Harmonic Convergence: the Effect of Component Tweaking

Ben Duncan at work in his No.1 lab. (Photo: Jasmine Grierson)

Power amplifiers fascinate me. In the past 15 years I've helped design and build over a dozen advanced models, with output powers ranging from 50 to 2500W, for a number of the UK's professional equipment manufacturers. To learn from others' ideas and mistakes, I've also repaired, measured, used, and reviewed hundreds of makes of amplifier. My experiences have led me to regard the power amplifier as one of the messiest, most imperfect pieces of electronic equipment in the record/replay path.

The Setting Apart
Why should this be so? Creating good-sounding mixing consoles, preamplifiers, volume controls, D/A converters, and crossovers is difficult enough (!). Still, there are few really ugly engineering problems; the attainment of good objective performance (a good baseline) should be relatively straightforward, leaving the designer to concentrate 70% of his mental budget on sonics, system overview, producibility, reliability, cost, and the like. Compared to a properly engineered power stage, a line-level audio stage is relatively simple, with even the worst-case load conditions defined.

Power amplifiers, on the other hand, are hooked up to complex, ill-defined loads while being asked to deliver a thousand times as much current as any other audio circuit. This is a key factor, as both electromagnetic interference and impedance-related interactions between supposedly separate conductors and circuits are proportional to the currents involved, while heating and consequent thermal interactions are proportional to the square of that current.

Moreover, the physical layout of any finely tuned amplifier design is also fundamental to its performance. (A pure circuit diagram without mechanical drawings, or even an amplifier schematic bereft of its power supply, is nothing more than audio pornography.) There are few nonessentials in power amplifiers; everything influences everything else. This "all-come-at-once-ness" not only adds considerably to the development difficulties, hence cost, but also slows the overall evolution of up-market power-amplifier design.

Unraveling the Residue
Over the past decade, it has been established in DIY audiophile circles that upgrading component parts in any reasonable amplifier design can change and generally improve sonics, often greatly—even though the circuitry itself remains unchanged. As nothing has been forthcoming from the scientific and academic community as to why this should be, I undertook an experiment of my own. I would investigate the influence of passive components on the measured performance of a typical amplifier.

My experimental field was Audio Precision's System One Dual Domain DSP test set, the "Senior Model." Since this device's introduction in the fall of 1988, a growing body of users has been able to routinely measure the levels of individual distortion harmonics, even with modern semiconductor electronics where the harmonics are generally below 0.1% and substantially buried beneath the noise floor.

Traditionally, THD (Total Harmonic Distortion, or everything that remains in a device's output after the fundamental signal has been removed) has been measured as a percentage of that fundamental signal and typically plotted vs frequency. Such tests may have value in design and review, but are basically meaningless when it comes to predicting a component's sound quality: the audibility of THD does not correlate with our perception when the levels are below 0.1% (footnote 1). But individual harmonics are different, and their order—the harmonic structure—can offer a fair correlation with what we hear (footnote 2). Correlation can be improved by referring to typical acoustic levels, then overlaying "hearing sensitivity curves" derived (for example) from Robinson and Dadson (footnote 3). Another UK designer has worked on producing still more refined psychoacoustic overlays (footnote 4) in order to model masking and other perceptual attributes. But this is a subject to itself; for the purposes of showing a meaningful difference, I felt it was sufficient to look directly at the harmonic structures of the devices under test.

The subject for my experiment was the Rauch DVT 50s 200Wpc professional amplifier. I had been involved with the design of this class-AB MOSFET unit in 1986, and it has a fairly simple signal path. For a number of years, I had supplied audiophiles with a stock upgrade which produced an improvement in sound quality that had been well received (footnote 5). It was obvious that this Rauch was ripe for use as a subject in my quest after differences—before and after modification.

The two channels of a production sample of the amplifier were initially measured with the Audio Precision Dual Domain to confirm that they were substantially matched. One channel was then upgraded as follows:

• All the 1% metal-film resistors were replaced with a highly specified type made by Holsworthy Electronics in the UK.

• The indifferent electrolytic caps were replaced with established audiophile-grade models.

• The IC op-amp (a reputable low-noise type, itself much better than the standard NE5534) was replaced by a damn fast (1000V/µs), newly released current-mode op-amp made by Linear Technology.

• Finally, the DC supply leads were unwound from the wiring harness, separated from ground, and mutually twisted; ditto the output pairs. Both steps were taken to reduce interaction, although the original loom did not exceed 7" in length. No other changes were made.

Comparing Data
Fig.1 shows the manner in which the percentage of Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise (THD+N, footnote 6) in the amplifier's output varies with frequency, before and after modification (dashed and solid traces, respectively). The amplifier was driving an 8 ohm resistive load, about 0.6dB below its clipping point. Before modification, the curves for the two channels were nearly identical, close enough to be interlaced. It can be seen from fig.1, however, that the modified channel's THD+N curve is higher overall than the unmodified unit's. This need not mean that increased distortion per se is the sole reason for the difference. In fact, the fact that the replacement op-amp is 12–15dB noisier is bound to have an effect on this measurement. The only hint of the sonic improvement offered by the upgrade is a slight change in curvature at the edges of the modified unit's plot (top, dashed curve). Here, the rate of increase of THD (and/or noise) with frequency looks like it will level off and perhaps fall at ultrasonic frequencies, whereas the unmodified unit's THD+N (bottom, solid curve) looks like it will skyrocket above 30kHz.


Fig.1 Amplifier THD+Noise vs frequency before (dashed line) and after (solid line) modification (8 ohm load, 0.6dB below clipping). The increase is not wholly due to THD, as the sonically superior op-amp has higher noise.

Fig.2 uses the Audio Precision's DSP facility to plot the second to seventh harmonics of the unmodified channel, again driven into 8 ohms, at a fractionally lower level of 2dB below the amplifier's clipping point. In general, the spectra could be termed chaotic, noise residue making the plots below the 0.001% point erratic. But the general picture is quite clear: the second harmonic dominates, followed by the third, below 3kHz—excepting a sporadic dip and change in order between 600 and 700Hz. Above 3kHz, the fourth and fifth harmonics dominate, giving way above 18kHz to the third (footnote 7). Above 7kHz, analysis is complex, as the seventh harmonic is then the next most dominant, but the seventh harmonics of frequencies above 7kHz lie above 49kHz. The effect of these products will not be directly audible, but they can create unpleasant intermodulation products in the audible band.


Fig.2 Harmonics of the unmodified amplifier's distortion spectrum plotted against frequency (8 ohm load, 2dB below clipping). Solid lines, from top to bottom at 10kHz: 4th harmonic, 2nd harmonic, 6th harmonic. Dashed lines, from top to bottom at 10kHz: 5th harmonic, 7th harmonic, 3rd harmonic.

By comparison with fig.2, fig.3 shows that the modified amplifier's harmonic structure has become much cleaner, even taking into account the fact that harmonic levels are higher and thus lifted away from the noise-floor. Now the subjectively innocuous second harmonic can be seen to dominate clearly at all frequencies. The even fourth and sixth harmonics are clearly the next most dominant, respectively. Overall, the even-order (second/fourth/sixth) harmonics dominate the structure; moreover, they are in their natural sequence, the lowest orders being the stronger. The odd harmonics aren't so naturally ordered; eg, the third is weaker than the fifth and seventh below 8kHz.


Fig.3 Harmonics of the modified amplifier's distortion spectrum plotted against frequency (8 ohm load, 2dB below clipping). Solid lines, from top to bottom at 10kHz: 2nd harmonic, 4th harmonic, 6th harmonic. Dashed lines, from top to bottom at 10kHz: 5th harmonic, 3rd harmonic, 7th harmonic. Harmonic order is more monotonic, indicating a more consistent sonic character.

The upshot is a fairly nice-sounding amplifier: the benign, dominant second harmonic is a clear leader, up to an order of magnitude stronger than the others. The order of the harmonics in the unmodified channel's output (fig.2) is similar below 3kHz, though the third and fifth are now stronger than the fourth. The unmodified amplifier's sound changes at high frequencies to a dominant fourth/fifth combination, which is less pleasant while not being unlistenable.

The complexities of describing and analyzing these data are less important than the hard copy itself. An audible, "subjective" (footnote 8) change has now a clear difference mirrored in the "objective" test data. The difference is complex but glaring.

Residue Studied...
Recall the late '70s, when Japanese manufacturers' glossy advertisements promised amplifiers with THD+N levels of 0.0002% or lower? In practical production, and at power levels ranging into hundreds of watts into 4 ohms and below, you can usually attain figures of this magnitude only with carefully trimmed high or multiple feedback circuitry, and then usually only at 1kHz and below.

Footnote 1: This was pointed out by Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, some 25 years ago. In addition, Stereophile's Test CD 2 has a number of tracks comparing the audibility of large and small amounts of different harmonics: the second, third, and seventh. I prepared the signals for these tracks entirely in the digital domain using the Audio Precision System One Dual Domain.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Russell O. Hamm, "Tubes vs Transistors—Is There an Audible Difference?," JAES, May 1973.

Footnote 3: Mark Burgin & Ben Duncan, "Dynamic Loudness Compensation," Proc. IOA, Vol.8, 1987. See also Louis Fielder, "Human Auditory Capabilities and Their Consequences in Digital-Audio Converter Design," AES 7th International Conference, Toronto, May 1989, Paper 4A, in which Mr. Fielder shows that the order of a distortion harmonic is as important if not more so than its absolute level when it comes to audibility.

Footnote 4: J.R. Stuart, "Psychoacoustic Models for Evaluating Errors in Audio Systems," Proc. IOA, Vol.13 Pt.7 (1991). See also "Estimating the Significance of Errors in Audio Systems" and "Predicting the Audibility, Detectability and Loudness of Errors in Audio Systems," two papers presented by Bob Stuart at the 91st Convention of the Audio Engineering Society, held in New York in October 1991.

Footnote 5: Chris Wood, "Modifications to the Rauch DVT-50s," Audio Conversions (UK), No.14, Spring 1992.

Footnote 6: The two cannot be readily separated with standard test instruments.

Footnote 7: The harmonic levels in figs.2 and 3 are plotted up to the point where they reach the AP's 80kHz filter limit. For example, the measured amount of fourth harmonic is not plotted above 20kHz because the fourth harmonic at 20kHz is 80kHz.

Footnote 8: Quotation marks because the word has been debased to suggest rather flaky or romantic perception, rather than "human perception unfettered by instruments."

Anton's picture

Thanks for uploading this.

A truly fun read.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

As a side note ....... The Mark Levinson No.20 models mentioned in the 'Footnote 12' have very low output impedance ... between 0.01 and 0.05 Ohms ........ In the current models, Mark Levinson makes one such model, with very low output impedance, the No.534 stereo-amp (Stereophile Class-A) ...... See Hi-Fi News measurements of ML No.534 :-) ........

jeffhenning's picture

Very interesting article.

A few thoughts:

• Not that you had to mention it, but switch mode power supplies seem to have advanced to the point that, when done well, they seem to have some big advantages over the standard types. They're used to tremendous effect by Benchmark and Devialet.

• Both Benchmark's and Devialet's amps, which are radically different designs, outperform any Class A amp I've ever heard of. The Benchmark AHB-2 AAA circuit designed by THX uses some type of crazy Class A, A/B and B voodoo to get the advantages of all those types as well as feed-forward correction.

• Reading a transcript of a town hall with Bruno Putzeys and Peter Lyngdorf of Purifi Audio (between them they have around 60 years experience creating groundbreaking Class D amps), their latest design uses something like 85dB of feedback to eek as much out of the amps as possible. While in classical designs that would be insane, in the world of Class D it's apparently a great thing.

• In the end, I don't care how a piece of audio gear gives me perfect linearity, bullet-proof operation and a total absence of noise & distortion as long as it does that... or something imperceptibly close to it!

Graham Luke's picture

I would imagine that the roll of lavatory paper is the most pertinent item in the photograph above...

Archimago's picture

Or maybe 5W or 10W into that 8-ohm load pre- and post- modification rather than slightly below clipping for a 200W amp!?

Let's see the difference in harmonic structure at actual real useful power output levels!

Ortofan's picture


Ortofan's picture

... performed and analyzed independently, so that it could be determined which modification might have made the most difference, between the resistor replacements, the electrolytic capacitor substitutions, the op-amp rolling or the redressing of the wiring harness.

johnny p.'s picture

...until the last few years. Power-supply regulation and circuit-stage design remained the same, with high noise and distortion to boot.

I think the Sanders amp in 2008 was the first that used Thermal-Trak transistors and an IC-regulated power supply.

Since then, few have done the research as no (designers) seem to care.

But all-A circuits, like Valvet and Pass, have paved an alternate but scientifically-legitimate method of amplification. If used w/ highly-sensitive speakers.

adrianwu's picture

The necessity of class A/B with all the attendent power supply modulation and crossover distortion only serves the purpose of increasing the power output to beyond 20W. But a 300W amplifier only plays 12 dB louder than a 20W one, and all the extra power is often just converted to heat by over complicated crossover networks and inefficient drivers. The high end industry has been focussing on the wrong problem, which is to produce high power amplifiers that can drive complex impedance loads, when what they really should be doing is try to produce high sensitivity drivers and using active crossovers. High sensitivity drivers have distortion levels orders of magnitude lower than low sensitivity drivers, and TDH of drivers are measured in percents or even tens of percents levels, not 0.1% percent level of amplifiers. By reducing power output to 20W or less, power supply design can be simplified, and negative feedback often becomes unnecessary, which avoids instability problems and the generation of unpleasant harmonics.

Don Whittle's picture

Great article by Ben Duncan that shows how better quality components and thoughtful wiring layout produce a clearer sound.

I am a civil engineer with a lifelong interest in audio and
particularly appreciate articles such as Harmonic Convergence that use
observation along with engineering and science to improve audio performance.

Over the years I have owned and listened to many home audio and professional amplifiers including Krell, Kelvin Labs, Electrocompaniet, Pass Labs, C Audio, TOA, EMC, Bryston, Carver, HH, QSC, Turner, Turbosound etc, etc.

But learning to use a soldering iron and scope has led to some amazing aural places just like the article suggests. As my best power amps for everyday listening today are modified Rauch DVT250s & 50s, which I found were designed by Jerry Mead, Ben Duncan and team for recording studios and touring artistes.

Over several years I've bought a number of battered old Rauch amps online. They'd come out of London's clubs and venues, all closing down. Even after just a clean-up, they produced surprisingly realistic sound. Then I came across Ben's upgrade path much as mentioned in the article. This article on component quality and wiring layout is showing graphically the musical improvements that I'm now hearing. It's great when musicality and solid engineering combine.

This article seems to be a continuation of the concept in Ben Duncan's book on power amplifiers and his numerous articles on audio that focus not simply on circuit design but on all aspects of the audio system out to subtle distortions, mains and RF, and looking at how every tiny part can affect the final sound.