I’ve always thought certain sound pressure levels need to be achieved in order to be engulfed in music. This effect is most noticeable when music comes from loudspeakers and that is because when sound is played at low levels, the perception is affected by ambient noise. Even late at night when things are quiet and you don’t want to disturb people around you, there is still noise. A clock on the wall, a pet, you computer, a cooling fan, some kind of noise will disturb your listening experience. Things are not the same with headphones though. You put it on your ears and outside world is gone.
There are plenty of good headphones on the market, giving good level of detail, good frequency response, and good sound-stage. But there are some drawbacks to using headphones. You will not feel the same impact and if you don’t chose your headphone carefully you will feel fatigue after long listening time. Another thing to consider is that with speakers you can move them around the room to get the response that most suites your tastes, something that you can’t do with headphones. This is way the amplifier that drives them plays a huge role in a headphone setup.
Everyone who has a passion for audio knows about the qualities of tube amplifiers. The problems with these amps is that they are big and heavy, pretty hard to build and operating at dangerous high voltages. This usually discourages most Do-It-Yourselfers. However Mark Houston built a headphone amplifier that is battery powered and it’s small enough to fit in a pocket.
Mark used Raytheon JAN6418 Tubes in his project. These miniature tubes are pentodes made in USA and you can find them in a kit sold by Oatley Electronics. The amplifiers uses one tube per channel in common cathode configuration followed by a buffer to be able to drive lower impedance headphones. The buffer is a low distortion IC PT2308, a class AB CMOS headphone driver. This IC has an impressive SNR of 110dB so it’s well suited for this application. The output impedance of tubes in common cathode is high so higher value resistors in the driver’s feedback loop are needed. The 6418 tubes need 1.2V to heat their filament. A 5V regulator chip heats the two filaments connected in series through a 270 ohm resistor.
This amplifier can also be used as a preamp. Mark did some modifications to component quality, replacing the PT2308 with a OPA2134 IC for example. There are also some scope traces he shows in his article measured with a load of 47k. I would’ve been curious to see how it performs at much lower loads. All being said, Mark is pleased with the sound, and with tubes you can not possibly go wrong, can you?
Miniature tube headphone amplifier: [Link]