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Layouts and heat-sinking (classes A, AB, B, C, H)

To ease production costs amplifier cases usually consist
of a rectangular box, the internal layout of a common
domestic stereo amplifier looking similar to that below.

All those components inside handling power are then

dissipating heat in what amounts to a confined space.
Although ventilation holes and slots will be provided,
convection alone may not be sufficient and, as a
consequence, amplifiers can get hot. The situation can
be exacerbated when other 'components' such as
cassette decks, tuners, etc, are stacked on top. In tuner
amplifiers with more internal clutter and four or more
filament indicator lamps, internal heat generation when
quiescent can be that of a soldering iron.

The above arrangement, of a more sophisticated design,

can be useful if the bridge rectifiers and smoothers are
placed between the heat-sinks resulting in lowimpedance runs to the output devices via the amplifier's
PCB (an excellent way to reduce wiring, connectors and
associated problems).
Some designs will increase dissipation by exposing the
fins. However, exposed TO3 cans, for example, are
always a bad idea, given the added propensity for

Sometimes a compact design ethic can introduce

problems that could be avoided with a larger enclosure.
For example, in the Mission Cyrus 1 heat-sinking was
limited (acknowledged in the instruction manual) with a
distinct lack of radiator fins, a commercial constraint
perhaps, an issue then addressed in the '2' with further

mods to increase output power and, invariably,

operating temperature.

Note the virtual absence of heatsinking and 'complex'

wiring of output stage in the Cambridge Audio P50 mkI
when the output device packages were specifically
intended for direct PCB mounting. The words 'baby' and
bathwater' come to mind.

The later mks redesigned the power amplifier

completely (including DC output coupling) and mounted
the output devices on aluminium extrusions to help
dissipation. The large supply electrolytics were however,
in the author's view, mounted too close to these.
Although some components can have comparatively
high operating temperature ranges, others will not.
Elevated temperatures will then reduce the operating
life of the equipment, possibly prompting a re-design,
but by then reputations can have been damaged. This
principle applies to most components, electrical and
even mechanical. For example, if the tungsten filament
temperature of a 150W general purpose light bulb is
reduced by some 300C by using half of it's rated
current, life expectancy can be increased by a factor of
a thousand, which can be useful for critical situations.
By using two 150W bulbs in series to give the light
output of one 100W bulb a newer dimension of
reliability is given to the function with a 25% reduction
in running costs. In contrast, assuming intermittent use,
a respectable brand of power tools, etc, designs all it's
motors for a total working full-load life of only ten
Electronic components come in three grades commercial, industrial and military, each having a wider
operating temperature range than the former, for
example with semiconductors the following ranges may

be offered: commercial; 0C to +70C, industrial; -20C

to +85C and military; -55C to +200C. Choosing
industrial grade will increase reliability without
A high-grade electrolytic capacitor might give typical
lives of say 1,000 hours (41 days) at 105C, 10,000
hours (13 months) at 85C and 160,000 hours (18
years) at 40C. The safe ripple current is also
temperature dependent, for example, the same
capacitor may quote 140% at 20C, 120% at 40C,
80% at 70C and only 40% at 85C.

Plotting these suggests a safe operating maximum

temperature of 50C and, operating below the
maximum ripple rating given, a life in excess of eleven
A commercial 'audio' grade (and thus more expensive!)
capacitor, offering inferior performance, might offer only
2,000 hours at 85C. Allow ventilation around main
smoothers since reduced operating temperatures can
increase life dramatically.
Rate resistors at twice their operating dissipation.
Normally a resistor is fitted close to the PCB, eg;

Those intended to carry high loads should be mounted

so that air-flow can occur around them, thus reducing

the possibility of hot spots and fire damage to the PCB

when a resistor incinerates. For best dissipation,
cylindrical types should be mounted horizontally. A
minimum distance between the PCB and adjacent
components can exceed the resistor's diameter, eg;
(2W5 emitter resistors for paralleled output devices,
class A)

Notwithstanding structural strength and circuit layout

issues, strategically placed large diameter holes through
the PCB will aid ventilation. If a low value, high power
resistor is not readily available, especially if a noninductive type is required, higher value, lower power
types can be paralleled. For example, if a 0R2, 5W is
needed then 10 2R, 0W6 MO types can be paralleled.
Anticipated uses of silicon bipolar power transistors have
been evaluated (1970s) by one manufacturer as

Silicon semiconductor junctions will fail at some 175C

(TO220) to 200C (TO3), although any plastic package

used will fail before this. The life expectancy of such
junctions is inversely proportional to temperature, and
typically at up to 150C the life expectancy of a TO220
type halves for every 10-15C increase. Between 150C
and 175C it halves for every 5-10C. To be safe,
assume that 100C is too hot. At the same time, it must
be borne in mind that whilst a transistor's maximum
power rating is quoted for 25C, at the maximum
temperature this must have been linearly derated to
Reducing chip operating temperature will not only
increase longevity but will increase safe power delivery
capacity. Thermal-cycling rating curves are usually
included in a transistor's datasheet. These can be useful
in predicting a maximum number of thermal cycles at a
given wattage versus temperature change. An
approximation for that for a 2N3055 pellet in a TO3 case
is given below and plots life expectancy versus thermal
stress, eg; if in excess of 100,000 operational cycles
involving a 50C temperature change are required, then
a maximum dissipation of some 30W or lower is
required. With a Tc of 75C this would be nearer 14W.

A sudden current surge, say from a short-circuited

speaker or associated wiring, can heat the chip to
catastrophic levels before the heat-sink can act. Lesser
heating events will have a cumulative effect on the chip,
in the same way a car windscreen can store stresses
over time, and will reduce life expectancy.
Bipolar transistors have a negative temperature
coefficient, this means that as they heat up they pass

more current, thus getting hotter. An inadequate bias

arrangement can exacerbate this. V-FETs have a
positive temperature coefficient which means that the
current they pass reduces as they heat up. These
devices have an inherent safety feature built in. At the
same time, because of their construction, V-FETs do not
develop hot-spots, which bipolar types are prone to. By
increasing the number of output devices, whether
bipolar or FET, this heat can be spread, or dissipated,
over a larger area.
Some high-power designs require fans, or forced-air
cooling, otherwise the case design will become
cumbersome. Unfortunately, fans and/or their drive
circuits can fail and a secondary thermal cut-out is
usually included. One manufacturer made very compact
forced-air cooled power amplifiers on a modular basis,
which at first seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately,
the fans included usually failed leaving the power amps
to cook unnoticed until, of course, it was too late. A
complex design, with a higher component count,
inevitably has 'more to go wrong' than a simpler albeit
bulkier one.

(Modifications to allow micropower sampling techniques

for low power systems).

Some professional designs with E-I laminated mains

transformers mounted these externally with the heatsinks. Excellent from a cooling point of view, and
helping to reduce hum pickup. The Technics SE-9060, a

compact but punchy and reliable favourite, is a good


Two of these, each in bridge mode, drove multiple 18"

400W fundamental bass units as part of a highly mobile
system some described as 'awesome'. With this, it was
hard to disagree. An excellent example of PCB design,
typical of the Japanese, that considerably reduces
wiring, a similar layout appearing in the later SU-V6.
The older and much larger SE-9600 used massive heatsinks down it's sides, whilst leaving the centrally
mounted mains transformer and smoothers exposed.
This design had regulators for the power stages and
consumed 960W whilst delivering 185W/4R or 110W/8R
with both channels.
The less complex, but eye-catching, class A Nakamichi
PA-7, which used 16 TO220 (14 output) devices per
channel used a similar form, whilst other manufacturers
used bridged configurations to help reduce enclosure
volumes, like those used in the Crown MicroTech 1000.
Some smaller cabinet designs, like those of the Quad
303 and the 405, made the front panel the heat-sink.

Although sometimes limited, this can be an excellent

idea when it is considered how the majority of domestic
hi-fi amplifiers and their peripherals are crammed into a
small space, with no air-flow around them. Lecson went
even further with a design that is still a subject of
discussion, and admiration. Always remember that a
heat-sink's given rating is that for operating in free air,
with no restrictions by cases, cabinets, wiring, etc, and
that the dissipation is distributed between all of the
devices fitted to it. For example, a 1.2C/W heat-sink
fitted with 4 output devices = 4.8C/W per transistor.
Removing the top panel from a contemporary power
amplifier might well reveal a similar layout to that
below. This arrangement has been used for fast
specialist designs of 50W or more and for professional
units delivering hundreds of watts. The two normally flat
side-panels are instead large area comb-type heatsinks
which, unrestricted in free air, do not require the use of
a fan. Deep comb heat-sinks with thermal resistances of
<1C/W are available. Heat from the output devices
entering the amplifier case then is much reduced.

Notwithstanding the heat generated by, say, an

amplifier rack, ambient temperatures may impose
restrictions on the maximum power it may be safe to
draw. Embarrassment can arise if a thermal cut-out
trips and a live performance then has to wait for it to
reset. Airflow into the case can be encouraged by
ventilating the bottom panel, especially if aesthetics or
function demand an undrilled top panel. Consideration
may have to be given to reinforcing the bottom panel
since it may be supporting a heavy component like the
mains transformer. Bracing and structural members may
be employed and care taken to avoid weakening the
case's structure. Ventilation holes may then be made in
less critical areas (shaded areas below). Assuming
convectional flow, exit slots can be placed along the top
of the rear panel allowing air to leave.

If components, like the smoothers, are stood off the

panels they are mounted on, airflow, however slight,
will be encouraged. In such a design the height of the

case will be determined by the height of the mains

transformer which will be mounted flush with it's
respective support panel. A gap between the
transformer and the upper panel will aid ventilation. If
aesthetics demand a slim design then two smaller
transformers can be used. To prevent long wiring runs
that could degrade performance, switches mounted at
the rear of the unit can be actuated by insulated rods
that then pass through the front panel.
The Armstrong 732 (only about 50 of which were built)
used this layout, the heat-sinks giving a reported rise
during heavy use of 10C. Some raised concerns over
limitations of the internal layout and the form of the

The height of a high-power design will usually be

determined by the heat-sink's length. In such a
situation the electrolytics can be mounted vertically,
reducing case volume.
This configuration of case, using sheet steel, can be
assembled quickly. 2-3mm is recommended, although
thicker sheet can give an appealingly industrial
appearance when used with associated fasteners.
Portability is, however, reduced.

Heat-sinking is one parameter of which there usually

cannot be enough of, some designs appearing to offer
very little (take the Leak Delta 30/70). Consider the
operating conditions. For example, apart from being
hammered will a new design be used in a confined
space, in intense sunlight, next to a heater or be left on
for days? Unfortunately, a 100% duty-cycle is not
usually a commercial consideration.
A class AB output transistor will, as the graphs show, be
under greater stress at a 'mid-band' voltage level
compared to the upper and lower limits. The greatest
stress occurs when the voltages across the load and
output device are equal.

Up to this point the output stage dissipates more energy

than the load, efficiency increasing as the voltage across
the device decreases. Given listening constraints,
headroom, etc, most use will be in the least efficient
area. Due to the dropout voltages across the output
devices (say 5V), notwithstanding power supply
considerations, a maximum of about 90% will be
achieved just before clipping.

Simply idling, a class A can consume some four or far

more times it's maximum usable output. Output stage
dissipation is drastically reduced with class D or G
configurations and these should be subjectively
evaluated if hardware considerations are excessive.
Looking at datasheets it can be seen that TO220
packages offer a typical operating temperature range of
-65C to +150C and thermal resistances of, say,
1.92C/W (TIP41), 2.5C/W, 3.125C/W and 4.17C/W.
Taking some older, well-known types as examples, the
TIP41, 150C - (say) 25C ambient = 125C operating
TO3 packages (-65C to +200C) can offer from say
1.17C/W, 1.4C/W, 1.5C/W (2N3055) to 1.75C/W.
The 2N3055 gives 200C - 25C ambient = 175C. The
chips of these are usually <3mm square, higher rated
devices can nearly treble this.
Insulators will invariably be placed between the output
devices and the heat-sink, beryllium oxide, anodized
aluminium and mica can be used. Thermal compound on
mating surfaces will reduce thermal resistance to some
0.4C/W. Silicone-rubber washers offering 0.5C/W
without compound can be used, but should be replaced
when refitting a device. A safe margin to consider would
be 1C/W. However, TO220 devices might give 1.5C/W
with a 0.002" mica washer and 2C/W with 0.004" (with
Dow Corning 340 silicon grease). Larger mounting areas
will give a lower thermal resistance, although a hermetic
TO3 may not be a better choice than a plastic package
since some aluminium cases can fail after some 5,000
thermal cycles, allowing corrosion to occur.

For the TIP41, a maximum operating dissipation then

(with a 3C/W heat-sink) appears to be 1.92C/W +
1C/W + 3C/W = 5.92C/W , 125/5.92 = 21.1W,
considerably less than the 65W rated. With a larger
0.5C/W heat-sink; 1.92C/W + 1C/W + 0.5C/W =
3.42C/W , 125/3.42 = 36.5W.
For a 2N3055 with the same heat-sink this would be
1.5C/W + 1C/W + 3C/W = 5.5C/W, 150/5.5 =
27.3W, compared to the rated 117W. With a larger
0.5C/W heat-sink; 1.5C/W + 1C/W + 0.5C/W =
3C/W , 175/3 = 58W.
If 100C is considered an absolute maximum limit,
dissipation levels fall even further to 12W and 13W
respectively, for a 3C/W heat-sink, then 22W and 25W
for a 0.5C/W heat-sink. The same applies if the
ambient temperature is higher.
With a 6R load, a transistor will dissipate some 26Wmax
in an output pair running from a supply of 25V, some
38W with a supply of 30V and some 127W with 55V.
An averaged 'duty-cycle' of 50% can be assumed, but
may be meaningless considering signal content.
Similarly, a load's frequency dependent reactance can
impose conditions far in excess of an output device's
designed capabilities.
Given that the figure for a TO3 has an extra margin, it
can be seen that two, or even three, TO220 packages
will have a smaller PCB footprint than a single TO3 and
will be easier to mount. Paralleled devices can be
spaced quite closely together on a heat-sink since there
will be a distinct drop in chip operating temperature,
which is after all the object of the exercise.

Newer bipolar transistor designs, like the

MJL3281A/MJL1302A (TO-264) complementary pair, can
offer a vast improvement on older designs. Typical specs
for these devices include ratings of 200V, 200W, hFE 60175 (45min), fT 30MHz, Rjc 0.7C/W. Devices like these
should be considered for new builds and upgrades.
A rough rule of thumb balancing cost versus
performance appears to recommend the use of output
devices whose maximum ratings total about five times
the amplifier's output power.

With 6 V-FETs, say, each with a maximum rating of

125W, totalling 750W, a reasonable maximum output of
between 125W and 187W seems feasible. Assuming an
AB output and an averaged 60% efficiency, heat output
can be expected to be between 83W and 124W. Heatsinking should then be rated at 0.8C/W in free air, or
less. This can be derated in proportion to a reduction in
supply voltage/output power, eg: 1.6C/W for 50-75W
and 3.2C/W for 30W output. For stereo use, another
rough rule of thumb gives 2.5C/W for a 100VA
transformer, 5 for 50VA and 1.2 for a 200VA, etc.

Ideally, and where feasible, design for a continuous DC

A similar hardware layout can be used for PWM
implementations involving paralleled output pairs and/or
those utilising Paralleled Phase Shifted Carrier Pulse
Width Modulation, or PPSCPWM, which can potentially
offer higher output handling using smaller output
devices and a virtual absence of heat-sinking by
Most good quality systems appear to give a sufficient
domestic output at 3W, or less, per channel and to
observe a ratio of 20:1 or more between the maximum
power handling available and that used to obtain a
satisfactory sound output, 50-75W appearing adequate.
However, smaller designs cannot be underestimated, if
built well.
A method to load limit a 2N3055 to 40W is given below
but is unsuitable as an audio output stage.

Output transistors are often mounted on an 'anglebracket' which is then bolted to a heat-sink. This can be
unavoidable with TO3 cases which are then soldered to
the PCB, but can concentrate heat around the output
devices, especially if the bracket is thin and/or has been
bent to a right-angle. This last may surprise but is
caused by the deformation of the metal's crystals
offering a higher thermal resistance. If resource
permits, this bracket should be as substantial as
possible and ideally be milled from copper, although
extruded aluminium is often used. Beryllium is not

recommended however, despite it's use in electronics as

a heat transfer medium.
A common arrangement is for the heat-sink to be
attached to the back panel, flat-pack style packaged
output devices can then be secured to this via screws
through the panel, see below (back panel omitted for

An increased rate of dissipation can be achieved with

two heat-sinks, a more even 'spread' obtained with a
'pillow' between the output devices and heat-sinks. This
can be copper (5mm or more thick) and have a
mounting face similar in size, but smaller than a single
heat-sink's mounting face. An arrangement like this can
be used if a common heat-sink is used in a stereo
design, or if high-power handling is a priority, thus
aiding disspation along the heat-sink's entire length.
Apply thermal compound to all mating surfaces. With
comb-type heat-sinks in free air apply heat-flow
contrary, or perpendicular, to vane orientation, which
should be vertical, as shown.
From the above illustrations it can be seen that the
outermost output transistor's mounting screws are
obscured by an electrolytic capacitor. An axial type,
although having a greater PCB footprint, might be a
better choice than a radial one. When designing a PCB
bear these aspects in mind in order to avoid further
unnecessary disassembly when required. Similarly, even
a slight gap between the PCB and heat-sink will promote
air-flow around the output devices. The solution below,
though compact, does not represent the best dissipative

For example, all of the components on the PCB will be

subjected to the temperature rise emanating from the
output devices. During the design process, this will
probably not have been taken into account and, as a
consequence, the resulting failure rate can then be high
and/or instabilities can arise as commercial grade
components are run at or near their thermal limits.
Sometimes a heat-sink's physical design lends itself to,
or inspires, an innovative or eye-catching case. Highpower industrial types can be an example. Keeping
things simple, however, is often the key to a design
becoming reality. Water-cooling, for example (necessary
for some transmitters, X-ray machines and fashionable
for overclocked PCs), can introduce far more problems
than it solves.
In a similar vein, two Class A designs used heavy-duty
radiators in layouts like those shown below.

In each case, 6 off Redpoint NV115-1 type heat-sinks

offering 0.5W/C were used. This profile, in larger form,
was intended for flanged 200A+ thyristors (which had
leads fitted and were used on milk floats, fork-lifts, etc)
and not for T03 packages. In these amplifiers a
considerable proportion of the fins are encased and/or
obscured by the enclosure, reducing the airflow and
efficacy of the heat-sinking by a considerable margin
thus negating much of the reasoning behind choosing
these types. The output devices (and regulators in one
case) then have to be connected to their respective
PCBs by long lengths of wiring, a 'warm' invitation to
instability problems, RF pick-up, etc.
It is assumed that these types were adopted for their
low thermal resistance, although an element of overkill
was evident in one design, the input capacitor being
rated at 630VDC(!) whilst those components that
followed were of a much more modest 'normal' scale. At
the same time, in both designs, considerations relating
to mains filtering and soft-starting for the large-value
capacitor banks were completely absent. Given that one
of these amplifiers is required per speaker, with a usable
output of 60W in one case and perhaps a quarter of that
from the other with everything running flat out, the
author would adopt the form shown earlier not only for
the reservations stated, but also on grounds of reduced
cost and bulk.
By contrast, a layout used for another amplifier, using
machined plates and rectangular section tube
aluminium, presents a more efficient, and pleasing

Nevertheless, a perhaps faulty assumption is made that

simply because the mode of operation is class A,
everything must run hot.
Many amplifiers assume the general shape of A below
which doesn't always have to be the case.

Sony experimented with cylindrical radios and made

some smaller integrated amps having the form of B in
the sixties, which, in use (bookshelf), made greater
ergonomic sense. Notwithstanding the limitations set by
cooling requirements (for example, in B the sides can
now present a large possible heat-sinking area), this in
itself can be an area of study, eg;

A very efficient and substantial radiator from the '70s

(cast aluminium, Crimson Electrik) used 'fingers' instead
of fins.

Class D amplifiers
Power Supplies | Protection | Distortion | Dimensioning
a design | Setting up an audio amplifier
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