By Allen H. Burdick
Two inexpensive jack-mounted products from Benchmark Media Systems can be assembled into a very powerful test set we call The Audio MicroScope™. The Audio MicroScope™ is a tool to be used in setting up analog audio systems. Because of its extremely high gain capability, over 85 dB, it is particularly useful in hunting down signal interface problems, such as hum and buzz from RF interference, magnetic induction, and ground loops.
The first device in the test set is the MP-3, a single channel microphone preamplifier. The MP-3 is mounted on an XLR type jack and has a balanced input, variable gain from 26 to 65 dB, and a balanced output. It also has the ability to feed phantom power (with an external source of +48 V required) to a microphone. This can be useful even in this test set, particularly when testing microphone input cables. The performance of the MP-3 is excellent, with a 1 dB noise figure, a 2 kHz THD at A=40 dB of 0.005% and a bandwidth of greater than 200 kHz.
The second device used is the HPA-2. The HPA-2 is a high quality stereo headphone amplifier that has approximately 300 mA of very clean output capability per channel and is mounted on a 1/4" TRS jack. The HPA-2 is a improved headphone amplifier over the original HPA-1). Although the HPA-2 is a stereo device, in this application we will be using it as a dual channel mono amp. That is, both inputs to the HPA-2 will be connected to one half of the balanced output of the second product, the MP-3 microphone preamplifier.
Figure 1. MP-3 to HPA-2 Interconnect.
Mount an MP-3, an HPA-2, in a project box along with a DPDT switch for power, and four 9 V batteries or a PS-1. Be sure to include a switch for the +48 V if it is used. The Audio Microscope™ will allow you to "look" at your system and find minute problems.
To avoid damaging your hearing, since there is over 85 dB of gain available, you must be careful to have all normal audio fully removed from the path under test. Start with low gain and move cautiously upward as you begin the cleanup of the system.
Start at the beginning of the audio chain and listen to the microphone cable that feeds your console! Back terminate the wire, that is, replace the microphone with a 150 ohm carbon film or preferably a metal film resistor. Turn on phantom power, if available. Then turn up the gain and listen while you or someone else flexes the cable. If the cable is high quality, you will hear relatively little noise, if not, be prepared for a surprise. Next listen to the output of the first piece of equipment. It should be clean and free from hum. Move to the output of the next piece of equipment. Is the interconnect between the first two pieces of equipment free from mains-related hum and buzz? If not, work with the wiring and ground system, until they are. This, of course, assumes that the equipment by itself is clean, not always a safe assumption. Continue through the chain until the output of the final stage is just what you wanted.
You will find that the "Audio Microscope™" is one of the most valuable tools in your kit. In addition to using it with clip leads for direct connections, when used with a telephone pickup coil, Radio Shack Part # 44-533 it is most useful for doing a Magnetic Field survey of your equipment space. This piece of test equipment should be used hand in hand with the "A Clean Audio Installation Guide™" by Allen Burdick, a Benchmark Media Systems application note.
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Secrets contributor Sumit Chawla recently caught up with Benchmark’s VP and Chief Designer, John Siau to get a little more in-depth on several subjects.
Q: "Benchmark is one of the few companies that publishes an extensive set of measurements, but you also balance that with subjective testing. Can you talk about the equipment, the listening room, and the process for subjective testing?"
Q: "Was there ever a time where you learned something from a subjective test that was not captured by measurements?"
Q: "You conducted some listening tests to determine whether distortion in the “First Watt” was audible. What test material did you use for this, and what did you find?"
Q: "The AHB2 amplifier incorporates THX Audio Achromatic Amplifier technology. When and how did the partnership with THX come about?"
Q: "Linear power supplies have been and remain quite popular in high-end devices. You favor switch-mode power supplies. When and why did you make this switch?"
... and more!
At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. When all of the measurements show that a product is working flawlessly, we spend time listening for issues that may not have shown up on the test station. If we hear something, we go back and figure out how to measure what we heard. We then add this test to our arsenal of measurements.
Benchmark's listening room is equipped with a variety of signal sources, amplifiers and loudspeakers, including the selection of nearfield monitors shown in the photo. It is also equipped with ABX switch boxes that can be used to switch sources while the music is playing.
Benchmark's lab is equipped with Audio Precision test stations that include the top-of-the-line APx555 and the older AP2722 and AP2522. We don't just use these test stations for R&D - every product must pass a full set of tests on one of our Audio Precision test stations before it ships from our factory in Syracuse, NY.