Hi-fi, Radio, and Retro: The DIY Projects Spectrum Readers Love

They also really like Lego and hacking pretty much everything

2 min read
An assortment of boxy devices, spread out as if on a display table.

Here are some of your favorite Hands On projects: An inexpensive but high-quality DIY audio amplifier (A) and its Web-enabled successor (B); an Arduino-powered replica of the groundbreaking Altair 8800 (C); a Raspberry Pi–powered color mechanical television (D); and (E), a home computer built with just five digital chips that uses an old hack to create an analog video signal.

James Provost

This month we’re celebrating the launch of our second PDF collection of Hands On articles, which IEEE members can download from IEEE Spectrum’s website and share with friends. So we thought we’d take a look at the relative popularity of Hands On articles published over the last five years and share the top 15 projects our website visitors found most interesting.

Just to give a little peek behind our analytics curtain, the measure of popularity Spectrum’s editors use is “total engaged minutes,” or TEM, which combines page views of articles with how long visitors spend reading them. We use TEM because we’re not terribly interested in grabbing folks with a clickbait headline, only for them to bounce out before they’ve finished reading the first paragraph.


The first thing that jumps out is that Spectrum readers love good quality audio, but unlike some audiophiles, they don’t see an exorbitant price tag or voodoo components as a badge of honor. Far and away our most popular article in the last five years has been “Build Your Own Professional-Grade Audio Amp on the Sort of Cheap” (November 2018). And a follow-up to that article, “A Web-Enabled, High Quality, DIY Audio Amp” (March 2022), comes in at No. 9.

They all share that magic element of unexpected delight

Radio is another popular subject, although not radio as, say, old-school hams might know it. A third of the top 15 articles relate to wireless and radio tech, with one concerning a home-brew radio telescope (October 2019). The other four are about exchanging data from distances ranging from a few tens of meters to hundreds of kilometers.

The final cluster falls under the umbrella of retrotech. Sometimes it’s about a functionally identical replica of a legendary computer, as in “Build Your Own Altair 8800 Personal Computer” (March 2018), but more often it's about remixing new technology using the principles of the old to better understand the latter. “Build This 8-Bit Home Computer With Just 5 Chips” (April 2020) revisited the clever hack that allowed early home computers with only digital circuits to display color graphics on analog televisions. “Print an Arduino-Powered Color Mechanical Television” (June 2022) went even further back in broadcast history to reveal the surprising quality that electromechanical televisions were capable of.

The remaining articles are a potpourri of topics, but I think they all share that magic element of unexpected delight that engineers are always hoping for. With just a bit of know-how applied in the right way, the world becomes a bit more interesting. "Build a RISC-V CPU From Scratch” (June 2021) showed that it was possible to design modern computer architectures at home without needing exotic tools or a semiconductor fab, while “Use Your Bike as a Backup to Your Backup Power Supply” (November 2020) spoke to engineers’ natural skepticism of marketing promises regarding reliability by showing how you could use a conventional bicycle as a backup to your backup power supply.

Are there trends in DIY projects you think we’re missing? Drop me a line at cass.s@ieee.org!

This article appears in the December 2022 print issue as “Hi-fi, Radio, Retro, and More.”

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