Did you know you can build your own audiophile level analog tube amp and save hundreds over buying a comparable assembled unit? We gave it a try with no prior build knowledge and were able to build one at home over two evenings, and it was actually kind of fun. When we finally fired it up, tubes were glowing, and the sound coming from our DIY tube amp and headphones was fantastic. We got a great sound stage filled with depth and clarity with a black background (no hiss). That should be expected with the legendary Bottlehead Crack kit, it has been receiving praise for years, and we have seen audiophile reviewers favorably compare the amp to others costing well over $1000. They company continues to win best-in-show with their audio equipment that is always made in the USA with the high quality parts. They only sell these as kits, but with a couple nights of assembly you get all of the self-satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself, and your friends may think you are that much cooler. But seriously, you get easy step-by-step photo instructions, and they have phenomenal support online. You build the headphones yourself too, which come mostly assembled sans the cord and dampening materials, but the drivers in these ‘phones are also found in some higher end models for over $400, so the reasonably priced kit is a great deal for really great sound.
The Tube Amp
The Bottlehead Crack OTL Tube Amplifer is designed with high impedance in mind which makes for low distortion and clarity since it is a serious audiophile level amp, and pairs well with high impedance headphone models from great brands like Sennheiser, AKG, and Beyer Dynamics and others. This means when you shop for headphones you look for high quality 120 ohm to 600 ohm models and not the 32 ohm cheapies that make up most of the market. The amp has plenty of power, and when we cranked it louder than anyone would want, it still had zero distortion. You can finish the wood case in any color of paint or stain you like or leave it natural. You can even paint the brushed metal top plate to contrast with the faintly glowing orange tubes if you like. With everything you need except solder, the amp kit costs $279.
A time lapse video of a Bottlehead Crack build
The Crackheadphones were custom tuned for the Crack amp with proper impedance, extra dampening, and a great Mogami cable that you assemble yourself. We listened to our amp on other high-end headphones, but these ones really shined when it came to vocals and perfect tight punchy bass without overdoing the bottom end and the highs were clear but never harsh. If you get the amp, buy the Crackheadphones in the kit options instead of separately and that will save you $30 which makes the total cost for these ‘phones a steal at $119.
To keep things enjoyable you will want to have a good soldering experience, and really good solder connections. A station gives you control and keeps things clean. A lot of pros prefer Hakko soldering iron stations for quality, quick heating, and temperature controls. The Hakko Digital FX888D bundle is a great choice. This pro kit comes in at about $92.
If you want to go for a little less cost for something that works, but has less temperature controls and features, you could go with a kit from Weller like the WLC100 Soldering Station for about $42.
The solder you will want to use is 63/37 leaded electronics solder. Don’t use the non-leaded type that is included with some soldering kits, it just does not work as well for this sort of work, and it will not be fun when you have poor connections from lousy solder and have to find them through testing. If you are worried about working with lead, wear latex gloves. The solder mentioned is about $6.
It makes life so much easier when you can simply pull the solder out of mistake, which will happen from time to time. Get something like the Aven 17542 desoldering wick as a lifesaver for about $3.
Enjoy the Music
Within a couple days of receiving your kits you can be listening to some of the highest quality music playback you may have ever heard, and in our case we heard parts of songs we didn’t even know were part of the recording. While it goes over our allotted budget, we recently added the Crack Speedball upgrade to our kit (it can be added to a finished amp kit at any time) and it even polished the sound further and made for an even darker background. If you want to go this way up front, add it to the kit options at purchase to save a little more money.