RF Workbench Page 1


RF Workbench Page 1

The first installment of a multi-part series exploring basic 50 Ω RF circuit measurement. This web series borrows heavily from the work of Wes, W7ZOI.

RF Workbench 1 shows a way to measure AC signals and quantify power. As circuit builders, knowing the power gain or loss in dB of stages like filters or amplifiers; or the absolute power in dBm of our RF signal sources dominates our bench work.

Ignite your bench measurement — Better measurement fidelity inspires confidence, creativity and fun!


Calculate Power Gain from your Oscilloscope Peak-Peak Voltage

An oscilloscope peak-to-peak voltage provides a popular way to determine power gain or absolute power.

Measuring peak-to-peak voltage

To calculate the power of a sinusoidal waveform, you measure its AC voltage. Assuming your 'scope is calibrated, the first step is to measure the amount of vertical deflection on the screen.

In the figure shown left, the vertical deflection = 4.1 cm. Multiply this measurement by the volts/cm setting of your scope. Lets assume your scope was set to 0.1 volts/cm. Thus the result = 0.41 volts. One final multiplication is required; you must multiply the resultant voltage by the attenuation ratio of the probe. In most cases, a 10X probe is used. Therefore, the measured peak-to-peak voltage is 0.41 x 10 = 4.1 volts. DSOs output numeric voltage readings in addition to that shown — a nice feature.

This signal exhibits a major problem; it's distorted. To calculate the power from peak-to-peak voltage, you require a sine wave. To obtain a sine wave, this distorted signal must be low-pass filtered. Let's examine this topic with some real experiments.

Signal Viewing versus Power Experiments

Measuring 'scope signals takes some skill to get accurate, reproducible results. Consider the following signals taken from an 8 MHz VFO.

Examine the distorted signal on the left and compare it to same signal after low-pass filtering. I calculated the power in dBm from the peak-peak voltages (Vpp) shown as 832 mV and 824 mV: left to right respectively.

 Only the sinusoidal power proves accurate. I'll discuss the formula to assess power soon.

The same 8 MHz VFO examined with a 50 Ω terminated oscilloscope; a superb measurement technique that offers greater sensitivity. In all 4 cases shown, the vertical scale = 0.2 volts/cm.

To better compare the distorted and filtered signals, I attenuated the output of the VFO to allow safe examination with a spectrum analyzer. A spectrum analyzer graphs the power (in dBm) of all measured frequencies on its Y axis against a user defined frequency range on the X axis.

Spectral analysis of the distorted 8 MHz signal. The second harmonic (16 MHz) is about 22 dB down from the fundamental. The signal is rich in harmonics that causes error in the calculation of the output power. Each vertical square is 10 dB. Each horizontal square = 20 MHz. The harmonics go 2x fundamental, 3x fundamental, 4x fundamental and so on.

Spectral analysis of the 8 MHz VFO after passing through an N = 5 Chebyshev low-pass filter. The second harmonic now lies about 40 dB down from the 8 MHz carrier (-40 dBc) and the 3rd harmonic is almost down in the noise. Each horizontal square = 10 MHz.

The breadboard of the 8 MHz oscillator oscillator from the above experiments. The output drove a BJT amp biased to give distortion and a 50 Ω output. I adjusted the frequency with the high Q air-variable trimmer capacitor seen to the left.

Low-pass Filter

Some builders wonder why I only employ sine wave signal generators on this web site. To calculate power, they require no low-pass filtering — now you know why. If you're calculating power from a distorted signal, a stiff low pass filter helps ensure measurement fidelity. All of my signal sources feature a 2nd harmonic response of at least -30 dBc, but -50 dBc is typical. To filter receiver front ends, signal generators, or mixer outputs, I keep several 7 element low-pass filter bench modules on hand that cover several 3 dB cut-off frequencies between 3 and 60 MHz.

Although, any old low-pass filters might work fine, Wes, W7ZOI suggests an N = 5 Chebyshev with 0.2 dB of ripple at about 1.2x the signal frequency as a starting point for designing a test-bench low-pass filter. If you don't know how to design low-pass filters choose a pre-designed filter from a filter table. For the experiments above, I selected a filter from an ARRL Handbook. See the schematic below:




Calculating Power (dBm and mW) from Peak-to-Peak Voltage

To calculate the power from peak-peak voltage, the load impedance (Z) must be known. In RF design, the standardized impedance value = 50 Ω. For CATV and video, 75 Ω is common, and in audio and telecommunication design, a 600 Ω impedance dominates. Although we can technically employ any Z, this web site conforms to the 50 Ω RF impedance standard.

The SI unit of power is the watt. In radio, we might see the term dB used, however, dB is a decibel comparison between 2 signals and not an absolute value like the watt. On the bench, dBm serves as the most common and useful term — dBm is the measured power ratio in decibels referenced to 1 milliwatt.

dBm represents an absolute power — so useful because both large and small signals are quantified with 1 number. Some important bullets follow:

  1. 0 dBm = 1 mW
  2. 3 dBm = ~2mW; so doubling the power from 0 dBm equals a 3 dB increase in power
  3. Increasing the power from 0 dBm to 10 dBm boosts power by 10 dB. The power is now 10X baseline or 10 mW
  4. 20 dBm = 100 mW
  5. -27 dBm means that the output has ~500 times less power than 1 milliwatt.  -27 dBm = 0.002 mW or 2 microwatts

Hopefully over time, you' ll ingrain the concept of logarithmic power gain or loss (in dB) and power referenced to 1 mW (in dBm). This is bread and butter radio design information you must know.

50 Ω Measurement Virtues

You build a VFO, measure it with your 'scope; calculate the output power into a 49.9 Ω resistor and then record this power in dBm. Let's say it's 6 dBm. VFO output power = 6 dBm.

Next, you place a 6 dB attenuator pad on the VFO output. VFO output power now = 0 dBm.

Finally you connect a 10 dB gain RF amplifer to your VFO. Your VFO output now = 10 dBm. What a beautiful system ! ..... it really gets fun when we measure down at - 30 dBm and so forth.

The chart above really helps you visualize the relationships of mW, AC voltages and dBm

In order to get from peak-to-peak voltage to power, math is required. I show the formula above. You may elect to skip the math and calculate dBm or mW from peak-to-peak voltage with software. A number of programs are available; I wrote 1 here as Applet F.

If you lack a scientific calculator, Google has math functions. Shown above = a logarithm calculation

In Search of 50 Ohms

How do I establish a 50 Ω output impedance in my RF amplifier? I get this question often.

From my experience, in simple amplifiers lacking negative feedback, a 50 Ω output impedance must be created by inserting a resistor somewhere in the circuit that forces a 50 Ω output impedance.

For example, we might use a 50 Ω collector resistor in a BJT amplifier (or a 50 Ω drain resistor in a JFET amplifier), or place a fixed resistor in parallel with the collector/drain transformer and use a secondary winding to establish the 50 Ω output impedance. Sometimes we'll place a series resistor (say from 22 to 51 ohms) on the output of an emitter or source follower to bring the low output impedance up to 50 Ω. These form basic explanations and usage examples may be found on many schematics on the QRP / SWL website.

We experimenters also employ negative feedback with or without output transformers to establish a 50 Ω input and/or output Z and I show many examples on this site.

The following diagram explores 1 method to get a 50 Ω output impedance in a simple amplifier. It doesn't matter if the transistor is a JFET or a BJT, the principle is the same. This diagram and tutorial are simplistic and meant to help novice builders learn to design their own amplifier stages. You may connect any resistor value across the output of a transformer to calculate power, however, this web site only considers 50 ohms.

The above diagram describes a broadband (untuned) amplifier. I employed a FT37-43 ferrite toroid: a common part. Other ferrite toroids may be substituted, however the table depicting the minimum number of turns won't apply.

Consider the BJT amp shown. The transformer primary winding is shunted with a parallel 1800 Ω resistor. The 1K8 resistor "forces" a 1K8 ohm collector output resistance in the primary winding.

To transform the 1800 Ω primary impedance to 50 ohms; use a 3 turn secondary link. Calculate the primary to secondary turns ratio as follows:

1800 ohms divided by 50 ohms = 36. The impedance ratio = 36:1.
The turns ratio is the square root of the impedance ratio; thus the turns ratio is 6:1. The primary winding must have 6X the number of turns of the secondary winding. In the 3rd RF Workbench web page, you'll see that the above explanation pertains to the "ideal transformer", however, the concept is useful — especially to the target audience of this website.

New builders might ask — why not wind 6 turns for the primary winding and 1 turn for the secondary winding?  We avoid this because the smaller or secondary winding should have have a minimum inductive reactance (XL) of 4X the impedance it is connected to. Thus for a 50 ohm circuit, the minimum XL = 200 Ω at the design frequency.

This design rule serves only as a rough guide. We employ the minimum 4X rule because employing an XL less than 4X may create unwanted signal losses and affect the smaller winding's impedance. The table to the right of the amplifier shows the minimum numbers of secondary turns for a few common frequencies with the FT37-43 ferrite toroid.

Thus for our 7 MHz amplifier, we need at least 3 secondary turns and multiply this number by the turns ratio to give a 18:3 turns ratio. You might also choose 24:4.

For ferrites other than the FT37-43, calculate the minimum number of turns with the XL= 2 pi * F*L formula and detemine L from the turns versus AL toroid data, or measure L with an inductance meter.

For AC measurement a 50 Ω purely resistive load should be temporarily connected between the output link and ground. This might be a 51 ohm resistor, a 49.9 ohm 1% metal film resistor, 2 parallel 100 ohm resistors, or some other "50 Ω" load. We measure peak-to-peak voltage across the load and then calculate the power in dBm or mW. After measurement, the temporary 50 Ω load is removed and the circuit connected to the succeeding stage.

51 and 49.9 Ω resistors

We measure the peak-peak voltage across this 50 ohm resistor with a 10X 'scope probe; or alternately may connect the device output to a 50 Ω terminated scope to measure peak-peak voltage to calculate power.

I normally measure in a 50 Ω measurement environment and temporarily solder a BNC connector onto my breadboard and connect this port to a 50 Ω terminated scope with coax. After testing and voltage measurement, I remove the RF connector and then build and test the next stage.



Case Study

Pretend that you breadboarded the above circuit entitled "Case Study". This is a 50 MHz crystal oscillator and buffer. The crystal fundamental frequency = 16.7 MHz, but the L1 tank is tuned to its 3rd overtone; 50.0 MHz. You measure and record the peak-to-peak voltages at the points labeled A, B and C.

The peak-to-peak voltages are shown as Vpp. The vertical scale (volts/cm) is shown on the bottom of each figure.

Examine Point A. The AC voltage = 12.1 volts peak-peak. Compare this to the peak-peak voltage at Point B. Note the difference. Some builders emailed me after they measured similar differences on the primary and secondary transformer windings of their circuits with a 10X probe. These builders felt something must be wrong. All normal; you can expect the peak to peak voltage to roughly decrease (or increase) by the transformer turns ratio.

The 12.1 volts peak-peak decreased by a factor of 4.3 (13 / 3 turns ratio) which is 2.8 volts peak-peak. In our case, the measured secondary peak-peak voltage was 3.08 volts — in the ballpark. Please remember this serves as a coarse guide only. It helps you to know what to reasonably expect during signal viewing.

Peak-to-peak voltage changing in accordance with the transformer turns ratio represents a simplistic explanation describing the "ideal transformer". To understand real world transformer function, you must contemplate factors such as Ohm's law for AC, conservation of energy (this is what causes the voltage to drop while preserving power) and basic transformer behavior. These principles are explained in publications such as The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications, or the RSGB Radio Communication Handbook. An old high school physics text book might prove a better reference.

Here are the case questions:

  1. 1. Calculate the power in dBm at point B
  2. 2. Calculate the power in dBm at point C
  3. 3.What is the attenuation in dB of the 50 ohms attenuation pad?
  4. 4. What is the output power in mW of this stage?

Click on this link for the answers and to see the actual resistor values of the attenuator pad.

Finally, placing a 10X probe at Point A will de-tune the L-C tank circuit somewhat and thus alter the AC voltage. In real-world building; to tune Q2, tweak the variable capacitor (CV) with your 10X probe connected to Point C.

The breadboard of the 50 MHz oscillator prototype.


Oscilloscope Probing

10X Oscilloscope Probe

Please refer to EMRFD Chapter 7 for great information about measuring power in RF circuits. The 10X oscilloscope probe is one of the most important measurement tools to have on your bench. There are countless web articles concerning the 10X probe, so I don't have much to add.

Take care of your 10X probe: don't solder components you've clipped your probe to; avoid setting heavy objects on the cable; store it carefully and inspect it frequently.

When do you use a 10X probe ?  Measure with a 10X probe for in-situ ("in place", or "in circuit" ) voltage measurement and in situations where you can afford a 10X reduction in sensitivity. In low level measurements such as millivolt level measurements, the reduced sensitivity of a 10X probe may reduce or disallow accurate measurement. Additionally, the 20 pF or so capacitance of a 10X probe can detune resonant circuits; especially at VHF on up.

Close up of the Rigol oscilloscope probe 10X and 1X switch.

50 ohm Terminated Oscilloscope

At RF, we generally work with (or try to work with) circuits with 50 Ω impedances. If possible consider performing your measurements in a purely 50 ohm environment.

That is — instead of using a 10X probe, shunt the oscilloscope input port to ground through a 50 Ω resistor and connect your test circuit to the 'scope with 50 ohm impedance coaxial cable. On my 'scopes, I have Channel 1 set up for the 10X probe work and Channel 2 set up for a 50 ohm environment.

I asked Wes about the benefits of performing measurement in a 50 Ω environment. I learned the main advantage of a 50 ohm approach is a well defined port impedance. The second virtue; a 10X greater voltage sensitivity — the increased sensitivity for low level measurement amazes me. In some cases, small signals that I couldn't accurately measure with a 10X probe, gave an excellent scope tracing with more consistent voltage readings in a 50 Ω environment.

You also may enjoy improved signal viewing. For example, in a few cases I have observed harmonic distortion with a 50 ohm terminated scope unseen with a 10X probe  I confirmed this distortion with a spectrum analyzer.

If you have never performed measurement in a 50 Ω environment, consider trying it out — you'll enjoy it. You may buy commercial 50 Ω feed-through devices that connect to your oscilloscope input, or homebrew your own, but try to keep the 50 ohm termination as close to the oscilloscope input as possible.

Establishing a 50 Ω impedance measuring environment. The oscilloscope input is terminated with a 50 Ω resistance and connected to a device with a 50 Ω output impedance via 50 Ω coaxial cable.

Try not to routinely connect a feed-through attenuator pad to your feedthrough 50 Ω 'scope terminator — error may arise.

My very first homebrew 50 Ω scope terminator module with 2 female connectors. I connected this module to my oscilloscope input via a commerical 9 cm long 50 Ω coaxial cable with a male connector on each end.

Two parallel 100 ohm resistors formed the 50 Ω load. Ideally, the 50 Ω shunt resistor should be right at the 'scope's female BNC jack — so this homebrew module shown fell short as a stalwart 50 Ω terminator.  Inspired to move to a 50 Ω environment and lacking a male BNC connector, it did the job until my commercial version came by mail. You might find oscilloscope feedthrough terminators for sale at Ham festivals.

An ideal homebrew solution — place a male and female BNC connector in a small metal box very close together to allow a very short interconnecting wire. The box would hang off of the oscilloscope. Better still are commercial, shielded 50 Ω feed through terminators which thread right onto the oscilloscope's female BNC input jack.

Above — a commercial 50 Ω feed-through BNC terminator on my oscilloscope input.

Above — Measuring in a 50 Ω environment. Bliss!      Я люблю это.


RF Current Sampler

Figure 1 shows a basic circuit to sample RF current from a power stage such as a QRP transmitter. Many experimenters lack 50 Ω step attenuators rated to handle transmitter-level power. One basic solution is to sample the RF current of the power amplifier using a wideband step-down transformer. Terminate the RF current sample port with a 50 Ω impedance device. This may include a spectrum analyzer, power meter, receiver with an attenuator, or a 50 Ω terminated oscilloscope.
A usage example = examining a transmitter's spectral purity with a spectrum analyzer. The output power at the sample port will drop by 20-22 dB. A 50 Ω impedance step attenuator can be used to further reduce this power level to whatever you want. For this chore, a typical experimenter's 1-2 watt step attenuator works, since it never "sees" the higher wattage transmitter power.

For example, a 5 watt amplifier 20 dB down is 0.05 watts or 50 mW at the RF current sampler port. 50 mW = 17 dBm. To examine this signal with a spectrum analyzer you may wish to decrease the power down to -27 dBm. The following chart shows the basic process.



A Hammond chassis shields the RF current sampler used on my bench.

The above graphic illustrates 2 methods to examine the output of a transmitter in a spectrum analyzer. Method B is described above. The dummy load must handle the transmitter output power, however a 5 or 10 watt dummy load is easy to make.  Method A requires a step-attenuator which can handle the transmitter output power. The low-level power meter promotes the need to quantify the output power before you connect anything to the output of the attenuator. This is also true for Method B.

Always measure the output power at the RF sample port with your oscilloscope or low-level power meter before hooking up any expensive low-level measurement device such as a spectrum analyzer!  осторожно!


Miscellaneous Photos






Above — a 50 Ω BNC terminator. These are essential QRP work bench items and may be found on eBay for cheap.

Click for a photograph of 4 of my BNC RF port terminators: 27, 50, 75 and 100 ohms from left to right — useful to calibrate and test RF circuitry.