As I’ve previously noted, the VRX-1 is a nifty little basic direct conversion receiver, but it has some shortcomings that could be problematic under certain circumstances. Here’s a story of one of those issues and the cure that was found.
Dave AA7EE purchased and built a VRX-1 kit a while ago but was never fully satisfied with the performance due to an annoying 60 Hz hum. He and I had briefly traded comments on the topic via Twitter, but I never really seriously took the time to think about it until just recently. Dave had built and placed a peaked lowpass audio filter into the receiver thinking that would help with the hum, but unfortunately it did virtually nothing to help with it.
I was a bit surprised to hear of the hum problem, since I had never encountered any significant amount of hum, nor had I had other complaints of hum. The eureka moment came when Dave had mentioned that the hum went away when he disconnected the antenna, or it decreased in signal strength when he moved away from his home. I had assumed that the hum was a glitch in his audio circuitry, but this reminded me of the problem known as common mode hum. The best description of this phenomena is found on pages 8.8 – 8.9 of Experimental Methods in RF Design, but I can provide a brief overview. Common mode hum is the result of the LO leakage getting out of the antenna port, modulated by a mains power supply (like an old-fashioned model with rectifiers), and then re-received by the radio.
Due to the simple, single-ended mixer design in the VRX-1, I knew that LO-RF isolation was very poor. So the first suggestion to pop in my mind was to tell Dave to try a common-gate JFET preamp on the front end. Although these type of mixers have modest gain, they have a low noise figure, and even more importantly for us, excellent reverse isolation (on the order of 30 dB). This should be enough to kill any significant amounts of LO leakage.
Dave built a circuit from master homebrew experimenter, Todd VE7BPO. It’s the last circuit on this page, and it looks rock-solid. A double-tuned circuit on the front and a single-tuned circuit on the output. Sure enough, that ended up doing the trick. Rather than trying to reinterpret Dave’s thoughts, go visit that last link, then watch his YouTube video so you can hear the results for yourself:
I’m really pleased to hear that Dave’s annoying problem is finally fixed. This makes me wonder, in retrospect, whether I should have just designed in a preamp to the VRX-1. It certainly isn’t needed for noise figure purposes, but as you can see it can make a huge difference with those who might have problems with hum. There’s also a well-documented problem of a loud impulse generated when the antenna is connected or disconnected during operation. I suspect at the reverse isolation of the preamp would also help this. Hindsight is certainly 20/20. If there is ever a VRX-2, then you can bet that it will get a stock common-gate preamp.