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The Joys of DIY Audio

Though they were less numerous than today, a plethora of hi-fi companies in the postwar era developed and sold the products that laid the groundwork for stereo both as a hobby and as ubiquitous home entertainment. Some of their names are recognizable to us still: loudspeakers by Klipsch and Tannoy; electronics from McIntosh Laboratory and Harman/Kardon; turntables by Thorens and, later on, Technics. Today, these companies are regarded as hi-fi royalty, with reputations built on their accomplishments more than half a century ago. However, off-the-shelf speakers and electronics weren’t an early hi-fi enthusiast’s only option: in the days of stereo’s infancy, it was not uncommon for one to assemble or even fabricate the components of the system oneself.

Hi-fi history

Several hi-fi companies, now of fabled reputation among the vintage audio scene, once offered kit versions of many of their products alongside the ready-made ones. Heathkit, Dynaco, Hafler, Luxman, Altec, Lafayette, and many others offered a range of do-it-yourself audio products, often at a substantial discount compared to their already-assembled counterparts. Pre-fabbed speaker cabinets and drivers, amplifiers and preamps, and tube tuners and ham radios could all be purchased in kit form from mail-order catalogs or brick-and-mortar stores like RadioShack or Lafayette. The idea was that solder-slinging weekend warriors would enjoy the process of building their stereo components out in the garage or in the basement as much as they would enjoy listening to the fruits of their labor in the living room. Of course, they’d save money going the kit route, too.

Matt Bonaccio

The fun was educational and family-friendly. As stereo audio was just about at the pinnacle of home-entertainment technology in the early 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for families to embark on and enjoy these projects together. And whether with others or alone, early stereo DIYers developed skills like reading schematics, using a soldering iron, and measuring and adjusting electronic parameters. Apply heat to the joint, melt the solder on, smell a wisp of pungent smoke as the resinous solder flux liquefies, hold steady as the joint dries—and just like that, the part has been installed. Rinse and repeat for the cathode resistor, or coupling capacitor, or woofer inductor, and so on and so forth. Today, we like to talk about how a stereo system or a recording can be “involving.” What could be more involving than getting your hands dirty and building the music-making device yourself?

Since then, the stereo hobby has, for better or worse, moved away from its homebrew beginnings. Shifts toward transistor-based designs, new manufacturing techniques, and foreign manufacture combined to reduce the cost of hi-fi components. Consumer mass adoption took off, bringing further economies of scale. For the majority of consumers without a technical background, or the time or desire to learn, this was beneficial. A small niche of audio DIYers has still clung to these values, though. From compact and inexpensive beginner kits to wild, self-built custom installations bound only by the imagination, the DIY community is thriving, though it remains a small piece of the hi-fi pie. As you’d expect, internet message boards, blog sites, and online stores have enabled a worldwide community of hi-fi do-it-yourselfers.

A stereo success story

My DIY audio journey began on the internet, in fact. Too broke to afford anything more than a very modest setup, I was hunting for tips and tweaks to improve my stereo on a budget. Eventually, I stumbled upon a quirky website touting the sonic benefits of cramming bizarre Soviet military-surplus vacuum tubes into the chassis of a clunky old CD player, one usually bought on eBay or at a yard sale. This sketchy-looking Polish blog featured discussions detailing the process of modifying dozens of disc players, close-up photographs looking “under the hood” of various hi-fi components, shootout-style comparisons of high-dollar equipment versus hot-rodded ’80s Marantzes and Pioneers, and mostly perfect English. I realized that the gulf between the audiophile ultra-high-end stuff that I lusted after and the inexpensive consumer-grade equipment I could afford was not as immense as I had previously thought. And I realized that my soldering skills, which at the time could only be described as “barely adequate,” would likely still be enough for me to reap the benefits of making some similar mods to my own gear.

The eccentric-yet-lovable DIY audiophile behind that blog, by the way, is Lukasz Fikus. He’s also known as the Lampizator, and his company, sprung from his early DIY attempts, is now a prominent and highly acclaimed boutique manufacturer of truly high-end standalone DACs and tube amplifiers. I owe Lukasz a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the DIY side of home audio. Cheers to humble beginnings, for the both of us.

Amplifier

The path of DIY audio has led me to my share of triumphs. For example, during the COVID-19 lockdown, I found a good deal on a Parasound HCA-1000 power amplifier. This aging amp was at the entry level of Parasound’s line of products, but still featured 125Wpc at low distortion, a direct-coupled design with DC servos to cancel out any speaker-damaging offset, and the ability to source enough current through its parallel push-pull output transistor pairs to drive all but the neediest of speakers. I remember the smug smile that spread across my face as I sat, surrounded by a mess of solder blobs, trimmed component leads, and spent capacitors, with the amplifier sitting on the floor and my digital multimeter indicating that the hotter bias I had dialed in was holding steady. My satisfaction only continued once I closed up the case and plugged it in.

A comparison against my McIntosh MA6850 integrated amp revealed that the Parasound had lost the artificial glaze it cast over the music prior to the modifications. In fact, it was neck and neck with the Mac, beating it with its controlled, deep bass, and coming awfully close in nearly every other aspect. I could have kept going with further tweaks, but I elected to stop there for fear of embarrassing my beloved McIntosh. My grandfather’s Mac is a keeper, but it would be hard to justify hanging onto it were it one-upped by the HCA-1000.

The pitfalls of DIY

Not every DIY endeavor yields such impressive results, though. My next project would be a preamplifier build based on a kit. This would be Wayne’s BA18 line stage, so named for its designer and its purpose: Wayne Colburn of Pass Labs, and as a DIY project presented at the 2018 Burning Amp Festival, respectively. The kit is pretty spare, including just a printed circuit board and the requisite resistors, capacitors, and transistors. The builder is expected to furnish the necessary power supply, a chassis, controls for volume and source selection, and so on. Imagine my disappointment when, upon first firing it up after many hours of fabrication and assembly, I got a perfectly mono signal, with no left and right separation whatsoever. Uh oh.

Preamp

In my haste to finally get my project working, I’d wired it so that the preamp board got two left signals instead of a left and a right. D’oh. Not every project of mine had such an easy fix—just ask two fried DACs and the early-1960s Lafayette EL84 receiver currently stashed in my closet awaiting repairs. Such are the downsides of DIY audio. Sometimes, your stuff just plain doesn’t work right.

There’s a life lesson here. When disappointment hits, it sucks, but you pick up and keep going. Perseverance is a virtue as much in audio as it is in other aspects of life. No project, big or small, is ever a success if you give up at the first sign of failure. I have plans to add some further electronic and aesthetic refinements to my BA18 line stage, too, as it’s still not perfect yet. But, even though I feel that there’s much more to do before I’m really “done,” I now have a one-off preamp that I can say I’m proud of.

Ready to get your hands dirty?

I get it if DIY just isn’t for you. That’s OK. Just as not everyone wants to fix their car themselves, not everyone wants to build their own hi-fi. However, just like wrenching on your car, I fully endorse at least giving a DIY project a shot, if only to gain a greater understanding of how your gear actually works. There are ample resources online and easy kits designed with beginners in mind. As I’ve alluded to, much of DIY has true high-end cred: Nelson Pass and Wayne Colburn of Pass Labs frequently give away their designs and often contribute to online forums. The same can be said of John Curl, known for his work with Mark Levinson and Parasound, whose forum interactions laid out the instructions for the modifications I made to my HCA-1000. He designed it, after all. This tight-knit community tends to relish a chance to help out others whose builds aren’t going as planned, so plenty of support is available if you make any DIY attempts yourself.

System

If I haven’t inspired you to give DIY audio a shot, I hope at least I’ve helped you gain an appreciation for this oft-overlooked but integral piece of the hi-fi community. And, if you do decide to give it a try, I wish you the very best of luck with your projects. Just remember—hold the soldering iron by the cold end, and try not to let the magic smoke out of any of your gear.

Matt Bonaccio
Contributor, SoundStage!