Evaluating Oscilloscopes (Part 4)

In this final installment of my four-part mini-series about selecting an oscilloscope, I’ll look at triggering, waveform generators, and clock synchronization, and I’ll wrap up with a series summary.

My previous posts have included Part 1, which discusses probes and physical characteristics of stand-alone vs. PC-based oscilloscopes; Part 2, which examines core specifications such as bandwidth, sample rate, and ADC resolution; and Part 3, which focuses on software. My posts are more a “collection of notes” based on my own research rather than a completely thorough guide. But I hope they are useful and cover some points you might not have otherwise considered before choosing an oscilloscope.

This is a screenshot from Colin O'Flynn's YouTube video "Using PicoScope AWG for Testing Serial Data Limits."

This is a screenshot from Colin O’Flynn’s YouTube video “Using PicoScope AWG for Testing Serial Data Limits.”

Topic 1: Triggering Methods
Triggering your oscilloscope properly can make a huge difference in being able to capture useful waveforms. The most basic triggering method is just a “rising” or “falling” edge, which almost everyone is (or should be) familiar with.

Whether you need a more advanced trigger method will depend greatly on your usage scenario and a bit on other details of your oscilloscope. If you have a very long buffer length or ability to rapid-fire record a number of waveforms, you might be able to live with a simple trigger since you can easily throw away data that isn’t what you are looking for. If your oscilloscope has a more limited buffer length, you’ll need to trigger on the exact moment of interest.

Before I detail some of the other methods, I want to mention that you can sometimes use external instruments for triggering. For example, you might have a logic analyzer with an extremely advanced triggering mechanism.  If that logic analyzer has a “trigger out,” you can trigger the oscilloscope from your logic analyzer.

On to the trigger methods! There are a number of them related to finding “odd” pulses: for example, finding glitches shorter or wider than some length or finding a pulse that is lower than the regular height (called a “runt pulse”). By knowing your scope triggers and having a bit of creativity, you can perform some more advanced troubleshooting. For example, when troubleshooting an embedded microcontroller, you can have it toggle an I/O pin when a task runs. Using a trigger to detect a “pulse dropout,” you can trigger your oscilloscope when the system crashes—thus trying to see if the problem is a power supply glitch, for example.

If you are dealing with digital systems, be on the lookout for triggers that can function on serial protocols. For example, the Rigol Technologies stand-alone units have this ability, although you’ll also need an add-on to decode the protocols! In fact, most of the serious stand-alone oscilloscopes seem to have this ability (e.g., those from Agilent, Tektronix, and Teledyne LeCroy); you may just need to pay extra to enable it.

Topic 2: External Trigger Input
Most oscilloscopes also have an “external trigger input.”  This external input doesn’t display on the screen but can be used for triggering. Specifically, this means your trigger channel doesn’t count against your “ADC channels.” So if you need the full sample rate on one channel but want to trigger on another, you can use the “ext in” as the trigger.
Oscilloscopes that include this feature on the front panel make it slightly easier to use; otherwise, you’re reaching around behind the instrument to find the trigger input.

Topic 3: Arbitrary Waveform Generator
This isn’t strictly an oscilloscope-related function, but since enough oscilloscopes include some sort of function generator it’s worth mentioning. This may be a standard “signal generator,” which can generate waveforms such as sine, square, triangle, etc. A more advanced feature, called an arbitrary waveform generator (AWG), enables you to generate any waveform you want.

I previously had a (now very old) TiePie engineering HS801 that included an AWG function. The control software made it easy to generate sine, square, triangle, and a few other waveforms. But the only method of generating an arbitrary waveform was to load a file you created in another application, which meant I almost never used the “arbitrary” portion of the AWG. The lesson here is that if you are going to invest in an AWG, make sure the software is reasonable to use.

The AWG may have a few different specifications; look for the maximum analog bandwidth along with the sample rate. Be careful of outlandish claims: a 200 MS/s digital to analog converter (DAC) could hypothetically have a 100-MHz analog bandwidth, but the signal would be almost useless. You could only generate some sort of sine wave at that frequency, which would probably be full of harmonics. Even if you generated a lower-frequency sine wave (e.g., 10 MHz), it would likely contain a fair amount of harmonics since the DAC’s output filter has a roll-off at such a high frequency.

Better systems will have a low-pass analog filter to reduce harmonics, with the DAC’s sample rate being several times higher than the output filter roll-off. The Pico Technology PicoScope 6403D oscilloscope I’m using can generate a 20-MHz signal but has a 200 MS/s sample rate on the DAC. Similarly, the TiePie engineering HS5-530 has a 30-MHz signal bandwidth, and similarly uses a 240 MS/s sample rate. A sample rate of around five to 10 times the analog bandwidth seems about standard.

Having the AWG integrated into the oscilloscope opens up a few useful features. When implementing a serial protocol decoder, you may want to know what happens if the baud rate is slightly off from the expected rate. You can quickly perform this test by recording a serial data packet on the oscilloscope, copying it to the AWG, and adjusting the AWG sample rate to slightly raise or lower the baud rate. I illustrate this in the following video.


Topic 4: Clock Synchronization

One final issue of interest: In certain applications, you may need to synchronize the sample rate to an external device. Oscilloscopes will often have two features for doing this. One will output a clock from the oscilloscope, the other will allow you to feed an external clock into the oscilloscope.

The obvious application is synchronizing a capture between multiple oscilloscopes. You can, however, use this for any application where you wish to use a synchronous capture methodology. For example, if you wish to use the oscilloscope as part of a software-defined radio (SDR), you may want to ensure the sampling happens synchronous to a recovered clock.

The input frequency of this clock is typically 10 MHz, although some devices enable you to select between several allowed frequencies. If the source of this clock is anything besides another instrument, you may have to do some clock conditioning to convert it into one of the valid clock source ranges.

Summary and Closing Comments
That’s it! Over the past four weeks I’ve tried to raise a number of issues to consider when selecting an oscilloscope. As previously mentioned, the examples were often PicoScope-heavy simply because it is the oscilloscope I own. But all the topics have been relevant to any other oscilloscope you may have.

You can check out my YouTube playlist dealing with oscilloscope selection and review.  Some topics might suggest further questions to ask.

I’ve probably overlooked a few issues, but I can’t cover every possible oscilloscope and option. When selecting a device, my final piece of advice is to download the user manual and study it carefully, especially for features you find most important. Although the datasheet may gloss over some details, the user manual will typically address the limitations you’ll run into, such as FFT length or the memory depths you can configure.

Author’s note: Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure example specifications are accurate. There may, however, be errors or omissions in this article. Please confirm all referenced specifications with the device vendor.

Evaluating Oscilloscopes (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of my mini-series on selecting an oscilloscope. Rather than a completely thorough guide, it’s more a “collection of notes” based on my own research. But I hope you find it useful, and it might cover a few areas you hadn’t considered.

Last week I mentioned the differences between PC-based and stand-alone oscilloscopes and discussed the physical probe’s characteristics. This week I’ll be discussing the “core” specifications: analog bandwidth, sample rate, and analog-to-digital converter (ADC) resolution.

Topic 1: Analog Bandwidth
Many useful articles online discuss the analog oscilloscope bandwidth, so I won’t dedicate too much time to it. Briefly, the analog bandwidth is typically measured as the “half-power” or -3 dB point, as shown in Figure 1. Half the power means 1/√2 of the voltage. Assume you put a 10-MHz, 1-V sine wave into your 100-MHz bandwidth oscilloscope. You expect to see a 1-V sine wave on the oscilloscope. As you increase the frequency of the sine wave, you would instead expect to see around 0.707 V when you pass a 100-MHz sine wave. If you want to see this in action, watch my video in which I sweep the input frequency to an oscilloscope through the -3 dB point.

Figure 1: The bandwidth refers to the "half-power" or -3 dB  point. If we drove a sine wave of constant amplitude and increasing frequency into the probe, the -3 dB point would be when the amplitude measured in the scope was 0.707 times the initial amplitude.

Figure 1: The bandwidth refers to the “half-power” or -3 dB point. If we drive a sine wave of constant amplitude and increasing frequency into the probe, the -3 dB point would be when the amplitude measured in the scope is 0.707 times the initial amplitude.

Unfortunately, you are likely to be measuring square waves (e.g., in digital systems) and not sine waves. Square waves contain high-frequency components well beyond the fundamental frequency of the wave. For this reason the “rule of thumb”  is to select an oscilloscope with five times the analog bandwidth of the highest–frequency digital signal you would be measuring. Thus, a 66-MHz clock would require a 330-MHz bandwidth oscilloscope.

If you are interested in more details about bandwidth selection, I encourage you to see one of the many excellent guides. Adafruit has a blog post “Why Oscilloscope Bandwidth Matters” that offers more information, along with links to guides from Agilent Technologies and Tektronix.

If you want to play around yourself, I’ve got a Python script that applies analog filtering to a square wave and plots the results, available here. Figure 2 shows an example of a 50-MHz square wave with 50-MHz, 100-MHz, 250-MHz, and 500-MHz analog bandwidth.

Figure 2: This shows sampling a 50-MHz square wave with 50, 100, 250, and 500-MHz of analog bandwidth.

Figure 2: This shows sampling a 50-MHz square wave with 50, 100, 250, and 500 MHz of analog bandwidth.

Topic 2: Sample Rate
Beyond the analog bandwidth, oscilloscopes also prominently advertise the sample rate. Typically, this is in MS/s (megasamples per second) or GS/s (gigasamples per second). The advertised rate is nearly always the maximum if using a single channel. If you are using both channels on a two-channel oscilloscope that advertises 1 GS/s, typically the maximum rate is actually 500 MS/s for both channels.

So what rate do you need? If you are familiar with the Nyquist criterion, you might simply think you should have a sample rate two times the analog bandwidth. Unfortunately, we tend to work in the time domain (e.g., looking at the oscilloscope screen) and not the frequency domain. So you can’t simply apply that idea. Instead, it’s useful to have a considerably higher sample rate compared to analog bandwidth, say, a five times higher sample rate. To illustrate why, see Figure 3. It shows a 25.3-MHz square wave, which I’ve sampled with an oscilloscope with 50-MHz analog bandwidth. As you would expect, the signal rounds off considerably. However, if I only sample it at 100 MS/s, at first sight the signal is almost unrecognizable! Compare that with the 500 MS/s sample rate, which more clearly looks like a square wave (but rounded off due to analog bandwidth limitation).

Again, these figures both come from my Python script, so they are based purely on “theoretical” limits of sample rate. You can play around with sample rate and bandwidth to get an idea of how a signal might look.

Figure 3

Figure 3: This shows sampling a 25.3-MHz square wave at 100 MS/s results in a signal that looks considerably different than you might expect! Sampling at 500 MS/s results in a much more “proper” looking wave.

Topic 3: Equivalent Time Sampling
Certain oscilloscopes have an equivalent time sampling (ETS) mode, which advertises an insanely fast sample rate. For example, the PicoScope 6000 series, which has a 5 GS/s sample rate, can use ETS mode and achieve 200 GS/s on a single channel, or 50 GS/s on all channels.

The caveat is that this high sample rate is achieved by doing careful phase shifts of the A/D sampling clock to sample “in between” the regular intervals. This requires your input waveform be periodic and very stable, since the waveform will actually be “built up” over a longer time interval.

So what does this mean to you? Luckily, many actual waveforms are periodic, and you might find ETS mode very useful. For example, if you want to measure the phase shift in two clocks through a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), you can do this with ETS. At 50 GS/s, you would have 20 ps resolution on the measurement! In fact, that resolution is so high you could measure the phase difference due to a few centimeters difference in PCB trace.

To demonstrate this, I can show you a few videos. To start with, the simple video below shows moving the probes around while looking at the phase difference.

A more practical demonstration, available in the following video, measures the phase shift of two paths routed through an FPGA.

Finally, if you just want to see a sine wave using ETS you can check out the bandwdith demonstration  I referred to earlier in the this article. The video (see below) includes a portion using ETS mode.

 

Topic 4: ADC Resolution
A less prominently advertised feature of certain oscilloscopes is the ADC bit resolution in the front end. Briefly, the ADC resolution tells you how the analog waveform will get mapped to the digital domain. If you have an 8-bit ADC, this means you have 28 = 256 possible numbers the digital waveform can represent. Say you have a ±5 V range on the oscilloscope—a total span of 10 V. This means the ADC can resolve 10 V / 256 = 39.06 mV difference on the input voltage.

This should tell you one fact about digital oscilloscopes: You should always use the smallest possible range to get the finest granularity. That same 8-bit ADC on a ±1 V range would resolve 7.813 mV. However, what often happens is your signal contains multiple components—say, spiking to 7 V during a load switch, and then settling to 0.5 V. This precludes you from using the smaller range on the input, since you want to capture the amplitude of that 7-V spike.

If, however, you had a 12-bit ADC, that 10 V span (+5 V to -5 V) would be split into 212 = 4,096 numbers, meaning the resolution is now 2.551 mV.  If you had a 16-bit ADC, that 10-V range would give you 216 = 65,536 numbers, meaning you could resolve down to 0.1526 mV. Most of the time, you have to choose between a faster ADC with lower (typically 8-bit) resolution or a slower ADC with higher resolution. The only exception to this I’m aware of is the Pico Technology FlexRes 5000 series devices, which allow you to dynamically switch between 8/12/14/15/16 bits with varying changes to the number of channels and sample rate.

While the typical ADC resolution seems to be 8 bits for most scopes, there are higher-resolution models too. As mentioned, these devices are permanently in high-resolution mode, so you have to decide at purchasing time if you want a very high sample rate, or a very high resolution. For example, Cleverscope has always advertised higher resolutions, and their devices are available in 10, 12, or 14 bits. Cleverscope seems to sell the “digitizer” board separately, giving you some flexibility in upgrading to a higher-resolution ADC. TiePie engineering has devices available from 8–14 bits with various sample rate options. Besides the FlexRes device I mentioned, Pico Technology offers some fixed resolution devices in higher 14-bit resolution. Some of the larger manufacturers also have higher-resolution devices, for example Teledyne LeCroy has its High Resolution Oscilloscope (HRO), which is a fixed 12-bit device.

Note that many devices will advertise either an “effective” or “software enhanced” bit resolution higher than the actual ADC resolution. Be careful with this: software enhancement is done via filtering, and you need to be aware of the possible resulting changes to your measurement bandwidth. Two resources with more details on this mode include the ECN magazine article “How To Get More than 8 Bits from Your 8-bit Scope” and the Teledyne LeCroy application note “Enhanced Resolution.” Remember that a 12-bit, 100-MHz bandwidth oscilloscope is not the same as an 8-bit, 100-MHz bandwidth oscilloscope with resolution enhancement!

Using the oscilloscope’s fast Fourier transform (FFT) mode (normally advertised as the spectrum analyzer mode), we can see the difference a higher-resolution ADC makes. When looking at a waveform on the screen, you may think that you don’t care at all about 14-bit accuracy or something similar. However, if you plan to do measurements such as total harmonic distortion (THD), or otherwise need accurate information about frequency components, having high resolution may be extremely important to achieve a reasonable dynamic range.

As a theoretical example I’m using my script mentioned earlier, which will digitize a perfect sine wave and then display the frequency spectrum. The number of bits in the ADC (e.g., quantization) is adjustable, so the harmonic component is solely due to quantization error. This is shown in Figure 4. If you want to see a version of this using a real instrument, I conduct a similar demonstration in this video.

Certain applications may find the higher bit resolution a necessity. For example, if you are working in high-fidelity audio applications, you won’t be too worried about an extremely high sample rate, but you will need the high resolution.

Figure 4: In the frequency domain, the effect of limited quantization bits is much more apparent. Here a 10-MHz pure sine wave frequency spectrum is taken using a different number of bits during the quantization process.

Figure 4: In the frequency domain, the effect of limited quantization bits is much more apparent. Here a 10-MHz pure sine wave frequency spectrum is taken using a different number of bits during the quantization process. (CLICK TO ZOOM)

Coming Up
This week I’ve taken a look at some of the core specifications. I hope the questions to ask when purchasing an oscilloscope are becoming clearer! Next week, I’ll be looking at the software running the oscilloscope, and details such as remote control, FFT features, digital decoding, and buffer types. The fourth and final week will delve into a few remaining features such as external trigger and clock synchronization and will summarize all the material I’ve covered in this series.

Author’s note: Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure example specifications are accurate. There may, however, be errors or omissions in this article. Please confirm all referenced specifications with the device vendor.

Wireless Data Links (Part 1)

In Circuit Cellar’s February issue, the Consummate Engineer column launches a multi-part series on wireless data links.

“Over the last two decades, wireless data communication devices have been entering the realm of embedded control,” columnist George Novacek says in Part 1 of the series. “The technology to produce reasonably priced, reliable, wireless data links is now available off the shelf and no longer requires specialized knowledge, experience, and exotic, expensive test equipment. Nevertheless, to use wireless devices effectively, an engineer should understand the principles involved.”

Radio communicationsPart 1 focuses on radio communications, in particular low-power, data-carrying wireless links used in control systems.

“Even with this limitation, it is a vast subject, the surface of which can merely be scratched,” Novacek says. “Today, we can purchase ready-made, low-power, reliable radio interface modules with excellent performance for an incredibly low price. These devices were originally developed for noncritical applications (e.g., garage door openers, security systems, keyless entry, etc.). Now they are making inroads into control systems, mostly for remote sensing and computer network data exchange. Wireless devices are already present in safety-related systems (e.g., remote tire pressure monitoring), to say nothing about their bigger and older siblings in remote control of space and military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).”

An engineering audience will find Novacek’s article a helpful overview of fundamental wireless communications principles and topics, including RF circuitry (e.g., inductor/capacitor, or LC, circuits), ceramic surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonators, frequency response, bandwidth, sensitivity, noise issues, and more.

Here is an article excerpt about bandwidth and achieving its ideal, rectangular shape:

“The bandwidth affects receiver selectivity and/or a transmitter output spectral purity. The selectivity is the ability of a radio receiver to reject all but the desired signal. Narrowing the bandwidth makes it possible to place more transmitters within the available frequency band. It also lowers the received noise level and increases the selectivity due to its higher Q. On the other hand, transmission of every signal but a non-modulated, pure sinusoid carrier—which, therefore, contains no information—requires a certain minimum bandwidth. The required bandwidth is determined by the type of modulation and the maximum modulating frequency.

“For example, AM radios carry maximum 5-kHz audio and, consequently, need 10-kHz bandwidth to accommodate the carrier with its two 5-kHz sidebands. Therefore, AM broadcast stations have to be spaced a minimum of 20 kHz apart. However, narrowing the bandwidth will lead to the loss of parts of the transmitted information. In a data-carrying systems, it will cause a gradual increase of the bit error rate (BER) until the data becomes useless. At that point, the bandwidth must be increased or the baud rate must be decreased to maintain reliable communications.

“An ideal bandwidth would have a shape of a rectangle, as shown in Figure 1 by the blue trace. Achieving this to a high degree with LC circuits can get quite complicated, but ceramic resonators used in modern receivers can deliver excellent, near ideal results.”

Figure 1: This is the frequency response and bandwidth of a parallel resonant LC circuit. A series circuit graph would be inverted.

Figure 1: This is the frequency response and bandwidth of a parallel resonant LC circuit. A series circuit graph would be inverted.

To learn more about control-system wireless links, check out the February issue now available for membership download or single-issue purchase. Part 2 in Novacek’s series discusses transmitters and antennas and will appear in our March issue.

Build an Inexpensive Wireless Water Alarm

The best DIY electrical engineering projects are effective, simple, and inexpensive. Devlin Gualtieri’s design of a wireless water alarm, which he describes in Circuit Cellar’s February issue, meets all those requirements.

Like most homeowners, Gualtieri has discovered water leaks in his northern New Jersey home after the damage has already started.

“In all cases, an early warning about water on the floor would have prevented a lot of the resulting damage,” he says.

You can certainly buy water alarm systems that will alert you to everything from a leak in a well-water storage tank to moisture from a cracked boiler. But they typically work with proprietary and expensive home-alarm systems that also charge a monthly “monitoring” fee.

“As an advocate of free and open-source software, it’s not surprising that I object to such schemes,” Gualtieri says.

In February’s Circuit Cellar magazine, now available for membership download or single-issue purchase, Gualtieri describes his battery-operated water alarm. The system, which includes a number of wireless units that signal a single receiver, includes a wireless receiver, audible alarm, and battery monitor to indicate low power.

Photo 1: An interdigital water detection sensor is shown. Alternate rows are lengths of AWG 22 copper wire, which is either bare or has its insulation removed. The sensor is shown mounted to the bottom of the box containing the water alarm circuitry. I attached it with double-stick foam tape, but silicone adhesive should also work.

Photo 1: An interdigital water detection sensor is shown. Alternate rows are lengths of AWG 22 copper wire, which is either bare or has its insulation removed. The sensor is shown mounted to the bottom of the box containing the water alarm circuitry. I attached it with double-stick foam tape, but silicone adhesive should also work.

Because water conducts electricity, Gualtieri sensors are DIY interdigital electrodes that can lie flat on a surface to detect the first presence of water. And their design couldn’t be easier.

“You can simply wind two parallel coils of 22 AWG wire on a perforated board about 2″ by 4″, he says. (See Photo 1.)

He also shares a number of design “tricks,” including one he used to make his low-battery alert work:

“A battery monitor is an important feature of any battery-powered alarm circuit. The Microchip Technology PIC12F675 microcontroller I used in my alarm circuit has 10-bit ADCs that can be optionally assigned to the I/O pins. However, the problem is that the reference voltage for this conversion comes from the battery itself. As the battery drains from 100% downward, so does the voltage reference, so no voltage change would be registered.

Figure 1: This is the portion of the water alarm circuit used for the battery monitor. The series diodes offer a 1.33-V total  drop, which offers a reference voltage so the ADC can see changes in the battery voltage.

Figure 1: This is the portion of the water alarm circuit used for the battery monitor. The series diodes offer a 1.33-V total drop, which offers a reference voltage so the ADC can see changes in the battery voltage.

“I used a simple mathematical trick to enable battery monitoring. Figure 1 shows a portion of the schematic diagram. As you can see, the analog input pin connects to an output pin, which is at the battery voltage when it’s high through a series connection of four small signal diodes (1N4148). The 1-MΩ resistor in series with the diodes limits their current to a few microamps when the output pin is energized. At such low current, the voltage drop across each diode is about 0.35 V. An actual measurement showed the total voltage drop across the four diodes to be 1.33 V.

“This voltage actually presents a new reference value for my analog conversion. The analog conversion now provides the following digital values:

EQ1Table 1 shows the digital values as a function of battery voltage. The nominal voltage of three alkaline cells is 4.75 V. The nominal voltage of three lithium cells is 5.4 V. The PIC12F675 functions from approximately 2 to 6.5 V, but the wireless transmitter needs as much voltage as possible to generate a reliable signal. I arbitrarily coded the battery alarm at 685, or a little above 4 V. That way, there’s still enough power to energize the wireless transmitter at a useful power level.”

Table 1
Battery Voltage ADC Value
5 751
4.75 737
4.5 721
4.24 704
4 683
3.75 661

 

Gaultieri’s wireless transmitter, utilizing lower-frequency bands, is also straightforward.

Photo 2 shows one of the transmitter modules I used in my system,” he says. “The round device is a surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonator. It just takes a few components to transform this into a low-power transmitter operable over a wide supply voltage range, up to 12 V. The companion receiver module is also shown. My alarm has a 916.5-MHz operating frequency, but 433 MHz is a more popular alarm frequency with many similar modules.”

These transmitter and receiver modules are used in the water alarm. The modules operate at 916.5 MHz, but 433 MHz is a more common alarm frequency with similar modules. The scale is inches.

Photo 2: These transmitter and receiver modules are used in the water alarm. The modules operate at 916.5 MHz, but 433 MHz is a more common alarm frequency with similar modules. The scale is inches.

Gualtieri goes on to describe the alarm circuitry (see Photo 3) and receiver circuit (see Photo 4.)

For more details on this easy and affordable early-warning water alarm, check out the February issue.

Photo 3: This is the water alarm’s interior. The transmitter module with its antenna can be seen in the upper right. The battery holder was harvested from a $1 LED flashlight. The box is 2.25“ × 3.5“, excluding the tabs.

Photo 3: This is the water alarm’s interior. The transmitter module with its antenna can be seen in the upper right. The battery holder was harvested from a $1 LED flashlight. The box is 2.25“ × 3.5“, excluding the tabs.

Photo 4: Here is my receiver circuit. One connector was used to monitor the signal strength voltage during development. The other connector feeds an input on a home alarm system. The short antenna reveals its 916.5-MHz operating frequency. Modules with a 433-MHz frequency will have a longer antenna.

Photo 4: Here is my receiver circuit. One connector was used to monitor the signal strength voltage during development. The other connector feeds an input on a home alarm system. The short antenna reveals its 916.5-MHz operating frequency. Modules with a 433-MHz frequency will have a longer antenna.

 

A Look at Low-Noise Amplifiers

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, who has a PhD in Physics, is an Italian telecommunications engineer who works mainly as a software developer with a focus on data acquisition systems. Emilio has authored articles about electronic designs, data acquisition systems, power supplies, and photovoltaic systems. In this article, he provides an overview of what is generally available in low-noise amplifiers (LNAs) and some of the applications.

By Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio
An LNA, or preamplifier, is an electronic amplifier used to amplify sometimes very weak signals. To minimize signal power loss, it is usually located close to the signal source (antenna or sensor). An LNA is ideal for many applications including low-temperature measurements, optical detection, and audio engineering. This article presents LNA systems and ICs.

Signal amplifiers are electronic devices that can amplify a relatively small signal from a sensor (e.g., temperature sensors and magnetic-field sensors). The parameters that describe an amplifier’s quality are:

  • Gain: The ratio between output and input power or amplitude, usually measured in decibels
  • Bandwidth: The range of frequencies in which the amplifier works correctly
  • Noise: The noise level introduced in the amplification process
  • Slew rate: The maximum rate of voltage change per unit of time
  • Overshoot: The tendency of the output to swing beyond its final value before settling down

Feedback amplifiers combine the output and input so a negative feedback opposes the original signal (see Figure 1). Feedback in amplifiers provides better performance. In particular, it increases amplification stability, reduces distortion, and increases the amplifier’s bandwidth.

 Figure 1: A feedback amplifier model is shown here.


Figure 1: A feedback amplifier model is shown.

A preamplifier amplifies an analog signal, generally in the stage that precedes a higher-power amplifier.

IC LOW-NOISE PREAMPLIFIERS
Op-amps are widely used as AC amplifiers. Linear Technology’s LT1028 or LT1128 and Analog Devices’s ADA4898 or AD8597 are especially suitable ultra-low-noise amplifiers. The LT1128 is an ultra-low-noise, high-speed op-amp. Its main characteristics are:

  • Noise voltage: 0.85 nV/√Hz at 1 kHz
  • Bandwidth: 13 MHz
  • Slew rate: 5 V/µs
  • Offset voltage: 40 µV

Both the Linear Technology and Analog Devices amplifiers have voltage noise density at 1 kHz at around 1 nV/√Hz  and also offer excellent DC precision. Texas Instruments (TI)  offers some very low-noise amplifiers. They include the OPA211, which has 1.1 nV/√Hz  noise density at a  3.6 mA from 5 V supply current and the LME49990, which has very low distortion. Maxim Integrated offers the MAX9632 with noise below 1nV/√Hz.

The op-amp can be realized with a bipolar junction transistor (BJT), as in the case of the LT1128, or a MOSFET, which works at higher frequencies and with a higher input impedance and a lower energy consumption. The differential structure is used in applications where it is necessary to eliminate the undesired common components to the two inputs. Because of this, low-frequency and DC common-mode signals (e.g., thermal drift) are eliminated at the output. A differential gain can be defined as (Ad = A2 – A1) and a common-mode gain can be defined as (Ac = A1 + A2 = 2).

An important parameter is the common-mode rejection ratio (CMRR), which is the ratio of common-mode gain to the differential-mode gain. This parameter is used to measure the  differential amplifier’s performance.

Figure 2: The design of a simple preamplifier is shown. Its main components are the Linear Technology LT112 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).

Figure 2: The design of a simple preamplifier is shown. Its main components are the Linear Technology LT1128 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).

Figure 2 shows a simple preamplifier’s design with 0.8 nV/√Hz at 1 kHz background noise. Its main components are the LT1128 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).  The IF3602 is a dual N-channel JFET used as stage for the op-amp’s input. Figure 3 shows the gain and Figure 4 shows the noise response.

Figure 3: The gain of a low-noise preamplifier.

Figure 3: The is a low-noise preamplifier’s gain.

 

Figure 4: The noise response of a low-noise preamplifier

Figure 4: A low-noise preamplifier’s noise response is shown.

LOW NOISE PREAMPLIFIER SYSTEMS
The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier has a differential front end with 4nV/√Hz input noise and a 100-MΩ input impedance (see Photo 1a). Input offset nulling is accomplished by a front-panel potentiometer, which is accessible with a small screwdriver. In addition to the signal inputs, a rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the instrument’s gain on and off (see Photo 1b).

Photo 1a:The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier

Photo 1a: The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Research Systems)

Photo 1 b: A rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the Stanford Research Systems SR560 gain on and off.

Photo 1b: A rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the Stanford Research Systems SR560 gain on and off. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Research Systems)

The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier provides a fixed 20-dB gain while converting a 1-MΩ input impedance to a 50-Ω output impedance and 0.1-Hz to 100-MHz bandwidth (see Photo 2). The preamplifier is used to improve the sensitivity of oscilloscopes, network analyzers, and spectrum analyzers while reducing the effective noise floor and spurious response.

Photo 2: The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier is shown.

Photo 2: The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier is shown. (Photo courtesy of picotest.com)

Signal Recovery’s Model 5113 is among the best low-noise preamplifier systems. Its principal characteristics are:

  • Single-ended or differential input modes
  • DC to 1-MHz frequency response
  • Optional low-pass, band-pass, or high-pass signal channel filtering
  • Sleep mode to eliminate digital noise
  • Optically isolated RS-232 control interface
  • Battery or line power

The 5113 (see Photo 3 and Figure 5) is used in applications as diverse as radio astronomy, audiometry, test and measurement, process control, and general-purpose signal amplification. It’s also ideally suited to work with a range of lock-in amplifiers.

Photo 3: This is the Signal Recovery Model 5113 low-noise pre-amplifier.

Photo 3: This is the Signal Recovery Model 5113 low-noise preamplifier. (Photo courtesy of Signal Recovery)

Figure 5: Noise contour figures are shown for the Signal Recovery Model 5113.

Figure 5: Noise contour figures are shown for the Signal Recovery Model 5113.

WRAPPING UP
This article briefly introduced low-noise amplifiers, in particular IC system designs utilized in simple or more complex systems such as the Signal Recovery Model 5113, which is a classic amplifier able to obtain different frequency bands with relative gain. A similar device is the SR560, which is a high-performance, low-noise preamplifier that is ideal for a wide variety of applications including low-temperature measurements, optical detection, and audio engineering.

Moreover, the Krohn-Hite custom Models 7000 and 7008 low-noise differential preamplifiers provide a high gain amplification to 1 MHz with an AC output derived from a very-low-noise FET instrumentation amplifier.

One common LNA amplifier is a satellite communications system. The ground station receiving antenna will connect to an LNA, which is needed because the received signal is weak. The received signal is usually a little above background noise. Satellites have limited power, so they use low-power transmitters.

Telecommunications engineer Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio was born in Pescara, Italy. Working mainly as a software developer with a focus on data acquisition systems, he helped design the thermal compensation system (TCS) for the optical system used in the Virgo Experiment (an experiment for detecting gravitational waves). Maurizio currently collaborates with researchers at the University of L’Aquila on X-ray technology. He also develops data acquisition hardware and software for industrial applications and manages technical training courses. To learn more about Maurizio and his expertise, read his essay on “The Future of Data Acquisition Technology.”