This is the first article (of possibly several more) targeting the curious ones that might have read about DIY but never gotten around to it. The basics with DIY (and open source) is spreading the knowledge. I was a beginner just a couple of months ago. And the questions you might have, I had. So if I can, so can you.
Ok guys! Some of you might have noticed that I’m all for objectivity and subjectivity. I have no issues puting 3000 USD on a good source and headphone amp, if I can hear a difference that is. For a majority of the time, it does pay off (at least if one avoids the shiny outside crappy inside products). Sure, we’re in the business of small improvements (from the non-audiophile point of view) at a price that sometimes ain’t justified. However, as you may have noticed when I discuss cables, I consider their major advantage to be ergonomics and aesthetics. The point I’m trying to make is that I’m not a strong believer regarding increased sonic benefits from fancy wires. Just to clear the air. I’ve always been a fan of the fantastic worksmanship that Toxic-Cables, Whiplash Cables and Double Helix Cables offer. But they are expensive and they’re usually back-ordered. A headphone cables isn’t that hard to make and it doesn’t cost a whole lot to build one. So… If you’re like me i.e. wanting the exact length for different applications and owning several headphones, it can and will put a big hole in your wallet, a hole that I’d rather invest in the source and amp.
Getting started with DIY will require an initial investment. Economists will call this the start-up cost. Once you lay down the cash for the basics, you’ll notice that building additional cables (or the continuos costs), and even amps or sources isn’t that expensive or complicated.
The soldering iron will be your main tool. Basically there are a couple of different types: (1) cheaper ones that have a fixed temperatured and usually are terminated with an electrical outlet plug; (2) a bit more expensive ones where the soldering iron is connected to a PSU with an analog potentiometer (i.e. a soldering station) thus varying the electrons propagating to the tip (or rather the heat that the soldering tip will attain) and last but not least (3) soldering stations with a digital display and usually multiple programmable modes of varying heat. I’d recommend going for a heftier model with more power, in case you’ll ever need to solder bigger stuff (i.e. thick cables, heat sinks etc.). Look around eBay, or e.g. Conrad.com (for EU-citizens) or Digikey (for US-citizens).
A wire stripper, a side cutter and snipped nose plier are a requisite. So add those to your shopping list. And be sure that the wire stripper can strip AWG22 – AWG26 gauge cables, as these will be that main wires used used in DIY-audio.
The next item on our list might look a bit peculiar some call it a third hand, I call it a good way to avoid burning your fingers on hot wires. Shouldn’t cost much more than 10 USD, and be sure that the base has some weight, so it doesn’t tip over when fixing heavier stuff.
Ahh, I almost forgot. You will make mistakes. So a good way to remove solder is a solder sucker also going under the less explicit nomenclature de-soldering pump, heat up the misplaced solder and *flump* it goes into the pump. Handy.
Ok… So we can strip wire, cut wire, hold wire, and fix wire in a fixed position (e.g. mating together wire with a connector pin). You might be thinking. What wire and what solder? Since both of these might change the sonic charactheristics it’s up to you. My ideology, you don’t have to agree with me, is the following. I’ve seen people investing in 10 ft of really fancy wire (we’re talking 400-500 USD worth of exotic wire) and then they’ll be sitting in the sofa with a big wire roll in their lap. Let’s discuss conductivity and resistance briefly. The resistance (we’ll skip the capacitance to avoid it getting too complicated) is determined by two major factors. The diameter (or gauge) of the wire and the material(s) used. The bigger the cross-sectional area and shorter the cable, the less resistance. Silver is the best conductor and copper is the runner-up. Silver is also quite a bit more expensive than copper. But how vital is this in audio? I can’t give a completely honest answer. I studied medicine not physics or electronics. However, as I’ve said numerous times, I’m all for evidence based results. In other words if an increased cost doesn’t attain noticeable results, why bother? I’ll stick to the fact that several wires of thinner gauge copper (at the exact legth needed) yeald less resistance and a hell of a lot cheaper than a (too long) fancy wire treated to this and that purity (a purity that a lot of the time has no basis in metalurgy since it can’t be attained).
So let’s see if we can find good wire for our needs, Brian Goto at Btg-audio (US) sells very flexible (polyethylene insulation) 26AWG copper wire at 0,80 USD/ft. Another nice and cheaper option is from Johnswireshop (USD) 24AWG quite flexible nickel-plated copper (clear telfon insulation) at 0,25 USD/ft. Or you could go for more expensive cable from previously mentioned exotic cables manufaturers. The choice is yours.
The solder is another hot topic. I’m more than satisfied with my 1 pound roll of Kester for about 40 USD. If you want to invest some extra cash for silver-doped solder, be my guest.
It’s time to talk about the connectors. What to look for, what to buy? Well that depends on what you want to do. We have to focus on two different ways of driving a headphone. Single-ended (or unbalanced), i.e. R+ L+ and ground or Balanced i.e. R+ R- L+ L- (and ground used as a reference in the amp, however not used toward the headphone/speaker). So we either have a a positive signal “pushing” in reference to a zero or a positive signal “pushing” with the help of a negative signal “pulling”. No, this isn’t the same thing as push-pull topology often used in audio, it’s just a very simplified way to explain single-ended and balanced signals.
Neutrik makes a lot of different connectors, high quality and affordable pricing. They also carry more consumer-targeted products under the brand Rean. Regardless of the brand their balanced connectors, primarily 3-pin XLR, 4-pin XLR and mini-4-pin XLR “Audez’e connectors” suit most of ours needs. Be warned though that their connectors usually are made for a lot thinner gauges than some of us are used to. They might need to be modded to suit our needs, or used in non-conventional ways (e.g. not putting on the barrel).If this isn’t your cup of tea, there are more expensive options carried by Switchcraft, Oyaide, Hicon etc. Whatever floats your boat, but be sure to check the maximum wire diameter the connector accepts, and remember that we’ll be using a minimum of 2-4 wires braided together (2 wires on the headphone end and 4 wires of the amp end).
To make your cables a bit sturdier (and hide the parts that might be that nice to lay your eyes on) we’ll be needing heat-shrink tubing and a heat gun. When it comes to heat-shrink three chacteristics should be contemplated: (1) shrink factor, usually 2:1, 3:1 or 4:1; (2) appearance (color, transparency, thickness) and (3) diameter. Using a higher shrink factor e.g. 3:1 or 4:1 will pay off in the end. It means that you don’t have to plan too much ahead while still creating fancy transitions from a wide diameter to a narrower one. A good vendor is Hilltop-Products (UK). They carry shorter lengths through their eBay-shop and bigger order via their website. I recommend picking up 4 sizes that will suits most needs with a 3:1 shrink factor: 9/3 mm; 12/4 mm; 18/6 mm and 24/8 mm in black and clear color. You’ll be using the 12/4 the most. The bigger ones are more relevant for full-sized connectors e.g. XLR and/or 1/4″ TRS. The heat gun is a hair-drier on steroids. Usually doesn’t cost too much. Some people use butane-cigarette lighters which I do not recommend. It might leave burn marks and ash from the butane, especially on white heat shrink tubing.
So… We finally have all the stuff we need.
Next page: Let’s get started!