Ultimate Headphone Guide Articles: An Introduction to Headphone DIY

Editors note: Over the next week or so I'll be posting the informational articles that will appear in "The Ultimate Headphone Guide" (UHG). The UHG will be on newsstands this fall and many who buy it will be unaware of some of the basic information in the world of headphones. These articles are intended to provide a very basic introduction to some of the important topics we, as hardened enthusiasts, take for granted. As you read these pieces, please remember that they have to be fairly short and are intended to give a n00b a first taste and possibly a jumping off point for further travels along the road to headphone enthusiasm. Please feel free to comment on important points that may have been missed, but remember they need to remain short and to the point—much will no doubt go unsaid. For more information see this post on the Ultimate Headphone Guide. The following is Nate Maher's intro to headphone DIY. Thanks Nate!

An Introduction to Headphone DIY
Listening to headphones is a wonderful, but passive activity. Many headphone enthusiasts get busy with the very active Do-It-Yourself segment of the hobby. Common projects include construction of everything ranging from cables/interconnects on the simple end to DACs and Amplifiers on the complex end. Many headphone DIYers also modify headphones by adding damping materials and better cabling schemes. Depending on the project's level of complexity the actual working knowledge of electrical theory can range from nearly none to PhD level so there really is something for everyone. However, regardless of the project the a set of basic tools is required and will generally consist of the following: a soldering iron with accompanying solder, wire strippers, a multi-meter and finally the components that makeup the actual build. Work holding and fabrication tools are also required for more complex projects that involve a custom chassis or enclosure.

UHG_DIY_WellerWLC100

An ideal entry level soldering iron for DIYers, the WLC100 has an adjustable heat control and replaceable tips…all for under $50!

Advice on Selecting Tools
A major investment is not required to get started. A good, variable temperature soldering iron, available through a multitude of online sites and at the few remaining brick and mortar stores like Radio UHG_DIY_RadioShackStrippersShack, is all that is required. Avoid single tempturature, fixed output irons as they can be difficult to manage. Budget: $60, example: Weller WLC100. Solder is somewhat project specific although generic 63/37 "eutectic" solder will suffice for most projects and is less problematic than other types. If you're going to build more than one project consider investing in a spool of solder as it is cheaper when bought in quantity. Avoid anything with acid flux, it's intended for plumbing and likely to destroy your typical audio project. UHG_DIY_Kester44SolderBudget: $30/lb, Example: Kester 44 Rosin Core 63/37 (SN63PB37 #66/44 .031, part # 2463370027). Wire strippers should be selected to cover the range anticipated for the selected project and something covering the range from 18-28ga (wire size) should be adequate for signal wiring. Look for something covering 12ga and up if you will be working with line-level voltages (120/240VAC). Avoid combination tools that bundle a crimper and wire stripper, they tend succeed only at doing two things marginally. Budget: $10, Example: RadioShack Gauged Wire Stripper/Cutter (Model: 6400224 | Catalog #: 64-224). Auto-ranging multimeters work best for beginners and experienced builders alike as they save both time and frustration. At a minimum the meter must be able to measure AC and DC voltages along with resistance. Avoid cheap, $10 meters as they are likely to be so inaccurate that they cannot be relied upon for even the most basic measurement. Budget: $100, Example: B&K Precisions 2709B. Other basic tools needed will be: desktop vice, small screwdrivers, needle nose pliers, solder wick, and diagonal cutters. Optional but likely needed further down the road might be: heat shrink gun, nut drivers, panel hole punches, small files, tweezers, and more sophisticated electronic instruments like an oscilloscope or signal generator.

Selecting a First Project
First and foremost pick something that you're both interested in and capable of. The entire concept of DIY may be pushing your limits to start so attempting to learn complex electrical theory while trying to simply distinguish between a resistor and axial capacitor may put you off the entire adventure. Building something as simple as your own set of interconnects or a headphone extension cable can be very rewarding while inexpensive. There truly is no limit to the number of projects to choose from so do your research and make sure that if you're going to need technical support that it's offered/available and reliable. All of the vendors listed in the links section fully support their projects, some even offer phone support. Most importantly, be safe and have fun!

UHG_DIY_BK2709BLinks/Resources

Projects/Info:
www.amb.org
www.ankaudiokits.com
www.bottlehead.com
beezar.com
www.pmillett.com
www.tangentsoft.net/audio
www.tentlabs.com
www.twistedpearaudio.com

Parts/Tools:
www.alliedelec.com
www.digikey.com
www.markertek.com
www.mouser.com
www.partsconnexion.com/
www.radioshack.com

Forums:
www.diyaudio.com
www.diyforums.org
www.head-fi.org

COMMENTS
moose's picture

A rather neat tool for DIY would be those helping hand/third hand things with all the clamps, magnifying glass and other goodies. Maybe those should be added?

Some also use epoxy resin to stick conductors to connectors, although that isn't as widely applied, but I'll just give them a mention here.

 

Any update on international purchases? Would make a great gift.

n_maher's picture

Helping hands are decent but if I had been able to add one to the article it would be the panavise 301.  I bought one before I bought a set of helping hands and I still use it 3x as often, even when building cables.

OJneg's picture

Great article!

Headphone DIY is a really cool way to get into all things audio. I got started building the Cmoy a few years ago and I've been hooked ever since. I'd recommend the Cmoy because it's a super cheap and easy project for beginers. $30 worth of parts and a few basic tools and you can have your first headphone amp. Building more complex projects like power amps and loudspeakers are only a few steps away.

lafaard's picture

To me the first taste of D.I.Y. is modding headphones because it's relatively easy and risk free. Many headphones like the JVC ha-S400 can be improved through basic dampening and offer ridiculously good performance for the money. But my favorite headphone "project" is the Koss UR55. Removing the metal grille and cloth beneath it gives mind-blowing performance which rivals the Grado Sr80. However, I would understand why you wouldn't mention it in this article because it requires research to mod a headphone and the results can be irreversible/unpredictable. Also, the warranty...

Tyll Hertsens's picture

There's one sentence about it in the first paragraph...but yeah, it's a bit complicated to go into for a total n00b audience.

lafaard's picture

Well it only needs one line because you really can't say more about headphone modding without confusing people. Heck, I don't even understand the science behind dampening yet I still do it because of the suggestions on forums. So you are spot on. 

Jensigner's picture

If you are exploring basic (or even advanced) DIY circuits from scratch as opposed to building from kits, breadboards are very useful along with a basic dual power supply. I use this approach extensively before I ever think of commiting to circuit-board/solder/box. It is a great way to quickly learn circuit function (by swapping components along with multimeter measurements or listening tests). As an example a simple but very high performance headphone amp:  http://www.jensign.com/S4/quadbuffer.html  

alicewirek's picture

The headphones DIY is an awesome way to get the cheap headphones and save some cash for something you really need. I'm now shallow, and need to complete my write my paper for the next week module test. So, nothing new with me for now.

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