Single-Ended Mixers and Reverse Isolation

Progress on CC-Series development proceeds at a reasonably-good clip right now. One of my last big hardware bugs to stamp out is some nasty microphonics that seem to be generated by the combination product detector/BFO. Today, I believe that I made some significant progress towards solving it and wanted to share what I learned.

IF Amp & Product Detector from CC-20 Beta 1

I've done a lot of reading in Experimental Methods in RF Design (EMRFD) about microphonics in DC receivers (read chapter 8!), and the number one cause of it is poor LO-RF port isolation in the mixer. The CC-Series uses a venerable old circuit which hasn't seen much use in a while. A dual-gate MOSFET is pressed into double-duty as a product detector and BFO (see above). Since the dual-gate MOSFET product detector is in a single-ended configuration, it inherently has bad LO-RF isolation. This allows VFO (or BFO in this case) signal to leak out the product detector input, and have a good portion of that signal reflect back into the product detector. So naturally, the CC-20 could be experiencing the microphonics because of this phenomena. One of the solutions mentioned in EMRFD is to put an amp in front of the mixer which has excellent reverse isolation (signals coming into the amp output don't tend to get out of the input, and therefore can't reflect back in again).

I had the suspicion that the common-source JFET amp in front of the product detector might be the culprit. So what's the best type of amp to place in front of a single-ended mixer? The common-gate JFET amp is a good and popular choice. However, VE7BPO notes on a recently published web page that the best commonly found amp configuration for this particular parameter appears to be the cascode (see the bottom of the page).

In order to test this theory, I went to work on a project that I had set aside earier: a direct conversion receiver based on the CC-Series product detector. When there was no preamp in front of it, the microphonics were unbearable. I figured that a good way to test my theory would be to put a cascode amp in front of this mixer and see how much it helped. I decided to put a dual-gate MOSFET preamp in front of it, as this is essentially a cascode amp and it fits with the dual-gate MOSFET product detector. Once the new preamp was added, the change was dramatic. The microphonics were gone.

Next, I decided to be a bit more rigorous in my study and quantify the exact difference between the common-source JFET amp and the dual-gate MOSFET amp. First I breadboarded the common-source JFET amp and ran it through the test procedure in the page linked above (at 18 MHz). The results were atrocious. Only 30 dB of reverse isolation, which is worse than the worst amp listed there (the feedback amp). Next, I dug out an old dual-gate MOSFET amp I had breadboarded for my 2008 investigations and ran it through the same test. As expected, the results were vastly superior: 68 dB of reverse isolation. This lines up nicely with Todd's measured results of >64 dB for the hybrid cascode (I used a spectrum analyzer while he used an oscilloscope, so I was able to get a pretty good measurement down to low signal levels).

So this appears to be strong evidence that the IF amp is the problem. It seems certain that the next version of the CC-Series is going to scrap those awful common-source amps for a much nicer dual-gate MOSFET amp. The lesson to take away from this is that if you are going to use a single-ended mixer for any but the most simplistic applications, it must be fronted with an amplifier with an excellent reverse isolation. While the typical common-gate JFET amp will work OK, for best results it looks like a cascode or dual-gate MOSFET amp is the way to go.

Progress is Made

Baxter Is Unsure
Baxter Is Uncertain

I finally got a few days of decent sleep (decent meaning more than 4 hours), so I had a little energy to work on the simple DC transceiver. A few days ago, I got the remainder of the audio chain working. The emitter follower on one of the outputs of the differential mixer was yanked, and I connected a class-A audio amp directly to the mixer. Then I stuck the emitter follower on the output of the class-A amp to enable the receiver to drive low-impedance headphones. No, it's not extremely efficient, but it is simple and it works. Best of all, no transformers are needed. As an afterthought, I added a simple shunt-to-ground mute circuit with a 2N7000. That might have to be tweaked a bit later

The Yet-Unnamed DC Rig
Unnamed on the Bench

The transmitter is also a simple design. The second output of the differential mixer is tapped with an emitter follower that will have its VCC line keyed to control transmit. Directly following this is a 2N7000 class-C PA. After a bit of work tweaking the impedance matches to get the right amount of drive to the PA, I can easily get 2 watts out of the amp (before low-pass filtering). What's neat is that the emitter follower puts out about +10 dBm, and it gets amplified up to +33 dBm in one stage. A very compact design that can generate a decent amount of power.

So in order to make this a true transceiver, I have a few things left to do. First thing, of course, is to get a low-pass filter on the transmitter. I'll also need to provide a keying circuit and T/R switching. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about a sidetone. I also think that I'll put an RIT circuit in there and not worry about a fixed transmit offset (that would be very hard to get right in such a simple transceiver). Keep watching for another update, hopefully soon.

Yet Another DC Receiver

80 Meter DC RX Prototype
Unnamed Simple Discrete 80 Meter Rig

Yes, its a post about another simple, low-performing direct conversion receiver. However, I think that this one is slightly unique. I was inspired to give this a try based on the Flea minimalist transceiver that was introduced on the EMRFD Yahoo group. These little rigs are fun to build in an evening, but just how usable are they? Would you feel comfortable giving it to a new ham and believing that they even had a small chance of success? For me, these Pixie-class rigs are nearly unusable due to the horrible AM broadcast interference that blows right through the rig. While a minimalist rig is an admirable thing, they are only useful in limited circumstances. I figure that a few things have to be added to these rigs in order to make them more than a novelty. KD1JV also shares this viewpoint, and has created his own answer to the Pixie.

I've started with a similar philosophy, but built the rig around a different topology. The basic strategy is to use a differential amplifier as an active mixer. The rig is designed for the 80 meter band, which is probably the easiest for homebrewing. The LO is a Colpitts ceramic resonator oscillator, but is not separate from the mixer. Instead, the oscillator is built around the third transistor which acts as the constant current source. I know that this is certainly not a new idea; it's used all of the time in NE602-based QRP circuits. However, I don't think this topology is seen very much in discrete component use. It saves quite a bit of circuit space and is composed of very common components.

The rest of the receiver is very simple. I placed a standard double-tuned circuit bandpass filter in front of the RF port of the mixer to filter out all of the AM BCB crud. The output of the mixer feeds a dirt-simple emitter follower to transform the relatively high collector impedance of the diff amp mixer to a low impedance output. I haven't designed the final AF amp yet, but I don't think it will take much to get the signal up to headphone levels. When the emitter follower output is connected to my test bench AF amp, I have to have the amplifier AF gain control turned nearly all the way down, lest the whole thing start oscillating wildly.

Tonight, I connected the RX to the bench AF amp and the antenna to see how it would work. Tonight was an excellent night to try, since we are right in the middle of Sweepstakes. Pleasantly, the receiver immediately came to life with a cacophany of CW signals in the unfiltered audio output of the receiver. I've attached a recording of the receiver output so that you can get a feel for how well it works for such a minimalistic design. The ceramic resonator osc tunes from nearly 3.500 MHz to 3.580 MHz, and I tune across the entire band in this clip.

All I have to do to finish the receiver is to add on a discrete component AF amp. I think that a single class-A stage of amplification will be enough to get the audio up to headphones level. After that, I'm going to try to tack on a transmitter by picking the VFO signal off of the other unused collector port of the diff amp. I think that I can get away with another emitter follower as a buffer, followed by a class-C PA. I'm shooting for around 1 watt of output power, which is enough to snag QSOs without too much difficulty. I think this could be a lot of fun to build as a kit. It's will be quite a bit more complex than a Pixie or Flea, but also quite a bit more usable. Stay tuned for further developments on this rig.