RF Workbench Page 4

RF Workbench Page 4

The 4th installment of a QRP/SWL HomeBuilder series exploring basic RF measurement

Part 4 describes a method to calculate reverse isolation in the 50 Ω environment after converting measured peak-to-peak AC voltages to dBm. I tested 2 common amps at ~7 MHz to show the concepts and calculations.

In this series, I gratefully borrow from the work of Wes, W7ZOI per correspondence, direct contributions and from EMRFD.

Tools Needed

  1. 1. 50 Ω terminated scope (or a spectrum analyzer) and a 50 Ω signal generator
  2. 2. 50 Ω RF cables with RF connectors (such as short cables with female BNC connectors)
  3. 3. 6 dB 50 Ω attenuator pad; plus an adjustable attenuator if you use a fixed output signal generator.
  4. 4. BNC through-response connector(s)


  1. 1. Measure the amplifier forward power gain. This is S21.
  2. 2. Measure amplifier reverse power gain. This is S12. Like S11, express S12 as a negative value.
  3. 3. Reverse isolation using dB values = S21 - S12.

Step 1 : Measure the forward power gain

Figure 1 shows how to measure forward gain in a 50 Ω environment — 1. Convert the measured AC voltage to dBm, 2. Disconnect the amplifier, insert a through-response connector and convert this measured AC voltage to dBm. The difference between the 2 values = S21. Applet H will do these calculations from the peak-peak voltages. The attenuation pad following the signal generator in Figures 1 and 2 signify that the signal generators have a 50 ohm output impedance and is optional.

Choose a signal generator level that ensures the output of your amplifier is linear while providing a good signal to noise ratio for measurement. With an oscilloscope, I generally test amplifiers with an input power of between 0 and -11 dBm; although choose whatever level that works for you consistent with linear amplification.

After measuring the forward gain of your amp, a good way to test for linearity is to add a fixed 6 dB pad between your signal generator and your amplifier to drop the applied signal by half. [ A 6dB pad drops the peak-peak voltage by 1/2 . A 3 dB pad drops the power in dBm by 1/2 ]. The power gain should be equal or nearly equal to the measured dB value obtained before you added the 6 dB pad. If they vary significantly, you are likely driving the amp too hard and causing some non-linear output products. S21 = complex linear gain.

Step 2 : Measure the reverse power gain

Figure 2 shows how to measure reverse gain in a 50 Ω environment — 1. Convert the measured AC voltage to dBm, 2. Disconnect the amplifier, insert a through-response connector and convert this measured AC voltage to dBm. The difference = S12. Ensure that you employ the same drive level used to measure the forward gain.

Measuring reverse gain may be tough. When the amplifier under test requires a low drive level and/or has strong reverse isolation, you may not have enough signal to accurately measure with your oscilloscope. The tool of choice for low reverse voltage measurment is a spectrum analyzer (SA) — a narrow band SA may be required to distinguish the weak signal from random noise with low signal voltages.


A practical bench work flow goes something like:

  1. 1.  Measure the through-response peak-peak voltage.
  2. 2.  Measure and record the peak-peak AC voltage while driving the amplifier input port (forward gain set-up).
  3. 3.  Reverse the amp so you're driving the output port and then measure the peak-peak AC voltage (reverse gain set-up).
  4. 4.  Calculate S21 and S12.
  5. 5.  Calculate reverse isolation.

Example 1: Feedback amplifier

In the first example, I measure the reverse  isolation of a Beaverton Special feedback amp. The schematic is shown below. Tested with a 7.039 MHz signal generator possessing a return loss of 30 dB.

50 ohm Voltage Measurements:

Above — AC voltage with a through-response connector in-situ: 188 mV pk-pk

Above — AC voltage with forward gain set-up: 1.07 V pk-pk

Above — AC voltage with reverse gain set-up: 5.28 mV pk-pk.

S21 =  15.1 dB. S12 = -31 dB.  I tested my driven amp's linearity by adding a scrap, standard value 6 dB pad in between the signal generator and the amplifier — the S21 was 15.2 dB with the pad and 15.1 dB without the added 6 dB pad. It's linear.

Example 2: Common Base Amplifier

Above — A common base amp employing L- networks for a strong return loss in and out at 7.039 MHz. S11 and S22 = the negative of return loss.

Through connector voltage = 192 mV peak-peak.

S21 = (1.88 volts peak-peak AC voltage) = 19.82 dB. 

S12 = (1.68 mV peak-peak AC voltage) = -41.16 dB.

Reverse isolation at 7.039 MHz = (S21 - S12) = 61.42 dB

I confirmed the linearity of my S21 using the aforementioned 6 dB attenuator pad — I couldn't increase my signal generator output level above the indicated -10.35 dBm, since gain compression emerged in the common base amplifier (reduced AC voltage was measured).

My reverse AC voltage was under 2 mV; about the threshold where my oscilloscope waveform becomes rather ugly and sits in the noise. Clearly, the limitations of measuring reverse isolation with an oscilloscope must be factored. Still, you got to love 60 dB + of reverse isolation in a popcorn circuit.

1 local professional EE told me if you can measure it with a 'scope, you don't have spectacular reverse isolation - no doubt, a spectrum analyzer pumps up the measurement quality in circuits with high reverse isolation, but more amateur designers have 'scopes than spectrum analyzers, so just do your best.

Involving Scattering Parameters as possible on your workbench can only lead to circuit improvement. You can't better your outcomes if you can't or don't measure them — applying and more importantly, understanding test equipment is just 1 component of our hobby. A hobby unto itself; test equipment activity complements amateur radio design. I have met test equipment focused builders who make radio gear just as an excuse to apply their test gear!

Improved bench practices are the corollary of striving to learn more about measurement techniques and increasing our collection of measurement devices.

 QRP — Posdata 1:   Hycas Amplifier

I love the hybrid cascode (hycas) as a general purpose RF amplifier. What's not to love about a using a common source FET followed by a common base bipolar amp? I attempted to measure the reverse isolation of a version just using an oscilloscope.

Above — A hycas amp set up for high return loss on both ends at 14.078 MHz. Too much current may cause gain compression and harmonic distortion, so please test your hycas amps for both. I tested using a signal generator with a 30 dB return loss driving a 50 Ω terminated oscilloscope. Since the hycas amp contain a high impedance input JFET and a common base amp, the reverse isolation should be reasonably high, or at least as good as a common base amplifier.

My testing failed — The reverse isolation was too high to measure with an oscilloscope. Using proper bench techniques (linear amplification + honest scope reporting), I determined the highest reverse isolation I could measure = 64 dB. In fact, injecting a whopping signal of 1.08 volts peak-peak into the hycas output port only gave an S12 of 1.84 mV — whoa!

The problem is such a strong signal (1.08 volts peak-peak) at the input port results in severe limiting and distortion; so valid reverse isolation measurement isn't possible. Even a 350 mV peak-peak signal may give some gain compression during S21 measurement depending on your matching. Thus, I can only accurately say that the reverse isolation of my hycas amp is greater than 64 dB.

Strong reverse isolation is 1 reason I favor hycas amps as VFO buffers. They make pretty good I.F. amps also.

 The hycas IF amp system by Wes, W7ZOI and Jeff, WA7MLH offers amazing performance and features an excellent JFET bias scheme.  I built 1 in 2008 — amazing design.

 QRP — Posdata 2:   Doesn't S12 = Reverse Isolation?

Many web sites, books and people report that reverse isolation = S12, yet above, I depart from this argument. In truth, I think reverse isolation equals S12,  but reverse isolation may also equal S21 - S12.

I'll let you decide what to do, but explain why I enjoy the latter.

S12 is a negative value.

I prefer to turn that negative value into a positive 1 — RF Workbench 4 concerns measuring and applying amplifiers with the goal of high reverse isolation and not just measuring S12.

The main purpose to quantify amplifer reverse isolation is to strive to improve reverse isolation and an amplifier is but 1 component in our 50 Ω block. I believe in a creative, systems approach; open minded and positive (pun intended).

The whole RF Workbench series attempts to present 50 Ω bench measurements in a vibrant way devoid of excessive + boring engineer-style content that could blank the eyes of the budding Hams/SWLs designers that visit my site. I imagine this web site bores more advanced RF designers to tears.

  1. Our goal is to obtain high reverse isolation while applying a 50 Ω systems approach.
  2. Break away from strict + "stodgy" math-driven methods to fuel creative thought and experimentation.
  3. I posit that an appropriate figure of merit in a well designed isolation amplifier is the difference between S21 and S12; and therefore, the term reverse isolation can be more than just S12.
  4. Ham/SWL component-level experimentation by commoners like me is slowly dying and being replaced by a new generation of skilled, code writing experimenters. Although, some builders just copy other people's code and then apply it to kitted hardware. Reverse isolation impacts both our analog and digital designs.

Please consider this example:

I’m switching a level 7 diode ring mixer with 12 MHz and per normal, create lots of internal harmonic energy. With my spectrum analyzer connected to the mixer RF port I measure my 12 MHz LO signal at 50 dB below a +7 dBm signal, or -43 dBm. That’s a 50 over S9 signal — very high amplitude in context!

I require strong LO isolation in my circuit and thus stick in a 50 Ω input/output amplifier. I measure this amp: S21 = 15 dB and S12 = -31 dB.

So, the signal at the amplifier input is -43 dBm plus -31 dB = -74 dBm. But, alas, -74 dBm isn't good enough me — I want to use that amplifier to elicit greater isolation. However, I don’t want any gain in my system, so I insert a 15 dB attenuator pad after the amplifier. For this pad, both S12 and S21 = -15 dB. For my amp, the net cascade is S21 = 0 and S12 = -46 dB.
Since S21 = 0, the block has 0 impact on the signal amplitude applied to the mixer, but the signal at the input of my isolation amplifier is -43 dBm plus - 46 dB, or -89 dBm. This isolation I like — it also illustrates a systems approach that gets you thinking about measurement in your own 50 Ω blocks.

The figure of merit for making a good isolation amplifier is now the difference between S21 and S12. If you want, go ahead and just use S12 for reverse isolation, but you'll probably measure S21 plus S12 anyway and that's what this web page is about!  Onward.

 QRP — Posdata 3

Comments From the Workbench

I’m no amateur electonics expert — I'd like to be one, but this is a tough field; RF and AF design is quite scientific, under-resourced and a bit overwhelming. How do we experimenters advance and stay motivated?  Reading works by professionals like Chris Trask, N7ZWY, Bob Larkin, W7PUA, Doug Self, Rod Elliott and others may highlight our lack of knowledge and scientific methodology a realization which can distress and demotivate us lay-designers. To a degree, this is irrational thinking; personal growth is always about hard work, problem solving and overcoming barriers.

Unlike the white belted Karate student, who studies and practices under the guidance of a master to attain black belt skill level, most amateur designers, excluding electrical engineering students, can't access good teachers. As a lay-person, with few face-to-face mentors (nobody in Canada), I try to learn by experimenting and incorporating whatever knowledge, advice or schematics I can find. Fortunately, some Electrical Engineers give me advice by email and in turn I'm able to share this information via experiments on QRP / SWL HomeBuilder.

Our dusty, analog hobby fades palpably — the number of analog electronics gurus dwindles each decade and modern electronics embraces miniature circuitry often involving digital ICs controlled by lines of code.

Current electronics hobbyist magazines rightfully focus on topics that are contemporary or important to their advertisers; for example, promoting mixed-signal ICs, DSP, microcontrollers and the kits they describe and then sell for income. Nuts and Volts is 1 example. Both analog RF and AF design increasingly lies in the hands of a small group of specialists, enthusiasts and students.

Yet, we persevere. Sharing our knowledge, circuits, experiences and references on the Internet helps sustain our small global community. That's the site purpose— sharing the (warts and all) experiments + basic information of a lay-person.

The Emitter Choke in Common Base RF Amps

This web page covers reverse isolation — a really important topic. 2 principle amplifiers we employ for strong reverse isolation are the common base BJT and common gate JFET alone or in cascode with other amplifier topologies.

Some comments regarding using a radio frequency choke in the common base amplifier follow.

Above — Case 1:  Emitter resistor only.

Apart from providing DC bias along with R1 and R2, emitter resistor RE plays another important role. Despending on its value, a portion of the input AC signal may pass through RE to ground instead of going through the transistor — degrading signal amplitude and noise figure. To minimize this, the resistor value should be many times (~10X or more) than the input impedance of the amplifier.

Although we might bias a common base amp to give an input Z of 50 Ω, often we'll choose a much lower input Z to get higher voltage gain. Input Z = 26 / Ie where Ie = mA; so if you bias for 5 mA, you are looking at an input Z of ~5 Ohms. In that case, a low value bias resistor such as 100 Ω won't shunt much of the input signal to ground, nor will it likely contribute much noise.

For most common base RF amps, a correctly chosen emitter resistor is all that's needed to decouple the AC signal and using an emitter choke proves hard to justify. However, it's important to understand how to apply an emitter choke since the basic principle also extends to the common gate JFET amplifer and other circuits.

Above — Case 2:  Emitter resistor plus a choke.

The choke’s main purpose is to block or choke RF from passing to ground. The ideal choke would present infinite
impedance to AC signals, plus 0 resistance to DC voltage. In reality, "ideal" = fantasy electronics and you can simply estimate a choke's inductive reactance using the classic formula (XL =2*PI * Freq * L).

Using a coil (and not just a resistor) is generally better for decoupling — although how much better might be debatable. If the inductive reactance (XL) of the coil is significantly higher than the input impedance of the transistor, then all of the input signal power goes to the transistor.

By convention, a minimum choke XL should be at least 3 times the input resistance, however, the self-resonant frequency of the coil must be significantly higher than the applied frequency. Thus, an ideal range of inductive reactance exists, and too little or too much can degrade performance. Many builders target an XL around 10 times higher than the transistor input impedance at the lowest operating frequency.

Example: For a common base amp biased for an input Z of 50 ohms, the minimum inductive reactance (XL) for the choke = 500 ohms. To calculate the inductance of an emitter choke for this amp at 50 MHz, we re-arrange the formula to solve for L.

L = XL / 2* Pi * F
L minimum = 1.59 uH.
Winding the choke on a ferrite core, or possibly a bead for VHF often means less turns, less winding capacitance and a higher self-resonant frequency.

Above — Case 3:  Bypassed emitter resistor plus choke.

The primary purpose of the capacitor across RE is to filter resistor noise — but that is only an issue well below the frequency of interest and it should not be relevant at high frequencies where the choke reactance is significant. There may be some useful effect if the self-resonant frequency of the capacitor Cx is above the frequency of interest.

You can only use bypass capacitor Cx when a choke is implemented.

A 0.1 uF may be useless at high frequency. In error, I've used this value previously on the site; after 14 years of experimenting, I've learned a lot from my design mistakes.

The case of the common gate JFET amplifier

This discussion also informs common gate JFET amplifer design. The JFET source requires signal decoupling similar to the emitter of the bipolar transistor discussed above.

Above — Case 4: A choke plus source resistor will commonly be the "go to" design. Things get a bit more complicated with some, but not all JFET circuits — engineers often match the JFET input for a low noise figure rather than just the "correct" input impedance.

A good example follows: We might place a common gate JFET amp after a diode ring mixer because of the wideband load it presents to the mixer's RF port. The best noise match may occur with a hypothetical input Z of ~70 Ω (this argument represents an advanced topic).

After measuring the JFET pinchoff voltage and Idss, you would likely find that a source bias resistor of ~100 Ohms would be needed. This R value is so close to the JFET input Z that signal losses to ground would occur — demanding a choke for signal amplitude preservation, plus impedance and noise figure control.