Class D – The beginning of a new Era

Why Class D amplifiers are the way to go

As a young (or old) student it takes some time to get one’s head around the design idiosyncrasies of solid state amplifiers. Truth be told many of us found tube nomenclature and circuit design easier to comprehend than anything that followed “hole” theory.  Big bad things come to an end and eventually we found it easier to crib other designs.

Class D insides
Behringer 6000 4 channel Class D

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Tripath Amplifiers – are they analogue?

Lepai Class T 20W per channel

Tripath amplifiers – analogue switching amplifier TA2020

Note: As of 2007 Cirrus Logic currently own the original Tripath intellectual capital and as a result the companyTripath is no longer in existence. The Lepai and the legendary TA2020 are still available. Lepai and Tripath were not the same company. Lepai, Lvpin is now sold as Lepy. There are three chip ranges that you should be aware of:  2020A (Yamaha) 2020+ (Tripath) 2020TI (Texas Instruments).

Class D / Tripath class T

Class D – super efficient, mobile friendly to head stomping 12kW power amplifiers.

Lepai Class T 20W per channel
Lepai Class T (registered Trademark) 20W per channel – eBay or Aliexpress

Going back a few steps we need to look at the original class-D designs. The first attempt at a commercial “working” Class D amplifier came through Sinclair Radionics, brainchild of Sir Clive Sinclair, genius inventor and entrepreneur.  The commercial failure of this amplifier, the 10W ‘X10’ was more due to the piss poor frequency response and switching characteristics of the Germanium transistors to be had at the time.

Although on paper the class D amplifier looks nothing more than a high frequency switch modulated by audio with a Pulse Width Modulated output there were some technological hiccups.  Although tubes are linear devices and operate well in class A, AB, C configurations they are also very inefficient as switches. There are devices which were designed for this purpose such as the thyratron but they only offer a modest switching speed.

It was only in the 90s that the work from some companies forking out on a Class D solution started paying off.  One such company was ICEpower,  a combination of resources from team Karsten Nielsen and the Bang & Olufsen audio group. ICEpower remains one of the top end suppliers of class D audio. Tact or later,Lyngdorf was another company specialising in high end class D and this as a result of their variable supply and digitally controlled PWM amp, the TacT Millennium.

The TA2020

Specification sheet for the Tripath TA2020

Tripath, named after Adya Tripathi the CEO,  was the first company to mass manufacture a class-D chip, the TA1101. It was only when the TA2020 was released did the audio fraternity sit up and take notice – 20W into 4 Ohms at a fraction of the price of equivalent chipamps of class-AB design. After the demise of Tripath the market became flooded with the 2020. The TA2020 is rated as one of the top 20 IC breakthroughs ever, in line with 555 timers, ARM1 and Intel’s 8088.  A fabulous testament to the short lived Tripath name.

Tripath Schematic 20W+20W into 4 Ohms
Tripath Schematic 20W+20W into 4 Ohms

There are lots of add-on circuits for these amplifiers on the web but mostly one would be looking at pre-amps etc. The circuit itself may not lend itself to much better output quality due to the self-contained 2020 (ever tried to open a chip) but there is a definite improvement by using a higher current PSU and according to DIY audio (the site), recapping and resoldering should make a difference. These amplifiers were sold in South Africa for about R250.00 and to date the cheapest is about R350.00 on Bid or Buy. For that price don’t expect a Premier 5, do expect the best value for money, especially if driving from a PC.

One day the original chip will become a collector’s item – so box and stash away.

Oh yes, I believe the Texas Instruments chip has the best figures. More about this later.

Class D is here to stay.

Should Class D Amplification be classified as digital?

Inside the Behringer 6000 4 channel Class D

Class D Amplification – digital or analog?

Here we look at two things:

  • Is class D digital or analog?
  • How do they really sound?

The conundrum of audio, the one that all audiophiles abhor, Class D.  There are many beliefs behind this one of course, one being chiefly that Class D is digital because the output devices are running in one of two states, on or off, 1 or 0.

Is Class D didgital or switching
Nuking the Speakers with Class D

The theory is not so simple however.  1s and 0s are binary which is not only fundamental to all computer languages but is set at a reference predefined voltage e.g. 5V and frequency (clock).  The class D amplifier utilises sampling, modulation and switching as a basis of operation. The switched output before filtering will show pulses of varying mark space ratios – the 1:1 or equal ratio has no audible output.

Check this out dude/dudess:

The marketing dilemma

One thing that always struck me as distinctly odd was how the marketing machine would advertise a specific brand of car audio as digital or switching amplifiers. This can be seen on the Hi-Fi scene as well as in Pro-audio.  The car audio amplifiers used switched mode power supplies with class AB audio, the rest, well digital amplifiers known to us as class D.  A throw-around of quick catching and nice sounding phrases which never described the equipment adequately.  An amplifier with a DSP component could be called a digital amplifier I suppose but it doesn’t fully describe the amplification technique does it. DSP can be added to the input of an audio amplifier running class A and then be called digital. Class D however is not digital, sorry. It’s a switching amplifier. Period.

And more marketing

Along with rail shifting amplifiers with all their glorious classes, the fantastic class T switching amp, digital or switching class D the public must by now be thoroughly confused. I think even professional designers must be confused as hell – as soon as one class becomes relevant another one takes shape. Years back we had class AB1, 2 etc.  Class C was for RF (yep, Morse code was one use) and the top end amplifiers were supposedly all class A.  In fact, us, the general user should only know three things – does the output stage amplify the entire signal (class A), are the positive and negative excursions driven separately with minimum distortion (class AB)  or does the output contain varying mark space pulses (class D).  Over the last fifty years all three have been in use and still retain the same definition. Whether the amplifier uses +150V at high power or only +50V below 20W is really irrelevant. Whether it amplifies the entire signal or only part of it on purpose by design is relevant.

Can we hear the difference between the classes?

Many people can hear things I cannot.  We have listening tests to prove or disprove which amplifiers are best. Theoretically the best audio amplifier should be the Class A beast. Heavy in power supply and cooling (as it is the least efficient), very expensive, it amplifies the entire input signal as it should – in absolute mirror but for amplitude. The pedantic will cry for no phase shift either.

Truth be told Class A amplifiers do have a good reputation but usually when built by reputed companies or if self built, there is no expense spared for power supply and cooling.

Class AB amplifiers – we call them AB because in pure B we would have switching distortion which sounds horrific so a little bias is applied to the output stage to push them into their linear region (ahhh, slowly going back to class A).  Class AB can sound just as good as A if designed properly but there is always that niggling suspicion that we have that damned crossover distortion and the output stage is not linear. But over a few watts of drive into the speaker they do come into their own.

Class D. Try as I might I always think, believe, hear whatever that AB has better reproduction at the high frequencies. Having said then we need to be looking at class A, possibly bi-amped.

And what does my 40 years of experience tell me? Build your own. Play around a bit. Have fun. That’s how the best engineers started.  Your home built amplifier will always sound best.

One of the best designs (although I never used the commercial PCB but regret it now – this will come next though) was Rod Elliott’s 60-100W project:  http://sound.whsites.net/project03.htm.  I used a NAD pre-amp (1020A) to drive these modules.  OK, so I never used a PCB and yes, I only built these because I was interested to get back into electronics as a hobby – I was really very, very impressed.  The noiseless monster. In the late 70s I built a kit which used an MJ802 and 4502 which knocked the socks off the competition – well this one was better. I really think where this project stood out was that it was better than the 3020A (remember that the 1020A is a 3020A without the power amplifier).  I always thought that the 3020A sounded too flat.

Going to purchase the project PCBs at the end of the month. (31st January 2017). Let me know whether you need so we can consolidate costs.  webmaster at analogian dot co dot za