If you have an interest in audio there are plenty of opportunities for home construction of hi-fi equipment. You can make yourself an amplifier which will be as good as any available commercially, and plenty of the sources you might plug into it can also come into being on your bench.
There will always be some pieces of hi-fi equipment which while not impossible to make will be very difficult for you to replicate yourself. Either their complexity will render construction too difficult as might be the case with for example a CD player, or as with a moving-coil loudspeaker the quality you could reasonably achieve would struggle match that of the commercial equivalent. It never ceases to astound us what our community of hackers and makers can achieve, but the resources, economies of scale, and engineering expertise available to a large hi-fi manufacturer load the dice in their favour in those cases.
The subject of this article is a piece of extreme high-end esoteric hi-fi that you can replicate yourself, indeed you start on a level playing field with the manufacturers because the engineering challenges involved are the same for them as they are for you. Electrostatic loudspeakers work by the attraction and repulsion of a thin conductive film in an electric field rather than the magnetic attraction and repulsion you’ll find in a moving-coil loudspeaker, and the resulting very low mass driver should be free of undesirable resonances and capable of a significantly lower distortion and flatter frequency response than its magnetic sibling.
Transistors have come a long way. Like everything else electronic, they’ve become both better and cheaper. According to a recent IEEE article, a transistor cost about $8 in today’s money back in the 1960’s. Consider the Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio from TI and IDEA. In late 1954, the four-transistor device went on sale for $49.95. That doesn’t sound like much until you realize that in 1954, this was equivalent to about $441 (a new car cost about $1,700 and a copy of life magazine cost 20 cents). Even at that price, they sold about 150,000 radios.
Part of the reason the transistors cost so much was that production costs were high. But another reason is that yields were poor. In some cases, 4 out of 5 of the devices were not usable. The transistors were not that good even when they did work. The first transistors were germanium which has high leakage and worse thermal properties than silicon.
Early transistors were subject to damage from soldering, so it was common to use an alligator clip or a specific heat sink clip to prevent heat from reaching the transistor during construction. Some gear even used sockets which also allowed the quick substitution of devices, just like the tubes they replaced.
When the economics of transistors changed, it made a lot of things practical. For example, a common piece of gear used to be a transistor tester, like the Heathkit IT-121 in the video below. If you pulled an $8 part out of a socket, you’d want to test it before you spent more money on a replacement. Of course, if you had a curve tracer, that was even better because you could measure the device parameters which were probably more subject to change than a modern device.
Of course, germanium to silicon is only one improvement made over the years. The FET is a fundamentally different kind of transistor that has many desirable properties and, of course, integrating hundreds or even thousands of transistors on one integrated circuit revolutionized electronics of all types. Transistors got better. Parameters become less variable and yields increased. Maximum frequency rises and power handling capacity increases. Devices just keep getting better. And cheaper.
The path from vacuum tube to the Regency TR-1 was a twisted one. Everyone knew the disadvantages of tubes: fragile, power hungry, and physically large, although smaller and lower-power tubes would start to appear towards the end of their reign. In 1925 a Canadian physicist patented a FET but failed to publicize it. Beyond that, mass production of semiconductor material was unknown at the time. A German inventor patented a similar device in 1934 that didn’t take off, either.
Bell labs researchers worked with germanium and actually understood how to make “point contact” transistors and FETs in 1947. However, Bell’s lawyers found the earlier patents and elected to pursue the conventional transistor patent that would lead to the inventors (John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley) winning the Nobel prize in 1956.
Two Germans working for a Westinghouse subsidiary in Paris independently developed a point contact transistor in 1948. It would be 1954 before silicon transistors became practical. The MOSFET didn’t appear until 1959.
Of course, even these major milestones are subject to incremental improvements. The V channel for MOSFETs, for example, opened the door for FETs to be true power devices, able to switch currents required for motors and other high current devices.
I’ll admit. When I saw the Othermill for the first time I thought it was just another mill with cheap Chinese hardware inside sold as a premium. I’m ashamed to say that I even trash talked it a little bit. It gave me another chance to relearn that I should always do my research before being a jerk, check my assumptions thoroughly, and even then it’s not recommended. Other Machine Company was kind enough to let me swing by the office in Berkeley California. [Danielle], the CEO, led me through the design of the mill as well as the challenges in running the operation.
The Othermill is a serious machine, and with the recent release of the Othermill Pro, it’s only getting better. The components are not bargain basement. This is something that could be more obvious, but it’s almost entirely made from US sourced parts, including the custom stepper motors. There aren’t any ball bearings that will start to make strange noises in a year. It can now cut 6mil traces in a PCB all day long. To put it into perspective. The Othermill Pro costs a third of the price of an equivalent machine from LPKF and has the same capabilities.