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If you are reading this article you may also be interested in my article Audio Power Amplifier Power Rating Mysteries Explained (it has a lot more detail regarding power ratings of amplifiers).
The term amplifier is very generic. In general, the purpose of an amplifier is to take an input signal and make it stronger (or in more technically correct terms, increase its amplitude). Amplifiers find application in all kinds of electronic devices designed to perform any number of functions. There are many different types of amplifiers, each with a specific purpose in mind. For example, a radio transmitter uses an RF Amplifier (RF stands for Radio Frequency); such an amplifier is designed to amplify a signal so that it may drive an antenna. This article will focus on audio power amplifiers. Audio power amplifiers are those amplifiers which are designed to drive loudspeakers. Specifically, this discussion will focus on audio power amplifiers intended for DJ and sound reinforcement use. Much of the material presented also applies to amplifiers intended for home stereo system use.
The purpose of a power amplifier, in very simple terms, is to take a signal from a source device (in a DJ system the signal typically comes from a preamplifier or signal processor) and make it suitable for driving a loudspeaker. Ideally, the ONLY thing different between the input signal and the output signal is the strength of the signal. In mathematical terms, if the input signal is denoted as S, the output of a perfect amplifier is X*S, where X is a constant (a fixed number). The "*" symbol means” multiplied by".
This being the real world, no amplifier does exactly the ideal, but many do a very good job if they are operated within their advertised power ratings. The output signal of all amplifiers contain additional (unwanted) components that are not present in the input signal; these additional characteristics may be lumped together and are generally known as distortion. There are many types of distortion; however the two most common types are known as harmonic distortion and intermodulation distortion. In addition to the "garbage" traditionally known as distortion, all amplifiers generate a certain amount of noise (this can be heard as a background "hiss" when no music is playing). More on these later.
All power amplifiers have a power rating, the units of power are called watts. The power rating of an amplifier may be stated for various load impedances; the units for load impedance are ohms. The most common load impedances are 8 ohms, 4 ohms, and 2 ohms (if you have an old vacuum tube amplifier the load impedances are more likely to be 32 ohms, 16 ohms, 8 ohms, and maybe 4 ohms). The power output of a modern amplifier is usually higher when lower impedance loads (speakers) are used (but as we shall see later using low impedance loads just to get the extra power is not always recommended). The rated power output of an amplifier is understood to be its maximum output, it in no way means that the amplifier can only be used at this output. For example, if an amplifier is rated at 100 watts, the output can be anything between zero and this maximum rated value. Chances are that the amp can probably put out more if the input signal is overdriven, however the quality of the output will degrade rapidly. More on this later.
In the early days, audio power amplifiers used devices called vacuum tubes (referred to simply as "tubes" from here on). Tubes are seldom used in amplifiers intended for DJ use (however tube amplifiers have a loyal following with musicians and hi-fi enthusiasts). Modern amplifiers almost always use transistors (instead of tubes); in the late 60's and early 70's, the term "solid state" was used (and often engraved on the front panel as a "buzz word"). The signal path in a tube amplifier undergoes similar processing as the signal in a transistor amp, however the devices and voltages are quite different. Tubes are generally "high voltage low current" devices, where transistors are the opposite ("low voltage high current"). Tube amplifiers are generally not very efficient and tend to generate a lot of heat. One of the biggest differences between a tube amplifier and a transistor amplifier is that an audio output transformer is almost always required in a tube amplifier (this is because the output impedance of a tube circuit is far too high to properly interface directly to a low impedance loudspeaker). High quality audio output transformers are difficult to design, and tend to be large, heavy, and expensive. Transistor amplifiers have numerous practical advantages as compared with tube amplifiers: they tend to be more efficient, smaller, more rugged (physically), no audio output transformer is required, and transistors do not require periodic replacement (unless you continually abuse them). Contrary to what many people believe, a well designed tube amplifier can have excellent sound (many high end hi-fi enthusiasts swear by them). Some people claim that tube amplifiers have their own particular "sound". This "sound" is partly due to the way tubes behave when approaching their output limits (clipping). The onset of output overload in a tube amplifier tends to be much more gradual than that of a transistor amplifier. A few big advantages that tube amplifiers have were necessarily given up when amplifiers went to transistors. First, tubes can withstand electrical abuse that would leave even the most robust transistor completely blown. Also, tube amplifiers use an output transformer to interface to the speaker; such a device provides an excellent buffer (protection to the speaker) in the case of internal malfunction. Modern amplifiers (with no output transformer) occasionally fail in a way that connects the full DC supply voltage to the speaker. If the amplifier does not have adequate protection circuitry built in, the result is often a melted woofer voice coil.
An amplifier’s main purpose is to take a weak signal and make it strong enough to drive a speaker. Power amplifiers get the necessary energy for amplification of input signals from the AC wall outlet to which they are plugged into. If you had a perfect amplifier, all of the energy the amplifier took from the AC outlet would be converted to useful output (to the speakers). However, in the real world no amplifier is 100% efficient, so some of the energy from the wall outlet is wasted. The vast majority of energy wasted by an amplifier shows up in the form of heat. Heat is one of the biggest enemies to electronic equipment, so it is important to ensure adequate air flow around equipment (especially so for those units using convection cooling). Most amplifiers in the 200 watt per channel range (and up) have forced air cooling (via fans) in order to prevent excessive heat buildup.
Many amplifiers have a number of features to help monitor the status of the amplifier and also to protect speakers (and the amplifier itself) in the event of an overload condition. Some features include power meters, clipping indicators, thermal overload shutdown, over current protection, etc. Features vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. In addition, there are many variations in how protection circuits are implemented and how much "safety margin" they allow. For example, I tested the clipping indicator on one particular amplifier. The clipping indicator did not come on until there was a substantial amount of clipping actually occurring (as viewed on an oscilloscope). In this case, I did not notice a significant degradation of the sound quality despite the clipping. The manufacturer in this case chose to "allow a little more volume" before actually lighting up the warning light.
Power amplifiers intended for a DJ or a concert uses have power output ratings starting from around 75 watts per channel to over 1000 watts per channel. However, keep in mind that MORE POWER DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN A SUPERIOR AMP OR BETTER SOUND! The amp that you choose for your house would be different than that of an amp for a Keith Sweat concert but sound quality should be a key decision maker for either setting especially when the listeners will want to hear the singers voice clearly as well as the music that is playing. Choosing a well designed amplifier in the 200 watt per channel class may be a better investment than a marginally designed 500 watt per channel unit.
Yes. Power is not really something that can be “amplified”. Voltage and current can be amplified. The term “power amplifier” although technically incorrect has become understood to mean an amplifier that is intended to drive a load (such as a speaker, a motor, etc). There are all kinds of amplifiers used for different purposes. Some other terms you may run across: op amp, signal amp, RF (radio frequency amp), instrumentation amp. This article deals with what we call power amplifiers. Basically they take a small signal (like that from the output of a CD player, mixing board, etc) and make it strong enough to drive a speaker. This is accomplished by substantially increasing the voltage of the input signal; assuming an adequately designed amp, this will cause a correspondingly large current to flow through the load. Power = current times voltage (for resistive loads), this is where the “power” amplification comes from.
All power amplifiers have a power supply, an input stage, and an output stage. Many amplifiers have various protection features (briefly outlined above) which fall into a category I refer to as housekeeping.
Power Supply: The primary purpose of a power supply in a power amplifier is to take the 120 VAC power from the outlet and convert it to a DC voltage (VAC is an abbreviation for Volts Alternating Current, and DC is an abbreviation for Direct Current). Conversion from AC to DC is necessary because the semiconductor devices (transistors, FETs, MOSFETs, etc.) used inside the equipment require this type of voltage. (By the way, FET stands for Field Effect Transistor, and MOSFET stands for Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor). Many different types of power supplies are used in power amplifiers, but in the end they all basically aim to generate DC voltage for the transistor circuits of the unit. The very best of amplifiers have two totally independent power supplies, one for each channel (they do share a common AC power cord though). Truly excellent amplifiers will also have a separate (or at least separately regulated) power supply for the input stage (those circuits that do not actually drive the speaker). Under heavy load, the power supply voltage internal to the amp can sag (and this can lead to distortion). By having a separate power supply for the signal level signals in the amplifier, the distortion added by a sagging power supply is kept out of all but the final (output) stage.
Input stage: The general purpose of the input stage of a power amplifier (sometimes called the "front end") is to receive and prepare the input signals for "amplification" by the output stage. Most professional quality amplifiers have various input connectors; typically they will have XLR inputs, “quarter inch" inputs, and sometimes a simple terminal strip input (although these tend to be found on amplifiers intended primarily for public address systems). XLR and most quarter inch inputs are balanced inputs (as compared to single ended inputs). Balanced inputs are much preferred over single ended inputs when interconnection cables are long and/or subject to noisy electrical environments because they provide very good noise rejection. The input stage also contains things like input level controls. Some amplifiers have facilities for "plug in" modules (such as filters); these too are grouped into the input stage.
Output stage: The output stage of an amplifier is the portion which actually converts the weak input signal into a much more powerful "replica" which is capable of driving high power to a speaker. This portion of the amplifier typically uses a number of "power transistors" (or MOSFETs) and is also responsible for generating the most heat in the unit (unless the amplifier happens to have a very bad power supply design, in which case it too generates a lot of heat). The output stage of an amplifier interfaces to the speakers.
The Class of an amplifier refers to the design of the circuitry within the amp. For audio amplifiers, the Class of amp refers to the output stage of the amp (in practice there may be several classes of signal level amplifier within a single unit). There are many classes used for audio amps. The following is brief description of some of the more common amplifier classes you may have heard of.
Audio Power amplifiers are typically rated for "8 ohm" and "4 ohm” loads, and more and more (the higher end pro amps) are also giving ratings for continuous operation using "2 ohm" loads (loads being speakers, you can see more info on this topic in my article on speakers). If you have ever looked at a spec sheet for a decent quality amplifier, you probably noticed that the power output of an amplifier is higher when the load impedance (number of ohms) is lower. Important: a load with a low number of ohms is a more difficult load than one with a higher number of ohms! That is, a 4 ohm speaker is harder for an amplifier to drive than an 8 ohm speaker. The performance capabilities of an amplifier when driving low impedance loads is closely related to the capabilities of its power supply.
If we had a perfect amplifier (and it was plugged into an outlet that had unlimited current capability), its output power rating would double each time the load impedance was halved. For example, let's say the amplifier puts out 200 watts per channel at 8 ohms. At 4 ohms, it would put out 400 watts per channel, at 2 ohms it would put out 800 watts per channel, and at 1 ohm it would put out 1600 watts per channel. For the perfect amplifier, one could keep going with this until the load impedance approached zero, at which time the amplifier output would approach infinity! On the other side, if the load impedance was 16 ohms, the amplifier would put out only 100 watts per channel. In this direction, one could keep raising the load impedance, and the power output would grow smaller and smaller.
The power supply of the perfect amplifier generates a DC voltage that does not change no matter how much current is demanded from it. This means that the perfect amplifier can drive an unlimited number of speakers. In the real world, amplifiers have real power supplies which do have limits as to how much current they deliver (and real world amps use output devices that are only rated for so much current before they self destruct). For such typical amplifiers, the 4 ohm power rating is usually about 50% more than the 8 ohm rating (and if a 2 ohm rating is given, this is maybe double that of the 8 ohm rating). Amplifiers with exceptional power supply designs will do better than this, but eventually a limit will be reached (if by nothing else the AC outlet can only deliver so much current!). Lesser designs will "run out of juice” when driving the heavier loads. Most decent amplifier spec sheets will specify how much power the amp can deliver into various load impedances. If an amp’s spec sheet gives a 8 and 4 ohm rating, be careful before using the amp with 2 ohm loads. It might work, but more likely it will be stressed out and may overheat or fail prematurely.
Amplifiers utilizing exceptional power supply designs will invariably be the more expensive units available, and possibly the (physically) heavier designs. This is because good power supply designs usually require heavier and better (low loss) "magnetics". All power supplies utilize some combination of transformers, rectifiers, capacitors, and in the case of some so called "digital" amplifiers, switching components.
"Analog" Amplifiers: All amplifiers
in use by DJs today process analog input (music) signals. An analog
signal is a continuous wave signal, a digital
signal is an analog signal which has been converted to a sequence of numbers.
Analog when spoken in terms of power amplifiers
typically refers to the design of the power supply and/or output stage,
and most analog amps are those with a straight
"Digital" Amplifiers: There really is no such thing as a “digital” amplifier, although the marketplace sometimes tends to promote certain amplifiers as being “digital”. When the term digital is associated with a power amplifier, it is often a buzz word used by the vendor that may refer to the design of the power supply and/or the design of the output stage. Some amplifiers use power supplies that are the switching type (sometimes referred to as a DC - DC converter). The term "digital" is also sometimes associated with amplifiers of the more exotic classes (class G, H, S, and especially D). Class G, H and S amplifiers use special switching circuits that try to minimize the voltage that is dropped in the output semiconductor devices (thus resulting in higher efficiency). Class D uses a totally different scheme for amplification (and is the most legitimate class to be termed "digital", although Class D is still an analog circuit design). NOTE: An amp touting itself as digital in no way means that it is inherently better at producing sound from "digital" sources such as CDs!!! Most all car stereo amps (those above about 10 watts per channel) use a switching power supply. What advantages does a switching power supply offer? For car audio (which runs on a 13.8 VDC power source) there is no way to get high power to speakers without boosting the amplifier’s power supply rail voltage to higher levels. Switching power supplies are used in some conventional (home or pro audio) amps as well. Switching power supplies use much smaller transformers and capacitors (as compared to conventional amps), and are therefore considerably smaller and lighter than an equivalent analog power supply. The concepts behind switching power supplies have been known for many years. However, until fairly recently the components necessary for switching power supplies were unable to be produced cheaply enough for consumer use. Advances in transistor technology have made the necessary devices available at a cost which permits their widespread use. (Note: ALL of the "super systems" heard in many automobiles today are powered by amplifiers using switching power supplies).
On the minus side, switching power supplies are a great deal more complicated than their analog counterparts. They work basically by first creating a "crude" DC voltage. This crude voltage is applied to a switching circuit which uses a specially designed high frequency transformer. A control circuit monitors the output voltage of this stage and makes adjustments to the switching circuit "on the fly” in order to keep the final DC output voltage as close to the design value as possible. So, the advantages of lighter weight and smaller size come at the expense of increased parts count (which ultimately might translate to less reliability if the parts are of lesser quality). Switching power supplies tend to generate a lot more electronic noise as compared to linear power supplies (discriminating audiophiles would almost never tolerate a switching power supply in the audio path). Also, switching power supplies are harder to repair if they fail.
As mentioned, technically there is really no such thing as a digital amplifier (yet). However, many of the amplifiers on the market today use the term “digital", but this most likely means that there is some type of switching power supply in or that is uses one of the more exotic classes for its output stage. Some people believe that "digital" amplifiers are not so good at producing powerful bass notes. While it is true that there probably some marginally designed "digital" amplifiers which do have less than ideal bass response, weak bass response is not a necessity of digital designs. The dominating factor in performance comes back to the ability of the power supply to provide adequate current to the output stage when the music demands it; a solid design means adequate current is available for loud bass notes and/or difficult speaker loads. In addition, a second important factor is the adequacy of the AC power outlet. Two well designed amplifiers (one of each type) operated on an AC outlet which doesn't "sag" (see my article on AC Power) should both provide excellent sound quality. Many of the higher power amplifiers available today are of the so called “digital" design. But keep in mind that this does not necessarily make them better or worse, the quality of an amplifier comes down to the how well designed the unit is, the quality of components used, the derating factors used for the parts, and the quality of craftsmanship used in construction. Stay with vendors that have proven track records of reliability (and use the amplifier as it is intended) and you should have few if any problems with either type of design. The often heard phrase “you get what you pay for” tends to be true for amplifiers.
Two amplifiers with the same power rating put out the same power, right? Not necessarily. Manufacturers vary as to how conservatively they rate their amplifiers. As an example, I measured one particular amplifier, rated at 350 watts/channel, and found it actually was able to put out 450 watts/channel! Manufacturers often understate what their units will actually put out. It would be a bad idea to publish the "absolute maximum power" that the unit could put out, since a margin needs to be allowed to insure that all production units will meet published specs. In addition, a manufacturer may publish a very conservative 8 ohm rating in order to make the 4 ohm rating look better (a really marginal amplifier will put out LESS power into a 4 ohm load!).
Amplifiers are generally rated in watts per channel, at several load impedances, with both channels driven, over a frequency range of usually 20 Hz - 20,000 Hz, at some amount of total harmonic distortion. Most amplifiers will put out slightly more (but not a tremendous amount more) power when only a single channel is driven. This occurs because the power supply only has to provide power for a single channel, and its DC voltage doesn't sag as much. The exception is an amplifiers that uses dual independent power supplies (since each of their supplies only has to supply power for one channel anyway). In that case, there still may be a slight increase in power when one channel is driven; this is because the AC voltage from the wall outlet may sag a little less with only one channel driven.
I have noticed that many lower end home theatre amplifiers and “all in one” stereo systems tout impressive power ratings (like 500 watts total output in a relatively small package). However, the fine print also states that this power output is with 10% total harmonic distortion, and usually over a limited frequency range (like 40-20,000 Hz vice 20-20,000 Hz)! While these systems are fine for many people, I personally would avoid them. Clearly these products are stretching the limits of fidelity to tout a high power output. Chances are good that the overall design is of marginal quality. Unlike the hi-fi heyday of the 70s, much of the low end gear on the market today is “throw away” quality (meaning it is not worth fixing when it konks out). On the positive side, you can get a lot of system form the same $$ (adjusted for inflation) as compared to years gone by (but don’t expect it to last forever). Back in the 70s, you could buy an entry level 25 watt per channel amplifier, and it had a thick metal front plate, the entire case was metal, the specs were honest and great, and it was built to LAST. Those days are mostly gone… you CAN get good quality stuff today, but most of it is higher end.
Many of the better amplifiers on the market today are touting excellent performance with 2 ohm load impedances. Some also state that "continuous operation" with 2 ohm loads is possible. While such statements are probably true, it may not be a good idea to operate the amplifier under such conditions!
First, a word on speakers is in order (for much more detail please see my article on speakers). All speakers have a characteristic known as impedance (measured in ohms), with most speakers being rated at either 8 ohms or 4 ohms. Lower impedances represent more difficult loads for amplifiers to drive. Two 8 ohm speakers connected in parallel will result in a 4 ohm load at the amplifier. And, two 4 ohm speakers (wired in parallel) result in a 2 ohm load. In actuality, speaker impedance can vary by a factor of 10 or more over the audio frequency range. When a speaker is said to be 8 ohms, it is understood that this is a nominal or approximate rating (the same goes for 4 ohm speakers). An 8 ohm speaker could have an impedance as low as 5 or 6 ohms and as high as 50 ohms (impedance is frequency dependent)! Further, a speaker load is not the same as a resistive load, speakers are reactive loads. A reactive load is a load that has inductive or capacitive properties. Depending upon the input signal frequency, speaker loads may be resistive or resistive with an inductive or capacitive component. Without going into a ton of technical explanation, what this means is that speakers can be difficult loads for amplifiers to drive (it can cause more heat buildup in the amplifier). Ability to drive difficult speaker loads is where better amplifiers are separated from lesser designs.
Even though an amplifier may be rated for continuous use at 2ohms, there are several reasons why this may not be the best thing to do:
So, just because an amplifier has a super powerful 2 ohm rating, don't obsess over ways to wire up multiple speakers in order to "use" this power! It is better to treat the 2 ohm rating as "headroom" and know that your amp has the ability to more easily handle the most difficult "normal" 4 or 8 ohm speaker loads that you are likely to ever encounter. If you really need more audio output power, get a second amp and second set of speakers. Two medium powered amps are better than one monster (what if your one big amp dies at a live show)? With two smaller amps at least you can still run a basic show!
All amplifiers generate a certain amount of electrical noise. Note: the noise I refer to here is noise inherent in semiconductor circuits , not noise caused by improper wiring, poor shielding, etc. Generally, the more powerful the amplifier, the more noise it will put out. If you turn on an amplifier (with the input device connected but powered off) and listen to a speaker connected to the amp you can clearly hear a hissing sound. This pretty much represents the noise floor of the amplifier. If the amp has an input level control you will likely notice that the noise may vary as a function of the setting of the control. For a powerful system, the noise might seem pretty obvious and annoying; however when actual music is playing the noise will be totally masked.
All electrical circuits generate a certain amount of noise. Better designs minimize the amount of noise, however no matter how good the design there will always be some. The noise comes from several sources, some of it is generated by the movement of electrons in the system and cannot be eliminated (unless you chill your equipment to absolute zero!). The noise floor of an amplifier by itself is usually not obviously audible in a typical room (unless you are standing right next to a speaker). However, the remaining components in a system (preamp, equalizer, processor, etc.) each add in some noise. So, the total system noise (when no music is playing) might be objectionable. If this is a serious problem, a device called a noise gate can be used. Such a device is essentially a "squelch" which is wired in just before the power amps (or electronic crossover in multi-way systems). The device is basically cuts noise from upstream components when no music is playing. Most noise gates have adjustable controls to set the threshold at which noise cut begins and also to set the amount of desired noise cut. Most DJ systems probably do not need noise gates unless they are very high powered systems with a long signal chain (or noisy components).
The noise floor of an amplifier is relatively constant, meaning it does not increase with increasing output signal (unless the amplifier has a poorly regulated power supply). In other words, the amplifier's noise floor is pretty much the same whether or not music is playing loudly or softly. So, when music is playing softly, the noise will be proportionally larger. When music is playing loudly, the noise is essentially "buried" or masked.
As stated, an amplifier with a poorly regulated power supply can create some additional noise. If the filtering of the power supply is marginal, the "smoothness" of the DC power supply voltage will be degraded when the amplifier is playing loudly. This will result in additional noise being added to the system (generally in the form of 60 Hz products). This type of noise isn’t really part of the noise floor. Such noise is often inaudible when music is playing loudly. It can be clearly heard however when playing test tones at levels near the output limit of the amplifier (don't try this unless you are thoroughly familiar with testing practices... blown speakers will otherwise be the result!).
ALL amplifiers alter input signals, generally in two ways: they make them stronger (amplify) them, and they add characteristics which did not exist in the original signal. These undesirable characteristics are lumped together and called distortion. Noise can be considered a type of distortion and was discussed in the above section.
Everyone is familiar with gross distortion, the sound quality that results when turning up a radio or boom box to "full blast”. An excessive amount of amplifier clipping (see section below) results in hideous distortion that would be totally unsatisfactory for a DJ sound system (as well as a listener’s ears). However, not all distortion is blatant. In addition, there are several types, two of which will be discussed. Knowing what causes distortion will help you to prevent it from occurring. Knowing how to control distortion is important because excessive distortion can be detrimental to speaker systems (and your reputation as a performer).
Harmonic distortion: One common type of distortion is harmonic distortion. Harmonics of a signal are signals which are related to the original (or fundamental) by an integer (non decimal) number. A pure tone signal has no harmonics; it consists of only one single frequency. If 100 Hz pure tone signal was applied to the input of an amplifier, we would (upon measurement with special test equipment) find that the output signal of the amplifier was no longer pure. Careful measurements would likely show that several "new" frequencies have appeared. These new frequencies are almost certainly to be integer multiples of the original tone; they are the harmonics of the original signal. In the case of a 100 Hz input tone, we might expect to find tones at 200, 300, 400, 500 (etc.) Hz. We would also probably notice that the odd harmonics are much stronger than the even harmonics (we will not go into the reasons why in this article). In a good amplifier, the harmonics will be much weaker than the original tone. By much weaker, we mean on the order of a thousand times for decent amplifiers.
All amplifiers are generally rated for Total Harmonic Distortion (or THD), usually at full power output, with both channels driven, over a given frequency band (normally 20-20,000 Hz) and with a particular load. Good values are anything less than 0.5 % THD. Some amplifiers have vanishingly low THD ratings, like 0.01%, this is superb but in practice it does not really need to be this low for music reproduction). When an amplifier is measured for THD, a pure tone is applied to the input and the output is measured with special test equipment. The energy of the pure tone is measured, and the energy of the harmonics is measured. Those two values are compared, and a THD rating is calculated. A THD rating of 1% means that the total energy of all the harmonics combined is one one-hundredth of the energy in the fundamental.
Harmonic distortion (although certainly undesirable) is one of the more tolerable types of distortion as long as it is kept reasonably low. Distortion levels of 10% may be very tolerable with music so long as the 10% level is only "occasional" (10% THD on a pure tone can easily be heard by the human ear... but who listens to pure tones?). The reason that a seemingly high value of THD is acceptable for music is partially because many sounds in nature are rich in harmonics. Also, most decent cassette decks (which most people agree sound pretty good) have THD (off the tape that is) of several percent. Worse, even good speakers can have THD up to 10%, especially at low frequencies! All in all, the human ear can tolerate a fair amount of THD before it becomes objectionable. That said, it is preferable to maintain low THD to have the best sound at all times.
Note: It is a bit off topic for this article, but many guitar amplifiers incorporate ways to actually add controlled distortion to the signal! This is what (often) gives a particular “sound” to a band. This kind of distortion is OK in that it provides a desired tonal impact. The key thing to remember is this: the signal coming out of the guitar amp (which is often fed to a main mixing board for the PA system) does not cause the signals from other instruments to become distorted. In other words, in the mixer, the intentionally distorted sound from the guitar is added to the clean sound from the drums, lead vocal, etc. If the final mix is sent to an amplifier that is driven into clipping, then the entire mix will sound bad. However, with just the guitar running in controlled distortion, the music often sounds better than it would if the guitar was completely “clean”.
Do two amplifiers with identical THD ratings sound the same, everything else being equal? Not necessarily (but differences will be subtle). The reason is that the THD specification states nothing about where the harmonics are in the frequency band. For example one amplifier could have a dominant harmonic at one frequency and a second amplifier could have a dominant harmonic at a very different frequency. Or, one amplifier could have a few "big" harmonics while a second has many weak ones. These situations could easily result in identical THD ratings. The variations could be easily measured with laboratory equipment. However do not be overly concerned. Minor variations in THD ratings will not cause major differences in sound when listening to music. With pure tones as input signals it might be fairly easy to discern which of two amplifiers was used if the distortion was in the range of several percent (but again, who listens to tones?).
Intermodulation distortion Intermodulation distortion is the second "major" type of distortion that is often specified for amplifiers. Intermodulation distortion is much more objectionable to the human ear because it generates non-harmonically related "extra" signals which were not present in the original. It is analogous to someone singing way off key in a choral group
Intermodulation distortion (sometimes abbreviated IM) is more complicated to test for and specify. Basically, two pure tones of different frequencies are simultaneously applied to the input of the amplifier. If the amplifier were perfect, the two tones (and only the two tones) would be present at the amplifier output. In the real world, the amplifier would have some harmonic distortion (as described above), but careful observation of the output signal (using laboratory equipment) would reveal that there are a number of new tones present which cannot be accounted for as a result of harmonic distortion. These "new" tones are called "beat products" or "sum and difference" frequencies, and are a result of the interaction of the two pure tones within the amplifier. No amplifier is perfect, all have some non linear characteristics. Whenever two pure signals are applied to a nonlinear system, new signals (in addition to the original two pure ones) are generated. For a good amplifier, the new signals are very small in relation to the two original tones. This is fortunate, since the ear can detect much lower levels of intermodulation distortion as compared to harmonic distortion.
It should be noted that distortion measurements on amplifiers are made with test tones. These tones are usually sine waves (pure tones), which represent the simplest possible test signal to measure and quantify. A music signal is an extremely complicated waveform consisting of many constantly changing sine waves. Since music has so many harmonics and frequencies present, quantifying how two different amplifiers will sound by using simple THD and IM specifications is extremely difficult. In other words, just because two amplifiers have the same published specs for THD and IM does not mean that they are equivalent. Fully and completely quantifying the technical performance of an amplifier would be extremely complicated and costly (and would probably have little benefit in the end). Most amplifiers available today (from reputable manufacturers) have THD and IM levels low enough to yield excellent performance (so long as they are not overdriven). This leads nicely into our next topic...
Clipping is a term which many people have probably heard, but may not fully understand. Very simply, clipping of an amplifier occurs when one tries to get a larger output signal out of an amplifier than it was designed to provide.
As stated before, all power amplifiers have a DC power supply which provides power to (among other things) the output stage of the amplifier. For most amplifiers, the power supply consists of a "plus" supply and a "minus" supply. The two voltages are often referred to as "rail voltages" or simply "rails". As an example, a 200 wpc amplifier (at 8 ohms) might have a power supply voltage (rails) of +/- 60 volts DC. This means that the output voltage which drives the speaker can never exceed + 60 or - 60 volts. If the amplifier is playing at near full volume, and someone “cranks up the volume”, the amplifier will attempt to put out more power. However, the power required to meet the sudden new demand for more volume cannot be met by the power supply voltage, which has limits of +/-60 volts in this example. The result is a waveform with the top portion (or peak) "clipped" off (hence the term "clipping"). Such clipping represents a distortion which is added to the waveform (and if it is severe enough it will be clearly audible). If a signal is severely clipped, the waveform takes on the shape of a "square wave", and the resulting sound will be absolutely hideous. Clipping can be easily observed using an oscilloscope attached to the amplifier output.
Clipping is not usually a major problem for amplifiers (unless it is extreme), but it can be very detrimental to speaker systems. Whenever clipping occurs, two things happen: (1) the spectral content of the music signal is altered (high frequency components are generated), and (2) signal compression occurs. If excessive clipping occurs, tweeters will be the first to blow followed by midrange drivers. Woofers are best equipped to survive clipping (unless the abuse is blatant).
In general, clipping of an amplifier should be avoided. Use an amplifier that has clipping indicators, and pay attention to them! Occasional clipping is OK and probably not very audible. However if you find yourself clipping the amp most of the time, you should either (a) turn down the volume or (b) if you really do need to run louder, consider obtaining stronger (or additional) amplifier.
The Damping Factor of an amplifier in general refers to the ratio of the amplifier's output load impedance (the speaker, nominally 8 ohms) to the output impedance of the amplifier. Ideally, the damping factor would be infinity (in other words, the ideal output impedance for an audio amplifier is zero ohms). Damping factor, like many amplifier specifications, is a function of many factors and is thus difficult to quantify with a single number. As such, "low end" manufacturers can have a "field day" with this spec, publishing fantastic numbers (however with no information as to how the measurement was made).
The damping factor if an amplifier depends greatly upon the speaker to which it is connected, the wire connecting the speaker to the amplifier, the signal frequency that the amplifier is sending to the speaker, and the power level at which the amplifier is operating, among other things. Damping factor is most critical at low frequencies, generally 100 Hz and below (i.e. frequencies that a woofer reproduces). At such frequencies, a high damping factor is desirable in order to maintain a "tight" sound. If an amplifier/speaker pair has a low damping factor, the bass response is likely to be "boomy", "uncontrolled", and "loose" sounding.
Specifying damping factor as a simple single number does not really tell the whole story. Damping factor is a ratio of two numbers, one of which (the speaker impedance) varies by a large amount depending upon frequency. This being the case, the damping factor will also vary considerably as a function of frequency. Most of the variation in damping factor is due to the characteristics of the speaker connected to the amplifier. The wire which connects the speaker to the amplifier has finite resistance which must be accounted for; basically it is lumped in with the impedance of the speaker. So, it is wise to use heavy speaker wire in order to minimize degradation of the damping factor.
As mentioned, the output impedance of an amplifier is ideally zero. In the real world, this is never the case. The next best thing would be a very low constant (non changing) impedance. Again, the real world does not allow this either. The output impedance of most amplifiers is relatively constant except for when they approach the last 10% or so of their voltage output. This is due to the nature of the waveform from which most power supplies obtain their energy (especially analog supplies) . What this means is that the output impedance of an amplifier tends to rise considerably as it approached its output limit. As the amplifier's output impedance increases, the damping factor must decrease proportionally. In my opinion, if manufacturers specified the output impedance of their amplifiers, there would be a lot less ambiguity among the numbers.
High damping factor numbers go hand-in-hand with amplifiers that can drive very low impedance loads (these are amplifiers with power supplies capable of delivering tremendous current). If you want to "artificially" degrade the damping factor of your system (to hear the effects), a simple test can be done. Listen to your system at a "healthy" volume (use a CD with lots of low, tight percussion type sounds); be sure to use a heavy gauge short length speaker wire. If you have a sound level meter, note the sound level you listened at. Then, connect your speaker up through a 100 foot (give or take) wire with much smaller gauge (use #20 or higher). Play the same music as before, but make sure the volume (to your ears, not the volume control!) is the same (this is where the sound level meter comes in handy). The volume control on the amp will have to be turned up a bit to overcome the power loss in the smaller wire. You should be able to tell that the sound has changed (for the worst, in most people's opinion).
Do not be terribly concerned with damping factor when choosing quality equipment. Most of the good amplifiers and speakers available today will yield excellent sound when used together. To avoid degrading the damping factor of your system, simply follow these (easy) steps:
YES! Amplifiers in the 400 plus watt per channel range are not uncommon today. Such an amplifier will put out about 50 to 60 volts RMS to a speaker. While this is only about half the amount that comes out of a wall socket, it's definitely enough to be unpleasant if you are holding on to it! Note: The US Military defines any voltage in excess of 30 volts as hazardous. Such a voltage can be generated by any amplifier in the 100 + watt per channel range.
As a side note, it's not a good idea to plug or unplug speakers when the amplifier is playing at high volume. The "make and break" of connectors can cause momentary short circuits, as well as voltage and current transients (none of which is healthy for the amp). The preferable procedure is to make all speaker connections (and disconnects) with the amp turned OFF.
Bridging an amplifier refers to configuring a two channel (stereo) amplifier to drive a single load with more power than the sum of the two original channels combined. For an example, a 100 watt per channel amp may put out 300 watts (one channel) after bridging. Don’t confuse “bridging” an amplifier with “bi-amping” an amplifier!
There are important things to know about running an amplifier in the bridged mode:
The following diagrams will be used to try to explain what goes on when an amplifier is operated in bridged mode. The letters in circles are designators, when I have time I will generate waveform plots that show the signals at each of the stages shown. In the meantime, we first we show a diagram for an amplifier operating in "normal" mode:
In Figure 1 above, we show one channel of a two channel amp. Note how the speaker is connected to output of the amplifier (between the + and – terminals). The +Vcc and –Vcc lines are the rail voltages of the power output stage.
Figure 2 above shows a concept diagram of a two channel amplifier operating in bridged mode. Note that there are many ways to do the 180 degree phase shift (it is really a phase inversion), the concept diagram above is but one way of accomplishing this task. Note that the speaker is connected between the two "plus" terminals at the output of the amp! Bridged amplifiers work basically as follows: A single input signal is applied to the amplifier. Internal to the amp, the input signal is split into two signals. One is identical to the original, and the second is also identical except that it is passed through a "phase flip" circuit. The original signal is sent to one channel of the amp, and the inverted signal is applied to the second channel. Amplification of these two signals within each amplifier channel occurs just like for any other signal. The output results in two channels which are identical except one channel is the inverse of the other. The speaker is connected between the two positive amplifier speaker output terminals. In words, one channel "pulls" one way while the second channel "pulls" in the opposite direction. This allows considerably more power to be delivered to a single load.
Some facts about amplifiers operating in bridged mode:
If we had our perfect amplifier, upon bridging it we would have a single channel amplifier with exactly four times as much power as any one channel of the amplifier in "normal" stereo mode, assuming an 8 ohm speaker load. This is because the effective output voltage available to drive the speaker has doubled as a result of bridging. A doubling of voltage on a given load results in a fourfold increase of power delivered to that load. If we used a 4 ohm load on the perfect bridged amplifier, the output power would be a very substantial eight times the normal stereo single channel 8 ohm output! These numbers should give some clues as to why real world amplifiers cannot meet such expectations. Once again, we are back to limitations of the power supply (and probably also the limitations of the output devices in cases where the power supply could keep up). In reality, most amplifiers in bridged mode will put out about 3 times the power as any one channel of the amp in normal stereo mode. The fourfold increase cannot be achieved because the power supply is unable to provide the current required for such performance. With 4 ohm loads, the situation is compounded. The amount of current required to drive a 4 ohm load when in bridged mode will tax the amplifier’s power supply to its absolute limits. Not to mention, the output stage may not be able to safely handle the extra heat that will be dissipated. Bottom line: stay away from 4 ohm loads if you are running an amplifier in bridged mode unless your amplifier’s manual specifically states that you can use such loads safely!
Bi-amplification is (in most cases) defined as using more than one amplifier to power a speaker system (typically one amp for bass and one for mid/high frequencies). The key point here is that each amplifier is dedicated to a specific frequency band (whereas with single amplifier systems the one amp covers the entire audio range). Similarly, some systems are tri-amplified and once in a while you may see a 4 or 5 way system (although the latter is usually reserved for only the most powerful touring type sound systems). Bi-amplification has many significant benefits:
Bi-amplification is common among car audio systems (the powerful ones, not so much with the stock stereo that comes with most cars). Many home theater systems use a separate amp to drive a subwoofer. These systems are a form of bi-amplification, although in most cases the amp is a multi channel amp (not two separate amplifiers) and also they generally don't have nearly the flexibility of a conventional bi-amped system. Nonetheless, many of the benefits of bi-amplification are realized. The same applies to powered subwoofers for the most part. (I'll expand this section a lot more when I have time, just wanted to get the basics in there for now, JR)
Note: This section is intended primarily for engineering students or those with a deeper technical interest. The purpose is to provide a "real world" explanation of the Maximum Power Transfer theory and why it is NOT used in amplifiers designed for stereo systems!
Second year electrical engineering students have most likely covered the theory that basically states "maximum power is transferred to a load when the output impedance of the source is identical ("matched") to that of the load". The connection that some people fail to make is that maximum power transfer doesn’t mean maximum efficiency! At best, if the maximum power transfer theory is used, efficiency will be only 50% (not so good). In other words, if an amplifier is designed for maximum power transfer to a load, fully one half of the energy required by the amplifier's output stage will be dissipated (i.e. wasted) in the source impedance!
For amplifiers used in stereo systems (audio amplifiers), the goal is to have the amplifier output impedance be as low as possible (ideally zero, but this is never achieved). If an amplifier were to have an output impedance of 8 ohms (a common value for speakers), maximum power transfer would occur. However two other bad things result. First, the efficiency of the amplifier is at best only 50%, meaning that the amplifier will generate a lot of heat. Second, the amplifier/speaker system will have a terrible damping factor. Damping factor basically refers to the ratio of speaker impedance to amplifier output impedance; high numbers are better. A low damping factor will not damage anything but it will tend louse up the sound considerably. To maintain a "tight" sound, it is important to have the output impedance of the amplifier be as low as possible with respect to the speaker. Otherwise, the amplifier will not have as much control over the speaker. Speakers, being highly complicated electromechanical devices with reactive impedance properties, behave better when they are connected to an amplifier with an extremely low output impedance. Speakers tend to electrically "buck and kick" an amplifier when in operation; the best way to tame this behavior is to put a heavy "load" (i.e. an amp with a very low output impedance) on the speaker! An amplifier/speaker combination with a low damping factor will tend to have a "boomier" sound and poorer transient response, (such a sound is not always bad, some people actually prefer it!).
There is a quick test anyone can do to get a feel for what affect the damping factor has on a speaker system. Disconnect your speaker system from the amplifier, remove the grille, and gently tap on the woofer cone. You will hear a low frequency sound, this is the "resonance frequency" of the system. Note the characteristic if the sound as you tap the cone. Now, connect the speaker up to the amplifier, and turn the amplifier ON (but leave the volume at zero). Now tap on the speaker cone as before. You will observe that the sound has changed considerably. The sound will be much "tighter", and the cone will seem harder to move. This is because the amplifier has in effect "loaded" the speaker system. The case where the speaker was disconnected from the amplifier represents the worse possible damping factor (zero).
Anyway, back to the topic of this section. Although there are many applications where maximum power transfer is desired, audio amplifiers are not one of them. Audio amplifiers generally deal with a considerable amount of power, so high efficiency is a more important design consideration.. In addition, to maintain high quality audio, an audio amplifier ideally has an output impedance which is VERY small compared to the impedance of the speaker it will be driving. Note that using 4 ohm speakers on an amplifier will degrade the damping factor as compared to using 8 ohm speakers.
This article has only briefly skimmed some of the topics associated with audio amplifiers. Each section above could easily be expanded into a chapter of a book (some topics could be an entire book)! I don’t have all the answers but I will try to write more as time allows. If you have questions you can e-mail me. Please note that I receive a considerable volume of questions as a result of my web pages, and I may not always be able to answer promptly (although I try). I provide answers only in areas where I am qualified (I will let you know if your question is not one I can answer). Also please note that I in general cannot answer questions regarding specific brands and models of equipment. With so many kinds of equipment available, it is nearly impossible to know all of them! Questions I can best answer involve fundamental performance characteristics of equipment (why low impedance loads are difficult, what is bridging, etc).