Hifisonix X-Altra Mini II Line Preamplifier with Remote Control

Originally published in January 2022.

The Remote Control board optionally replaces the manual select control board to provide full remote control functionality on the preamplifier. The remote control board has a H-bridge output to drive a motorised ALPS RK27 or RK16 20K log taper potentiometer (5V at 100 mA) and is short circuit proof. Further, a mute LED is located at the top of the select control dial and illuminates the gap between the dial and the front plate RED when mute is active. The select is implemented with a rotary encoder. Modushop will supply the front panels with the Plexiglas IR sensor window should you decide to go for the remote control option (see further down on this page for the link to the housings). Additionally, there is a 12V trigger output (40mA max) with current limiting ie short circuit proof. The boards are be supplied with the 32 bit ARM LPC1114 microcontroller mounted and pre-programmed so you have to mount the remaining components.

The remote control is a standard Apple TV remote. These cost £19.99 in the UK and they are available world-wide. By going down the Apple TV Remote route, I don’t have to worry about trying to supply remotes – you just order one from your local Apple store. They are slick, beautifully made and a perfect match for the ‘Mini II’.

To sync the Apple TV Remote with the X-altra Mini II, hold the Menu + Select button on the remote down for 6 seconds. You will have to repeat this 2-3 times to cycle the correct control code page on the remote. Once paired, no further syncing is required.

The X-Altra Mini II Remote Control Board with the microcontroller mounted and pre-programmed is avaiablle for purchase in the Shop.

 

 

Introduction

This is my new all analogue line level preamplifier. I built the first ‘X-Altra Mini‘ in 2009 while living in Japan. Since it really was a bare bones LM4562 preamp, I called it a ‘Mini’ to reflect the fact that it did not do much else other than select an input, amplify it by 14 dB and present it to the output. There was a very basic class AB headphone amp included. Two other line level preamps came along in the interim – the ‘SCA-1‘ a PGA2320 based design (2010 also while I lived in Japan) and then the ‘Symphony‘ in 2013/4 while living in Taiwan – both since scrapped off along with the original X-Altra ‘Mini’. In 2016 I did a commercial preamp, the Model 1501, featuring remote control, phono input, balanced output and up to six inputs. This preamp used and AD797 and a 10k level control Alps RK27 to achieve very low noise and low distortion. Fast forward onto 2021/22 and my fifth line level preamp has arrived, the X-Altra Mini II. I’ve stuck with the ‘Mini’ moniker to reflect the fact that all the modules are small and compact, making extensive use of SMD. This preamp is different to all the others because the boards, housing etc are all available for DIY constructors who want to build their own. The measured performance is very good and at the same level as any well engineered high end commercial unit.

Here is a PDF presentation overviewing the X-Altra Mini II PCB’s and mechanical layout (updated January 2 2023 with updates to build option ‘D’ )


PCB’s for this project are available over in the Shop. They are sold in bundles in various configurations, but you are also welcome to buy individual boards (these are also listed in the shop). If you don’t see what you want, just email me at bonsai(at)hifisonix.com.

 

Here is the BOM (Excel) for all the modules (updated  December 28 2022)

You can buy a complete housing kit that includes the milled, laser printed front plate and the internal 3 mm base plate onto which the PCB’s are mounted) from Modushop here

Modushop X-Altra Mini II Housings

The housings are beautifully made and will give your finished X-Altra Mini II a professional grade finish.

This is the drilling template for the 3mm aluminium base board that comes with the Modushop housing kit and slides into the housing side panel slots internally. This means the exterior cover plates don’t have any holes drilled into them, keeping the overall appearance neat and clean. To use the template, print it to actual size on A3 and then mark just ONE of the corner holes for each of the PCB’s then use the actual PCB’s before assembly to mark off the mounting hole locations. The diameter of all the holes in the base plate is 3.5mm. Don’t forget to deburr the holes. ATTENTION: THE BASE PLATE DRILLING WAS UPDATED 03 OCTOBER 2022.

 

for those of you that want to use individual X-Altra Mini II PCB’s in your own projects, here are the PCB dimensions for all the modules

Here’s a short (18 minute) YouTube Video explaining the X-Altra Mini II assembly

Listening Tests

I conducted listening tests using an Oppo BD103 CD player and an external phono source (X-Altra MC/MM Phono EQ Preamp published in audioXpress Feb and March 2021) for all three vinyl recording assessments and on one of the vinyls, I also listened to the X-Altra Mini II internal MC/MM EQ preamp board. The discrete line stage is open with a fantastically smooth sonic signature that is quite different from the AD797 commercial preamp, despite both preamplifiers measuring well under 10ppm distortion and with measured hum and noise at or below -120 dBV ie inaudible. The measured X-Altra Mini II spot noise floor is c. -140 dBV and so it is exceedingly quiet with no discernible hiss from the speaker tweeters. The -3dB bandwidth of the Model 1501 is c. 200 kHz while the X-Altra Mini II is 130 kHz. I have to point out that my hearing is not that of a young person – but HF is just one part of the overall listening experience with things like imaging, bass extension, midrange articulation etc playing equally, if not more, of an important role.

 

I used my kx2-Amp (class A 15W RMS, 28 Watt peak class A) and Dali Oberon 5’s, B&W 703 and KEF LS50‘s to do the listening evaluation and the smooth, open sonic signature is consistent across all three speakers. The X-Altra Mini II brought the venue and the artists into my listening room unlike any of my previous system setups. The imaging is absolutely outstanding on the X-Altra Mini II – one of my go to test CD’s for this is Fourplay’s eponymous CD that features fantastic left to right width and back to front sound stage depth. This of course has a lot to do with the speakers and the recording, but if the electronics are subpar in any way, they will not support the illusion that the sound is not coming from the speakers themselves – you really want to be able to close your eyes and not be able to point to a speaker source but rather individual instruments laid out left to right and front to back. The top end is ultra smooth and silky with no hint of sibilance. This is the first discrete JFET line level design I have done, and I think the JFET front end plays an important part. I also listened extensively to Chick Corea’s (RIP) ‘Super Trio’ recorded in 2005 by Chet Himes and Bernie Kirsh. This is a superb live recording with great bass extension and a wonderful soundstage and lots of excitement and sonic fireworks on display which was faithfully conveyed by the X-Altra Mini II.

For the vinyl assessment, I listened to three recordings – ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook’, and two Chick Corea recordings from the 1970’s – ‘Mad Hatter’ and ‘The Leprechaun’. Out of the three, the Ella Fitzgerald recording is the best (I’ve written out it here). On the Ella Fitzgerald recording, the X-Altra Mini II conveyed the sense of weight in the lower registers with an effortless, open sound in the mid-range and top octaves, especially noticeable on brass. Images were precisely placed on the sound stage, extending well beyond the edges of the speakers and a long way back behind them. On this particular recording, I also listened using the X-Altra Mini II MC/MM preamp board and whilst not quite in the same league as the stand-alone X-Altra MC/MM preamp, the overall sound was nevertheless superb and remarkable quiet for an opamp based MC preamplifier. The Chick Corea recordings don’t really lend themselves to trying to assess sound and stage tonal quality in the same way the Ella Fitzgerald recoding does. They however are exciting recordings with a lot of propulsive bass, ethereal vocals (courtesy Gale Moran) and drum kit fireworks from the inimitable Steve Gadd. The preamp conveyed the excitement of the recording with great pace, attack and timing.

 

A few words on the headphone amplifier are in order. The X-Altra Mini II uses the HPA-1 class A headphone amp. This uses a dual JFET opamp (OPA1642 in my iteration, although you can also use an LM4562 or NE5532) driving a MJE15032/33 push-pull output stage biased at 90mA into class A (180mA peak class A current), so it will deliver 1.75 W in class A into a 32 Ohm pair of headphones. I use a 12 year old pair of Audio Technica ATH AD900 ‘Air’ headphones I bought in Japan which are not particularly bassy but have the best imaging, midrange and top end I’ve heard bar the Stax tube driven electrostatics – they really are quite special in my view. Through the phones, the preamp retains its open, smooth sound, again without any hint of harshness or sibilance in the top registers. Since the headphone amplifier output impedance is very low, the bass is crisp and goes much deeper than is the case with headphones driven from high impedance resistive dividers. The dedicated, low impedance output headphone amp makes a huge positive impact on the sound.

 

The addition of two unbalanced (one main and one auxiliary) outputs in addition to a pair of balanced outputs means that with this preamp, I can now have both my power amps (kx2 and Model 1721) along with the sub bass permanently hooked up without recourse to cable swapping or special split cables – so great convenience. The kx2 drives the Dali Oberons and the KEF LS50’s, and the Model 1721 the B&W 703 with the sub bass switched on with the KEF LS50’s.

As always, I am on hand to help you get your build up and running.

The picture below is of the manual version of the X-Altra Mini II.

Comments

7 responses to “Hifisonix X-Altra Mini II Line Preamplifier with Remote Control”

  1. Carl Huff says:

    Andrew,

    I have been following your Mini II project on DiyAudio. Thank you for making the schematic public. I have a quick question. Did you consider the LSK489 rather than LSK389?

    Thank you for making this contribution.

    • Bonsai says:

      Hello Carl,

      thanks for your comments. I have a small stash of LSK389’s and that is primarily why I am using them (also used on the MM stage of the X-Altra MC/MM Phono EQ preamp published on audioXpress in 2021). The 489’s have about 1/4 of the input capacitance, but without testing, I can’t comment on how that will affect the operation of the discrete line stage at this point. I am in general extremely pleased with the Linear Integrated Systems devices – the really are very quiet.

      regards

      Andrew

  2. Bill Ellis says:

    Andrew,
    Funny I have been looking for small preamp module for a few years now. Looking forward to building these hope you go with surface mount – more fun .
    Bill

    • Bonsai says:

      Hi Bill,

      Yes the X-Altra Mini II preamp is SMD. I will get things finalized in the next few weeks with BOM’s etc

      Thanks for the interest!

      Reds

      Andrew

  3. Raph says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Hope you are doing well.

    First of all, thanks for sharing all of this and all the details you give, it really helps to increase the knowledge 🙂
    Two questions:
    1) Concerning the remote control board you are currently working on, do you plan to also release the source code or not? This would help customizing the whole thing (for example removing some entries from the one you’d like to select or not in the case of a custom IO board).
    2) Concerning the measurements you made, shall we refer to your other article untitled “Using the QuantAsylum QA401 for accurate Audio Measurements” to do them on our side or did you use particular wiring configurations?

    Have a really nice day,
    Raph

    • Bonsai says:

      Hello Raph,

      1. I decided not to release to source code as it will then involve a lot of support to people who might want to modify it – I don’t have the time or bandwidth to do that. The PCB’s will be supplied with the MCU mounted and programmed. The builder must then mount the rest of the components. I recommend the board is assembled on aluminium foil.

      2. For the measurements, the article you refer to is just a general treatment of how to use the QA401 to get low mains noise measurements. The main thing is to make sure the cables are all tighyl bundled to reduce loop areas. I will post up a photo of my measurement set up next week -0 it was very simple and easy to do.

      The Modushop IR front panel will be avaiablle in about 2 weeks.

      Rgds

      Andrew

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