Battle of the Cheap Line Stages, Part 4
Part 4 of a DIY Showdown, by Steve Graham
Board Assembly, Integration to Chassis and Testing
This installment concludes the DIY Line Stage showdown. I had hoped to have two half-way decent line stages at the end of this experiment, but it was not to be. We do however have one very good line stage that I think is comparable to commercial products costing much more.
I hope that a few WoS followers have been inspired to take the plunge and build one of these. If you have, please leave a comment, and/or share some pictures of your finished project. If you are still with me, the finish line is in sight. This where all the bits and pieces from various sources will come together to yield your line stage. Take your time and follow the assembly instructions available for download below.
One thing though, the N-F-P will work best into power amps that have a fairly high input impedance (as does my Ref 110). Most tube amps should be fine, but if you have a solid state amp check the specs. Anything 20K ohms and higher should be fine.
Is DIY Going Mainstream?
Perfectionist audio is more mainstream now than it ever was. Witness the rise of Stereophile magazine as the preeminent print publication for audio, from the fringes it initially inhabited. As well, the rise of headphone listening has, I think, contributed to the quest for better sound by a larger slice of the general public.
Is there a return to the golden age of DIY audio in sight? Probably not. We’ll never get back to the 1950s when the likes of Dynaco, Heathkit and others had many offerings. Back then, kit building was just about the only way to build a decent system on a limited budget. It is, of course, different today; good sounding ready-to-go systems are available at entry level prices.
In the DIY world, Elekit is offering some high value kits and they are moving a bit more mainstream with the introduction of a push-pull amp in the 25 to 40 watts per channel range. I hope to build one of these and review it soon. There are others offering tube amp kits as well, some based on Dynaco designs.
DIY audio will remain on the fringes – but with the internet it is a very well-connected fringe. Why use Wall of Sound to promote DIY, if there is already a community of like-minded people out there? If I can entice someone sitting on the fence to take the plunge, build their own stereo component and enjoy not only the very good sound that the Aikido is capable of, but the pleasure of building it themselves, I’ll call that a win.
I’ve learned a few things about the rest of my system along the way, namely that my ARC Ref 3 line stage doesn’t play well with some non-balanced sources and amps. I did say at the beginning that line stages can be tricky, and I’ve found that statement even more true than I expected. Surprisingly, my ARC Reference 110 power amp, even though it only has balanced inputs, can work very well with a non-balanced line stage. Go figure!
If you build one (or buy the one I built), and are pleased with the sound, get yourself a spare set of tubes (or two) when you can afford them. Tubes never seem to go down in price. As I suggested in an earlier installment, plug in your new tubes when you get them and put 20 or so hours on them. If tubes fail it’s usually in the first few hours. Once they seem to be functioning properly, remove them and put them into your ‘inventory’, and you’ll be good to go for many years of listening enjoyment.
The N-F-P Aikido doesn’t embarrass my ARC Ref 3 line stage, nor does it embarrass itself with the comparison either. I can honestly say the N-F-P Aikido is not a cheap line stage, but a high value one, and better than I expected.
I’ve gotten rather fond of this little over achiever, and I’ll be sorry to see it go. In some ways the N-F-P is a better reviewing tool than my Ref 3. The N-F-P is less fussy of the source components and power amps it’s likely to partner with.
Can a good line stage be had for say 2/3 of the $650 CDN it costs to build the N-F-P? Say around the $450 mark with taxes and shipping in? My guess, with respect to audiophile sensibilities, would be no. Sure, you might find a linestage in this price range but I don’t think it would satisfy in the long run, and it might not have the decent case-work the N-F-P I built has. However, if you have an old un-loved component that could supply a ‘donor’ chassis and maybe even the input selector switch, jacks and a volume control, the cost of making this line stage can probably be driven down to around the $500 mark. In fact my audio pal Dougie, who took the N-F-P out for a spin and commented on the performance back in Part 1, has a ghastly, non-functioning, opamp chip-sporting Quad preamp that could be the perfect ‘donor’ chassis. Hmmm.
Build your Own
Download the following assembly documents and perform the instructions in the order below. Refer also to Parts 1-3 of this series of Wall of Sound articles.
(Chassis Assembly, Transformer Wiring & Testing)
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Steve, I’m about to begin this project myself… thanks for the detailed step-by-step instructions. A real confidence-builder! However, in the “board assembly” document you provide it refers to your “parts list” (when discussing purchasing the proper transformer). Try as I might, I can’t seem to locate it amongst the documents you provide, nor anywhere else in your article. Would you be able to provide it, or point me in the right direction? Thanks!
Thank you for your interest in Wall of Sound. The list you seek is available in part 3 of the series. Scroll down to near the bottom until you see “List of Downloads” and click on “Cost Break Down and Order Information”. I guess if I had just called it “parts list” it might have been more obvious.
Regards, Steve Graham