RF Workbench Page 3

RF Workbench Page 1

This web page is the third installment of a 6 part series that explores basic measurement of RF circuits.

Part 3, further examines Return Loss Bridges from a bench-practice viewpoint.

I borrow heavily from the work of Wes, W7ZOI per correspondence, direct contributions and from EMRFD.

I focus on measuring low-level, HF circuits with a return loss bridge — topics such as using the bridge for antenna matching are omitted and readily found on the web. This web page contains minimal text and just relies on simple diagrams and photographs to transfer ideas and knowledge. Information regarding wideband bridge network function may be found elsewhere on this and other web sites and in EMRFD.

More on Return Loss


Equipping for a 50 Ω measurement environment in 2010 greatly improved my design capacity. The 50 Ω terminated oscilloscope makes a sensitive and accurate detector for return loss measurement. Discussion about using a 50 Ω oscilloscope termination is on the RF Workbench 1 web page.

Above left — The RLB and measurement set up from EMRFD. Occasionally, you may see bridges using a different balun transformer wiring as shown to the right of this figure.

RF Workbench Page 1

Above — All the needed parts to home build a return loss bridge. For some, the parts investment might seem substantial, but what hobby isn't expensive? If you consider the cost of commercially manufactured bridges, a homebrew solution seems a bargain. Recycled parts and a home-built chassis are inviting cost-containment techniques. See the web site of Jim, K8IQY for an example of a homebrew RLB chassis. Jim, a Manhattan style construction wizard, builds the nicest looking gear — he puts me to shame.

RF Workbench Page 3

Above — A completed bridge. I used 1% tolerance 49.1 ohm resistors and an FT50-43 ferrite toroid for the bifilar wound transformer. Inductance = 38.4 uH. Many builders use the FT37-43 ferrite core. I prefer using 2 colors of enamel coated wire to avoid confusion when building stuff with transmission line style transformers and all I had in 2 colors was 24 gauge wire The bigger size ferrite toroid better accommodates the 24 gauge wire, plus photographs better.

Bridge directivity of the above RLB was 30 dB at 7 MHz, 34 dB at 14 MHz, 35.6 dB at 21 MHz, 42.1 dB at 50 MHz and 43.4 dB at 100 MHz.

 If you build a circuit with a return loss close to 30 dB, it's a good day.

RF Workbench Page 3

Above — The completed RF-tight bridge. Don't forget to label your network ports.

Measurement Technique

Above — Measure the return loss input of an amplifier. You'll need at least one 50 ohm BNC feed-through terminator on your bench to test amplifiers with wired-in BNC connectors (such as on this amp); else just solder a 47, 49.9 or 51 ohm resistor from the amplifier output to ground. The BNC connectors allow you to quickly and solderlessly interface components such as filters, attenuators, oscilloscopes or 50 Ω signal generators.

A typical amp measurement work flow may go something like this: Measure gain using a signal generator and the 50 ohm terminated scope; add the bridge and measure input return loss; finally, flip the amplifier around and measure output return loss. All 3 functions can be performed in 2 — 5 minutes including time to drink coffee + perform calculations by computer or with a HP scientific calculator.

Above — Measure the return loss output of an amplifier. The above 2 procedural diagrams provided by Wes, W7ZOI. Many thanks to Wes. These figures are copyrighted by Wes Hayward, 2010.

Your signal generator should have a return loss of at least 20 dB for greatest accuracy — all of my bench test generators have at least 30 dB of return loss. If you have a signal generator with a low impedance output and place a 10 dB attenuation pad on the output, you'll have at least 20 dB of return loss.

In the above figures, Wes gives an open circuit return loss of 250 mV; I set my signal generator output so the open return loss is somewhere between 170 and 250 mV; this allows you to accurately measure a really good 50 ohm return loss at >= 5 mV or so. Some people may have trouble going any lower than 5 mV due to scope accuracy. This is just something to consider.

Bench Exploration

For me at least, a special case of return loss measurement exists; measuring the return loss of a local oscillator. Since the oscillator under test must be on during measurement, it's emitting a signal at the same frequency as the bridge signal generator and interferes with measurement. If some 50 ohm attenuation is added to reduce the local oscillator under test output signal amplitude, this increases the return loss of the local oscillator under test. This is normally a good thing, however, we seek the raw output return loss or output impedance of the local oscillator under test.

Above — An initial experiment that a builder from Michigan, USA and I first used to measure the output impedance of a local oscillator consistent with the breadth and scope of this web site. We wanted something simple and wished to avoid building a vector network analyzer or performing ugly algebra.  I built a simple crystal oscillator for 7.0 MHz using an output transformer wound to give a low impedance output. The circuit was measured and calculated using the instrument above and the formula and procedure below.

The calculated output Z was 33.2 ohms. I build a standard value resistor 6 dB attenuator pad from this table. After fitting the pad, I re-measured and re-calculated the output impedance at 46.8 ohms. This seemed okay. I built a couple of oscillators for other frequencies and the output impedances were hundreds of ohms! — disappointing. Still, we were on the bench in a solution-focused mode and needed to try something else.

Above — The formula for calculating the output impedance with the experimental local oscillator output Z device.

RF Workbench Page 3

Above — Breadboard of the experimental L.O. output impedance bridge with a 50 ohm feed-through terminator on the Output 1 port. It failed to work as expected. Skillful adult problem solving goes something like this: 

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Brainstorm to generate some potential solutions.
  3. Try out one of your ideas.
  4. If that doesn't work, try another idea.
  5. If none of your ideas work, wait a while, or ask an expert.

Well, we ran out of ideas and decided to ask experts for some more ideas; Professor Kuhn and Wes, W7ZOI.

I'll share their key messages. First, accurately measuring the output impedance of an RF oscillator can be difficult — measuring the return loss of a buffer amplifier is much easier. For this, some builders run the bridge signal generator on a slightly different frequency than the oscillator under test while using a spectrum analyzer as the 50 ohm RLB detector.

Another way is to short circuit the tank on the oscillator and measure the buffer output in the normal way — a popcorn solution indeed!

We tried calculating oscillator output impedance using different equations and 1 example is shown below. Failing to account for inductive and/or capacitive reactance plus resistance in the output circuit (including the transformer), plus upsetting the circuit during AC voltage measurement adds uncertainty to calculations — measurement seems more reliable.

Above — One method of calculating output impedance. Running the output at open-circuit likely effects the oscillator by changing its load despite having the JFET buffer. Some builders use this equation for calculating the output impedance in their audio amplifiers. This amplifier should have a 50 ohm output impedance based upon the transformer turns ratio and the 1K8 resistor across transformer: 1800:50 ohms = a 36:1 impedance ratio and a 6:1 turns ratio.

Above — A simple 13.3 MHz L-C oscillator was built and evaluated. After shorting the tank coil, return loss versus turns ratio was measured and tabled as shown. To my surprise, I observed the best match with a 4:1 turns ratio. This suggested that the transformer, wound on a ferrite FT37-43 toroid was exhibiting high resistance and far from the "ideal transformer". The inductance of my 12 turn transformer was 38.3 uH.

The initial secondary winding had 6 turns and then was reduced sequentially by 1 turn. After removing each turn, the 1/2 cm of increased wire length was cut off and the enamel scraped off of the new wire ending to ensure a short connection to the output jack. During measurement, unless the secondary transformer wires were kept tidy, a ~40 MHz oscillation occurred when the 1K8 resistor was disconnected. The 1K8 resistor prevented such oscillations and improved the return loss by 1-4 dB at the various turns ratios. Testing frequency was 14 MHz.

Above — The same circuit with a lower-loss, FT50-61 ferrite transformer. I could have used a FT37-61, but prefer the 50-61 as the bigger core allows the use of heavier wire which provides some robustness when performing intensive experiments. The inductance of 24 turns on a FT50-61 measured 36.2 uH. Although lower permeability ferrite toroids require more windings, this transformer is closer to the "ideal transformer" than that wound on a FT37-43 ferrite core — a 6:1 turns ratio gave the best return loss; the output Z is pretty close to 50 ohms.

The information garnered during these tests proved enlightening and reinforces why bench measurement provides the greatest way to learn about and optimize your circuits. I hope this simple web page on return loss measurement fuels your own experiments — the most important experiments will be those you do on your bench.

Miscellaneous Figures and Photos

RF Workbench Page 1

RF Workbench Page 3

RF Workbench Page 3