Radio Receiver Sensitivity

The sensitivity of a radio receiver is a key operational parameter for any radio communications system, etc, and it is limited by the system noise.

Radio Receiver Sensitivity Includes:
Receiver sensitivity basics     Signal to noise ratio     SINAD     Noise Figure, NF     Noise floor     Reciprocal mixing    

The sensitivity of a radio receiver determines the weakest signals that can be successfully receiver. Whether it is for the reception of radio signals carrying audio for which the listening quality deteriorates as the signal falls into the noise, or a data signal where the bit error rate rises and throughput falls, signal to noise ratio is important in any RF circuit design.

In this way, the radio receiver sensitivity is a key parameter that has an impact on the performance of any radio communications, broadcast or other system.

In fact, the two main requirements of any radio receiver are that it should be able to separate one station from another, i.e. selectivity, and sensitivity so that signals can be brought to a sufficient level above the noise to be able to use the modulation applied to the carrier that has been transmitted. As a result, during the RF circuit design, receiver designers battle with many parameters to make sure that both these requirements and many others are all fulfilled.

Spectrum of white noise
White noise spectrum

The RF design of any radio requires that the overall circuit design as well as the electronic components provide the optimum performance within the other design constraints.

Methods of specifying sensitivity performance

As the RF sensitivity performance of any receiver is of paramount importance it is necessary to be able to specify it in a meaningful way. A number of methods and figures of merit are used dependent upon the application envisaged:

  • Signal to noise ratio:   This is a straightforward comparison ratio of a given signal level to the noise within the system, and a useful measure of the sensitivity of a radio receiver. Normally, though SNR tends to be used for HF radios. Typically the sensitivity specification radio receiver is given in terms of a stated input voltage to give a signal to noise ratio of 10dB. Although 10dB is the standard ratio used, sometimes 15dB or other figures may be used.

    Read more about . . . . Signal to Noise Ratio, SNR.

  • SINAD:   This receiver sensitivity measurement is slightly more formalised than the simple signal to noise ratio, SNR, and it also includes distortion as well as the noise in the measurement.

    SINAD is often used with VHF FM radios and handhelds / walkie talkies like those used for short range radio communications. Although it tends to be used widely for VHF / UHF FM radios, both walkie talkies and other forms of sets that tend to be used for radio communications applications, it can also be used for AM and SSB.

  • Noise factor :   This RF receiver measurement compares the noise added by a unit - this could be an amplifier or other unit within the system or it could be a complete receiver. Noise factor is normally seen in a format with decibels used for comparing the levels and as such it is known as Noise Figure . . . . . .
  • Noise figure:   The noise figure, or NF of a unit or system is the logarithmic version of the noise factor. It is widely used for specifications of sensitivity and noise performance of a receiver, element within a system, or the whole system.

    Read more about . . . . Noise Figure.

  • Carrier to noise ratio, CNR:   The carrier-to-noise ratio is the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of a modulated signal. This term is less widely used than SNR, but may be used when there is a need to distinguish between the performance with regards to the radio frequency pass-band signal and the analogue base band message signal after demodulation.
  • Minimum discernible signal, MDS:   The Minimum detectable or minimum discernible signal is the smallest signal level that can be detected by a radio receiver, i.e. one that can be processed by its analogue and digital signal chain and demodulated by the receiver to provide usable information at the output.
  • Error vector magnitude, EVM:   Error vector magnitude, EVM is a measure that can be used to quantify the performance of a digital radio transmitter or receiver. By plotting the positions of the in-phase and quadrature elements of a signal it is possible to generate what is termed a constellation diagram.

    There various points on the constellation diagram that are set to identify various digital states. In an ideal link, the transmitter should generate the digital data such that it falls as close to these points as possible - the link should not degrade the signal such that the actual received data does not fall onto these points, and the receiver should also not degrade these positions.

    In reality, noise enters the system and the received data does not fall exactly onto these positions. The error vector magnitude is a measure of how far from the ideal positions the actual received data elements are. Some times EVM may also be known as the Receive Constellation Error, RCE. Error vector magnitude is widely used in modern data communications including Wi-Fi, mobile / cellular and many IoT systems.

  • Bit error rate, BER:   Bit error rate is a form of measurement used for digital systems. As the signal level falls or the link quality degrades, so the number of errors in the transmission - bit errors - increases. Measuring the bit error rate gives an indication of the signal to noise ratio, but in a format that is often more useful for the digital domain.

All the receiver sensitivity specification methods use the fact that the limiting factor of the sensitivity of a radio receiver is not the level of amplification available, but the levels of noise that are present, whether they are generated within the radio receiver or outside.

Professional superheterodyne type of radio receiver
Professional superheterodyne radio receiver type
Image courtesy Icom UK


Today technology is such that there is little problem in being able to achieve very large levels of amplification within a radio receiver. This is not the limiting factor. In any receiving station or radio communications system, the limiting factor is noise - weak signals are not limited by the actual signal level, but by the noise masks them out. This noise can come from a variety of sources. It can be picked up by the antenna or it can be generated within the radio receiver.

Noise as seen on oscilloscope
Noise as seen on an oscilloscope

It is found that the level of noise that is picked up externally by a receiver from the antenna falls as the frequency increases. At HF and frequencies below this the combination of galactic, atmospheric and man-made noise is relatively high and this means that there is little point in making a receiver particularly sensitive. Normally radio receivers are designed such that the internally generated noise is much lower than any received noise, even for the quietest locations.

At frequencies above 30 MHz the levels of noise start to reach a point where the noise generated within the radio receiver becomes far more important. By improving the noise performance of the radio receiver, it becomes possible to detect much weaker signals.

Note on the Electrical / Electronic & RF Noise:

Noise is present in all electronic and RF circuits. It presents a limitation on many aspects of performance. Noise arises from many causes and sources. Understanding what forms of noise are present and enables the system performance to be tailored to ensure the effects of the noise can be minimised.

Read more about Electrical / Electronic and RF Noise.

Key RF design pointers for low noise

In any receiver, it is essential that the noise performance and hence the sensitivity is considered at the outset of the RF circuit design. The basic RF design concepts will govern the best sensitivity performance that can be achieved. Decisions made at the beginning of the design can limit the overall performance that can be achieved.

In terms of the noise performance of any receiver, it is the first stages or front end that are most crucial. At the front end the signal levels are at their lowest and even very small amounts of noise can be comparable with the incoming signal. At later stages in the radio receiver the signal will have been amplified and will be much larger and therefore the noise will have a smaller effect. Accordingly it is important that the noise performance of the front end is optimised for its noise performance.

It is for this reason that the noise performance of the first radio frequency amplifier within the radio receiver is of great importance. It is the performance of this circuit that is crucial in determining the performance of the whole radio receiver. To achieve the optimum performance for the first stage of the radio receiver there are a number of steps that can be taken during the RF circuit design. These include:

  • Determination of circuit topology   The first step in any design is to decide upon the type of circuit to be used. Whether a conventional common emitter style circuit is to be used, or even whether a common base should be employed. The decision will depend upon factors including the matching input and output impedances, the level of gain required and the matching arrangements to be used.
  • Determination of required gain   While it may appear that the maximum level of gain may be required from this stage to minimise the levels of amplification required later and in this way ensure that the noise performance is optimised, this is not always the case. There are two major reasons for this.

    The first is that the noise performance of the circuit may be impaired by requiring too high a level of gain.

    Secondly it may lead to overload in later stages of the radio receiver and this may degrade the overall performance. Thus the level of gain required must be determined from the fact that it is necessary to optimise the noise performance of this stage, and secondly to ensure that later stages of the receiver are not overloaded.

  • Choice of active device   The type of active device and the other electronic components to be used within the RF circuit design are also important. There are generally two decisions, whether the circuit design should be based around the use of a bipolar junction transistor, or whether to use a field effect transistor.

    Having made this basic RF design decision, it is obviously necessary to decide upon the actual device, which should be specified as being a low noise device. The noise performance of bipolar transistors and FETs is normally specified in the data sheets, and special high performance low noise devices are available for RF circuit design applications.

  • Determination of current through the active device   The RF circuit design of the first stage of the radio receiver must be undertaken with care. To obtain the required RF performance in terms of bandwidth and gain, it may be necessary to run the device with a relatively high level of current. This will not always be conducive to obtaining the optimum noise performance. Accordingly the RF circuit design must be carefully optimised to ensure the best performance for the whole radio receiver.
  • Optimise impedance matching   In order to obtain the best noise performance for the whole radio receiver it is necessary to optimise the impedance matching. It may be thought that it is necessary to obtain a perfect impedance match.

    Unfortunately the best noise performance does not usually coincide with the optimum impedance match Accordingly during the circuit design of the RF amplifier it is necessary to undertake some optimisation to ensure the best overall performance is achieved for the radio receiver.

  • Use of low noise resistors   It may appear to be an obvious statement, but apart from choosing a low noise active device, consideration should also be given to the other electronic components in the circuit. The other chief contributors are the resistors. The metal film resistors used these days, including most surface mount resistors normally offer good performance in this respect and can be used as required.
  • Ensure that power supply noise entering the circuit is removed:   Power supplies can generate noise. In view of this it is necessary to ensure that any noise generated by the radio receiver power supply does not enter the RF stage. This can be achieved by ensuring that there is good filtering on the supply line to the RF amplifier.

These are some of the main RF circuit design considerations to be addressed when looking at optimising the sensitivity performance of a radio - other aspects will also need to be addressed and considered as well.

Radio receiver sensitivity can be quantified in many ways, but whatever method is used, the sensitivity is key to its successful operation. The lower the noise produced, especially in the front end stages, then the smaller the signals are that can be successfully received.

The noise performance and hence the radio sensitivity has to be balanced against other factors including strong signal performance and many other factors and hence designing a radio with good sensitivity can be a challenging task.

More Essential Radio Topics:
Radio Signals     Modulation types & techniques     Amplitude modulation     Frequency modulation     OFDM     RF mixing     Phase locked loops     Frequency synthesizers     Passive intermodulation     RF attenuators     RF filters     RF circulator     Radio receiver types     Superhet radio     Receiver selectivity     Receiver sensitivity     Receiver strong signal handling     Receiver dynamic range    
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