter nearly all the ripple.

Voltage regulators are used
after the filter capacitors to
remove any remaining ripple, and
to hold the potential at a preset
level. The voltage regulator acts
much in the same way capacitors
do, but are built using
transistors. One transistor is
used as a gateway for the current,
while the other acts as a resistive
load controlled by the incoming
current. A drop in input current
will open more the gateway transistor, and a raise in current at the
input will cause the active load resistor to lower the current, thus
stabilizing the output. Both negative and positive voltage regulators
exist, and they can be found preprogrammed in many voltages ranging
from 3V to 24V. If a specific voltage is needed, programmable voltage
regulators can be used.


P ower supplies can be built different ways – inside the enclosure,

inside the enclosure on the PCB, or in a separate unit. Since the
circuit can be a bit noisy electrically, the best equipment has external
power supplies connected to the unit with a shielded cable. This has
the advantage of removing a noisy source from the inside of the unit,
but is more difficult to carry around. More cable is needed as well to
connect the power supply to the desired equipment.
If the power supply is built inside the enclosure along with the
amplifier, care needs to be taken to shield the amplifier from radiation
from the power supply. The same is true for those built on the PCB
along with the preamplifier.

Part V
Fabrication and Assembly


A fter a circuit has been fully designed and simulated, and after
careful consideration of each and every component, a prototype can
be built to test and measure the real world performance of the
preamplifier. Listening tests will allow designers to hear the
characteristics of the schematics they’ve been drawing and make sure
that each component is the right one for the job. During assembly the
housing must be built, the grounding scheme worked out, the various
transformers placed, jacks installed, and the whole thing wired. The
quality of the final product is often judged by consumers based on look
and feel even before they hear what the device can do, so for the
designer, quality construction goes hand in hand with a quality sound.
The ergonomics of the equipment will also be put to the test.
Packing too many switches and dials in too small a space can make the
device hard to use. If a machine is destined for pro studios where many
artists come and go, repeatability will be a concern. Détented
potentiometers or rotary switches might be necessary. Most consumers
also react to too many flashy bells and whistles as extraneous, and
fancy displays can be nice but sometimes are seen as kitsch.
If a preamplifier is to be racked, it should be properly ventilated
incase it is surrounded by hot machines. Also in racked equipment, all
the controls need to be on the front panel, since accessing the rear is
not possible. Placing the switch for the phantom 48V on the back panel
means the engineers need to decide during installation whether or not
to have it on, and then it stays that way.
Clear markings on the front make it easy to read the dials and
values. While a black on black design can look stunning, it is hardly
practical in a dimly lit studio. Being able to tell if a switch is on or off is
also key. Un even pushbutton switches can be difficult to interpret, and
errors can be made. Marking at the rear exactly what power supplies
can be used, and including a switch for changing between 120V and
230V will make the machine usable in any situation. Using fuses that
are easy to check is also a good idea. Everything needed to make the
machine simple and fast to use are welcome by all.

PCB design considerations

Nocladpreamplifier could be built without its PCB. The PCB is a copper-

fiberglass board in which the traces used to connect the
different components are etched. The design of the PCB is extremely
important since it will determine the length of the audio signal path,

and the exact placement of all components. Certain components can be
“noisy”, meaning they risk polluting the audio signal is placed too close
to sensitive parts of the circuit. Power supplies are notorious for
dirtying signals and causing distortion. Several manufacturers have
taken to designing external power supplies to keep them as far from
the amplifier circuit as possible. Today’s manufacturing techniques
allow PCBs to have nearly unlimited layers of copper traces, meaning
the traces can be closer together, and the final product smaller. This
allows for very short signal paths. Other techniques for shortening the
signal path, such as using relays for switching pads, phases, and
impedances, mean the switches can be on the front panel, but the
signal stays where it needs to be.
In designing PCBs, care must be taken to avoid stray capacitance.
Two copper traces running side by side can act as a capacitor if the
potential difference between them is large enough. The stray
capacitance in traces acts as a low-pass filter, and if important enough,
can be noticeable. Ground planes and proper spacing must be observed
to avoid stray capacitance. Making traces too thin can damage the
signal as well. The tiny traces heat and act as resistors when too much
current passes through. Thin traces can also be erased by tiny amounts
of corrosion, or if frequently handled as in tours or rental services.
Solid PCBs are also needed in high stress circumstances.

Component placement

P lacing the components on the PCB requires knowledge in soldering

and good overall electronics construction. If the soldering is done
by a machine, such as a pick-and-place reflux system, the solder joints
need to be verified and electronically tested. Any poor solder joints risk
breaking easily, or can cause static if only momentary interruptions
The transistors should have free ventilation since they risk to grow
hot over long period of use. If the transistors get really hot, they should
have heat sinks installed on them.

Enclosures and grounding

T he enclosure should be connected to the ground at one point only,

with the option of disconnecting it completely if desired (i.e.
providing a ground-lift). This may help resolve buzz and hum problems
if a faulty ground is to blame. The enclosure has to protect the
components inside from dust, shocks, and any other environmental
hazards. If a piece of gear is meant for road use, it needs to have solid
rack ears, and easily accessible insides if a repair on the road is


I N CONCLUDING THIS PAPER, I would like to personally thank all who

were there to answer questions regarding the construction and
design of audio preamplifiers, and to those who provided technical
expertise in the understanding of transistors.
With many preamplifiers to choose from, each with its own
character and history, it can be useful to understand what is going on
inside and exactly what it is we find attractive or repulsive about a
certain preamplifier.
The future surely holds many new sounding surprises as well…


Analog Electronics – L. John Hardy, 1992 McGraw-Hill Publishing

Fundamentals of Power Electronics – Robert W. Erickson, 2001

Springer – Science

Transistor Circuit Techniques: Discreet and Integrated – Gordon J.

Ritchie, 1993 CRC Press

Operational Amplifiers – Gene E. Toby, Huelsman, 1974 McGraw-Hill


Printed Circuit Boards – R. S. Khandpur, 2005 McGraw-Hill

Engineering Press

History of Semiconductor Engineering – Bo Lojek, 2006 Springer