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Author Topic: Naiant preamps with output transformers  (Read 5775 times)

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Offline fmaderjr

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Naiant preamps with output transformers
« on: February 09, 2014, 05:05:44 AM »
I just sent my littlebox, which I love, back to Jon and had switchable output transformers put in.

Is there any particular type of music they are best for? Just for loud rock or can they provide a benefit with acoustic music as well? I assume anyone's experience with a tinybox with output transformers would apply to the littlebox as well.
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Offline DSatz

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2014, 11:44:23 AM »
Output transformers serve certain technical functions in connecting two pieces of balanced audio equipment: They isolate the signal from ground at DC (so-called "galvanic" isolation), and they establish symmetry in the signal voltage between the two modulation leads at the output of the device. With some types of input circuits both of those functions can be useful in reducing noise from interfering signals and optimizing signal transfer.

Is that what you thought they were for? If you thought instead that they're an option for coloring sound a certain way, then you've bought into a myth that is unfortunately rather prevalent on these forums. Some people talk about transformers as if they have a sound quality of their own that they add to signals (I've heard it called "the sound of iron"). As with many other myths there can be just enough truth to deceive someone who is predisposed to believe it, since an audio transformer's frequency response is load-dependent and not always flat to begin with--plus all transformers have some residual distortion, and in the less-well-made ones (and/or the ones that are driven and/or loaded inappropriately), the distortion can get high enough to become audible in conjunction with the frequency response effects. So if you switch a transformer in and out of certain hookups, you will indeed hear a change in the sound quality.

The question is what to make of that observation. I prefer to use preamps and recorders whose input circuitry is designed to solve the problems that an output transformer would address; then the output transformer isn't needed and can be done away with, eliminating load- and source-dependent variable response as well as significant cost (and for microphones, weight). Most of the professional audio industry took this step decades ago. Good input transformers have definite uses and benefits, but output transformers are really needed only for special purposes, and industry-wide are used far less often than they were before, say, the 1970s.

When transformers are overloaded they can produce large amounts of distortion which can sometimes be an interesting sound effect, but the amount must be controlled by careful listening and level setting for the purpose. In live recording situations with just two or four microphones picking up everything (as opposed to a separate mike for every instrument and voice), you can't control that distortion AND it affects the entire sound picture rather than just one voice or instrument--basically just throwing dirt all across the spectrum. So that aspect of a transformer isn't useful for "coloring" sound in the kinds of recordings that most people here generally make. On the contrary, it's very unlikely to work in the way you might hope, if you're expecting the wrong things.

--best regards
« Last Edit: February 09, 2014, 12:00:01 PM by DSatz »
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Offline Phil Zone

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2014, 12:01:34 PM »
This is a exact quote from Jon (from naiant) when I asked him what they did.

"They saturate as low-frequency signals exceed 0dBV; this causes distortion that adds harmonics in the low-midrange.  The effect is strongest with frequencies below 100Hz (with the primary harmonic distortion at three times the signal frequency)."

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Offline fmaderjr

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2014, 01:32:26 PM »
Thanks for the info guys!
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Offline DSatz

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #4 on: February 09, 2014, 03:17:03 PM »
The thing about transformer saturation is, while it is indeed triggered much more easily by low-frequency signals, the distortion then affects everything passing through the transformer at the same time--all frequencies, not just whatever's loudest. Also, the amount of distortion rises VERY steeply as the signal level increases, and quickly becomes a near-brick-wall situation. You only get a narrow dB range in which the effect is clearly audible, yet doesn't make everything sound like garbage.

I can understand using transformer saturation as an effect if you're, say, an electric bass player and you want to make your sound more complex and interesting. It could work then, because it's just the one instrument, playing generally just one note at a time, at fairly well-controlled signal levels. The transformer and/or tube circuitry can then be doing its thing on the bass part alone, while the drums and vocals and guitars and keyboards are independent--neither causing the bass to distort more, nor being affected when the bass does distort. The bass player rehearses, sets up and tests, and sets levels, so that just the right signal levels will pass through the transformer during the performance--not too low, not too high, but just right--and that's really what makes this approach capable of working repeatably.

But if you're recording the band, then you have to consider that (a) a saturating transformer in an acoustical recording setup distorts ALL the sound that's being picked up, that (b) you can't usually predict the exact levels that you'll get during a concert, and that (c) you can't usually monitor moderate amounts of distortion in a recording reliably during a concert, nor adjust the signal levels so that what's going through the transformer is neither too low nor too high, but just right.

A transformer isn't a magic ingredient, in other words. If it isn't needed for connecting specific pieces of circuitry together, it's almost always better not to use one at all. The idea of throwing it into the "recording chain" as a kind of flavoring is fantasy-based engineering. Since you can't predict what effect it's going to have on the recording, it makes far more sense to record cleanly and then experiment with various alterations of the sound in post-production, if you really think that there's a chance you can improve things. That way you can compare the actual recording with the tricked-up version and see which one you prefer, and you can even have it both ways if you like. But if you put a distorting device in the signal path during a live recording, you can never take back what it is doing to the sound.

--best regards
« Last Edit: February 09, 2014, 11:13:48 PM by DSatz »
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Offline F.O.Bean

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #5 on: February 09, 2014, 06:16:21 PM »
All I know is I've been using OTS on all of my LBs since the first ones were produced, and I think they sound particularly great with MY Schoeps :)
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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #6 on: February 10, 2014, 09:18:29 AM »
I don't have any clue about the technical discussion and/or what's on the inside of these boxes, but I can comment anecdotally based on some ownership experiences.  There are a couple of 'famous' preamps that have been used in this community that have transformers...namely Oade M148 and the EAA PSP-2.  Both of these preamps have either siblings or perhaps cousin preamp designs that don't have transformers, namely the Oade m248 and the AETA PSP3.  I've owned all four of these at various times.

When you compare the native tone of the 148 vs the 248 and the PSP2 vs the PSP3, there's no denying the tonal difference.  Most people characterize the non-transformer based pair to be 'transparent' or 'true' and some even call them bright, thin, or brittle, while the pair with transformers tend to be called 'flavored', 'full', or 'warm'. 

I'm not a sparky, so I have no idea whether the difference can be attribued solely to the presence of the transformer.  FWIW, the general differences between them always is described only in terms of with or without transformers...which of course leads one to assume that's where the sound difference lies. 

FWIW, I also have a Littlebox that has transformer bypass switches.  I don't hear as large a tonal difference between the 'on' vs. 'off' positions of the littlebox as I hear between the others.

I have no idea what, if any, definitive conclusions can be made from this anecdotal experience, but the simple and non-technical conclusion (whether right or wrong) for years here on ts.com seems to have been that the transformers seem beneficial to achieving a certain flavored warmer sound.  The PSP2 is probably THE most sought after preamp on ts.com, so there seems to be a certain mystique that has (again rightly or wrongly) been attributed to the presence of the transformer.

Jon and DSatz, I'm not really challenging anything you said earlier in this thread per se, but I'm curioius to hear your thoughts on these comments since the general tone of this thread has been kinda negative with respect to preamp transformer. 

More specifically, is the transformer = flavored and warm conclusion just a ts.com paradigm or is the effect of the transformer more real than that?

Offline Church-Audio

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2014, 12:06:46 PM »
Output transformers serve certain technical functions in connecting two pieces of balanced audio equipment: They isolate the signal from ground at DC (so-called "galvanic" isolation), and they establish symmetry in the signal voltage between the two modulation leads at the output of the device. With some types of input circuits both of those functions can be useful in reducing noise from interfering signals and optimizing signal transfer.

Is that what you thought they were for? If you thought instead that they're an option for coloring sound a certain way, then you've bought into a myth that is unfortunately rather prevalent on these forums. Some people talk about transformers as if they have a sound quality of their own that they add to signals (I've heard it called "the sound of iron"). As with many other myths there can be just enough truth to deceive someone who is predisposed to believe it, since an audio transformer's frequency response is load-dependent and not always flat to begin with--plus all transformers have some residual distortion, and in the less-well-made ones (and/or the ones that are driven and/or loaded inappropriately), the distortion can get high enough to become audible in conjunction with the frequency response effects. So if you switch a transformer in and out of certain hookups, you will indeed hear a change in the sound quality.

The question is what to make of that observation. I prefer to use preamps and recorders whose input circuitry is designed to solve the problems that an output transformer would address; then the output transformer isn't needed and can be done away with, eliminating load- and source-dependent variable response as well as significant cost (and for microphones, weight). Most of the professional audio industry took this step decades ago. Good input transformers have definite uses and benefits, but output transformers are really needed only for special purposes, and industry-wide are used far less often than they were before, say, the 1970s.

When transformers are overloaded they can produce large amounts of distortion which can sometimes be an interesting sound effect, but the amount must be controlled by careful listening and level setting for the purpose. In live recording situations with just two or four microphones picking up everything (as opposed to a separate mike for every instrument and voice), you can't control that distortion AND it affects the entire sound picture rather than just one voice or instrument--basically just throwing dirt all across the spectrum. So that aspect of a transformer isn't useful for "coloring" sound in the kinds of recordings that most people here generally make. On the contrary, it's very unlikely to work in the way you might hope, if you're expecting the wrong things.

--best regards
I disagree with your statement. I replace all kinds of transformers in tube amps for example and there is a huge difference in sound from one to another. I am talking output transformers here. There are many ways to make a transformer winding techniques and the way the transformer is put together can have a dramatic effect on sound. Playing with things like inductance, resistance, turns ratio, And the size and type of wire used all play a part in the way something sounds. And we are not taking the magic wire differences here but major difference between transformers. Not all transformers that have identical basic electrical specs will sound the same. Because of tension of the winding and the way it was wound every single company out there does different things.
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Offline DSatz

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #8 on: February 12, 2014, 10:10:29 PM »
Mr. Church-Audio, (a) hello, and (b) I really don't see where anything you say disagrees with anything that I said. I certainly never said that all transformers are perfectly sonically transparent; I only said that it doesn't make sense to use them intentionally as sound-altering devices in unrehearsed, live recording situations, since the odds that you'll get an optimal result are rather small. And if you push the signal levels toward saturation in order to get more "tone" out of the transformers, there's always the risk of going too far. Better to play such tricks in post if at all.

Also let me say that I generally agree with what Jon Stoppable says in his messages above (and Jon, that's really interesting about how saturation caused by low-frequency signals can be affected by higher-frequency signals--I'll have to look into that). What I'd add is that the greater the voltage step-up of an input transformer, the more sensitive it becomes to exactly what impedance is driving it, particularly in terms of high-frequency response. So a preamp with input transformers designed for 150-Ohm microphones may show tipped-up response when driven by the lower impedance (sometimes just 20 to 40 Ohms) of some transformerless microphones. Again, that's not "the sound of the transformer," but can create an audible effect which would seem to be "the sound of the transformer," if you didn't understand the situation.

--best regards
« Last Edit: February 13, 2014, 10:49:04 AM by DSatz »
music > microphones > a recorder of some sort

Offline spyder9

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #9 on: February 17, 2014, 09:45:56 PM »
Great thread!!  Nice job Jon and David.  I learned a lot from this one.   Thanks!

Offline pohaku

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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #10 on: February 17, 2014, 11:04:33 PM »
I learn something pretty much every time David and Jon post.
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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #11 on: February 19, 2014, 10:22:27 PM »
I learn something pretty much every time David and Jon post.

Just when I think I do.... they take it to a whole other level.  I go from awe I think I get it to wtf in about a nanosecond.  LOL  :facepalm:
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Re: Naiant preamps with output transformers
« Reply #12 on: March 01, 2014, 09:22:02 AM »
Not quite, but close to... our own version of Siskel and Ebert!*  ;D  I too am always schooled when these guys post.  They never fail to put the mysterious into understandable form and that helps immensely.  Thanks to both!  :clapping:


* not to suggest that there's any overt animosity between you two, as I think there may have been at times between S&E.  You just can't beat having two very knowledgeable individuals "debating" a single topic as a learning tool for the average Joe.
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