Model A volume control

As stated from the very beginning, a standard input stage of the Model A is a low impedance shunt potentiometer. So, how did it come this way, and why do we use such a radical solution that obviously counteracts the usual approaches?

The answer is simple, and again as stated from the very beginning, is: because it is the best sounding “pre-amp” there is. Sounds simple? In fact it is, but let’s take a closer look at it.

Firstly, for the record, “normal” potentiometer wiring looks this way.

So, its bottom side is the ground, and its upper side is the input signal. The wiper moves between the two sides, and carries the signal further to the next stage. Impedances are of course not constant, but can be set and kept within acceptable range. With logarithmic potentiometer the attenuation curve will be real logarithmic too, and conductive plastic potentiometer are usually made in a way that really fulfils such a logarithmic curve requirements. Furthermore, their inter-channel tracking is very good, at all levels. And their sound is relatively fine too, so in many audiophile constructions such a conductive potentiometers are no-brainers, for decades.

Still, we want the best. And when I said above “the best”, I assumed classic passive potentiometers of all kinds, different stepped attenuators, transformer based volume controls, and less conventional stuff such as LDRs, with or without different active stages, as a competition. In my view, the best chances here still have digitally controlled stepped attenuators (or so-called “digital potentiometers”, please search around for simple DS1802 solution I published years ago), but this would be the topic for the other day.

And my views haven’t changed since Model A release, so I can only repeat: “the best” is still the low impedance shunt potentiometer.

As many of you are aware of, a shunt pot looks like this.

Such a configuration is sometimes considered better for having a fixed resistor at signal path (*), however in practical implementations it is usually dismissed both because its impedances are way more problematic (in common engineering sense), and because its attenuation curve can not be fully logarithmic – the series element is fixed resistance, and only shunt part behaves logarithmically. So it is used quite rarely, usually in high impedance environment, with relatively high series resistance, that does not load the source very much.

It was Malcolm Hyde and our work on Gramofone devices that helped me realize how wrong such an understanding of shunt potentiometers, and probably potentiometers in general, actually is.

The key point was: the lower the series resistance we used, the better the sound we had. And the best things start to happen at and below 1 kOhm! (**)

And obviously, to come across this point you need a source that is able to drive such a sub 1 kOhm load. OK, Audial DACs are ones of that kind, but all this can look strange anyway. The question we obviously have is: what actually makes the potentiometer sounding better in this case? And it is also interesting, these findings apply to both conductive plastic and cermet potentiometers. So, a higher current flowing through the potentiometer wiper, which is unsoldered, moving contact? This is still a sort of open question to me, but it looks like that. And the potentiometer in shunt mode, with low series resistance, is probably the only usable configuration that can force a higher current to flow there.

Of course, one does not have to think about the reasons, but just take it as that, and enjoy.

As for the potentiometer itself, cermet is clearly preferred sound-wise. In practical use it can be tricky though. The more detailed explanation following.




* – You can even find the claims that it is only a series element that counts, but it is of course not correct: the signal that “leaves” the volume control is the quotient of its series and shunt part.

** Of course, lower series resistance takes lower value potentiometer, which will also solve the most of the problems with shunt potentiometer output impedance.



Related topics:

Sweet spot of amplifier power

Model A, one year later: Binding posts

Model A, one year later: Power

Cermet potentiometers