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 pointmuch 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.
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 Shack, 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. Budget: $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!