Sundry Experiments 2012 - 2013

This page shows some of my better non-VHF experiments for 2012-2013.

Although VHF and UHF excite me greatly, It's always fun to build at HF, or even AF. 

Section 1:  I explain why you might see sweeps that look like oscilloscope tracings on QRPHB: they're devices swept with equipment designed by Bob, K3NHI. Bob's work simply amazes me — full-on, creative precocity.

Section 2:  An LM1875 AF power amplifer test.

Section 3:  Three Questions with Jason, NT7S.

Section 4:  EMRFD Experiments — A 1-on-1 Tracking or Offset Phase-locked Loop.

Section 5:  Boot-strapped Popcorn AF Feedback Pair.

Section 6:  Non-Mechanical Iambic Paddle.

Section 7:  A Journey Above HF.

Section 8:  Popcorn AF Amplifier — Reprise

Section 9:  The Progressive Receiver by John, K5IRK and Wes, W7ZOI

Section 10:  Miscellaneous Pictures and Figures

1.  Analog Sweep System

Today, advanced experimenters might build a network analyzer/sweeper incorporating a microcontroller, a DDS, or Si570 based frequency synthesizer, plus the needed analog RF circuitry. I went another direction: the Bob Kopski, K3NHI sweep system — all analog, no lines of code and probably 4X the bench work. I show some photos, traces and text in hope it might inspire you to pursue your own sweep system —  digital-based or otherwise.

Above — The K3NHI Sweep System macro diagram drawn by Wes. The resultant trace looks like the output of a tracking generator plus spectrum analyzer. What I like most is that I'm measuring with my "tough" 'scope and need not worry about input power and so forth like we do with expensive RF test gear. I simply love measuring signals with my oscilloscope. Testing circuits with Bob's sweep system compels me to treasure component-level analog design and renews my passion afresh.

Above — 3 components of my K3NHI sweep system. Click for a higher resolution photo. To date, I've made the Utility Sweep Generator (time base) on the bottom, a 1-118 MHz VCO with clean and level output top left, an AD8307 power meter optimized for sweeps top right and a crystal filter VCO shown later.

Building Bob's Utility Sweep Generator proved difficult. Although technically just a ramp generator, this 1 is calibrated, provides high isolation between the X and Y channels and will sweep anything. The power supply has 8 different regulated DC voltages including ~ - 3V. I may use it as the time base for a spectrum analyzer project 1 day.
Bob gave me permission to post the schematics: One  Two  Three  IC1-5 is an LM324 op-amp. Doc 1  Doc 2

Email me for some build notes.

Click, click, or click for photos of the 1- 118 MHz VCO. Click for the schematics. One  Two

I show a bare-bones AD8307-based Power Meter (PM) on the RF Workbench 5 web page, however, to augment the PM for sweeping, I added input compensation, plus some tweaks from Bob's QEX articles: Bob Kopski, K3NHI — An Advanced VHF Wattmeter, QEX, May/June 2002 and Bob Kopski, K3NHI — A Simple Enhancement for the Advanced VHF Wattmeter, QEX, Sept/Oct 2003.

 I strongly recommend you build Bob's power meter (referenced above) if you're contemplating a power meter build.

Above — My AD8307-based power meter. Click for a photo of an early version lacking the level shifter. The level shifter, or DC offset control allows precise Y axis control to enable a resolution up to 1mV/dB when set up properly in the DSO. With this resolution, it's possible to see filter ripple.

Above — The K3NHI sweep system in action. This photo shows the power meter with the (later) added DC offset control. Using the offset control potentiometer, I'm able to examine the top of a signal peak at 1 dB per division with various spans.

Above — I swept a 7 MHz band-pass filter bench module.

Above — A sweep of the above 7 MHz band-pass filter. At the time I was still learning system calibration and remember feeling blissful that I made such a cool sweep system.

Above — A sweep of the 7 MHz band-pass filter with a tracking generator plus spectrum analyzer for comparison. The span differed from that used with the K3NHI sweep system, however, I'm sure I'll get better with the K3NHI system over time.

Above — My build of the K3NHI Hartley VCO for sweeping crystal filters. I ordered a 4 mm tuning knob for the 10-turn "Manual Tune" potentiometer used to help center the sweep in my 'scope. This 10-turn pot, a DIP switch with C's and a secondary L, plus two MV209 varactors allow narrow resolution sweeps (< 5 Hz nominal) within a ~2.5 - 18 MHz range.

I monitor the sweep frequency on a counter via the VCO monitor port and all the tweaks on this VCO and the Utility Sweep Generator allow easy filter centering. Click for a breadboard of the VCO with the first buffer and a temporary BNC connector for testing. Click for the whole project. The secondary wideband buffer provides strong signal fidelity, reverse isolation and output return loss (22.3 dB) — it draws 61 mA.  Click for the VCO schematic courtesy of Bob, K3NHI. Click for a side-by-side of a xtal filter as measured with Bob's sweep system plus an N2PK VNA.

Above — I made and then swept a simple ~500 Hertz wide 4.9152 MHz Cohn or Min-Loss filter using 4 crystals.

So now, if you see sweeps on the site that look like oscilloscope tracings, you'll understand how they were created. I've learned so much from Bob's work and his mentorship last Spring. John, K5IRK coached me also.

QRP-POSDATA for October 2013

3 builders incorporated Bob's sweep system circuitry into projects including a receiver, a spectrum analyzer and the following build of the Utility Sweep Generator (USG) by Jay:  Jay built some PC boards to simplify the wiring challenge this USG presents. Click 1  Click 2  Click 3.  Great stuff — thanks for sharing.

QRP-POSDATA for March 2014  — Poor Hams Scalar Network Analyzer  (PHSNA) —

Above — The PHSNA built by Mikey, WB8ICN.

Jerry W5JH, along with Jim, N5IB and Nick, WA5BDU developed this low-cost sweeper/ lab toolkit.

The Poor Hams Scalar Network Analyzer consists of an Arduino UNO R3, plus an AD9850, or AD9851 DDS, a W7ZOI/W7PUA Power Meter and a MS Windows OS based computer. Builders can scan and plot L-C filters, crystal filters, RF amplifiers and such — much like Bob's sweep system — or an HF tracking generator + spectrum analyzer. The PHSNA also measures crystal parameters with little fuss. Connect a return loss bridge to easily sweep return loss measures of the input or output ports of filters, amplifiers, antennas and more. The total cost to build the PHSNA is approximately $50-60 USD.

Mikey graciously sent me some photographs of his PHSNA build. Complete system in his lab with the chassis lids removed for these photos. Monitor photo showing menu choices. Power meter. Mikey's jig to examine crystals with a 200 Ω termination. Once you own a calibrated sweep system, you'll wonder how you ever managed without 1.

Thanks again to Mikey for the photos. I built and tested the return loss bridge using the PCB from the PHSNA Yahoo group. Click for a 613 KB pdf file of my build. Nick, WA5BDU web site.

Hats off to Jerry and crew for this open-system project!  A Yahoo group called PHSNA serves as the communications hub and houses superb, detailed documentation. You need to join Yahoo to access this group. Then search for PHNSA and while your at it, also sign onto the EMRFD group.

2.  LM1875 Audio Power Amplifier

I tested the LM1875 AF power amplifer because its specifications look great: 20 watts into a 4Ω or 8Ω load on 25V
supplies and a TO-220 package for easy heat sinking. Of course, for this web site, I tested it with a typical radio experimenter bench power supply; a single-supply at ~ 12 VDC.

This is probably not a great part for Ugly Construction and I attempted to return the load ground, the output Zobel RC filter network, feedback loop and input grounds to a central grounding point through separate paths cut paths into my copper board. A better breadboard method might include the so called "star grounding".

I saw RF oscillations on the 'scope and removed them by soldering a 0.001μF bypass capacitor across the input. A 470 pF bypass capacitor did not work well enough. The datasheet describes specific causes and cures for RF oscillations and I've learned they must be heeded. I once found similar problems with an LM380.

Above — The LM1875 in the ~suggested datasheet, single-supply set up. This amplifer reminds me of setting up an op-amp. Unlike the LM380, within limits, you may choose the gain to suit your needs. As shown the gain = 25.6 dB. Dropping the feedback R to 100K dropped the gain down to 20.5 dB.  For clean output power capacity; it blows away the LM380.

Above — My first LM1875 test breadboard.  After the photo, I moved the 0.1 μF RF bypass cap right onto lead 5 — we should carefully RF bypass device power supply leads, but I got sloppy.

Above — At the maximum power before visible sine wave distortion appears; 856 mW. I listened to this amp while connected to a line-level tape player and an 8 Ω speaker load: very nice. I want to try it with a split +/-15 VDC supply and a star grounded breadboard since a 12v single-supply limits the output power so much. Still, at 12 volts single-supply, this IC yielded the highest clean, average output power of any AF Power chip I've tested: a worthy consideration for a high-grade receiver.

Above — 'Scope tracing; I advanced the 10K volume pot to drive the amp into clipping.

3.  Interview — Three Questions with Jason, NT7S from Etherkit

I follow 2 English language amateur radio blogs — 1 is Ripples in the Ether by Jason, NT7S 

Possessing a modern flare, Jason, the blogger, gently but resolutely challenges some of the cliquish, dogmatic thought and behavior that tarnishes amateur radio, or just blogs about fun stuff. He writes well — creating an emotional dialog that stimulates thought and reflection. We get a sense that he cares about our radio hobby and wants it to grow and improve.

Jason, the man behind Etherkit, champions a modern, open-source vision that I find both positive and refreshing.

1. Tell me about your decision to embrace the open source software philosophy for your hardware in a time where proprietary code, copyrights and patents still hold strong. How do Ham Radio equipment sellers benefit from code sharing?

I believe that the open sharing of knowledge has always been one of the cornerstones of our amateur radio community, going back to its earliest days. So the open source/open hardware ethos has always resonated with me in regard to our hobby. I started Etherkit with the intention of providing a small bit of income to my family and as a way to promote the idea of open hardware within the ham radio community at large. I have no illusions of becoming the next Elecraft, but I hope that I can build up a stable of affordable and fully-open ham radio kits that will be "hackable" and extensible for the motivated experimenter. I do this by providing the full source code for my microcontroller firmware, all of the PCB design files, Creative Commons licensed documentation, and programming ports for my products. I've already seen some neat examples of customers extending my first product (the OpenBeacon MEPT kit) by doing things such as adding in WWVB time discipline and pairing it up with a Raspberry Pi for cheap automation. I hope that others will take my code or my circuits and re-purpose them in their own work, even if they don't buy my products.

I am not an open source zealot and do not begrudge the large majority of vendors who choose to keep their intellectual property closed. However, most of what us smaller companies do is not on the cutting edge of radio. We leverage the knowledge and works of those who came before us. Perhaps if I created something wholly-new that would be patent worthy, I would consider keeping it closed, but that's not the kind of products that I'm able to develop as a one-man operation. We do not copy the designs of others, but we do take concepts that are for the most part well-tested and come with new ways to implement them. Because of that, it's my personal opinion that I have a duty to keep my designs open.

In the open hardware world at-large, there is a discussion about whether open source hurts your own business prospects. There are still some debatable points in that discussion, but I think it has been shown that if you look at the entire balance, open hardware is a good thing for smaller companies. One of the largest concerns is that under most open source licenses, a competitor can just clone your hardware and undercut your sales. That is a genuine concern, but I think that products such as Arduino have shown that if you make a quality product, most folks will recognize that quality and stick with the original.

Even if others buy a clone of your hardware, in all likelihood, that may be strengthening your brand identity (as long as that vendor isn't stealing your name). Another concern is that a customer can just copy your product for themselves. To that, I say good!. Because of the work and costs involved (economy of scale), it's going to be time and/or money consuming to make that copy. It's probably cheaper and faster to just buy the kit. The reason you copy it for personal use is because you love working with the technology. Which is exactly what I want to encourage. You may lose a small bit of sales, but I think it gives you more name recognition in the end.

2. What’s it like being a vendor at Dayton?

To be clear, I wasn't a vendor at Hamvention in 2012 (hopefully I will be there by 2014), but I was a vendor at Four Days In May at the Fairborn Holiday Inn. It was a wonderful experience to get to sit with the big names in the QRP world, selling my wares. I got the opportunity to meet tons of QRPers and build up some good relationships. Online sales are wonderful for the ultra-small operations such as myself, but nothing beats actually meeting your customers face-to-face, especially when you are at the world's most well-known QRP convention.

3. In industry, SMT parts are normal and hole-thru might better be called “hold-over”; what’s your view on kitting products with SMT parts?

We've seen some SMT kits within the QRP world, but they still are more of an oddity than anything else. I understand the concerns that people have with SMT assembly, but I think that there is still a lot of trepidation that builders needn't have. It's my opinion that SMT construction with "larger" components such 1206 or 0805 is well within the capabilities of the average kit builder. I also believe that once you are comfortable with SMT construction, it is probably faster and more efficient than through-hole construction.

OpenBeacon is a through-hole product, but I have had a QRP CW rig in development for the last two years that is a SMT design. In beta testing, I've found that one of the biggest challenges in kitting is that I have to clearly identify each and every component. With a through-hole kit, you can just throw all of the resistors or all of the capacitors together because they are clearly marked. Not so with SMT. You have to have a system to keep each value separated from the others and marked with a value. SMT resistors and semiconductors have a laser-etched value, but it's nearly impossible to see by naked-eye, and SMT capacitors generally have no markings at all.

So I have had to compartmentalize each strip of components of the same value cut from a reel, and mark them with a sticker. That is pretty costly and time-consuming. I'm hoping to find ways to streamline this process so that I can release SMT kits without the large time investment that it currently takes.

4.  EMRFD Experiments — A 1-on-1 Tracking Phase-locked Loop

I built the 1-on-1, or offset phase-locked loop circuitry described on EMRFD page 4.22 and share these schematics in faith you'll create your own. Rich with wisdom and reason, this section lies among the best topics from EMRFD. Please read Wes' notes since I won't repeat his narrative — only supply a few ideas and measurements. In the article closer, Wes suggests some modern parts to raise performance and I applied all of them with the exception of the 14 MHz VCO.

Rather than building the main VCO with divide by N circuitry to allow multiband use, I copied the original 14 MHz oscillator verbatim. Why? Well, I wanted to test this VCO: a design that wisely doesn't expose the varactor to high impedance or signal amplitude and thus avoids forward-biasing the single tuning diode. I've discussed this before on the QRP Modules 2011 web page under 7 MHz VCO Experiments. Also, I really just wanted to learn about PLL circuitry. The Figure 1 macro schematic below illustrates this project.

In my circuit, a frequency stable 14 MHz VCO = the goal; the rest of the circuitry supports this.

Above — The 1.5 MHz VFO. In his modern writing, Wes calls this the MTO, or Manually Tuned Oscillator in the context of a tracking PLL. I wound the L with # 30 AWG wire on a T50-6 toroid.

My MTO exhibits a low tuning range (only 1.50 to 1.52 MHz) since I built in a box with a small air-variable capacitor that swung only 24 pF and I ran the "Colpitts capacitors" at 2610 pF to keep phase noise low. This box normally holds a VHF oscillator and I just removed the main board and swapped in a 1.5 MHz equipped copper board. I won't keep this PLL and thus sticking the 1.5 MHz MTO in an existing oscillator chassis with a grounded tuning shaft and feedthrough capacitor helped save money and time.

Above — The built 1.5 MHz MTO. With temperature compensation from 6 stiff-leaded, 600 VDC, 470 pF polystyrene capacitors, my frequency drift measured between 3 and 4 hertz per hour upward at room temperature. Properly designed + built + temperature compensated L-C oscillators at 1.5 to 3.5 MHz may exhibit stellar temperature stability. See the VFO - 2011 web page for some tips.

Since this VFO was sublimely frequency stable, I didn't possess the guts to change up the L-C ratio to garner a wider tuning range from the small air-variable tuning capacitor. A 100 pF, or greater delta-F air-variable tuning capacitor would stretch the VFO (MTO) tuning range nicely.

Above — I designed this buffer last year and it's my new favorite. Click for the original. A 10 pF C0G/NP0 capacitor lightly couples the MTO output to the high impedance of Q1, an emitter follower. Further, a common base amp provides gain and essential reverse isolation. You may adjust Q2 gain by changing the degenerative feedback offered by the 22 Ω resistor and 0.1 μF capacitor. For example, decreasing the R to 18 Ω may provide 7 dBm output for a diode ring mixer.

MTO output power = 6.71 dBm.

I transformed the 470 Ω collector resistor impedance to 50 Ω with a transmission line transformer. Even though part of the PLL circuitry involves logic gates, or is at DC; as possible, my circuits employ a 50 Ω input or output impedance to allow measurement with my 50 Ω modules and/or instruments, plus transmission via 50 Ω cables.

Above — The 13.98 to 14.3 MHz VCO by Wes, W7ZOI (Figure 4.43 in EMRFD). The connector in series with the 1K varactor resistor was an RCA type. Output power = 1.62 dBm. I employed a 3 - 20 pF air variable for the trimmer.

Above — In the original circuit, Wes built his 12.5 MHz crystal oscillator with a single 2N3904. Lacking a 12.5 MHz crystal, I built my xtal oscillator from an old, junkbox 12.5 MHz clock oscillator. A resistor L- matching network drove a low-pass filter to scrub off harmonics,  Click for the clean output 'scope tracing at 211 mV pk-pk in my first version. Later, some tweaks gave a final power of -9.6 dBm (208 mV pk-pk). Many authors switch their NE612 mixers with a peak-peak voltage of ~200-300 mV.  An AC-coupled 51 Ω resistor on the NE612 pin 6 properly terminates the oscillator to establish the desired drive power and filtering.

Above — Oscillator breadboards: 14 MHz VCO (left) and the 12.5 MHz clock oscillator (right).

Above — Click to view the power splitter, mixer, low-pass filter and amplifier schematic. Click for an FFT of the clean 1.5 MHz output sine wave. At this point, the 14 MHz VCO has no DC voltage connected to its frequency compensation varactor. As shown, the mixer products are seriously attenuated by the simple, low-pass filter + keeping the mixer RF port signal amplitude low. The power splitter provides the input for the mixer and also the main output for the 14 MHz VCO. The main VCO output requires 50 Ω buffer/amplifer(s) to drive a receiver mixer, transmitter chain, or whatever.

I inserted the 12 dB attenuator pad to keep my mixer RF port signal low to drop the mixer products amplitude down; further losses occur in the transformer. You can change this pad to whatever is required. I belong to the camp of builders who drive their transmit mixers with low-level RF signals to avoid messy outputs at the IF port.

Click for a breadboard photo of my initial bench tests with the mixer board. A 50 Ω resistive terminator shunts the main VCO output port during this testing. I temporarily insert BNC connectors along my development breadboards to measure output signals with my 50 Ω terminated 'scope, spectrum analyzer, or power meters and rarely measure RF circuits with a 10X probe.

Above — Phase-frequency detector and loop filter schematic. 51 Ω resistors terminate each 1.5 MHz input and drive two 2N3904 switches per EMRFD Figure 4.41. The loop filter design from EMRFD works as described, however, if you make a loop filter for a different circuit, casual copying goes out the window. Engineers design their loop filters according to factors including the crossover frequency, VCO gain, the N-division for the loop, etcetera with software. Some people and companies offer such software on the Web.

My loop filter 0.01 μF cap was a 1% polyester capacitor, although Wes specs a 10% tolerance in EMRFD. No cheapo ceramic bypass caps here please.

Above —  Phase-frequency detector and loop filter breadboard.  Click for a photo of the scattered, ugly, working boards on my workbench.  Many prototypes look like this on our benches, however, sometimes, they work perfectly until we stick them in a box!  Do you relate? Each oscillator belongs in its own metal box with strong bypass and decoupling networks (feedthrough caps reign supreme here) since the 3 oscillators might decide to party together and create havoc.

Above — My VCO frequency with the 1.5 MHz MTO set at full mesh. Since my MTO only tuned from 1.50 to 1.52 MHz, my VCO only tuned from 14.00 to 14.020 MHz, but that's easily fixed as I've stated. I'm very happy — it locked perfectly and my 14 MHz VCO stayed on frequency at the exact previously measured frequency drift of the 1.5 MHz MTO. When I connected the 14 MHz VCO to my counter without the PLL circuitry, it drifted willy-nilly.


The sense of awe and joy arising from locking a VCO on frequency won't be understood by many. The concepts and circuitry offers many possibilities. If the MTO and VCO exhibit low phase noise, short-term oscillator stability may be fantastic.

The 14 MHz VCO could be a 56 MHz VCO with sequential division by flip-flops to provide output at 28, 14 and 7 MHz with the 14 MHz portion going to the offset mixer. In EMRFD, Figure 4.44, Wes offers 14 and 7 MHz output by dividing the 14 MHz signal from the main power divider output port. The 7 MHz band is low-pass filtered to remove harmonic energy.

Wes extended this circuit by dividing the MTO by a hardware programmable frequency divider so that the difference from the mixer and low-pass filter is 170 kHz nominal. He uses this 'Almost Synthesizer' on the air for his QRP adventures.

While most builders will sensibly jump from an L-C VFO to a kit containing a programmed microcontroller plus a DDS or Si579, it's also fun to play with hardware to learn and ingrain synthesizer concepts + gain bench wisdom.

QRP  —  PosData for April 17, 2013

 For a good read on the offset PLL, consider studying Wes' book  Introduction to Radio Frequency Design, ARRL, 1994, page 320 and on. This book is now out of print. Wes ported the PLL active loop filter design program he wrote for IRFD from DOS to Windows in April 2013. Click and scroll for it. Thanks for this Wes!

5.  Boot-strapped Popcorn AF Feedback Pair

Above —  I designed this AF stage for a builder from Indonesia; a popcorn AF shunt feedback amp based on the work of Douglass Self. Despite only drawing ~ 5 mA, this amp stayed clean until the output voltage exceeded 7.04 volts peak-peak on my test bench. Boot-strapping increases gain and lowers distortion in Q1.

Q2 buffers the Q1 voltage amp from external loading and increases gain.The Q3 current source boosts the load-handling capacity of the Q2 emitter follower. The input R can be raised to reduce sensitivity. The 1K output R could be a 5-10 K volume pot.

6.  Non-Mechanical Iambic Paddle

Above —  The very ugly development proto-board of my half-done non-mechanical Iambic paddle. At some point I'll build the other half (the dah paddle switch) and press it into service. You might also use this circuit as a non-mechanical straight key.

Above — The schematic for 1 of the paddle circuits. I compared the ON resistance of the BJT switch with the enhancement mode FET and the 2N7000 won: only the FET could key the continuity tester on my DVM.

You may extend this circuit with a 2N3906 switch for paddle-switched 9 volts (or whatever VCC you want). In the bottom right, I connected the PNP collector to an LED and flashed it for fun. The 0.01 μF capacitor on the switch drain or collector bypasses any RF to ground. With higher power RF, you may have to place a similar bypass cap in parallel with the shunt 10K resistor on the 2N3904/2N7000 base and gate respectively.

Above —  A 'scope shot of the ~ 43 KHz oscillator generated in the first 4093 Schmitt trigger NAND gate.

Above —  Here's the disturbed oscillator output just after the paddle is touched: this stops the signal at pin 5 and 6 of gate 2 and kills the AC output at pin 4. The DC voltage across the 0.001 μF cap discharges through the 1 megohm resistor pushing pin 10 HIGH to turn on the 2N7000 (or the 2N3904). Normally, pin 10 is LOW since the rectified output of the undisturbed ~43 KHz oscillator goes to both pin 8 and 9.

A fun circuit for a Saturday afternoon...

7.  A Journey Above HF

This project began as a 14 MHz low-noise amplifier build, but ended up with me learning more about SMT breadboard techniques and suppressing spurs. A short exploratory/descriptive account of my bench journey plus some photos follow.

Above —  I'm slowly adding SMA connectors and pieces. Since modern consumer digital network engineers use them, they're abundant and often rated from DC to 18 GHz; more bandwidth than I'll ever need.

I'm also building with evermore SMT components and just love it. Through-hole (I prefer to say hole-through) stuff continues to disappear like lemonade on a hot August afternoon.

Above —  The schematic of my version of Victor 4Z4ME's feedback amp (FBA) as tested at 14 MHz: he emailed me a paper and provided some online support. Click for another version from December 2012. Typical noiseless FBAs suffer from poor reverse isolation, however, Victor runs the collector to base feedback through an asymmetrical 3 dB power combiner/splitter that boosts port isolation, defines the gain, plus sets the input and output impedance.

Strong virtues of the asymmetrical power splitter — fully utilized in this design include a very low loss on the input side (the 1 turn side) and a much higher loss ont the feedback side that allows the feedback to defines the input impedance on one side while exerting a negligible impact on noise figure and dynamic range on the other side. Victor measured a noise figure of 1.5 dB using a MRF586 BJT. Thanks to Victor for the information and design.

For strong IMD properties, I ran 50.6 mA total stage current into a gorgeous, low-noise, NE46134 NPN transistor with a fT of 5.5 GHz. Using VHF-UHF techniques, I built with mostly SMT parts on 2–sided board using copper wire vias to connect the 2 copper surfaces. I discussed the wrap-around bias technique in 2011 as number 1.

Above —  My prototype breadboard with dremel cut islands for soldering the size 1206 or 0805 SMT parts, plus a few hole-through items. Carving an island for the SOT89 transistor package proved difficult, but even I (a challenged dremelist) did it.

Woe to Oscillations: Like misplaced car keys, oscillations may remain hidden unless you search for them. Often, the only difference between a proper oscillator and a regular amplifier is we want the former to oscillate. To check for instability, we might use our high bandwidth scope, or a spectrum analyzer, but many will have to find spurious RF with basic, DC - HF bandwidth test equipment. In any case, just do your best.  To some extent, unwanted oscillations are the elephant in the room that few talk about. Well, it's okay to think, talk and feel some emotions about them.

Sure enough, when I connected a 14 MHz signal to the amp's input and a 50 Ω terminated 'scope to the output to measure gain, my sine wave had 2 or 3 others on top of it. In the 4Z4ME amp, the PNP bias transistor can be a source of AF to HF oscillations.

Victor wrote:  "The circuit has a low frequency amplifying loop that goes through both transistors. The PNP transistor does not invert the signal (it is a common base amplifier) and the RF transistor inverts so it is a loop with 180 degrees phase shift (negative feedback). The various decoupling and RF coupling capacitors in this loop add phase shift on this low frequency loop. If the accumulated phase shift adds to an additional 180 degrees and gain is larger than 1 you have oscillations. The simplest way to solve it is to make one of the capacitors very large so it will add only 90 degrees phase shift but it will drop the gain at the higher frequencies where the other capacitors start to add phase shift to be less than 1 so there are no conditions for low frequency oscillations. This technique is called "Dominant Pole". That's the reason that I suggested to connect a very large capacitor to the PNP transistor".

I found my oscillations disappeared with a 0.1 μF collector bypass cap on the PNP (Cx on my schematic). The 0.1 μF cap on the PNP collector was critical – a 0.22 μF failed to work, as did a .001 μF --- but a 0.1 μF held it stable. In another 2N2222a-based 4Z4ME amp with 0.01 μF input and output caps, it took a 10 μF capacitor on the PNP collector to snuff out some ~766 Hz oscillations.

We don't use a wrap-around PNP bias with our RF oscillators — that's asking for trouble.

I aso measured oscillations at ~ 372 MHz with my spectrum analyzer. A collector 10 Ω R killed these UHF oscillations and after that I saw no spurs from .001 to 1 GHz. ( I should have made the dremel cut right close to the NPN collector for the 10 Ω resistor. I hoped there were no oscillations above 1 GHz because I can't measure them.

Finding oscillations:

Many builders lack a spectrum analyzer, let alone 1 that goes up into UHF bandwidth. I'll share a few tips I've learned on the bench that don't require expensive test gear:

A 10X scope probe on the drain or collector of an amp may sometimes reveal oscillations up to the maximum 'scope bandwidth — set your 'scope vertical scale for high sensitivity. This provides direct measurment of oscillations.

Indirect methods to infer unwanted oscillations also lie in our armatorium. I learned this trick from Wes: Place the circuit under test in your normal gain measurement set up with an oscilloscope. Then vary the DC power supply voltage slowly and smoothly — your measured 'scope voltage changes should also track slowly and smoothly. You may see an AC voltage jump as the amplifier goes into and out of oscillation with the DC power supply tweaking. After finding this oscillation caused AC voltage spike, you work to remedy it with a variety of means such as better bypassing, changing bias voltages, shielding and locating breadboard errors.

Sometimes if you put your finger near the active part while watching the bias voltage or current you may see the bias jump around if oscillations are present.

My final indirect oscillation busting technique: If you measure the specified/expected gain and return loss on the input/output port, this may signal your device is stable — I've noticed this with MMICs where I saw oscillations on my SA, stabilized them and only then, measured the expected S21, S11 and S22.

Sometimes, eliminating a hot part proves the best fix!  In 2012, a new builder wrote to say that he soldered in a Mini-Circuits DC - 6GHz MMIC;  the ERA-2SM in SOT-86 as a buffer for his 3.5 MHz VFO. Anyhow, in the photo were long leads plus no decoupling resistors etc. It sounds like the circuit behaved hyperreactively and vibrated in spasm. The cure was to eliminate the microwave part and put in a hycas amp built with a J310 + a 2N3904 — we encounter risk when plying the latest, hottest, super-high fT amplifiers sold on eBay with casual abandon.

Practice makes perfect. if you believe learning is experiential and build to learn, you'll learn to build.

Finally, as an amateur, I struggled to choose a SMT ferrite bead and after reviewing many datasheets and application notes I ordered a size 0805, 800 mA part with 120 ohms Z at 100 MHz and its peak impedance at 340 MHz. I'll let you know how that works out.

RF Bypass on our DC lines: As possible, we ought to provide a broadband RF bypass to provide a low impedance to RF from low frequency up to the maximum frequency wherever our FET, BJT, MMIC, etc. operates. For example, you can't just swap a higher gain BF998 (1 GHz) for a 40673 (VHF) dual-gate MOSFET and expect the same stability and bypass requirements can you? At the very least, I bypass G2 of the BF998 with a size 0805 0.01 or .001 μF SMT capacitor and the drain with RF bypass good for 1 GHz.

Wideband RF bypass may solve oscillation issues too.

I tried to apply a broadband bypass in my breadboard, although it gets extremely difficult to think about bypassing RF at > 1 GHz for the QRP homebuilder. Our hobby should include reflection and proper intention at the very least.

Above —  A photo of the bottom of my breadboard showing the vias. I made mistakes: we should try to keep the via holes as close as possible to all bypass caps, my 10 Ω collector snubber resistor, collector port, or whatever we need to put at RF ground. The vias connect circuit areas to the large area, low impedance ground plane to minimize inductance. We should also try to place bypass capacitors as physically close to the pins of whatever we're bypassing.

Above —  A TG + SA sweep of the gain of my 4Z4ME NE46134 FBA from ~1 to 20.6 MHz. Each vertical quare denotes 10 dB. Each horizontal square = the value specified in the photo. In this case; 2 MHz per division. Maximum gain was  ~16 dB.

Above — A sweep from ~ 1 to 200 MHz. This would also make a good 6 meter band amplifer or ????.

Above — A sweep from ~ 1 to 500 MHz.

Above —  Bob K3NHI made and swept a 2N5109 version of the 4Z4ME amp biased for ~47 mA emitter current. Here he swept return loss at the amp's input and output from about 1 to 100 MHz. The output return loss of my build was down, however, I didn't own many SMT resistors between 33 and 68 Ω. For example, if the output impedance at the collector is 10 Ω, then the series resistor should be 40 (39) Ω.

I've found that in my FBAs, changing the current and also the transistor type (2N5109 , 2N2222a etc.) also affects the input and output return loss. At HF, it's possible to measure RL with a simple bridge, so optimization is possible.

I learned a lot by building just 1 amplifer and discussing my findings by email with friends. Hopefully the next version I make will show improved understanding and skill.

8.  Popcorn AF Amplifier for Receivers — Reprise

I've worked on a popcorn audio power amplifier (PA) since 2008 and offer my latest experiments. There's only so much you can do with a single-supply 12 volt AF power amp, but I enjoy improving my circuit.

My power measurement technique is shown as Figure 4 here. To enhance versatility, the following PA's may be coupled to whatever preamplifer you choose. In all cases, I drove the power amp stage with a 5532 op-amp voltage amplifer. The power followers were biased with a 2N3904 amplified diode (also called NPN shifter bias amplifier, or DC level shifter) rather than just a pair of series diodes, since this allows you to dial in just the right amount of bias as you watch the AC signal in your 'scope. I wrote a tutorial that explains how to bias complimentary-symmetry power followers in 2008: Click for the link.

Above —  Figure 1: A popcorn AF power amplifer in full bench test mode. Measure the AC with a 10X 'scope probe across the 8 Ω resistor and the DC voltage and current with a multimeter. A distortion analyzer proves useful, but not essential for popcorn circuitry. I also listened to each amplifer connected to a line-level cassette player and an 8 Ω, 15 cm speaker. A 4 Ω speaker doubles the maximal clean power, but I don't own any and stuck to 8 Ω.

Containing no negative feedback, the power amplifer stage runs from the red-colored designator points A to F. You can AC or DC couple point F to your preamplifer stage as required to apply negative feedback.
As mentioned, you can use the 5532 preamp shown with any reasonable gain (i.e. change the 12K resistor), or opt to replace it with your own design. A low output impedance amplifer best drives the power stage.

Above —  The output of Figure 1 in my 'scope driven to the maximal pk-pk voltage just before distortion begins to appear. Obviously this task is somewhat subjective, however, allows comparison of the amps you build on your bench.

Above —  A 'scope screen capture with the 22 μF level-shifter filter capacitor from Figure 1 removed. Look what happened; the maximum clean signal fell from 7.52v pk-pk to 2.22v pk-pk. That capacitor is essential to get the maximal possible headroom.

Above —  Figure 2 is Figure 1 with the op-amp DC coupled to the level-shifter. I tested the circuit with and without the 4K7 resistor connecting the base of the 2N3904 to the DC supply: it didn't boost the amplifer headroom, nor reduced crossover distortion, so I removed that R.

Above —  The Figure 2 amplifer 'scope tracing. At maximum power, crossover distortion appeared and I've seen this before. Likely, there is not enough base drive to keep the power followers forward biased. By adjusting the level shifter, I almost removed the crossover distortion, but never eliminated it. This drove the quiescent current up to 160 mA. Yikes!

Above —  A variation of Figure 2 employing diodes instead of an NPN level-shifter. To kill the cross-over distortion, I lowered the 4K7 resistor by a magnitude of 10. This gave a maximum clean power of 766 mW with a quiescent current of nearly 72 mA. Head room and quiescent current are inferior to the Figure 1 circuit.

Above —  The Figure 3 'scope tracing. Click for a 'scope tracing with the signal generator amplitude increased slightly to push this amp into clipping.

Above —  Back to an AC coupled power amplifer like Figure 1. I added a set of intermediate followers built with a 2N4401/2N4403 pair. The clean output power now lies at 970 mW with a quiescent current under 50 mA. Adjusting the trimmer potentiometer on the level-shifter even a tiny amount may change the quiescent current dramatically.

I found a bias of 1.37v across the BD139/140 pair removed all trace of cross-over distortion at maximum clean signal power. Just tweak the 10K trimmer potentiometer while looking at your 'scope and decide what bias you prefer. I lower the bias until crossover distortion appears and slowly tweak it to find the sweet spot. Then measure the DC voltage across the power follower base terminals, plus the total stage quiescent current with the signal generator switched off. You might have to repeat this procedure a few times, since trimmer pot adjustment is quite sensitive.

Jerry, W5JH made a PC board. Click for front photo. Click for rear photo.

Above —  The Figure 4 'scope tracing.

Above —  I added another BD139/140 power follower pair in parallel. The boost in headroom over Figure 4 was small, but it was nice to break the 1 Watt barrier. This amp sounded great and blew away an LM386 set up for a gain of 20 — more headroom, less noise and boosted warmth.

Above —   The Figure 5 'scope tracing.

Above —  The Figure 5 breadboard. I built all the AF power amps on this board. Signal caps <= to 1 μF were polyester film, while I employed 10 or 22 μF tantalum caps for the level shifters. Electrolytic caps work fine; especially for the level shifter capacitors. The green power indicator LED drew 10 mA and I subtracted this from the quiescent current measurements.

Depending on the AF gain of your receiver, you might wish to add the familiar Zobel filter; a 10 Ω R in series with 0.1 μF C from the positive end of the output capacitor to ground, or more AF bypassing/ decoupling to the circuitry.

No component values were critical — imbuing the spirit of homebrew radio, substitute parts and measure outcomes.

QRP  —  PosData for August 18, 2014

Above — I built a 100% discrete version of Figure 4 power amplifer with a 2N4401/2N4403 feedback voltage amp that drives the PA stage with a low impedance. Without a low impedance drive, the PA [ all the components right of the 1 μF capacitor where you see PA ] the headroom of the PA section falls down. Thus an op-amp or emitter follower drive works great.

I moved to SMD power transistors: the NXP BCX56 + BCX53. These give a little more output than the BD139/140, and take much less board room. I ran no heat sink other than 8 mm by 4 mm PC board traces for the collectors. A better choice might be the related BCP56 + BCP53 pair in SOT223 since the bigger package of this version better sinks heat.

I determined the optimum emitter resistor for the 2N4401/2N4403 followers = 120 Ω [not 68 Ω as shown in Figure 4]. This drops the the PA quiescent current in half and yields the same performance. If you build Figure 4, change to 120 Ω.

I meant Figure 4 and the QRP POS-Data amp as easy-to-make power amplifiers with a little gain. You will have to add voltage gain in some AF projects. For Figure 4, it's easy to change up the 12K resistor, or apply the other half of the 5532. Decouple and bypass better if you get motor boating or hum.  73 de VE7BPO

9.  The Progressive Receiver by Wes, W7ZOI and John, K5IRK

When introduced in QST for November 1981, the Progressive Communications Receiver (PR) by Wes, W7ZOI and John, K5IRK set a dynamic range benchmark for dual-conversion homebrew receivers: 94 dB in CW mode. 31 years later, few other home-built radios have ever reached this benchmark.

The PR is a single conversion superheterodyne 80m receiver; or perhaps it’s a direct conversion receiver with an extra mixer ahead of the product detector? It’s both and that’s the point. Further, Wes and John added other bands with another mixer, plus a crystal oscillator, RF filter +/- an RF amp for each band.

You’ll see the PR listed as A High-Performance Communication Receiver in ARRL Handbooks from the early 90s or so. ARRL staffers built and enjoyed the PR in their test lab for many years.

After purchasing the 1991 ARRL Handbook and reading about this project, I slowly adopted and entrenched the PR's progressive (modular) approach. When I built and web published my 2 TRF WWV receivers with crystal IF filters, a couple of people wrote that I “grossly over-designed” them, however, other, more astute builders placed a mixer on the front end and turned their TRF into a multi-band superhet like I later did. These builders understood how progressive circuit building works — all PR inspired.

I hope my introduction renews your interest in the PR. Wes and John’s article is thorough and complete — I can’t add to it, however, I’ll share my thoughts along with those from Wes and John all these decades later.

The IF Stage gain comes from 2 dual gate MOSFET amplifiers. The final MOSFET amp drives a BJT differential pair providing 9 MHz RF to the product detector at 50 Ω and signal for the AGC circuit. Wes recalls using a 3N211 in the original MOSFET slots since Doug DeMaw owned a pile of them and contributed some. In some areas, the 40673 was the dominant 2-gate MOSFET soldered by radio home builders back in the day.

An evolved version of the PR Intermediate Frequency stage appeared in EMRFD as Figure 6.50. Wes replaced the now hard-to-find and expensive leaded dual-gate dual gate MOSFET with a cascode of J310s. I built this stage and it performed well with my 12.2 VDC power supply.

Jeff, WA7MLH built the general purpose IF system and noticed if the power supply dropped below 12 VDC, the gain control and maximum gain fell off and he wrote to Wes about his findings. Wes later confirmed dysfunction with a lower DC supply. I asked him to recollect this time:

"…. Frankly I don't remember if I went immediately to computer simulations or if I built a single stage. I think I built. Anyway, Jeff was correct, depending upon the FETs that were used. Then I got to plowing into the details of the cascode, this time with SPICE. I was using PSPICE for some simulations, but was in the process of switching over to LT-SPICE. That makes no difference, for I used the same models in both.

Anyway, playing with a single stage showed that the mechanism for gain reduction was that when the voltage on the upper gate was reduced, it did nothing to the upper stage, but it compressed the supply on the lower FET. So far as signal goes, the upper part was nothing more than a common gate stage that passed whatever signal current was there in the drain of the lower part on into the source of the upper part.

But these were depletion mode FETs, the normal thing for most of the JFETs we use. As such, you have to get the gate down pretty low to get the source voltage low enough to be effective in reducing the gain of that lower FET. That's when it became clear that one could use other parts in the upper slot. An enhancement mode FET such as a MOSFET would work well. And just a common bipolar would do the job nicely too...” Wes, W7ZOI per an email - January 2013.

In QST for 2007, a refined version of the EMRFD Figure 6.50 IF stage appeared with a hybrid cascode amplifier instead of the cascode JFETs (and the 2 original dual gate MOSFETs of the PR). Further, Wes added a third amplifier to widen gain control. The hybrid cascade stage has since gone in 100s of receivers across the globe; ensuring the PR legacy lives on as the modernized hycas version.

Roger, KA7EXM sold kits of the hycas amp for years, however, these kits sold out. PC boards may still be available via his web site.  Roger received permission to publish the QST hycas article online:

Above — The now sold out hycas IF System kit once offered by Roger, KA7EXM.

To underscore my love of the original PR IF amp, I built a version using SMT dual gate MOSFETs in 2013 and feel the SMT version might be perfect for builders who prefer to manually control IF gain in most situations, but want AGC control now and then. Versions built with the BF998 MOSFET may suffer parasitic ocillations at UHF and so meticulous attention to decoupling and bypassing out to UHF and in some cases double-sided copper board may be required to prevent unwanted ringing at UHF.

If you build the entire PR with the BF998, the VFO output runs about 10 dBm and requires attenuation. Again, please consider UHF oscillation precautions.

Wes and others have built both leaded and all-SMT versions of the hycas amplifer.

John, K5IRK Recalls

I wanted John’s recollection of the PR design and build and received the following narrative in late March 2013:

“…One night in late 1979 I had telephoned Wes to chat about QRP and building rigs. During the conversation he told me he had a project and related QST article in mind and asked me if I wanted to participate. He was in the process of writing a book (IRFD) and didn’t have much free time, so he needed some help. I told him yes. A few weeks later I received the first schematics and began to gather parts.

Recall that the project started as direct conversion receiver. But it then progressed (hence the title of the article) to a superhet. I choose to build my superhet with a SSB filter as I had already built Wes' CW Competition Grade RX from SSD. During the next year he sent me schematics and a few critical parts thru snail mail. (The Internet and e-mail would come later.) I would build the circuits and report the results back to him. As I recall, we only had about three phone conversations throughout the whole project.

The design was an iterative process. For example, the IF circuitry began with a single 40673, but grew to include two stages. Wes bread boarded this in a mono band version of the receiver at his end. An early audio derived AGC system was replaced by the IF derived circuit that appears in the article. The VFO was also designed twice, as were the Front end Filters and the BFO. More is said below about the design procedure.

I designed the circuit board layouts. The traces on my boards were drawn by hand and etched at home. I sent hand drawn sketches of each of the boards to Doug DeMaw; Circuit Boards Specialists (CBS) then created the commercial boards for those folks who wanted boards. I recall that we sent out layouts to any readers for a SASE. All of my boards were designed and built on double sided PC material with the exception of the VFO board and the Audio Filter boards. This can be seen in the photos. The boards eventually sold by CBS were single sided. All layouts and functionality were confirmed prior to publication.

The traditional design process for a homebrew ham receiver in 1980 started with schematic sketches based upon the intuition and experience of the designer. The total circuit would then be built. Measurements were merely things that were done afterward, something to characterize the result. The PR was different. Individual stages were designed, built, and measured. Negative feedback was used in the critical amplifiers to guarantee that the gains were high enough for reasonable noise figure, but low enough to preserve input intercept.

Only after the individual stages were operational, were they assembled to form a working receiver. Some stages were further modified during system assembly and evaluation. We had no computers available for circuit simulation, although the gain distribution was optimized with a hand calculator. The goal was not just a receiver that sounded good, but a box with good two tone dynamic range.

Once my receiver was completed, I sent it to Wes for MDS and DR measurements. A goal was to compare these measurements with those already done in Oregon. Roger (KA7EXM) took many (if not all) of the photos. Wes then forwarded the receiver to ARRL. They returned it to me when they were finished. Wes refined the article during the final months of the project before it was finally published. I received copies of his drafts, and then offered my feedback.

We had hoped that a "few" experimenters would enjoy building the receiver, but had no idea that it would be as successful as it was. We eventually learned why this occurred: First, the receiver held up well when it was measured at ARRL Headquarters, exceeding the performance of most of the appliances being evaluated at the time. This prompted some League staff members to build the receiver for their own use. This, in turn, prompted them to include it in the Handbook for several years.

My original receiver plays as well today as it did in the beginning. The electrolytic caps on the audio board have been replaced, for they were beginning to go south on me, but that’s the only change. I do have a second version that is used for experiments..."

Some PR photos taken by John in March 2013

"...You will notice a couple of things different in these photos than in the photos in the article. First, tacked on to the Front Panel 365 pF variable cap is a mica trimmer cap.....this is of no significance as I was just messing with lowering the BW upper and lower frequencies to see what difference it would make....None is the answer..." John, K5IRK.

"...In the above photo you will see the addition of the 30 meter band to the RX with the diagonal front end filter board and the Xtal Oscillator attached to the BFO Box's wall that was added some years after the article was published….” John, K5IRK.

High-pass plus Peaked Low-pass Filter

If you know me, you know I love the peaked low-pass filter both at RF and AF. This adoration came from studying the PR and other work published and shared privately to me by Wes. A good reference = The Peaked Lowpass: A Look at the ultraspherical filter by Wes for Ham Radio, June 1984.

While the high-pass + peaked low-pass filter placed ahead of the second mixer in the PR wouldn't likely go in a modern W7ZOI design, its narrow-band LC filtration generates a roofing action when the receiver uses converters for bands other than 80 meters. The result is that much of the DR obtained in the single conversion version is retained in the dual conversion receivers.

Above —  A GPLA simulation of the front end high-pass/peaked low-pass filter centered for 3.8 MHz by tweaking capacitor #10 in the software. Click for another simulated filter that covers 3-4 MHz. Look at the sublime low and high-pass skirt action with a 3 dB bandwidth of 73 KHz.  Love this! 

Click for a screen shot of an entire 40 Meter band version shown with the low-pass filter section centered at 7.003 MHz. I also made 1 for WWV 10 MHz — by scaling the original version's XL and XC and tweaking with GPLA, you may build 1 for any HF band.

 AF Amplifier

The post product detector AF chain sounds great. Many of us later replaced the Q5 mute switch with something quieter, however, even today — this AF block holds its own against most discrete component headphone-level circuits. I particularly love the crisp fidelity of the Class A feedback pair Q3 and Q4. Today, I would substitute a BD139 for Q4.

Wrap up

I could go on, but this web page is already too long. Studying + building stages from the PR; a receiver designed more than 3 decades ago, might raise your game today. Go team!

10.  Miscellaneous Pictures and Figures

Above —  I built a prototype 200 MHz oscillator with trailing low-pass filter before making the 210 MHz version placed in the 1-118 MHz VFO for the K3NHI sweep system. (Section 1). The secondary coil floats and may be positioned between any of the 4 primary links to change coupling and thus output power.

Above —  The schematic of my 200 MHz local oscillator. Click for another version I designed that tuned from ~135-208 MHz.

Above —  In the K3NHI 1-118 MHZ VCO lies a fabulous leveling circuit that involves a CMOS rail-to-rail op-amp controlling a BJT level shifter. To understand the bias of this BJT, I made a breadboard (A) and then a simple model (B) and developed the equation shown that involves 3 bias resistors. Bias or Vo is determined by superposition. VCC1 and VCC2 may be equal or not. VCC2 comes from the op-amp.  I also learned it's a good thing to surround myself with smart people.

Above —  John, K5IRQ designed and swept a 10 crystal SSB filter with an insertion loss of 1.2 dB in the K3NHI sweeper that I just had to show you. Click for his build up in Ladbuild08 and then GPLA08 from the EMRFD CD. Bob's xtal sweeper from Section 1 and Wes' software arm us experimenters with solid tools. Nothing can replace measurement and reason.