This month, I decided to do an article on what I have in my station toolbox — and where to get them. In my opinion, everything here represents outstanding value. Please note that these prices were current as of March 2015 and may vary, up or down, in future months.
The author’s discreet “toolbox” remains at each station.PLUG IN THE ’PHONES
I always keep a couple headphone distribution amps in my box. The ones I use are the Pyle PHA 40. It is a one-input, four-output headphone amp that is dirt cheap and sounds just great. They are available from Amazon for around $15. They use NJM 4580 op-amps, which is an excellent sounding amplifier that can put out in excess of 40 milliamps of current into the average headphone. The unit comes with a 12-volt wall plug supply, though I generally run them on 24-volt ones (the components are fully rated to run on 24 volts). Caution though, with a 24-volt supply, these play loud enough to probably damage your hearing!
Every toolbox needs headphones to plug into those fine headphone amps. Here’s a deal too good to pass up: high-quality stereo headphones that are fully 80 percent of the Sony 7506s for a third of the price — and as cheap as $15 on sale. The cans I speak of are the Monoprice 8323. They sound great, come with removable cords (the cords plug into the headphones) and even come with cords of two different lengths. They are available from Amazon, Buy.com and direct from the Monoprice.com website (where you will likely find the best deal on them — they are over $30 at Amazon today, but only $24 on the Monoprice site, with free shipping). The Monoprice MHP 839s are similar and might be found on places like eBay at an even better price.
JUST MATCH IT OR TEST IT
Another thing I bring along is a transformer (passive) matchbox. The model I keep is a Pyle-Pro PDC22. This two-channel balancer is perfect when you have a pesky hum at a remote. Put this in-circuit and your problem is generally solved. Sound quality of these is quite good, though some with golden ears might hear a very slight softening of the audio. They match 50K ohms to 600 ohms, but you can connect the two channels together to get a single 50k:50k ohm transformer or a single 600:600 ohm transformer. I can’t count the number of times this unit has saved my butt at a remote. It also comes with XLR and TRS 1/4-inch connectors, switchable pads, ground lifts, etc. Amazon offers it for around $15 (I have no idea how they can make this unit for this price). They also sell a mono version, the Pyle-Pro PDC21 for $8.50!
Another matching essential is a balanced-to-unbalanced converter. MCM makes an excellent model, which they sell for only $41 (www.mcmelectronics.com, search for part number 555-8485). Rolls makes a very good American-made bal/unbal converter for around $65 too — the MB15b Promatch A digital voltmeter is absolutely essential. I buy cheap ones from Harbor Freight. They frequently have basic units on sale for around $3 (not a misprint). I buy three or four of them at a time and leave one at every client’s site — plus a couple for my toolbox. Again, I can’t count the number of times these have saved my butt in the middle of the night.
My next essential is a cable tester. The one I recommend is made by Pyle Pro, model PCT40, a 12 Plug Pro Audio Cable Tester. It does every type of cable out there, including DIN, Ethernet and USB, and even has banana jacks for testing fuses, etc. Amazon sells it for around $37. Pyle also makes a lesser model at half the price, the PCT 10.
The contents of each “toolbox.” The author spent $20 to gather these items.JUST FOR VINYL
Another Pyle Pro product I keep around is their PP444 Ultra Compact Phono Turntable Preamp. Yes, vinyl is still used at lots of places, and the phono preamps there are likely all old with dried up capacitors. This unit sounds excellent — quiet and with accurate RIAA equalization — and even better, can be found at Amazon for $17. They also sell a cheaper one, the Pyle Pyle PP999, which sells for $12.50. Though I have not heard this unit, people I trust have — and tell me that it blows away the phono preamps that come in the typical old-school stereo receivers.
FOR SPORTY REMOTES
Having a couple of the following units makes sports remotes a snap: The Behringer MicroMON MA400 makes a local mix-minus, only needing a microphone and line level backfeed. The inputs are all bridging high-impedance so they don’t load any circuit. In a pinch, it also works as a single-channel microphone preamp and a utility/headphone amplifier with both 1/4- and 1/8-inch outputs (and enough drive to use them both at the same time). The wall plug supply is floating, so floating the unit’s ground allows it to be used as a pseudo-balanced output and input. All this for under $25 at Amazon.
Everyone has use for a modest power (10–20 watt per channel) stereo amplifier from time to time. This one’s fidelity will absolutely blow you away — it is true audiophile quality in my opinion — for under $20! Lepai LP-2020A+ amp is available all over the place. Amazon sells it for $19.99. An even better deal is the Lepai LP-A68, which comes with a remote control, stereo FM and USB and SD card MP3 playback — for $21.50 at Amazon. I have one in my bedroom and it sounds great.
I always carry a few USB audio dongles around in my box. You never know when you might need one and for around $1.50 shipped on eBay, keeping four of five in stock is a no-brainer. Simply do a search for USB audio on eBay and you’ll quickly find them. One of these makes a great “diverter” when Windows wants to keep taking over the audio cards in your automation workstations. Simply plug one into a USB port and Windows will take it for its sound card and leave your AudioScience or Digigram cards alone. If you find yourself needing a USB audio card with balanced inputs and outputs, MCM Electronics sells a superb one for $37 dollars here: www.mcmelectronics.com, search for part number 555-17815.
MCM is also a great place to find hard to get items like replacement speakers, etc. Another great online source is Parts Express (www.parts-express.com).
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Over the years, what I have wound up doing is making up a small box of tools that I keep at each transmitter site I take care of. It is made up of these eight items, all purchased through Harbor Freight Tools (www.harborfreight.com):
Item from Harbor Freight Tools (harborfreight.com)
4-in-1 Screwdriver with TPR Handle
5-3/4 in. Needle Nose Pliers
8 inch Linesman Pliers
8 inch Slip Joint Pliers
5 In Wire Stripper for #24 to #10 gauge wire
7 Function Digital Multimeter
10 Piece SAE Hex Key Set
3-1/2 inch 9 LED Mini Flashlight
These tools, kept hidden in a small cardboard box at a transmitter site or in the trunk of the car, have saved me many times over their $20 cost. One caveat: Make sure you put alkaline AAA cells in the flashlight, because unlike the provided carbon cells, the alkaline cells will last for many years.
I hope that this article is helpful as I’ve described some of the items I keep in stock and use on a daily basis. Using these things will save you both time and aggravation in the long run.
Dana Puopolo is chief engineer at WGLS(FM), Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.