Calling all audiophiles: looking for a quality amp kit made in the U.S. by fellow makers? Look no further than OddWatt Audio‘s line of amp and pre-amp kits. Our own Jake Spurlock gave their PoddWatt Series 1 Amp kit a raving review in our special Make: Ultimate Kits Guide (read Jake’s full review and ratings on our Kit Reviews site). We chatted with OddWatt founders Bruce Heran and Rodney Brinker to find out how they started collaborating, product development, and their company ethos. Here’s what they shared.
1. Bruce and Rodney, how did you meet?
Bruce Heran: We met on the internet. It was some time in 2009. I had just posted a project on diyaudioprojects.com and Rodney was working with the same kit (S-5 K-12 small tube amplifier). I did some rather extensive modifications to the kit and ended up with a much nicer-sounding amplifier. Rodney had questions about the modifications as I recall and we exchanged emails for some time. We never met in person until May of this year. Michigan and Arizona are hardly neighbors.
Rodney Brinker: As Bruce stated, we corresponded via email for quite a while over a common interest project and then we started talking over the phone. We soon realized that we had a lot of mutual interests, mine being mostly interest of electronics, a subject that I had very little knowledge of when it came to amplification and similar aspects.
2. What led you to start collaborating on projects?
BH: Partly because I had some considerably less than satisfactory exchanges with S-5 on a newer kit they issued (they were rather unprofessional IMHO) I decided to design my own amps. I felt I could do better and be customer friendly. While never involved directly in design, I had about 45 years of experience in various aspects of electronics. I published two more projects and the second one was the trigger for our collaboration. It was the forerunner of the current series of mono block power amplifiers (we call Oddblocks). I already had the design and prototype for the amp and Rodney had some valuable thoughts on how it could be more powerful using alternative tubes. This is about the time that Rodney came up with the idea that maybe we could do kits.
RB: Bruce has a lot of really great ideas and I really trust his knowledge and opinions. I had been reading a lot of Bruce’s pages and articles and felt, “finally someone who can lead me out of the dark, so to speak.” With my background as a CAD designer and having done some fabrication, we started tossing ideas back and forth and it was clear we were pretty much on the same page in both our likes of the way some products were built and our strong dislikes of others. I think our strongest agreement was regarding the use of crap parts in some of even the better items out there and the additional cost to bring the already overpriced product up to the level of quality it should have already been at to start with. We liked the idea of just building the thing right the first time using quality parts.
3. At what point did you consider putting together kits?
BH: Once we decided to do kits, it was necessary to figure out how to start a company. We determined that Arizona is not a small-business-friendly state so Michigan was chosen. Other “proxy” states were considered though. This has been fortunate as Rodney handles the marketing and generally the business end of the company, and he has much greater availability of resources (fabricating and such) in his area.
RB: Based on our common beliefs and a lot of long discussions about the early OddWatt circuit topology we both felt we definitely had something different, simpler, and, we believed, better than most. The circuit is a simply built yet very effective design. We both agree that previous products, due to older technology and available components at the time, were limited in their abilities in some respects. Early vacuum tube amp circuits were affected by these problems, and extra components had to be added to produce a satisfactory result. The advantage of the newer technologies available like the constant current source (it’s been around for a few years now) is a huge part of the success of the OddWatt design and many others. With this in mind on Bruce’s end and my mechanical background we decided that we should merge ideas and try to produce a kit. With some effort and normal growing pains we felt we had something.
4. What’s the hardest part of a kitting a project?
BH: From my perspective (I’m sure Rodney will have a different answer) the hardest part of kitting a project is to make sure it actually will do what it should and last a long time. Related for me from a design point is that it should not cause harm: no fires, electrical shocks, and such. I try to consider all possibilities and spend a great amount of time in the design phase. I over-design everything.
RB: I would say the instructions. Lots of pictures and lots of time. They just needs to be correct as possible the first time. I have made a few mistakes but the customers usually help with input. Thanks guys! I try to make it so an unskilled individual can have success — not always possible but that is the intent.
5. Bruce, how did the community feedback you received from posting projects on diyaudioprojects.com help shape the OddWatt kits?
BH: There is a great deal of positive feedback on the projects. They are quite popular. I believe as of now the one project on power amps is just under 40,000 views, and when you add up all the projects the views are over 100,000. Knock on wood here, but I have not to date received any complaints on the performance of the projects, nor the commercial kits. For sure some folks have had difficulties (very small percentage) and usually it was because they did something other than was specified in the project or kit. I personally respond to all such issues and provide guidance and assistance regardless if it’s a DIY project or kit. That, by the way, is one thing that I am very big about. I want to encourage high quality audio to anyone who is interested. If they can’t or don’t want to source the parts, then a kit is available.
6. What’s next for OddWatt?
BH: There are a number of things in the future. Two separate projects are in the initial stages for kits. The kits themselves are probably 4–6 months from initial sales. They are a larger power amplifier (using the new KT120 power tubes) and a phonograph preamplifier. Two prototypes of each now exist and are being circulated and auditioned. I also have initial designs for a medium power guitar amplifier. This is probably 8 months to a year away though, as it will require input and interaction from musicians to produce an amplifier that would work for them. If it hasn’t been mentioned before, all our kits use tubes. Yes there are some solid state parts, but they are in supporting roles.
RB: Not mentioned by Bruce is the “Alpha,” which is a single watt, vacuum tube beginners kit that we will begin marketing in the next month or two. Also an additional version of the Oddblock is called the Oddblock Series 2 “Octal,” which will use an octal (8-pin) tube in the driver stage versus the 9-pin 5751 we currently use. We found some characteristics in the octals that we liked.
7. How did each of you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
BH: I like quality music reproduction and have always liked to tinker, build, and design things. I did receive a professional boost by one of the well-known audio pioneers about 18 months ago. He liked my power amp design so much that he was building some (6 actually) for his personal reference system in his home.
RB: I always like seeing things go together. I think it’s a good plan that excites me. I started out with plastic models and then onto guitars, cars, and all sorts of things. I was most inspired by the designers and airplanes of WW2 era. I still marvel at their complexity and the innovative way they were produced and how they functioned. I am inspired by good woodworking and any other well-executed project.
8. How have OddWatt kits been received?
BH: Oddwatt kits have been well received. Since I end up answering the bulk of the problems (nearly none) I would say extremely well liked.
RB: Very well in my opinion. I don’t think I ever heard a bad thing about the way they sound. People love them. I have had comments about graphics or other aesthetic-related items and some suggestions, but nothing negative at all.
9. What goes into your documentation process? How do you ensure clear directions?
BH: Rodney is super at preparing the instructions. I review and provide input, but he does the work.
RB: A lot of sitting and thinking, typing, more typing, more thinking. A lot of proofreading and changes and then it’s onto our group of 5th graders to try to build one … JK :)
10. If you had to estimate, how much R+D time goes into each kit, from concept to complete kit?
BH: I spend probably an average of about 400 hours in a design. Another 100-200 in evaluation afterward. Some are easy. The small “Alpha” amplifier that is nearing initial sales date took perhaps only 100 in design and 50 to verify it worked as it was supposed to. The phonograph preamplifier that is pending took over a year and many restarts followed by hundreds of hours of verification to get to the pre-kit stage. I’ll leave the rest of the answer to Rodney.
RB: On my end things get broken up a lot into small segments of time as I have a full-time job as well as the company. It usually takes about 20 hours for the chassis, 20 hours on the PCB. First builds take some time as I am snapping pictures along with writing the instructions and making changes as I go along. Depending on the kit, a typical build on a Oddblock will be about 8 to 10 hours. The instructions follow taking about 20 to 40 hours. A good guess would be about 100 hours per kit.
11. How do you test your prototypes?
BH: For an “in home” workshop I am rather well equipped. In addition to a full set of metal and woodworking equipment, I have three digital storage oscilloscopes (DSO), a Hewitt Packard distortion analyzer, two signal generators, an APC power conditioner, and more assorted meters than I can count. For auditioning the end project or kit I use Martin Logan Vista electrostatic speakers, my reference set of Oddblock amplifiers, a Forewatt preamplifier, presently one of the prototype phonograph preamps, also a pair of 7 cubic foot sub-woofers. For sources I use an OPPO 83SE Blue Ray player (made the “A” list at Stereophile as a CD player), two turntables, a vintage Dual 701 with Dynavector 10X5 cartridge and a Pro-ject turntable with a Denon DL110 cartridge. (Audio folk will understand that stuff, others might not.) I have numerous alternative pieces of both vintage and current audio equipment to use for comparisons.
For 175 kit reviews, plus awesome features, check out the full Make: Ultimate Kits Guide 2012, available in the Maker Shed: