A reading list for the DIY audio beginner

Each reader of these pages has been a beginner in DIY audio some day. I am sure there are many others who wish to learn more, but don't know where to begin. This page will be for them. On this page, I will list some reading material which I feel the beginner should study. I use the word study deliberately, because the word "read" these days no longer convey the concentration I refer to. People use "read" to mean "surf online", where they rarely read more than three paragraphs at a stretch. This is good for reference material lookup or problem solving, but is useless for absorbing new subjects.

The problem faced by DIYers

DIYers face a problem which engineering students do not. There are many books on electronics, physics, acoustics, mechanical engineering, etc., all of which cover subjects relevant for building amps and speakers. But they treat the subject at conceptual and mathematical levels, not at the level of a builder and practitioner. A book can tell you all about analysing the tensile strength of a material, but will not tell you anything about material available to the DIY builder and the difficulties of working with those materials. This bookish approach fits the bookish learning process of engineering courses.

This is also one of the key reasons why engineers fresh out of college are useless at building anything real, by themselves. A doctor will be able to treat patients the day he leaves college, because most medical courses have long periods of internship at real hospitals with real patients. An engineering student hardly gets to see how real workmen build real objects, and gets almost no opportunity to design and build anything himself. By the time he finishes college, he acquires no intuitive feel for the equations, laws and materials he is supposed to have studied --- he has only cerebral knowledge of those things. Mechanical engineers from most colleges will not have any ability to build anything useful (in the mechanical area) when they leave college. Give a metallurgy student a piece of metal and ask him what it is, and he may not even know whether it is steel or aluminium. I kid thee not. (I have an undergraduate degree in metallurgical engineering from one of the best institutes in Asia.) An electrical engineer, fresh out of college and in his new job, looks at a circuit breaker in a power supply substation, and asks "Is this a CT or PT?" (Current transformer or power transformer). He has never seen a circuit breaker. These are all real-life incidents, and keep repeating themselves the world over.

Therefore, the reading list for the DIY beginner must focus first on reading matter which has been written for the DIY constructor. Conceptual reading is invaluable, but it must accompany DIY-focused study, not replace it.


Amplifiers and speaker crossover circuits are about electricity and electronic circuits. The following books come to mind as beginner's guides to electronics:

  • Forrest Mims III (Wikipedia page, his own Website) is one of the most well-known and admired writers who teach electronics to beginners. Like all great electronics teachers and writers, he has a strong DIY streak. In fact, he does not have any degree in engineering at all.

    His mini-notebook series is famous. This Website covers his electronics related publications, and this page lists out his mini-notebooks.

  • Randy Slone was another well-known and well-loved author who wrote for the electronics hobbyist and student. His book, TAB Electronics Guide to Understanding Electronics and Electricity, is a very good book for the beginner.

    One of the nice things about Randy Slone was that he was a teacher at heart. He liked to answer questions from individual readers, patiently, over email. He had often confided to me that he received about 600 emails a day, and liked to answer each one, patiently, sitting up late into the night. The DIY audio world is the poorer for his passing.

  • Then there's the ultimate electronics practitioner's bible, which no electronics hobbyist can ignore. This book may not be an ideal first book for the electronics DIY beginner, but will become invaluable somewhere down the way. This is The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. A paperback reprint is now available in India for Rs.600 or so. When I bought my copy, I paid $63 to an American bookshop. It is worth every penny/cent/paisa. Unlike a lot of fat textbooks, this one focuses on the practitioner, not on the theoretical student.

Electronics is an active area of exploration by amateurs, hence there are plenty of good books. The books I have listed are very appealing to me, but other sets may be the right set for other beginners, because of differences in backgrounds. I have an engineering college background, and I am at least somewhat comfortable with mathematics. I have at one point in time had to wrestle with differential equations. These may be totally alien to someone from an arts background. But that should not stop you. Forrest Mims majored in Government (yes, a subject called "government") with minors in English and history. These things do not stop the beginner in electronics.


An "amplifier" here means a power amplifier. It has no controls, no switches other than a power switch. It accepts input signals and drives speakers with great power and vanishingly low levels of distortion. For signal processing, tone controls, input selection, volume controls, etc., you need a preamp, which is an entirely different animal. If a manufacturer puts a preamp and a power amp in a single box for reasons of economics or convenience, then it is called an integrated amplifier.

Of all the books that I have encountered for DIY amplifier construction, the two that I feel are the best for starters are both by Randy Slone:

  • High Power Audio Amplifier Construction Manual (HPAACM). This book is dedicated to just power amplifiers. It is more difficult to design good power amplifiers than signal-level (i.e. low current, low voltage) audio circuits. Hence many entire books are devoted to just this area of audio electronics. This book discusses the architecture and general topology of a classic 3-stage Lin power amp, and devotes an entire chapter to each stage, plus separate chapters to other topics like power supply design, construction techniques, etc. This is a fantastic first book for any DIY beginner wanting to understant what a power amp is.
  • The Audiophile Projects Sourcebook (APS). This book covers pretty much most areas of audio electronics, and devotes one large chapter to power amps. It covers preamps, RIAA phono preamps, tone controls, active filters, volume controls, and various other areas. Since the HPAACM covers power amps in great detail, the reader may think that this book will have nothing new to add in that department. This is incorrect; two additional years of Randy Slone's learning in the power amp department shows up in the improved circuits he describes here, including his legendary OptiMOS amp. So, you need the HPAACM to understand concepts and construction details of power amps, and you need the power-amp chapter of APS to see what more can be done with power amps after the HPAACM left off.

There are many other books which talk about amplifier design and construction, but none that I have encountered which covers the DIY beginner's dilemmas as well as these books do, specifically for power amps.

Once you have covered these two books, then (and in my opinion, only then) you can move on to three more books which add enormous value:

  • Ben Duncan's High Performance Audio Power Amplifiers is a survey of amplifier technology and topology like no other that I have seen. This does not give you ready-made circuits to build as a DIY beginner. Neither does it give you lessons in circuit design to teach you how to design your own amp. However, it gives you insights into what others have done, and their pros and cons. It expands your horizons tenfold after where Randy Slone's books left off.
  • Douglas Self's classic text, Audio Power Amplifier Design Handbook. This has become a de facto bible for audio power amplifier design. Not everyone likes Self's attitude and priorities in audio system design, but no one ever accuses Self of being weak on fundamentals. Randy Slone has been strongly influenced by Self's writings, and says as much in his books.
  • A recently published book, Bob Cordell's Designing Audio Power Amplifiers is an excellent book on amplifier design and construction. Bob's preference is for MOS-FET power transistors, much like Randy Slone. Bob also maintains a website for DIY audio builders, cordellaudio.com.

Why do I believe that Ben Duncan and Doug Self are best read after Randy Slone? This is because Ben Duncan and Doug Self assume that you know how to construct electronic circuits. They assume that you know what an unregulated power supply is like, and why unregulated power supplies are typically used for Class B power amps but regulated power supplies are a must for preamps. Randy Slone devotes pages to explain these. Therefore, Randy Slone's explanations form a foundation on which the DIY beginner can build when he encounters the more subtle, varied, and difficult concepts that Duncan and Self present. In this matter, many DIY builders differ from me: they feel that the beginner should start with Douglas Self. I feel that this is only applicable for those who have some knowledge of electronics engineering and some experience in electronic circuit design and construction.

I have never found any beginner text which explains the basic concepts of an audio power amplifier's design the way Randy Slone's HPAACM does. All other texts talk about the concepts (e.g. single pole and two-pole compensation), but do not explain the underlying issues. If you stop reading after Randy Slone, it's a bit sad because you will never realise what Slone leaves out. But if you start with Duncan or Self, you may have to really struggle with the basics.

There is yet another reason to start with Slone. For the DIY beginner, amplifiers are not just power amplifiers. He is faced with lots of much more basic issues like balanced versus unbalanced interconnects and the controversies over potentiometers for level controls. If the DIY beginner begins to read posts on places like diyaudio, then he will be doubly confused about these things, and may actually begin to plonk down hundreds of dollars of hard-earned money on gold-plated platinum-encrusted diamond-studded stepped attenuators, believing that this is the only way to build a preamp. At such times, Duncan or Self will not help him, since they choose to confine themselves to the technically interesting (to them) area of power amps alone. But Slone's APS is a great beginner's text to get these basics sorted out. As the reader matures, he may begin to disagree with some of Slone's opinions, but at least he will have a firm foundation from which to deviate.

Later, there's another great collection of writings to read:

  • Self on Audio. This is a lovely collection of writings by Self, published separately over the years in various journals and magazines, and collected for the audio enthusiast. Be aware that many readers have complained that the quality of printing, while adequate for the running text, has been inadequate to allow you to read some of the values of components in the schematics. This is a real shame, and quite unbelievable in the world of modern printing technology.

Valve electronics

Since I have no exposure to valve electronics design and construction, I will not be able to provide any pointers. Any reader of this page may please fill the gap.
Some of the books I have heard about, but not read, are:

  • John Linsley Hood's Valve and Transistor Audio Amplifiers. Anything by the late John Linsley Hood is worth studying from cover to cover. His famous Class A amplifier, first published in 1969, and then republished in 1996, still enjoys the status of a benchmark which all Class A amp devotees study and debate. This book by him may cover a lot of valve amplifier fundamentals which the beginner may appreciate.
  • Morgan Jones' Valve Amplifiers, now in its third edition, is considered a popular book. Apparently, this book does not have a construction section. It only covers concepts, and is six hundred pages long. This book covers not just power amps but also phono preamps.

    One Amazon reviewer made this remark about the author's approach: "What I liked most was the author's down-to earth common sense approach, which he evidently acquired through his training at the BBC. [No nonsense about gold plating your mains fuses here]"

  • A second book by Morgan Jones, Building Valve Amplifiers. Normally, when one author publishes two books with such similar names, it is expected that they will overlap big time. But it seems there is a lot of new material from this (the author's second) book. This is apparently more focused on construction techniques, and acts as a good companion to the first book.
  • Mullard has published Mullard Tube Circuits for Audio Amplifiers, which is apparently an excellent book for the DIY tube amp builder. It discusses exactly why you use this value of capacitor here and not that, or why you use this type of resistor here and not that.

You can pretty much choose whether to work with valve electronics or solid state components. Many DIY builders never work with valve electronics all their lives. This is partly because good valves are slightly more difficult to procure and because valve circuits need more care in construction because of their much higher voltages.

Signal electronics

Any electronic circuits which do not need to drive high current loads, e.g. speakers, are signal electronics. In the home audio setup, the preamp, headphone amp, and DAC (digital-to-analog converter), if any, are examples.

To learn about design and building of signal electronics, the following books are fantastic:

  • Randy Slone's Audiophile Projects Sourcebook, (APS) listed earlier
  • Douglas Self's Small Signal Audio Design is a must-read. He covers all the usual things needed for an audiophile, including tone controls and RIAA phono preamp, in his inimitable style, taking you along on an engineering exploration of each area.
  • Modern small-signal circuits are built using op-amp chips in the overwhelming majority of cases. Op-amps are fantastic building blocks for small-signal circuits of every kind. Therefore, anything which builds a strong foundation in the use of op-amps in circuits will be perfect for the DIY constructor doing small-signal circuits. Therefore, we must include the books by the guru of op-amp based circuit design, Walt Jung:
    • Op-amp Applications Handbook, also available for free download from the Analog Devices website, in separate files, one file per chapter, in PDF format
    • IC Op-amp Cookbook, an industry classic spoilt by bad printing (yes, hard to believe in today's age). Any fool of a printer would know that there's no dearth of demand for this book, since it appeals to almost every modern electronics designer and engineer. Suffer the poor print quality and savour the content.
    • Active Filter Cookbook, covering a more specialised area, that of signal filters built using op-amps. A signal filter is anything which modifies the signal in the frequency domain, e.g. increases or lowers one frequency range compared to another, like tone controls or graphic equalisers. All such signal filters today are built using active filters.

Taken together, these books will cover everything the new DIY builder wants to explore in the area of preamps, tone controls, headphone amps, RIAA equalisation phono preamps, graphic and parametric equalisers, and anything else in between.

Loudspeaker design

There is one book which is an essential bible for loudspeaker design and construction, even if does not cover some of the major issues that a modern DIY loudspeaker builder faces. This book is

  • Vance Dickason's Loudspeaker Design Cookbook (LSDC). This book is in its seventh edition now. This is certainly not sufficient reading to allow a DIY beginner to design speakers, despite its name. However, it is necessary reading.

I have read an older edition, and that edition covered analog active crossovers in one or two pages, and speaker design and computer based crossover optimisation techniques at a superficial level. It also covered T/S parameter based enclosure design using the old method of numerical tables and bass alignments (e.g. SBB4, QB3, etc.), whereas today computers can do box modelling and give you an alignment-free simulation of low-frequency behaviour (e.g. using software like Unibox). Therefore the LSDC is not really the last word in this department. However, it's very difficult for a DIY beginner to get a firm foundation on speaker design and construction without reading this book.

This is no cookbook. There are no cookbook designs which the DIY beginner can blindly build. In that sense, the title is a total misnomer.

There are other books too, including "Introduction to Loudspeaker Design" by John Murphy. I have not read Murphy's book and hence cannot comment. There is a highly regarded book on a separate topic: Joe D'Appolito's "Testing Loudspeakers." This book should be a very important book for the DIY enthusiast who has moved beyond the beginner stage.

Summing up

Other veteran DIY builders may give you other reading lists, but for a beginner it does not matter which exact books he reads, provides he reads one bunch of good ones. So, start with the ones here if you do not have any other pointers.

And remember, for a DIY builder, learning comes only with an appropriate mix of building and reading. If you just read, you will land up becoming as useless as an engineering graduate.

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