AudioFiles: Pieces of a Dream

Building audio gear from a kit saves bucks and doubles the fun

In a time when the hottest thing in audio is digitally tuned, Internet-connected voice-command speakers, it might seem impossible for anyone without an engineering degree to build an audio product. But not only is it possible, it’s even easier than it was in the Kind of Blue era, when building your own gear was more commonplace. Today, there are innumerable DIY audio kit providers that sell through the Internet, as well as plenty of online sources for how-to advice.

Why build a kit instead of buying a finished product? There are many reasons. First and foremost, audio kits tend to be much less expensive. Many kits are cool, boutique-y items that aren’t available as finished products. Kits often allow for some degree of customization, either in the circuitry or in the enclosure that holds the product. And last but certainly not least is the satisfaction you get from constructing and listening to gear you’ve built yourself.

Learning the Standards

Of course, you’ll get that satisfaction only if the assembled product actually works. And that depends on your skill and patience, on the difficulty of the kit you’ve chosen and on the quality of the kit-maker’s documentation.

At a bare minimum, you’ll need to be able to solder, the process through which most electrical connections are made. It’s not especially difficult; many 13-year-olds can make perfectly good solder joints. Nor is it expensive, because a $20 soldering kit will work for almost any audio assembly task. If you read up on proper soldering technique and practice for as long as it takes to listen to A Love Supreme, you’ll probably do OK.

You also need to understand schematics, the diagrams that show how the components in an electrical circuit connect. This is another relatively simple task that teenagers routinely master. Google “reading schematics” to learn how; the SparkFun website has a particularly good tutorial.

Finally, you’ll need a few extra tools, including small needle-nose pliers, a good set of wire strippers, a few screwdrivers and a digital multimeter for reading voltage levels and testing your connections. Depending on what you’re building, you might also need a drill with bits, a sander and various woodworking tools.

Starting Out Simple

So, what kinds of kits are out there? All sorts. The big variables are how much work and knowledge they require, and how many extra parts you’ll need to complete the product.

The least-expensive kits often require the most knowledge on your part. These usually consist of a bunch of parts you solder into a circuit board. Many such kits are available from Velleman and other companies, for components including audio preamps, phono preamps and power amps. With these, the user typically must supply the knobs and switches, the input and output connectors and an enclosure to mount it all in.

A better option for the first-time kit builder comes from Bottlehead, a company whose name relates to its focus on vacuum-tube audio gear. The company’s $99 Quickie 1.1 tube preamp is a great place to start. The Quickie 1.1 is comfortingly simple, with just two tubes and a handful of parts, all powered by two D cells and four 9-volt batteries. Everything you need is included, and the instruction manual is exceptionally clear and easy to understand. I built the original Quickie in one evening, and was shocked to find that it sounded almost as good, and tested nearly as well, as the preamp section in my $2,500 integrated amplifier. The basic Quickie 1.1 is built on a plastic plate; a handsome wooden base costs $40 extra, or you can build your own. Bottlehead offers many other kits for preamps, power amps and headphone amps, at prices extending to about $2,000.

Speakers are another great place to get started in audio kit-building. Many speaker and subwoofer kits are available from Madisound, Parts Express and other companies. A speaker kit may or may not include cabinets (which can be assembled or unassembled, finished or unfinished), and it may or may not include all the parts you need.

I recently built Parts Express’ Overnight Sensations, two 9-inch-high bookshelf speakers with 4-inch woofers and 3/4-inch tweeters. The kit for a pair of Overnight Sensations cost just $118, although I had to spend an extra $20 for speaker-cable connectors, circuit boards and internal wiring. I spent about six hours assembling the speakers, including gluing and sanding the cabinets, building the crossover circuits, wiring the parts and covering the cabinets in a whimsical flower-patterned fleece fabric (an option you’ll rarely see offered on a ready-to-play speaker). Combined with an inexpensive Pioneer subwoofer and a $199 Onkyo stereo receiver, my new speakers deliver an impressively natural tonality and a huge stereo soundstage. And the fact that I built them myself made my original pressing of Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon! sound just a tad better than it did before.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.