So here we are in the New Millennium, and thanks to Tom Holman and THX we’ve got lots of gain in our electronics. More gain than some of us need or want. At least 10 db more.
Think of it this way: If you are running your volume control down around 9 o’clock, you are actually throwing away signal level so that a subsequent gain stage can make it back up.
Routinely DIYers opt to make themselves a “passive preamp” – just an input selector and a volume control.
What could be better? Hardly any noise or distortion added by these simple passive parts. No feedback, no worrying about what type of capacitors – just musical perfection.
And yet there are guys out there who don’t care for the result. “It sucks the life out of the music”, is a commonly heard refrain (really – I’m being serious here!). Maybe they are reacting psychologically to the need to turn the volume control up compared to an active preamp.
I suppose if I had to floor the accelerator to drive 55 mph, maybe I’d think the life was being sucked out of my driving. Then again, maybe I like 55. Nice and safe, good gas mileage…
Is impedance matching an issue? Passive volume controls do have to make a trade-off between input impedance and output impedance. If the input impedance is high, making the input to the volume control easy for the source to drive, then the output impedance is also high, possibly creating difficulty with the input impedance of the power amplifier. And vice versa: If your amplifier prefers low source impedance, then your signal source might have to look at low impedance in the volume control.
This suggests the possibility of using a high quality buffer in conjunction with a volume control. A buffer is still an active circuit using tubes or transistors, but it has no voltage gain – it only interposes itself to make a low impedance into a high impedance, or vice versa.
If you put a buffer in front of a volume control, the control’s low impedance looks like high impedance. If you put a buffer after a volume control, it makes the output impedance much lower. You can put buffers before and after a volume control if you want.
The thing here is to try to make a buffer that is very neutral. Given the simple task, it’s pretty easy to construct simple buffers with very low distortion and noise and very wide bandwidth, all without negative feedback.
And here we are…