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Thread: DIY vs store bought

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    DIY vs store bought

    I was thinking of doing my first amp build, but when I looked at kits online, I felt a bit discouraged. I realized that I could buy a Fender Blues Jr. for the cost of even the lower-priced kits. Aside from the pleasure and learning you get from DIY amps, is the final product value better than if you had paid for a store-bought amp?

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    + 1 for DIY

    I like my DIY amps, but if I had the spare dosh I'd buy one of Bruce's 5F11 kits with the fixed bias and the beefier 5E3 PT and get a nicely made tweed covered cab to put it in just to say I had one in my collection. (Which is to say that so far my DIY is out of Hobson's Choice).

    On the up side, DIY definitely has more individualism, and are a form of artistic expression, but they take more work, and sometimes re-work, before you get to the finish. But if you have the time and the tools, go DIY.
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    This is an interesting question to which I've given some thought.

    Building an amp from a kit definitely will provide a learning experience, some entertainment, and a sense of accomplishment. Some of the same could be said for restoring a vintage piece, too, while buying a new or used production amp has none of this, except for maintenance work and possible repairs down the road.

    The economics of it is maybe not the highest priority (as in any hobby activity), but here are some considerations:

    Many kits are based on classic designs which have become increasingly expensive and hard to find. But now that there are reissue products from both the original manufacturers and others, there is a way for anyone to get close to the originals in sound for a lower investment. However, in most people's opinions the reissues never seem to get it just right, and of course there are a number of reasons for this, including modern constraints on materials and methods of production, and the sale price point.

    I expect that the resale value of a kit-built version would be relatively less (as a percentage of the investment) than a commercially made product. I'd be interested in the experiences of others here.

    Just for fun, here's some numbers:

    Fender 4x10 Bassman

    Original in fine condition $7-10,000 or more
    Reissue (street price) $1,300
    Victoria boutique version (street price) $2,300
    Kit from established company $1,100 + some work (fun?)

    So the cheapest way in is the kit or the reissue. The reissue probably won't sound as good as a well made kit with good components, but might have better resale value. A possible alternative is to combine the two: buy a used reissue and gut it, replacing the PCB and other components with higher quality ones, the board being a hand-wired one built from a kit. This would likely cost more than a new reissue or a complete kit, but includes the DIY benefits and might have better resale value.

    The boutique version is arguably the best value, since it will have both good sound quality and will hold it's value. The down-side is that it requires ~2x the investment.

    Buying an original is really a different game, since there is collectability and appreciation involved, and these factors may be more important than playability. A restoration project might actually turn a profit if a good candidate could be found.

    What do others think?

    MPM

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    The sound- and dynamic-quality depends greatly on the used speakers and transformers. In most cases the parts-costs when using top of the line components are higher than a pcb-re?ssue but if build correctly and with care you can obtain "boutique-quality" for (way) less than retail/street-prices if "your hours are free".

    As 1st "project" a tweed Champ or tweed Deluxe is way easier to build.

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    Chris Winsemius

    www.CMWamps.com
    Vleuten, The Netherlands

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    Thanks!

    Thanks very much for the replies! I forgot to mention that was my first post. I have become obsessed with music electronics, but am starting from "way back" reading my first electronics text!

    I admire the folks who can wing it with bargain bin and salvage parts, but I suppose that is the master level.

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    se3, how hard?

    How hard is the se3 kit? I am tempted to try it. First I'm going to build some boxes out of the "Electronics Projects for Musicians" book to get some soldering skills. At what point is a newbie ready for a kit like the se3?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris - CMW amps View Post
    The sound- and dynamic-quality depends greatly on the used speakers and transformers. In most cases the parts-costs when using top of the line components are higher than a pcb-re?ssue but if build correctly and with care you can obtain "boutique-quality" for (way) less than retail/street-prices if "your hours are free".

    As 1st "project" a tweed Champ or tweed Deluxe is way easier to build.
    Yes, good point (a well built kit will sound as good as boutique if the components are similar quality). I still believe the resale value, as a percentage of investment, of the boutique would be higher than a kit-built version though.

    MPM

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    Senior Member hasserl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by martin manning View Post
    Yes, good point (a well built kit will sound as good as boutique if the components are similar quality). I still believe the resale value, as a percentage of investment, of the boutique would be higher than a kit-built version though.

    MPM
    Not necessarily, stick a custom name plate on the front of it and call yourself an amp company and sell your kit amp as a boutique hand built. You wouldn't be the first, I've seen plenty of guys do this. And it's not far from the truth. What the boutique guys have in many cases, not all but many, is name recognition. Get a couple of amps out to guys with high post counts on a couple of internet bbs's and all of a sudden you'll have name recognition too. I can think of several right off the top of my head that fit this description.

    Re the comparison to store bought amps like the Blues Jr, most of those amps have very compromised tone quality. And some that do sound pretty damn good stock (not the Blues Jr, but say the Crate V16 or V32, or the new Vox AC15 or AC30) have very questionable build quality. I'd much rather take a kit amp out gigging than a store bought amp. First of all I'd trust the amp more, and I also know that if it breaks I can fix it. I can fix the store bought amp too, but I'd rather work on a hand wired amp than a mass produced pcb amp.

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    Forget the cost aspect, if you want cheap go with a mass market PCB amp.

    I have heard plenty of re-issues that will give many old amps a run for their money when properly set up, a kit won't sound better because it is a kit, it will only sound better if it's built by a savvy buillder.

    As a first step, I'd perhaps look at some old/cheap amps and try a few simple mods, develop your ear and learn step by step what the various stages do & how they interract.

    If you must try a build then start with a champ/5F2A type amp, something simple that's relatively easy to troubleshoot.

    If you want a 5E3 that works when you fire it up, go with a kit that comes with full instructions like the Mission. Have look at plenty of pics of built, working examples and don't try and reinvent the wheel.

    Otherwise, if that kit sounds expensive now, wait until you've spent the money, taken a week to build it & can't get it to work!

    Lastly, get to hear a 5E3 before you build it, so that you know what you're letting yoursell in for, they have a big following for sure but they're not to everyone's taste.

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    Senior Hollow State Tech Bruce / Mission Amps's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MWJB View Post
    ...
    Lastly, get to hear a 5E3 before you build it, so that you know what you're letting yoursell in for, they have a big following for sure but they're not to everyone's taste.
    Ah men to that! Unrealistic expectations are very hard to get past once you've paid your money and end up building something you wouldn't have really liked had you heard one first!
    The 5E3 is a relatively uncomplicated amp with incredible, rich harmonic, classic sound and a blast to play....but, it is not a black face Fender sound and you aren't going to get this amp to cover all the music bases or do metal band stuff.

    Kits are not cheap because someone has done all the logistical brain damage for you first and supplied you with everything you need (less tools) to build something that has been proven to work over and over again, and hopefully, offer and deliver the support, or hand holding, some novice builders need during the process.
    Some vendors are better at that and more patient then others but the idea is or should be the same.
    Also, don't discount or over look the HUGE wealth of help right here from some very generous and superior techs or builders.
    Real Yoda types that frequently blow my mind!! ha ha

    If you have never done anything like this, read up a little, practice some solder skills on any old gronk piece of something somewhere and or try a small 5F1 champ type amp first.
    Then when you are hooked on building your own amps (and the pride that comes with it)... move up to more sophisticated amps designs.

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    Bruce

    Mission Amps
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    www.missionamps.com
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    Mass-produced amps, in my extensive experience in the repair industry, currently have the most piss-poor component quality I've ever seen, and questionable build quality. If I were to purchase an off-the-shelf amp to gig with, I would go through it with a fine-tooth comb looking for potential failure points, e.g. solder joints, wiring issues, etc., but it would NOT encompass wholesale replacement of components sourced from Far East places you've never heard of. THAT is what scare me.

    With a kit amp, you know every single components going in, every single wire and solder joint. For those who are experienced, it is practically a no-brainer. However, if you have NEVER built a kit amp, or anything electronic for that matter, even a 5E3, which is relatively simple, is not the place to start. However, I will take a kit amp over ANYTHING sold in GC or Sam Ash. Perhaps even other boutique amps, because I'd rather know everything that goes into it, including every last solder joint and even the type of solder used. That's why I build my own amps, as well as guitars and drums. I really don't use any instruments or amps that I don't personally build.

    My son wants a Marshall amp. I will probably purchase the unloaded boards and chassis from Ceriatone, purchase selected components and transformers, plus a cabinet, and do the rest myself. That way, if something DOES happen, I know who to blame!

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    John R. Frondelli
    dBm Pro Audio Services, New York, NY

    "Mediocre is the new 'Good' "

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    A compromise -

    Look at your costs. You need an enclosure, a chassis, input and output transformers, speaker (if its a combo), reverb tank (if you have taste), knobs, power cord, fuse holder, input and output jacks, and on and on.

    You can trim your cost way, way down by starting with a used amp and re-using all these items. Many amps are amenable to removal of the existing circuitry and replacement with circuitry of your own design.

    Old Carvin amps have nice sturdy cabinets, decent speakers, reverb, OTs with separate bias taps and provision for a +/-15V supply, and sometimes even a 5-band graphic EQ module, and even minty ones rarely go for more than $400. I've got lots. I think an average 60W X-series head needing minor repair went or didn't go on eBay for $175 with free shipping in the last day or two.

    Badly injured Marshall and Fender amps are affordable too.

    Now this approach takes a bit more know-how than buying a full kit and following the instructions, which is another approach that others have used to successfully enter the wonderful world of amplifiers. You'll be responsible for getting lots of power and high-voltage circuitry right without killing yourself. You'll have to figure out the right caps and resistors to buy for each location. But I think a period of study prior to hands-on activity makes more sense anyway.

    Martin's example points out an exception. If you really want to do a clone or derivative of a vintage hand-wired amp, the kits aren't priced crazy. I'm sure the vendors will admit that they're not getting rich quick off them. There's plenty of competition. Tracking down parts is lots of work that requires some skill, and the vendor gets to amortize this effort over many more units than you will with your one-off. They've also built and documented each kit, and know that the pieces play well together.

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    Thanks again

    Thanks agian to all who replied. I've joined other user groups, but I have never received such generous, thoughtful and articulate replies as the ones posted here! Many thanks.

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    Or you could take the Werner Herzog route and do (or not do) what I did. Build your own recipes from scratch. I've experienced the gamut from stark terror to sheer boredom and in two years I have almost nothing to show for it except for few working prototypes (though I'm almost done with my first actual amp-in-a-box).

    Frustration and reward and I've learned a boatload. It would have been easier (smarter) to buy a kit, but I'm a stupid person. I've spent way too much time with this passing interest, which became a hobby, skipped over passion altogether and went straight through to addiction. Ah, well, cheaper than a shrink.

    I've always hated the expression "Don't reinvent the wheel".

    Build an amp.

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    Senior Member zhyla's Avatar
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    As a means for getting a decent amp, a used off the shelf amp is the way to go price-wise (to use the Bassman example, a reissue sold this week for $700). But there's so much to learn from building them yourself. Plus, a new store-bought amp is fun and exciting for all of about 2 days. Building one will keep you busy for months.

    In addition to the Champ, the AX84 Firefly is a really interesting and well supported (PCB's are available) project that I would recommend for beginners. Low wattage, cheap to build (I didn't keep good track of it, but I think it was around $300 total for a head), and different than anything commercially available.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jrfrond View Post
    Mass-produced amps, in my extensive experience in the repair industry, currently have the most piss-poor component quality I've ever seen, and questionable build quality. If I were to purchase an off-the-shelf amp to gig with, I would go through it with a fine-tooth comb looking for potential failure points, e.g. solder joints, wiring issues, etc., but it would NOT encompass wholesale replacement of components sourced from Far East places you've never heard of. THAT is what scare me.

    With a kit amp, you know every single components going in, every single wire and solder joint. For those who are experienced, it is practically a no-brainer. However, if you have NEVER built a kit amp, or anything electronic for that matter, even a 5E3, which is relatively simple, is not the place to start. However, I will take a kit amp over ANYTHING sold in GC or Sam Ash. Perhaps even other boutique amps, because I'd rather know everything that goes into it, including every last solder joint and even the type of solder used. That's why I build my own amps, as well as guitars and drums. I really don't use any instruments or amps that I don't personally build.

    My son wants a Marshall amp. I will probably purchase the unloaded boards and chassis from Ceriatone, purchase selected components and transformers, plus a cabinet, and do the rest myself. That way, if something DOES happen, I know who to blame!
    Try Metro for the Marshall amp; I built a JTM 45 from parts that I purchased from them and nothing but top self stuff; plus a lot of compoment brand/type options and reasonably priced
    Normy

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    OK, I have psyched myself up to get a kit... now which one?

    I've decided to build if I can find the right kit. I looked at the AX87 P1, but he describes the sound as "cleanish" (not clean) I just want a warm tube sound for performing in small clubs and as a neutral reference for testing out pedals. I almost bought a blues jr. if that gives you an idea what I'm looking for.

    I AM a beginner, so maybe I should stick with the P1. Suggestions would be most welcome.

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    If it were me, knowing what I know now and the amp you're discribing, I would look at Allen Amplification (www.allenamps.com/kits.php) If you?re looking for tube reverb (more complex circuit), I'd look at the sweet spot (based on black face Princeton reverb), He offers power up to 35watts (depending on trannies and output tubes) or the hot fudge (basd on brown prince) that has a simpler circuit but no reverb and available with similar power selections. I?ve built two Weber 6A14HP kits from Weber (upgraded components i.e. pots jacks and caps and trannies), which is based on a Princeton reverb using larger trannies and 6L6?s output tubes (35 watts). I love this kit, it?s loud and small and easy to carry. I would not recommend it for a beginner though because Weber does not offer tech support. Allen?s amplification has a good reputation for support and quality components.

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    Member lmolter's Avatar
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    I chose the DIY method, with the exception that I am collecting the parts myself. A chassis from Hoffman, transformers from Mercury Magnetics, caps and resistors from various vendors. No cabinet or speakers yet. Total invested so far? About $600. I could have spent less if I hadn't chose premium components. Did I really need the $8-apiece Vitamin-T caps? Did I really need the Sprague Atoms? Did I really need Mercury ToneClone transformers? Probably not, but... I wanted parts that were as close to the original as possible in the attempt to create the original sound as best as possible. Time will tell because I haven't finished it yet. Read on... Add $300 for the cabinet (Tolexed) and $200+ for 4 speakers. And my time is free. So when I'm all done, I hope to have a replica 5F6A Bassman for about $1100 in parts. And I hope to have an amp with better quality than the reissue and perhaps better components and better sound, too. If I was doing this again, though, I'd choose a smaller amp like a Champ or Champ Delux. Aside from being better for a small room, I think I may have better luck selling a few of the smaller amps to friends and family. The Bassman will be a brute.

    I know I didn't exactly respond to the kit-versus-reissue post, but I thought a first-time builder might want to hear why I chose to pick the parts myself versus use what the kit supplier offered. For me, part of the fun was putting together the shopping list, buying the parts, and watching the whole thing take shape. And since I have an electronic background (albeit dormant for the last 20 years), I am able to read schematics and assemble the amp without formal assembly instructions. Sometimes there's guesswork involved, but that's fun, too.

    To the OP, Good Luck and have fun.

    Larry

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    In my case, I just finished my first amplifier build from scratch, it was a 5e3 build, which came out great. I had a few advantages going my way: my dad taught me to solder many years ago when I was a teenager; and good soldering skill makes a big difference. Also, I have a very good friend who has built dozens of different classic amps to serve as a mentor; he reviewed my workmanship a couple of times during my build, and answered my questions along the way, suggested how to dress the wires to minimize hum, and also lead me through the initial power up sequence, which helped tremendously. In this way I was able to talk through and learn safe practices; safety was a real concern to me and so this was like receiving a master class. I think (at least he made me feel this way) that he enjoyed having a "student".

    Now he is having me build a 5F6A from scratch, and expecting me to use what I learned during the 5e3 build. I will probably buy the chassis for the sake of a more visually accurate reproduction with chrome plating and lettering (the 5e3 was bent up from scrap aluminum which I polished, but still lacks lettering - I may get letraset letters and add them later) but I will fabricate my eyelet board and cabinet. I will continue to ask my friend when I have a question, because there is no wisdom in guessing in these matters.

    By the way, if you are willing to take the time, and have some woodworking tools and skills, fabricating your own cabinet can save a lot of money. My 5e3 cabinet cost for the pine for the box and plywood for the baffle and back plates, tolex, adhesive, amber shellac, leather handle, cabinet feet and brass screws and finish washers to mount the baffle, chassis and back plates was around $100. I was given the grill cloth, oxblood from an old organ, which otherwise would have been another $20 for a yard. It did take time, I made some mistakes, but I have also learned from my mistakes and my next cabinet will reflect what I learned. But even with the mistakes, my cabinet looks real good.

    I said all that really just to suggest that you take a look at your situation, what you know, what skills and tools you have, and who you might know that can really help you when you have a question. If you have some things that convince you that you have a good support system available, go for it. The tuition may be a bit higher than outright buying a current production amp, but you also get to keep and enjoy what you produce with the tuition.

    How many people get to actually hear and play with vintage amplifiers? But if you learn to build them, and enjoy it (I enjoyed my build tremendously) that opens the door to more builds of other classic amps that you have always wanted to have, because your skills will improve and you will be tooled up appropriately.

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    Yep, I could solder, and had a very basic knowledge of electronics....but not vintage electronics such as tube amps. So I bit the bullet and bought a chassis, voltage and impedance switches off Nik at Ceriatone, Sozo caps direct, board, turrets and switches from Metro, knobs from Weber, electrolytics and Hammond Transformers from Antique Electronics, etc, etc, etc. Then proceeded to build my amp from scratch. Many hours of lurking through forums and learning from the many mistakes and teething problems of others until I finally finished my baby. A Marshall 2204. Made the cab and tolexed it myself, and learned heaps along the way. Living in Australia, and having to import everything from the US except the carbon film resistors, I could have bought a second hand JCM800 for the same money, but that wasn't the point of the exercise. I wanted to learn, and I wanted the satisfaction of doing it all myself.

    I hadn't quite finished the Marshall when I started acquiring the parts for my second build... an AB763 Fender Blackface Twin. Both amps work perfectly after a few minor problems, all related to my inexperience, but with the help of members from another forum, (didn't know about this one at the time), the problems were all solved.

    I've started my 3rd and 4th amps now. A JTM45 and an 18W TMB Marshall, again from scratch, and again many hours of research. I'm already planning my next 3 builds. A Marshall Super Bass powered by KT88s, a Vox AC30, and a hybrid being an AB763 BFT using EL84s instead of 6L6s. I'm also toying with the idea of building a tube Hi Fi amp and tube pre amp to go with it. Absolutely useless for home theater, but my vinyl will sound the way it's meant to!

    My advice is simple. Take the bull by the horns and take on the project of your choice. Don't be afraid to start something more complex as the principals are all basically the same, (but be very aware of the very high voltages these amps use), and if you do have problems, then there is a wealth of information right here in this forum, all you need to do is ask the questions and the answers will come forth.

    Good luck with what ever you attempt.... and it will be the best amp you've ever used, because you chose the components, and you built it!

    Tinkerer.

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    Last edited by Tinkerer; 10-14-2009 at 08:55 AM. Reason: Added more text and corrected spelling.

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    kit vs. DIY

    So I just finished my first build, which I would call a mixture of kit and DIY. But probably mostly kit.
    I bought a hoffman board kit including pots and jacks for a 5e3, and stripped out a working 6v6-powered precision electronics pa amp that had been previously modified for guitar use, leaving only the transformers and tube sockets. This amp had octal tubes in the preamp, so I found some decent vintage 6sl7 tubes, and wired my sockets to the board accordingly(you can use the same values as you would for the 12ax7/12ay7 tubes), and mounted my board in the chassis. I bought my board from revolver amps, and Charles Prest has been very helpful, being able to answer most of my questions. It also came with a very helpful diagram and and booklet that, while maybe not neccsarily step-by-step instructions, they had most of the info I needed. I've also been able to make subtle mods to my amp like making both of my channels "bright" channels. To me, this was kinda the best of both worlds. I was able to build an amp that(not to knock any of the finely built kits out there) wasn't just another kit, but also challenged me to build what I wanted, how i wanted to build it. I got to figure out best placement for my board and all the off-board components, and I was able to use vintage transformers. Don't know if this really makes a difference, but it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside...
    I also like having a head instead of a combo. Just a personal prefference.
    As far as my cost goes, I have $135 into the pa amp, and 150 into the board, so all in all I have a pretty righteous sounding deluxe for under 300. But I also have seen 5e3 kits without the chassis(but have transformers) for 225 or so on eBay right now...

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    Quote Originally Posted by mhickler View Post
    I was thinking of doing my first amp build, but when I looked at kits online, I felt a bit discouraged. I realized that I could buy a Fender Blues Jr. for the cost of even the lower-priced kits. Aside from the pleasure and learning you get from DIY amps, is the final product value better than if you had paid for a store-bought amp?
    Yes. A Fender Blues Junior is a mere shadow of what you can build yourself. What you build won't have reverb or a master volume but what they WILL have is tone to the bone.

    If you can't hear the difference, by all means, but a BJ, but anything you build will sound many times better than a BJ.

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