Handmade electronics

Seen on a forum elsewhere: someone promoting a new ‘DAC’ based on multiple, now-obsolete, consumer-grade integrated circuits cobbled together in series and parallel (I think) using a large circuit board that strongly resembles the sort of thing I used to make in the 1980s. Double-sided rather than using power planes, you can see the multiple power and ground busses running around the board as relatively puny tracks. To any experienced printed circuit board designer, its appearance is literally offensive, presumably designed using a computer but looking as though created with self-adhesive tape and transfers. Integrated circuits in sockets, which is what people do when they’re not quite sure if they might need to replace blown-up chips or are worried about their soldering skills, resulting in multiple cheap contacts in the signal path which is kind of ridiculous when the purchasers are then going to be using multi-thousand dollar ‘audiophile interconnects’.

You may think I am being very unkind, but get this: the manufacturer wants in excess of £50,000 for it!

I always find it interesting when the producers of these devices provide close-up photographs of their efforts. This again takes me back to my teenage years, where I used to be very proud of my own early electronic assemblies and would photograph them in great detail. It means that sceptical people like me can pore over the photos thinking “Oh yes, I used those terminal blocks in that burglar alarm I once made because they were so cheap” and “Look how he has spliced two wires together and covered it with heatshrink sleeving. And what is that extra wire for?” It also brings back memories of the times when, in my ignorance, I ran into trouble with this kind of construction and would probe around with ground wires attempting to reduce hum loops or noise caused by cross-contamination between the digital and analogue sections. Occasionally I found a connection that would reduce the noise a bit. When this happened I would solder the wire in place!

The asking price is, according to contributors to the forum, justified because not many of this particular product will be made. This is one of my pet hates: assuming that because something is “handmade” it must therefore be better than something churned out by the thousands. I am not even sure it is true for things like furniture or musical instruments, but it is most assuredly untrue for electronics where instead of “hand made” we should be thinking “prototype” or “cobbled together”. On whether the electronic design itself is sound… I couldn’t possibly comment. All I know is that my teenage ‘wannabe’ designs were pretty atrocious and they looked remarkably similar to these photographs. It is very easy to knock something together that ‘works’, but how immune is it to radio frequency interference? Would electrostatic discharge (ESD) damage it, or make it go haywire? Does it produce an almighty ‘thump’ when powering on or a horrible squeal when powering down?  What happens if one of the flimsy wires breaks off? What if there’s a mains ‘brown-out’ – will it blow up the speakers?

And that price. It looks kind of typical in the context of certain audio forums, but just consider what it means. If I were considering having an extension built onto my house, it would probably be of that order of cost. It would involve professional architects, planners, builders. Lots of equipment would be needed, and a lot of materials. And a heck of a lot of labour. Or, I could splurge the cash on some cruddy circuit boards of sub-hobby level quality. Please tell me that no one would ever dream of doing that.

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