An inexpensive option for SDR (Software Defined Radio) reception on the HF (low frequency) bands is a device sold by "RTL-SDR Blog" - the current iteration being Version 3. Originally intended for digital VHF/UHF TV reception - and that of FM broadcast - the hardware is also capable of tuning much lower frequencies.
|Figure 1: An RTL-SDR Blog V3 USB receiver "dongle".|
How does it do this?
The typical RTL-SDR Dongle actually consists of two tunable devices:
- The Rafael R820T. This is simply a frequency converter, capable of handling an input signal from somewhere below 60 MHz into the GHz range and converting it to what we'll call an "IF" (Intermediate Frequency) - which is actually somewhere in the 3.5-4.6 MHz range. In addition to having a programmable oscillator and mixer for frequency conversion, his device has some built-in filtering that provides some protection to strong-ish off-frequency signals, and it has an AGC (Automatic Gain Control) that can adjust the level being output from it to prevent overload of the A/D converter as well as some front-end attenuation control to reduce the likelihood of overload on the input.
- The Realtek RTL2832U. The down-converted output of the R820 chip is passed to this device, which consists of two 8 bit A/D (Analog-to-Digital) converters that are clocked at 28.8 MHz, a USB interface, a (reported) microcontroller and a digital frequency "converter" that is also capable of being "tuned" to produce a quadrature "baseband" signal that is output onto the USB port - the rate being programmable from around 250 ksps to 2880 ksps. This device does NOT have an AGC or gain/attenuation control.
Briefly, reception on the VHF/UHF frequencies is done the following way:
- A simple high pass filter/diplexer passes only the VHF/UHF signals (e.g. those above approximately 40 MHz) directly to the R820T.
- The filtering of the R820T is programmed for the desired characteristics at the operating frequency.
- The frequency converter in the R820T is offset from the input signal to provide an output (IF) signal in the 1-14 MHz range - more likely somewhere between 5 and 12 MHz.
- The level of this output signal may be automatically controlled by the AGC system of the R820T to keep it within the optimal range of the A/D converter. Similarly, input gain adjustment on the R820T can prevent it from being overloaded by strong signals.
- The tuner within the RTL2832U is set to about the same frequency being output by the R820T (likely in the 5-12 MHz range) so that it is within the range of output ("baseband") sample rate, and output via the USB port.
- The signal to be received is applied via the RF antenna port and diverted from the R820T to a very simple low-pass filter/diplexer to an RF amplifier. This diplexer's effect begins at approximately 22 MHz - See the discussion near table 1, below.
- The output of from the RF amplifier is passed through additional filtering and applied to one of the two A/D inputs of the RTL2832U - typically the "Q" input.
- The tuner within the RTL2832U is set near the frequency to be received so that it is within the range of the output ("baseband") sample rate, and output via the USB port.
There's a penalty to pay for simplicity:
For those familiar with receiver topology - digital or analog - several things the above description of the HF operation of the RTL-SDR dongle without proper measures (e.g. filtering, gain control) should give cause for concern - namely:
- There is NO bandpass filtering at all. Whatever is being intercepted by the antenna system will be input directly to the A/D converter via the preamplifier.
- ANY signal applied to the antenna input - no matter the frequency - can contribute to overload. Because the inputted RF goes into the A/D converter, a strong signal well away from where you are listening can cause overload. For example, if you are listening to 14 MHz, a strong AM broadcast signal (e.g. mediumwave) could well be the culprit if you are experiencing overload.
- There is no AGC in the HF ("direct") signal path. Considering that the A/D converter is only 8 bits, this means that compared to even low-end shortwave receivers, the range of signal levels over which this device will operate is very narrow. The lack of an "AGC" (automatic gain conttrol) means that there will likely not be enough gain when signals are very weak and overload of the A/D converter is likely if the signals are very strong.
- The A/D converter's sample rate is 28.8 MHz. What this means is that the Nyquist limit - the frequency above which the digitized output can no longer represent the input signal - is half this, or 14.4 MHz, uncomfortably close to the 20 meter amateur band, and entirely below the 17, 15, 12 and 10 meter bands - and this does not even consider the fact that the sample frequency is within the 10 meter band itself.
In other words, if you are tuned to any HF frequency, you are actually "hearing" TWO frequencies at the same time unless you have specific filtering to prevent such image response. See the right-hand column of Table 1 (below) for the frequency at which you will see an image.
The above put strict limits on the performance of the RTL-SDR dongle as an HF receiver and these realities must be considered when the configuring any system that might use them.
The usable dynamic range:
In theory, 8 bits of A/D sampling would indicate about 48dB of useful signal range, but the reality is more complicated than this. Compared to the bandwidth of the narrow signals typically sought on HF, the overall sample rate of the A/D converter - and even the rate after the RTL2832U's converter has reduced the signal to the sample rate being sent to the USB port - are very much higher, effectively improving the bit depth via oversampling - and the fact that the HF spectrum is backgrounded with what amounts to white noise works to our benefit, helping to spread discrete, spectral artifacts that are the inevitable result of the imperfect signal aquisition.
All of this makes the actual, usable range a bit difficult to divine. To this end, an RTL-SDR (V3) unit was put on the workbench, using the "HDSDR" program as a receiver, and its operation was analyzed by observing CW (unmodulated) signals on narrow (SSB) bandwidths.
Ideally, we would be able to determine the RF level at which the A/D convert clipped directly, but the HDSDR program does not provide a means to see the peak A/D level, requiring us to infer it by noting the level from a known-accurate signal generator at which the S-meter starts to decrease at the same rate that the signal level is reduced - and also by noting the disappearance from the waterfall many of spurious signal caused by overload. Typically, this is about 3dB below the "maximum" S-meter reading.
For sensitivity, DL4YHF's "Spectrum Lab" program was used to measure the SINAD in a 500 Hz bandwidth set by the HDSDR program, the "minimum discernible signal" being equivalent, in this test, to 3dB S/N.
Table 1 tells us several things:
- As mentioned in the documentation found at the RTL-SDR Blog web site, signals below 2 MHz - and especially below 1 MHz - are rolled off by the "Bias Tee" blocking choke which has insufficient inductance at frequencies below the AM broadcast band. To a degree, this effect can be mitigated by removal of the RF choke which will remove the capability to inject DC onto the cable.
- The RTL-SDR has a low-pass filter to diplex the HF and VHF and above frequencies to separate signal paths, and the effects of this filter are becoming evident above 15 meters (21 MHz). This also means that by itself, the RTL-SDR becomes "deaf as a post" on the 12 and 10 meter bands.
- Note that at the very low frequencies, the sensitivity appears to be somewhat reduced. The effects of high-pass roll-off - likely caused by coupling capacitors and the input bias inductor - appear to be evident through at least 7 MHz.
- There is clearly no image rejection at all, considering that the sensitivity through 21 MHz is comparable to that below 14 MHz. For example, 15 MHz WWV will also appear at 13.8 MHz.
- Low-pass effects are evident by 24 MHz, most likely a result of the diplexer used to split the HF (direct) and VHF/UHF signal paths. This limits sensitivity on the 12 and 10 meter amateur bands.
- With only 8 bits of quantization, additional noise will be generated due to the imprecise nature of the process. This "noise" will show up as spurious signals and, less obviously, as a rise in the overall noise floor - depending on the nature of what is being digitized. In short, the fewer the number of bits, the less likely it is that weak signals will coexist (and be audible) in the presence of strong signals.
- Across most of the HF spectrum, the RTL-SDR will overload signal of about -30dBm - which is approximately equal to an S-meter reading of "40 over S-9". While this seems like a fairly strong signal, this power level represents the total amount of RF energy - no matter the frequency!
- Note that the power at which the A/D converter starts to overload is approximately -30dBm across much of the HF spectrum. This represents the TOTAL amount of RF power required, at all frequencies combined, that will result in overload.
Points 7 and 8, above, should be considered very carefully in terms of its implications:
- You cannot simply connect an RTL-SDR Dongle to even an "average" performing HF antenna and expect reasonable results as the total power from ALL signals reaching the receiver are likely to exceed the -30dBm signal level.
- Particularly on the lower bands (80, 40, 30 meters) the signal levels of amateur and especially shortwave broadcast signals can, by themselves, exceed the -30dBm overload level - particularly in Europe and the eastern U.S. On some bands, the shortwave broadcast band adjacent to the amateur band (e.g. 41 and 40 meters) are too close to effectively filter out and it may be that an RTL-SDR is simply not usable on these bands when propagation favors reception on these frequencies.
- As seen in Table 1 (above) the RTL-SDR dongle becomes increasingly deaf on the higher HF bands (particularly 12 and 10 meters) making them unusable at these frequencies without additional amplification AND filtering. What's worse is that the lower HF frequencies (e.g. below 10 MHz) are typically very noisy while the higher frequencies are quiet by comparison. If you connect an antenna to the RTL-SDR dongle with no band-pass filtering and try to tune in, say, the 15 meter band, you will likely hear only noise (and signals) around 4.8 MHz, which will likely overwhelm any weak, 15 meter signals.
- If you plan to use an RTL-SDR for HF reception and expect even mediocre performance, you should precede it with a band-pass filter for the frequency band of interest. For the highest HF bands (15, 12 and 10 meters) the typical noise floor in a quiet location is around -120 dBm (in a 500 Hz bandwidth) - which is well below the noise floor of the RTL-SDR at these frequency meaning that a preamplifier (along with a bandpass filter) will be required for reasonable performance.
- It's worth remembering that unlike an analog receive system, one cannot always use all 8 bits for digitization: The signal input must be kept well below the "full scale" level to accommodate for random fluctuations that are ever-present on signals input from the antenna. What this means is that the A/D must be under-driven overall and that fewer bits are actually being used most of the time. In order to maintain suitable margin, it's typical to drive the A/D converter at between 1/4 and 1/2 full scale, meaning that for 8 bits of A/D conversion, 2-4 bits are typically being used.
- DO NOT simply connect an RTL-SDR to your HF antenna and expect it to work as well as even a low-end shortwave receiver: If it doesn't get overloaded by local AM broadcast (mediumwave) signals, it will get overloaded by strong shortwave broadcast signals when conditions are favorable on certain bands. This isn't to say that you won't hear anything if you do so, but know that normal signal levels present on even an "average" antenna will be enough to overload the RTL-SDR dongle.
- ALWAYS precede an RTL-SDR with a band-pass filter that is specific for the frequency range of interest. For example, if you are interested in 40 meter reception (7.0-7.3 MHz for ITU region 2) your filter should pass only frequencies in this range, and this filtering will prevent unwanted reception of signals at the image frequency around 21.8 MHz. Unfortunately, the use of a band-pass filter precludes reception outside its design range, but this is necessary considering the limited capability of the RTL-SDR dongle in terms of handling both strong and weak signals at the same time and its unfettered response to unwanted images.
- In some cases - even with a mediocre antenna - the signals in the desired frequency range may exceed the signal handling capability of the RTL-SDR and cause overload. As noted above, a single signal stronger than -30dBm can do this, but so could a number of signals whose total power can exceed this. Typically, this overload is manifest as intermittent distortion across the entire receiver as signals fade in and out. In such cases, it might be beneficial to attenuate the signals reaching the RTL-SDR as the degradation caused by overload is more "destructive" across the entire receive frequency range than too-little signal.
- Because of image response and roll-off, the HF port of the RTL-SDR is really not well-suited for 12 and 10 meter (24-30 MHz) reception.
Comment about HF upconverters:
Specifically to address some of these issues, there are upconverters available for the RTL-SDR that will upconvert the HF spectrum to VHF (typically in the 100-130 MHz range) to allow the use of that signal path, making use of the Raphael R820T converter. This converter has the advantage of having a degree of band-pass filtering and the ability to use AGC (automatic gain control) on the signal path.
This method can be useful, but there are several caveats:
- If frequency stability is of importance, the addition of the upconverter introduces two additional frequency stability issues: Drift of the upconverter itself, and the fact that any existing drift in the dongle itself will be multiplied because of its operation at the higher frequency. This can be an issue in environments where the temperature is not stable and/or when a frequency sensitive mode like SSB or (especially) digital modes are used.
- If multiple bands and receivers are to be used, there may be the temptation to upconvert the output of the upconverter to VHF and distribute this signal to the receivers. While this may work in many cases, it's worth noting that if the entire HF spectrum is converted, the total signal power level can be significant, potentially overloading the upconverter itself, any RF amplifiers that might be used at VHF, and/or the front end of the RTL-SDR dongles themselves.
- While a "fix" might normally be to filter out just the HF band(s) of interest, this can become impractical if the 40 meter band (7.0-7.3 MHz) is upconverted to, say, 137 MHz where it can become difficult to make an effective band-pass filter at that frequency.
- It is possible to filter for a specific HF band before the upconversion, but this means that each RTL-SDR would require its very own upconverter. While effective, the cost of an upconverter for each band may be prohibitive.
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Successfully using an RTL-SDR on HF:
As mentioned earlier, one must precede the RTL-SDR with a band-pass filter to obtain reasonable performance on HF - or any other frequency range where very strong and very weak signals will be simultaneously present at the antenna input: Remember that, especially in the "direct" mode, all signals applied to the RF input - even those MHz away from where the receiver is tuned - will count "against" you in terms of the total amount of RF power that may be applied to the A/D converter before it clips/overloads.
- WebSDR #3: This server uses RTL-SDRs for both the 80 and 40 meter bands.
- WebSDR #1: This server uses 16 bit sound cards and "softrock" receivers for reception of the 80 and 40 meter bands, split into 5 segments.
Both of these systems use the same antenna for 80 and 40 meters and it is possible to directly compare signals between the two in side-by-side windows. Generally, the 8 bit RTL-SDRs used on WebSDR #3 hold their own compared to those on WebSDR #1, and this is possible only because the WebSDRs are preceded with both band-pass filtering and AGC as described in the link below.
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- Band-pass filters are readily available in kit form from QRP Labs http://qrp-labs.com/bpfkit.html
- An article on using band-pass filtering and AGC (Automatic Gain Control) to improve the performance of an RTL-SDR when used for amateur band service may be found here: http://www.sdrutah.org/info/rtl_sdr_agc.html . Several "test" receivers are currently in operation at the Northern Utah WebSDR that demonstrate the efficacy of doing this.