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post #1291 of 16357
Originally Posted by johnjen View Post

I have found the reverse can be true.

But it does take tweaking the entire system to achieve this ability to listen to really poorly recorded music and not lunge for the volume control, or the stop button…

In stock form and with a system that doesn't deliver a suitable high quality signal, yes 800's could well be unlistenable on some music.

But when the system comes into focus, even the crappily recorded music can be enticing.


JJ, thanks, though it wasn't the music per se, it was so poorly mixed and spliced, that it became unlistenable. Are you able to "shine the light" of the 800's on poorly engineered music and still enjoy listening?
post #1292 of 16357
Originally Posted by Wildcatsare1 View Post

JJ, thanks, though it wasn't the music per se, it was so poorly mixed and spliced, that it became unlistenable. Are you able to "shine the light" of the 800's on poorly engineered music and still enjoy listening?

Yes indeed.


And I also find them quite helpful when I use my audio analysis setup, where I listen to peels of thunder and/or lightning cracks, to name but 2 'non-music' sources, some of which are greatly overloaded.


But it's usually the old poorly recorded music of the 50's - 60's and 70's where the ability to "shine the light" is most pronounced.


My favorite examples are the very early rolling stones albums.  The vinyl versions were so bad I never even bought any of their early albums, and even later albums with a few tracks that were enjoyable the rest were so-so at best.


Now those tracks in digital format and on the 800's are quite interesting and even fascinating and engrossing.

Who'd a thunk it?



Edited by johnjen - 6/9/14 at 4:28pm
post #1293 of 16357

Funny, over the decades, we've moved from poorly recorded, to often decently to well recorded, and poorly mastered, and equally unpleasant to listen to...

post #1294 of 16357

And an additional bit of irony is that now with our digital systems greater dynamic range, we are seeing the 'volume wars' where the music is compressed even more that when they had to, to fit within the ≈60dB dynamic range of vinyl.


I can understand that dance music doesn't do well with a broad dynamic range, and that the majority of listeners don't pay much (if any) attention to such matters, but those of us 'in the hobby' do.


In fact I think I'll send a message to Overwerk to this effect, just because I can…:popcorn:


JJ :atsmile: 

post #1295 of 16357
Originally Posted by Wildcatsare1 View Post

Listening to In Da Gada De Vida for the first time in many years last night on my Valhalla HD650 and PSB M4U1's and the mix was so badly done I had DC it! Makes me wonder if I truly would enjoy a highly revealing HD800 in the future. For those that have the 800's, what percentage of your music is so poorly recorded that it is unlistenable?

Hi, Wildcat!

I got rid of everything below 320 mp3, collect everything I can in FLAC or vinyl quality if available and I can hear massive quality increase even with my meager set-up. 24 bit sounds better even on Macbook.

Btw., today I pick up the FIIO X5 and I am pretty excited! 

post #1296 of 16357
Originally Posted by audiot View Post

I have a similar "problem" with my Sony Vaio laptop. I can't tell the difference between it and the $150 usb dac that I got to tide me over until I decide which Schitt dac to buy. But first I think I really need to ditch my old Grado SR60 (the original pre-SR60i) for something vastly better! I probably couldn't tell the difference between the Vaio and the Yggy with those things!


Interesting that I'm not the only one, then! My Linux desktop at work isn't too bad either, though I have to crank the volume up to nearly the maximum when playing symphonies (on my Denon D2000's, which are very sensitive). I could tell the difference between the two in a blind test, but the Linux machine is not exactly horrendous. The Macbook has a lot more volume headroom, and is definitely a better source.


The Schiit is best, though. I can't describe the difference. The music just feels... a little more musical. You can tell I'm not much of a gear-head though :tongue_smile:


Still, my father used to own a pair of Quad ESL2905 speakers (those things are unreal!), so I'm lusting after something with planar drivers (HE400i or PM-2, probably) and neither computer source is likely to drive a pair of orthos adequately. It's half the reason I got my Schiit.


Why are expensive cans are often harder to drive? Does having a higher impedance and/or lower sensitivity often result in better audio quality?

Edited by Joriarty - 6/11/14 at 7:52am
post #1297 of 16357
Thread Starter 

Chapter 19:

Every Road is a Dead End: Early Adventures with Magni


This chapter is a lesson in hubris—and in the value of chucking it all and starting over.


It happens to every company, I’m sure. There will always be a time when things are going well, reviews are great, and new products are flying off the shelves. We literally couldn’t keep Bifrost in stock. Asgard, Valhalla, and Lyr were all doing well. I’d just been contacted by the Arizona Audiophile Society, where the Bifrost had beaten all the other DACs in their blind listening test (with retail prices up to $7,500.) We had working prototypes of Mjolnir and Gungnir, and were looking forward to their launch. And we’d just started looking at space so we could move out of the garage (more on that later.)


This is the time when you start thinking, “Hey, this is going pretty well. Man, we’re really tearing it up. Wow, maybe we actually are pretty good at this!”


This isn’t good. In fact, this is the time you should be the most terrified.


Now, to be clear, we didn’t go completely over-the-top on the narcissism. We didn’t do anything truly stupid. Nobody bought a Ferrari. None of us went out and bought $1,000 bottles of Scotch. None of us created audio product derivatives to sell to Wall Street. And none of us rode to work in a sedan car borne by a dozen acolytes.


But, this run of good luck was enough to have me thinking, “Heh, a little amp? How hard can that be?”


As it turned out, it was damn difficult. Remember, 13 months from Modi proto to launch? At least 6 or 7 of those months were spent running down the wrong paths on Magni.



Philosophy Can Also Be A Prison


I spent the last part of the previous chapter nattering on about philosophy. And I truly think that every successful company should have a well-thought-through, concise philosophy that informs everything they do.


But a philosophy can also be a prison. If it’s too specific or too inflexible, you won’t be able to change when you need to. You won’t be able to adapt to new needs, new markets, new competitors. That’s also necessary.


It’s also why our philosophy is pretty broad. And if I’d done nothing more than apply that philosophy to Magni, I probably would have been fine.


Aside: our philosophy is to “make fun, affordable products that are as true to the musical source as possible,” in case you skipped the last chapter.


Instead, I larded on a bunch of additional “wants” to Magni’s initial design brief. Some of these were based on market reality. Some of them were sheer fantasy.


Let’s start with the ones based in reality:


  1. This amp should be versatile enough for most any headphone. We already had some very specific amps, like Valhalla for high-impedance headphones and Lyr for power-hungry orthos, but this should really be a do-all amp, since it would likely be a starter amp for many audiophiles.
  2. If we couldn’t do better than the inexpensive amps already out there, why bother? To me, “doing better” was a mix of more power and sonics, in a simple, attractive package.
  3. This amp needed to hit a very aggressive price point—a price point unimaginable when we started the company. We had to be careful about design, construction, features, reliability, etc. I had $99 as a target, to match the Modi.


And now, the fantasy:


  1. The topology should be as simple as possible—insanely simple, just a few transistors and a very simple power supply, almost like a solid-state version of a tube amp. That’s probably what would sound best, I thought.
  2. To keep costs down, we’d use a switching wall-wart to generate a single DC rail. Switching wall-warts are so cheap they show up in Cracker Jack boxes these days. I mean, unimaginably cheap. We’d have to use a switcher to keep cost down.
  3. It should be a neat, unique topology. I’d messed around with two-transistor gain cells. Maybe that would be cool. I’d also played around with the old JLH topology, which I remembered sounded good.


Looking back, all those extra fantasy items are really funny. Simple amps usually have to resort to Class-A output to get them linear enough to work well—and Class A was absolutely out. Magni’s tiny chassis wouldn’t be able to dissipate the heat. Switching power supplies are cheap, but absolutely scary in terms of power supply noise—not to mention the fact that a single rail would mean we’d have to use coupling capacitors at the input and output of the amp. And a neat, unique topology? Yeah, there’s a reason those are scarce. The “cool” stuff I’d played with in the past simply had too many limitations—not enough voltage swing, not linear enough, not stable into a wide range of headphone loads, etc.



But I’m An Idiot


So, of course, the first thing I had to do was to try a JLH-style amp with a switching wall-wart that I bought off of eBay. I think it was $3. Which meant, in production quantities, it could easily be a $0.50 part. Think of that—a cord, plastic chassis, PC board, switching supply doing 24V at 0.5A for half a buck.


And yeah, it was about as good as you’d expect for that price. It was so noisy that it made the JLH amp oscillate constantly at full voltage, without any input. I’m talking full-scale noise at a couple of megahertz.


To translate: instant headphone fry. Assuming the output stage lasted that long.


I tried a couple of other switching wall-warts, but they really weren’t much better. So I tried filtering them. Which doesn’t work so well when you have half a volt of noise on the ground (the engineers here are cringing).


Finally, I gave up and simply hooked the JLH topology up to our lab power supply. Now it ran fine. No oscillation. Which is what you’d expect from a clean supply.


There were only two problems:


  1. The JLH topology really, really doesn’t like to be transformed to a Class-AB design. It’s very nonlinear, with high distortion.
  2. It sounded like ass.


I mean, it sounded awful. As in, 1960s solid-state awful. I’d forgotten how bad solid state could be. Bright, nasty, confused, muddled…it simply didn’t stand up to modern designs. Not even an opamp-and-buffer design. Which I also didn’t want to do, because that’s been done to death.


Yeah. Hubris.


After that failure, I tweaked around with the circuit for a while, and ended up with something that sounded kinda decent. But by this time, the original 16-component-per-channel design had ballooned to over twice that. It was more complicated than some of the 60- and 100-watt speaker amps I’d designed. And that was really stupid.


So what did I do? For a while I just gave up. I had a non-optimal topology and an unworkable power supply. I’d wasted a couple of months getting exactly nowhere.



The Non-Lighting Light Bulb


Sometimes when you walk away from a project, the insight will come when you least expect it. You’ll wake up one morning and have the answer. Or you’ll be driving into the office and it’ll hit you so hard you’ll say, “Hell, why didn’t I think of that before?”


In the case of Magni, walking away didn’t work. As Mjolnir and Gungnir moved towards production, and as we started our first move out of the garage, I had plenty to occupy me. I could forget about it.


But the answer didn’t come.


Not that I didn’t try. Sure, I put together a half a dozen neat circuits. JFET-MOSFET gain cell. Simple current-feedback amp. Etc.


But all of them had at least one fatal flaw. And all of them still wouldn’t work with a noisy power supply. Even if one had worked, the supply still killed it.


So I wasted more time—drawing up chassis for the Modi and the non-existent amplifier, trying still more wall-warts, tweaking circuits and hoping that something would work out. Nothing did. And I was starting to sweat. Any day now, Mike would ask me how the Magni was going, and I’d have to tell him. And he’d say, sarcastically, “I thought you said it would be easy, Sparky!”


I didn’t want to have that conversation. I didn’t want to say, “You know, an opamp and a buffer wouldn’t be so bad.”


(But, you know, even if I’d done an opamp and buffer design, it probably wouldn’t have worked because of the power supply.)


In the end, I was sitting in the garage one weekend, staring at the perfboard mess that should be a Magni. And I suddenly remembered that one thought I had: Hell, this thing has more parts than some of the speaker amps I designed.


So what if I just did it like a speaker amp? I wondered. That would eliminate the topology problem. Lin topologies could be very low-distortion—and Class AB—and direct coupled—and very, very robust.


But that was crazy! A full Lin topology for our least-expensive amp?


What the hell. I opened the schematic capture program and drew up a simple Lin amp.


It was simpler than the mess I’d designed.


But…a Lin amp really needed a bipolar power supply—that is, both positive and negative rail voltages. They didn’t like to hang halfway between a single supply and ground. That meant caps in the feedback loop, input biasing, and other ugly stuff like that.


So what if I just said, “the hell with it,” and did an AC wall-wart (basically a transformer in a box) and a half-wave bridge to create both positive and negative voltages?


Half-wave bridge, barf, I heard Mike’s voice in the back of my mind.


But I didn’t care. Maybe this was the way to go. Maybe a full Lin amp with a bipolar supply—and, what the hell, a DC servo too, might as well go crazy—maybe this would work. Maybe modern surface-mount manufacturing would make this feasible.


Aside: I really had no idea. I’d never done a surface-mount board before the Magni.


I built the Lin circuit that night and ran it on the lab supply. The damn thing worked first shot, as if to say, “Why didn’t you just do this from the start.” And it measured well. Not just well, but spectacularly. And with a few tweaks, it was running almost rail-to-rail.


Aside: “Rail to rail” is important for efficiency—a very important part of a Class AB design.


Now, I was excited. This was getting somewhere. If we could get a power supply put together to run it, we might have a product!


Except—I had no idea what a linear wall-wart would cost. They’re pretty scarce. Most people have gone over to switchers these days.


But again, like I said in the beginning, most answers are not much more than an inquiry or two away. Since I knew we were shooting for minimum cost, I wasn’t going to be able to get it from a US manufacturer. So I turned to a new source—one I’d never used before—alibaba.com.


Yes, that Alibaba. Chinese manufacturing. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it was different than anything we’d done before. Luckily, Alibaba has a pretty good feedback system, so you have at least an idea of the companies you’re working with. We quickly had quotes from a half-dozen manufacturers, all at amazingly inexpensive rates. Not as inexpensive as a switcher, but still well within the envelope of a $99 product.


But what would they look like? Would they be any good? Even if they were, how well would Magni perform on a smaller power supply (smaller than the lab supply). I ordered some samples and sat back to wait.


In a week, I had my answer. They looked like standard cheap wall-warts, the kind you see on dozens of different products. But these had one big difference: they were AC wall-warts, delivering 16VAC to a half-wave rectified supply running MC-series regulators.


I did a version on perfboard and verified the performance—and sat back in shock. The Magni prototype delivered nearly 2W into 32 ohms at clipping, and distortion was less than 0.004% at 1V RMS (a much more typical headphone load.) And this was from the wall-wart. 60Hz hum from the half-wave supply was over 100dB down from 1V RMS.


It measured better than anything we made.


Still, what did it sound like? That took more waiting. Because I usually don’t listen to breadboards or perfboards—I just build a single channel and then get into the PC board, then listen to that.



Into Surface Mount


Before I did Magni, I’d never laid out a surface-mount board. It was a profoundly alien experience. I wasn’t used to the parts. I wasn’t familiar with the best way to route them. And, most of all, I still wasn’t confident it would work. The lesson from Gungnir’s pinch-off problem was too fresh in my mind. What gotchas would we find when we went to surface-mount? Would the equivalent parts even be available?


Parts turned out not to be a problem. In fact, they were a real eye-opener. When you hear someone say, “They don’t make great audio devices anymore,” and wax poetic about the glory days of Japanese transistors, they don’t work with surface mount parts. They don’t know all the cool new stuff that’s available right now—and the majority of it is in surface-mount packages.


I learned a lot throwing that first board together. But, because I wasn’t confident it would work, it wasn’t a full design. No muting relay. No servo. Hell, it didn’t have a power switch. But I wanted something we could try. Something we could listen to, and decide if it was good or bad.


In a few days, I had PC boards to play with. I threw one together and measured it. It ran pretty much the same as the prototype.


After that, it was the moment of truth. I grabbed a set of Grados and took them out to the test bench. The little Magni prototype drove them shockingly well.


But it should also be able to do better than Grados. It had tons of power. I decided I’d bring it to its knees with the LCD-2s.


Magni laughed at the LCD-2s. No problem. No big deal at all. It would easily go to ear-bleeding levels.


I sat there, laughing at the spectacle of this tiny little amp driving the LCD-2s. It looked absolutely ridiculous.


Rina came out to see if I’d lost my mind. “What are you laughing about?” she asked.


“Magni. The little amp.”


She saw that I was holding the LCD-2s. “On those?”


I laughed again. “No problem.”


“Really?” she took the headphones out of my hand and put them on. “Play my song.”


Aside: Rina has a specific song she uses to evaluate new headphones and amps. It’s not what I’d call hi-fi, but she’s heard it so many times that it’s a perfectly good reference for her. It’s Enigma’s Seven Lives (Radio Edit.) Yeah. I know. Talk to her. Hey, those of you with the earliest Asgards had them listen-tested to New Kids on the Block, thanks to her. Think about that the next time you listen.


I played her song. She listened for about a minute, poker-faced.


I frowned. What did that mean? Did she like it? Did she hate it? Was it really crap? Was I hearing things?


Eventually, she took the headphones off. She shook her head sadly and looked at me.


“So what are we going to do about Asgard?” she asked.

post #1298 of 16357
Originally Posted by Jason Stoddard View Post

Chapter 19:

Every Road is a Dead End: Early Adventures with Magni





Eventually, she took the headphones off. She shook her head sadly and looked at me.


“So what are we going to do about Asgard?” she asked.

If there ever is a punch line to this chapter, to me, this is it. Wow, "you are only as good as your next trade" as they say on Wall Street.

post #1299 of 16357

And thus... the Asgard2 was born?

post #1300 of 16357
Originally Posted by Armaegis View Post

And thus... the Asgard2 was born?


Possible bottle of wine and cheap motel, just before conception.  :biggrin:

post #1301 of 16357
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Armaegis View Post

And thus... the Asgard2 was born?


That's when I started thinking really hard about it.


The problem was, Magni was too close to the Asgard in terms of overall performance. It was also more powerful. Anyone can see what would happen if we didn't advance Asgard at a rapid pace. And I'd learned some things from Mjolnir that I wanted to apply to Asgard. So...yep, after some development work, we had an A2 running in mid-2012.


(And--bottle of wine and a garage is more like it...)

post #1302 of 16357

So the Asgard2 got some tricks from the Mjolnir, and Bifrost upgrades from Gungnir... have their been any trickle up effects in your product line?

post #1303 of 16357
Originally Posted by Jason Stoddard View Post


Parts turned out not to be a problem. In fact, they were a real eye-opener. When you hear someone say, “They don’t make great audio devices anymore,” and wax poetic about the glory days of Japanese transistors, they don’t work with surface mount parts. They don’t know all the cool new stuff that’s available right now—and the majority of it is in surface-mount packages.


Finally someone had the guts to say it. I have no Idea why small signal electronics should be done in anything but smd. Also - don't be afraid to solder these! I can get these on a board almost two times faster than with tth.


And here's my current amp to prove it - 



Has more than 300 parts. Also runs Class AB.

post #1304 of 16357
Thread Starter 

Yeah, let's talk about surface mount a bit more. If someone sniffs about "surface mount, yuck," there are only three explanations as to this attitude:


1. They're really unaware of all the great parts available in surface-mount (most likely.)

2. They're not doing true production quantities, so they want an excuse not to get into surface-mount.

3. Their prejudice was based on the early days of SMD, with things like thick-film resistors and ceramic capacitors and such.


Now, you can get thin-film resistors in virtually any size (0805, 0603, 0402--though 402 is fun to solder, I've been tacking some of those onto a new prototype), you can get PPS film capacitors, arguably one of the best dielectrics around, you can get inductors in virtually any size you want, you have access to the best-performing JFETs and BJTs we've seen, you can get packages with thermal pads that allow you to get away with amazing heat density, you can make everything smaller, you can use both sides of the board...coupled with inexpensive 4-layer boards, SMD is really the only way to go. 


Well, unless you're making a tube amp with mega-voltage rails. Or big electrolytic caps. I'd rather have the mechanical advantage of through-hole to keep big caps from flying off the board.


We kept Valhalla 2 through-hole, and even though Lyr 2 is mainly SMD, it also has some through-hole parts in the high-voltage side. 

post #1305 of 16357

SMT is pretty great, even with a 3.2mm wide screwdriver tip on an old Weller station 0805 components are a breeze. I just worry about lifted pads with taller components. Maybe I should get a hot air tool if I keep working on SMT.

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