Complementary-Symmetry Amplifier Biasing Basics


This page provides information concerning the biasing of Class-AB, complementary-symmetry audio amplifiers. These schematics should be considered theoretical, as design considerations such as thermal stability, negative feedback and component power ratings are minimized or excluded for sake of clarity.

The basic 2 transistor complementary-symmetry amplifier may be used as a simple low power AF amp or as a building block for a high powered stage such as a 50 watt guitar amplifier. It is important to understand how to properly bias your AF power amps to reduce distortion and to promote easy troubleshooting when problems arise. This web page describes the hows and whys of biasing in a progressive manner with minimal math.


A review of the common collector amplifier (which is more commonly called the emitter follower) is a good place to start. We may refer to the complementary-symmetry transistor pair as complementary emitter followers since they are an NPN and PNP emitter follower connected in series. An emitter follower amp is shown in Figure 1. Its properties include:

  1. input on the base - output on the emitter
  2. high input impedance and low output impedance
  3. a voltage gain of 1
  4. good current and power gain

In an appropriate configuration, these qualities are perfect for driving a low impedance load such as an 8 ohm speaker with large output currents that are not provided by our typical transistor or op amp voltage amplifier stages. In many cases, we bias the emitter follower with a voltage divider network comprised of 2 identical value resistors. In Figure 1, the voltage divider consists of a series pair of 10K resistors and thus VBias = 6 volts. These 10K bias resistors will be used throughout this web page as the circuits evolve.


In Figure 2 is a pair of complementary emitter followers which have their bases biased with our now familiar series connected 10K bias network for a VBias of 6 volts. When the power is turned on, output capacitor C2 charges through the NPN transistor until it reaches about 6 volts (theoretical value used to keep things simple). When the voltage at point V Emitter reaches 6 volts, the NPN transistor goes into cutoff because VBias voltage now equals the V emitter voltage. Recall that the NPN transistor base must be positive with respect to the emitter for current to flow. Both the NPN and the PNP transistor are in cutoff. This is the amplifier's quiescent state (assuming no signal is applied to the input via C1) and is called Class B bias.

In Figure 3, a positive going signal is applied to the input capacitor. The NPN transistor becomes forward biased and turns ON. Current flows through the NPN transistor and charges capacitor C2 to a higher potential. The PNP transistor stays in cut off. The NPN transistor is an emitter follower connected to the speaker.

In Figure 4 a negative going signal the (negative half-cycle) is applied to the input. Q3 turns ON and discharges the output capacitor through the speaker as shown in red. The PNP transistor is an emitter follower connected to the speaker.

Thus the NPN and the PNP transistor conduct on alternate half cycles which causes AC current to flow through the speaker. The complementary emitter followers are said to be in push-pull operation.

The circuit of Figure 2 has a significant problem; output signal distortion. Silicon transistors such as the 2N3904 and 2N3906 will not conduct until their bases are forward biased by somewhere around 0.7 volts. For the NPN transistor, this means that it will not conduct until the input signal has gone positive by about 0.7 volts. Oppositely, the PNP transistor will remain in cut off until the input signal goes negative by approximately 0.7 volts. As a result, there is a dead zone during the point in time when one transistor cuts OFF and the other turns ON. Shown above is a normal sinusoidal AC waveform in red and another with the distorted waveform of Figure 2 in red and blue. This distortion is called crossover distortion because it occurs at the zero crossing point of the AC waveform. This introduces odd-order harmonics into the output signal. Such is the drawback of the Class B amplifier.

The above photograph shows crossover distortion in an under-biased power amp.

Figure 5 shows the principle technique used to reduce crossover distortion; both transistors are (slightly) forward biased almost to conduction in their quiescent state. As a result, any amplitude of positive or negative going signal will bias the appropriate transistor into conduction. An easy way to achieve this biasing is by adding 1 resistor to our 10K voltage divider network. In Figure 5 is a circuit I built, measured and listened to. R3, a 2K2 ohm resistor was placed in between R1 and R2, our usual 10K bias resistors. As a result , both transistors are forward biased.
That is: the base of the PNP transistor is negative with respect to its emitter and the the base of the NPN transistor is positive with respect to its emitter. As a rule of thumb, you need to drop at least 1 volt across R3. I chose a 2K2 resistor and it worked fine in my particular amp. The Figure 5 biasing topology is rarely used as it puts a series resistance on the PNP input among other problems; however, it exemplifies the basic principles of biasing our complimentary pair. With the forward bias on the transistor pair we now are in Class AB. The output capacitor serves to block the quiescent DC current from flowing through the speaker.


Figure 6 illustrates an improved biasing method over that of Figure 5 by using a pair of silicon diodes. You see this circuit used a lot by hobbyists. The voltage divider consists of 2 resistors and the 2 diodes. The 2 series connected diodes are connected in parallel to the NPN and PNP transistor base-emitter junctions which serves to keep the transistors turned on slightly. The net effect of the diode pair is the same as R3 in Figure 5. The voltage drop per diode was measured at 0.57 volts. The AC resistance of these 2 forward biased diodes is non-significant. There is major problem with the diode/resistor voltage divider; no way to adjust the diodes forward voltage drop. If each diode's forward threshold voltage is unequal to the base-emitter junction voltage of each transistor, either not enough forward bias is applied, or the 2 transistors may be turned on too much reducing efficiency and possibly cause excessive heating. Additionally, the pair of diodes lack the ability to provide temperature compensation when the transistors get hot.

Figure 7 shows the best way to bias our complimentary pair. Our familiar 10K-10K voltage divider is kept, but a transistor Q3 with its own biasing resistors R3 and R4 are added. You might think of R3 and R4 as a voltage divider within a voltage divider. Q3 is referred to as an amplified diode or DC level shifter. It often receives local thermal feedback from the power follower output transistors. This usually involves mounting Q3 on the same heat sink as the finals. If the output transistors heat up, so does Q3 and this results in a a smaller voltage drop across Q3 which translates into less forward bias to Q1 and Q2. Within limits, Q3 with its own base-emitter junction provides variable forward bias for the output transistors.

Shown above is the breadboard of the Figure 6 circuit built on scrap of copper clad board. Transistors were 2N3904 and 2N3906 types, diodes were 1N4148. The capacitor and resistor to the right were a low pass filter (10 ohm and 0.1 uF) to stabilize the output. The unseen speaker was connected to the red and green wires.

In practice, either R3 or R4 is often replaced with a trimmer potentiometer or a trimmer potentiometer is used instead of R3 and R4 and sometimes R3 and R4 are not of equal value. Shown above in Figure 8 are 3 variable bias topologies for Q3 that I have used. In some cases you will notice that the builder places a fixed value resistor or even a diode in series with the potentiometer in circuits like A or B. Using a potentiometer allows precise adjustment of the quiescent bias current and the ability to dial in the lowest crossover distortion possible. You can set the bias current using any combination of an oscilloscope and signal generator, a voltmeter, an ammeter or possibly try do it by ear when listening for and removing crossover distortion at low volume levels. The procedure I have read to adjust the bias by listening is as follows: Allow some low level signal through the amp so you can just hear it in the speaker. Turn the potentiometer from 1 extreme to another until crossover distortion is heard. Move the pot in the opposite direction until the crossover distortion disappears.
From my limited experience; in some amplifiers under 2 watts or so, you may not hear much of an audible change in crossover distortion when adjusting the bias control potentiometer, so the listening method is not useful in certain cases. It is worth mentioning, that crossover distortion sounds awful and you can usually hear it in amplifiers that are under biased.

Many builders just have a multimeter. In this case, measure the voltage drop across Q3 (the amplified diode) and ensure that is a least 1.1 volts and then slowly adjust the bias up or down from that point. Ultimately, you may have to just make the final bias setting by deciding what voltage drop across Q3 and/or what complementary pair quiescent current you want to establish. It is really not that difficult. Whatever method you use, always re-check the Q3 voltage drop and amplifier bias current with no input signal to inform yourself of what is happening.
I am uncertain of the best method to measure the amplifier quiescent current, however I normally measure it using an ammeter connected in series with the emitter of the NPN transistor of the complementary pair.

Shown to the right and below are more images of what crossover distortion can look like in an under-biased power follower stage. The right output waveform also contains a little harmonic distortion, however that's a separate issue. I listened to this amp when connected to a speaker and music audio source; the audio had a noticeable "grungy" distorted sound. As mentioned, crossover distortion sounds terrible. The bias to the power followers (a complimentary pair of two 2N3906 and two 2N3904 transistors set up as Darlington emitter followers) was increased and the crossover distortion disappeared.  A post bias adjustment audio listening test confirmed that the crossover distortion was gone.

Click for a Russian language mp3 audio file. Vladimir (Volodya), a fellow builder in Ukraine, wanted an A - B comparison of Class AB versus Class B (cross-over distortion). In this audio file, I tweak a potentiometer biasing a pair of power followers to give contrast between the 2 amplifier classes. Under biased AF amps sound terrible in any language! The audio source was a cassette player. The speaker output was recorded, digitized and stuffed into the mp3 file.

Shown above is a bread board of a complete amplifier utilizing a 10K pot to vary the bias on the amplified diode (see Figure 8 c). With a 12.22 volt power supply, turning the potentiometer from one extreme to the other varied the current draw of the amplifier from about 0 to 95 mA. The average quiescent current draw of a properly biased single complimentary pair was somewhere between 5 and 10 mA in my bread boards.

You may see a capacitor inserted between the output transistor bases as shown in Figure 9A and 9B. I have seen capacitor values from 4.7 uF to 100 uF used and the value is not critical, however, from my experiments, I have learned it is mandatory. This capacitor serves to keep the bias voltage constant as the AC signal swings up and down. Some engineers refer to the amplified diode an NPN shifter bias amplifier or a level shifter. Its function is to charge up the capacitor between the bases of the power follower NPN and PNP pair to a voltage difference that establishes the quiescent current.

In 9C, R1 has been replaced with a PNP transistor which is usually forward biased by another transistor. You may observe any number of variations of the basic biasing circuit presented in Figures 6 and 7, including 3 or more small signal diodes, 2 amplified diodes, current sources, feedback loops and more. although the techniques vary, the authors are still just biasing the complementary emitter followers to achieve low crossover distortion, stability and/or thermal tracking.

Shown above in Figure 10 are 2 amplifiers using a split power supply. The split power supply offers increased headroom due to a greater AC voltage swing as well as increases the available RMS output power without using super high AC power transformer secondary voltages. In addition, the split supply works well with op amps and if desired, enables you to reduce the number of coupling capacitors by allowing direct coupling of the preamp and speaker to the power amplifier. Coupling capacitors alter frequency response and perhaps may present phase shift issues. In some cases, we as builders use coupling capacitors to provide effects such as high pass filtering, however in Hi-Fi amps, enhanced low frequency response is usually desired; which necessitates the use of high value coupling caps in single power supply amplifiers. In split supply amps, the choice of using a coupling capacitor or not is available to you. In the Figure 10 a and b circuits above, the speaker is directly coupled to the complementary emitter followers output. Note that the voltage at this point is 0 or nearly 0 volts. For any given power supply voltage you chose (split or not), please ensure the amplifier components can handle the current and subsequent heat when a signal voltage is applied. This topic is out of scope. Build and and measure...

Shown above is a breadboard of the Figure 10b circuit. Additional experiments using even higher voltages were also performed, hence the moderate power TIP transistors were utilized. I burnt up four 2N3904/6 transistors performing many experiments with biasing over 3 nights. Some of the outputs of these experiments will be presented in future projects.

Shown above in Figure 11 is a complimentary emitter follower pair directly coupled to an op amp. The amplified diode and its biasing network is inside the op amp feedback loop. There are examples of this circuit in EMRFD and also on this web site. In single supply powered op amps, it is possible to omit R1. An example of this may be found in Figure 12.30 in EMRFD. Using a low noise op amp such as the NE5532 to drive your power followers can give outstanding results.

Shown above in Figure 12 is another theoretical power amp which illustrates the building block aspects of the simple stage we have been discussing. Q4 and Q5 are cascaded with Q1 and Q2 to build up the current (Darlington emitter followers). Such an amp could have several watts of output power depending on the supply voltage. The emitter resistors on Q4 and Q5 are often 0.47 to 1 ohm power resistors.


EMRFD  Although Rick Campbell and Bob Larsen contributed chapters and circuits, the principal author is Wes Hayward. It amazes me that any human being could know so much about electronics and is so willing to share his knowledge. Respect.

Henderson, John. Electronic Devices Published in 1991 by Prentice Hall

Oleksy, Jerome E. Practical Solid-state Circuit Design Published 1974 by Howard W. Sams and Co.,Inc

Slone, Randy G. Understanding Electricity and Electronics Published 1996 by TAB Books-McGraw Hill