«What do power amplifiers do? Power amplifiers drive loudspeakers. After an audio signal has been mixed, equalized and otherwise processed at a ...»
Amplifier Anatomy - Part 1
By: Patrick Quilter, Chief Technical Officer
QSC Audio Products, Inc.
Article in Sound & Video Contractor Feb. 20, 1993
What do power amplifiers do? Power amplifiers drive loudspeakers. After an audio signal has
been mixed, equalized and otherwise processed at a standardized line level, it is sent to the
power amplifier. Its job is to increase the power of the signal until we get the desired sound level
from the loudspeakers, without otherwise altering the waveform of the signal.
We need to talk about loudspeakers for a moment. A loudspeaker is an electromagnetic device that converts electric current into motion at audio frequencies. Because of the weight og the cone and the unavoidable resistive losses in the voice coil, it takes a lot of power to produce a high sound level. We know (especially if we read last month’s article, “Mr. Ohm and His Talking Electrons”) that electric power is a product of voltage and current.
Loudspeaker cone movement is proportional to the current in the voice coil. The amount of heat in the amplifier components is also proportional to current. However, it takes voltage to make the current flow, so a power amplifier must deliver high voltage and current simultaneously. Loudspeakers are generally made with a voice coil resistance of about 8 ohms, so the amplifier must produce 8V across the loudspeaker terminals to cause a 1A current to flow. This means that ideally the amplifier works into an impedance of 8 ohms.
In the real world, the impedance of loudspeakers is more complex. As the cone moves, it generates electrical back pressure, which can increase or decrease the current flow from the amplifier.
Because of interactions with air pressure in the loudspeaker cabinet, the cone motion varies greatly, especially in the bass region. Therefore, the loudspeaker’s impedance varies at different frequencies, and may range from 4 ohms to 20 ohms, averaging about 8 ohms. In addition, more than one 8 ohm loudspeaker may be connected to the amplifier. For these reasons, most professional amplifiers are built to work into impedances as low as 2 ohms, which will draw up to four times the normal current. The amplifier must also withstand very high impedances in case the load is disconnected. This requirement is normally not a problem because the current flow with no load is zero.
AMPLIFIER POWERWe all know that the amplifier’s power rating tells us how loud the amplifier will get. A “200W at 8 ohm” amplifier is designed to deliver 40V to an 8 ohm loudspeaker, resulting in 5A of current (40V divided by 8 ohms). Of course, 40V times 5A yields the amplifier rating of 200W.
If we want to double the cone motion, we have to double the current, from 5A to 10A. Because the loudspeaker impedance is still 8 ohms, it will take 80V to get 10A. Therefore, the power rating must increase from 200W the 800W (80V multiplied by 10A). You can see why the power ratings escalate pretty quickly in high-output systems.
HOW DO POWER AMPLIFIERS WORK?An amplifier is basically an ac-to-dc power converter. It takes ac power from the wall outlet (at fixed frequency and voltage) and converts it to audio power at the loudspeaker terminals (with variable frequency and voltage). The audio output is supposed to be a faithful replica of the line-level audio input, only larger.
Let’s look a little further into the block diagram, at some of the major sub systems inside a power amplifier. We will explain more about each sub-system later in the article.
First we need a power supply. This subsystem accepts the ac power from the wall, isolates the audio circuitry from shock hazard, raises or lowers the ac voltage to suit the needs of the amplifier power rating, converts the ac power to dc, and stores it in an energy reservoir.
The other major subsystem is the output section. This is the electronic circuitry that accepts the linelevel audio input and uses this information to control high-power transistors. These convert the energy contained in the dc reservoir to a high-power audio waveform that is a magnified replica of the input signal
AMPLIFIER PERFORMANCE LIMITATIONS
All amplifiers have a maximum power limit. The voltage at the amplifier output can only go as high as the voltage in the dc power supply. If the signal tries to exceed this limit, it ”hits the ceiling,” and the waveform becomes flattened. This problem, called clipping because it looks like the top of the waveform has been clipped off, results in the familiar ”blatting” sound of an overdriven amplifier.
Increasing the supply voltage adds cost and weight to the amplifier, so amplifier power has a big effect on price.
Amplifiers have a minimum rated output impedance, which should be equal or less than the impedance of the loudspeaker load. As the impedance of the loudspeaker gets lower, more current will be drawn from the amplifier. This is why, up to a point, the amplifier power rating increases into lower impedances. However, the increased current puts a greater strain on the amplifier components and the power supply. At some minimum impedance, the strain will get so high that the power-supply voltage sags or the transistors overheat. Any further decrease in impedance will cause the amplifier circuitry to collapse, resulting in less power, or it could even cause amplifier failure.
Amplifiers also must reproduce all audio frequencies, from the highest to the lowest, at equal volume. This ability is called flat frequency response because the graph of amplifier gain vs.
frequency is a flat line.
If the gain at low frequencies falls off, the sound will be thin or lacking in impact. If the high frequency gain rolls off, the sound will be dull or muffled. Most modern direct-coupled amplifiers are capable of very flat response, but sometimes the frequency response is intentionally limited to protect the loudspeakers from excessive power at frequencies we can’t hear.
MORE ABOUT THE POWER SUPPLY
Why do we have to convert the ac power from the wall into dc power, and then back to ac? The ac power from the wall is at a fixed voltage and frequency, which are completely different from the audio voltages and frequencies. If we tried to use the ac voltage “as is” for a power supply, we would only be able to reproduce small parts of the audio waveform.
We have to convert the ac power into a fixed dc source, and provide enough energy storage to carry us through the periods where the ac voltage is passing through zero. This way, the audio output section has the power available to respond at anytime as required by the input signal.
So, let’s take a more detailed look at the amplifier’s power supply.
The ac power comes into the amplifier through the ac cord, is controlled by the on/off switch, and usually goes through a fuse or circuit breaker, which cuts off ac power in case of massive overload.
It then reaches the power transformer, which is in the heart of the power supply. A transformer consists of two coils of wire around a common magnetic core.
The ac power is connected to the first or primary winding, which converts electric energy into magnetic energy. This magnetism flows through the iron core to the secondary coil, which converts it back to electricity.
Why do we do all of this? The two coils are insulated from each other, so that the secondary coil is isolated from any shock hazard in the primary coil. The ac voltage and current can also be scaled up or down by changing the number of turns in the secondary coil. Transformers are son useful that they are the major reason we use ac power distribution instead of dc (transformers only work on ac).
The simplest and least expensive transformer is the E-I type, which is generally cubic-shaped (roughly equal height, length, and width). This type is widely used, but it has a tendency to give off hum, which might be picked up by nearby circuitry.
The U-I type is more expensive, but it is easier to make in a flatter shape that can fit into low-profile amplifiers. It also reduces the hum emissions. The toroidal type is built on a donut-shaped core, which has the best magnetic properties. It can be made quite flat, it weighs somewhat less and is has low hum emissions, but it is the most expensive. At QSC, we use the U-I transformer for most of our low-profile amplifiers because it offers most of the advantages of the toroid at a lower cost.
Once we have scaled and isolated the ac power through a transformer, we need to convert it to dc.
This is the job of the rectifier and dc filter capacitors.
The rectifier is a one-way ratchet that takes the back-and-forth flow of ac current and redirects it so that is always flows in the same direction. The rectifier uses diodes, which permit current flow in one direction and block flow in the reverse direction.
A full-wave bridge rectifier circuit uses four diodes. Each diode passes current only in the direction of the arrow. If you follow the current flow around the circuit, you will see that, no matter which way the ac current is flowing into the rectifier, it always emerges in the same direction. Now we have the dc instead of ac (the current only flows in one direction), but it still has big valleys in it. We need to smooth out this ripple voltage. This is the job of the filter capacitors.
Capacitors are like tanks that hold electricity. Once you fill them, it takes a while to drain them out.
Therefore, we connect a large capacitor to the output of the rectifier. The capacitor fills, or charges up, to the peak voltage of the rectified wave-form. If the capacitor is large enough, it stays pretty full between the peaks, and we get an almost perfectly smooth dc voltage. The electronic value of the filter capacitors determines how well the ripple voltage is removed.
In the last 20 years, high-value capacitors have been considerably reduced in size. The high-density filter capacitors are easier to mount on the circuit board right next to the power transistors, which helps improve the high-frequency performance of the amplifier. The length of wiring between the old-style capacitors and the transistors can introduce a slight inductance or electronic lag, which prevents the transistors from instantly drawing power from the supply.
POWER-SUPPLY REGULATIONAnother concern with power supplies is regulation: the ability to hold the dc supply voltage constant, despite changes in amplifier loading or ac voltage.
The first characteristic is called load regulation, or sometimes power-supply stiffness, and basically depends on the resistance in the transformer. An ideal transformer would have zero resistance and would be able to maintain a constant voltage (perfect regulation) no matter how little or how much current the amplifier needs. Real-world transformers have resistance in the wire coils, which causes the supply voltage to drop when current flow increases. To minimize this voltage drop, thicker wire must be used, which increases the size and weight of the transformer.
Earlier solid-state amplifiers used rather large transformers to keep the no-load voltage (at rated power). The designers needed to minimize no-load voltage because high-voltage transistors were expensive, if not impossible to get. In recent years, the cost of high-voltage transistors has come down, so the trend has been toward somewhat smaller transformers to reduce the weight of amplifiers, even though the no-load voltage rebounds to a higher level.
A side effect of the voltage drop is that, because the filter capacitors charge up to higher voltage during periods of low demand, the amplifiers can deliver a momentary burst of power above its normal rating. This feature, called dynamic headroom, can add 2dB or 3dB of peak undistorted power, which is equivalent to having up to 100% more wattage.
The ability to hold a constant voltage despite ac voltage fluctuation is called line regulation. Ordinary passive power supplies, such as the transfomer-rectifier-capacitor system discussed earlier, do not offer line regulation. The dc supply voltage changes along with any change in the ac voltage. The power company usually tries to maintain a constant voltage, but heavy loads or long ac cables can cause voltage drops, which result in loss of amplifier power.
Companies that use a great deal of amplification, such as touring companies, must invest a lot of money in heavy-gauge ac cabling (distro systems) to minimize this effect. Until switching power supplies become more practical, the correction to this problem would unfortunately add cost and weight to the amplifier, so the tendency has been to spend the same money making bigger amplifiers. You get the desired minimum power under worst-case conditions, and you come out ahead when ac service is normal.
SWITCHING POWER SUPPLIESThe size and weight of power-supply components has been somewhat reduced over the last 20 years, but progress has been slow because we are only refining the same basic technology. Meanwhile, other industries, such as the computer industry, have been perfecting light-weight switching supplies reduce the size and weight of the power transformer by operating it at a much higher frequency. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, high-frequency transformers are much smaller that low-frequency transformers. However, we are stuck with the 50Hz or 60Hz ac power supplied by the power company, so if we want to use high-frequency transformers, we must generate our own high-frequency power, which results in a fairly complicated block diagram.
First, we rectify the incoming ac and smooth it with capacitors, just as we did with the passive supply described above, but without an ac transformer. Then we use a high-speed switching transistors to convert the dc power to a high-frequency ac waveform, usually 50kHz to 100kHz (about 1,000 times higher than normal ac power). This high-frequency ac is fed to a small high-frequency transformer, which isolates the secondary from ac shock hazard and scales the voltages, just as the large ac transformer did in the passive supply. This high-frequency ac voltage is the rectifier and filtered again, resulting in the final dc supply for the amplifier. The active supply is much more complicated than the passive supply, but the weight of the components is much less.