Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Ultralight dBµ Mystery, S-Meters, And Field Strength

On our little ultralight DSP receivers like the Tecsun PL-380 and PL-310, etc. you may have noticed the dial face has some numbers which vary with the received signal strength. Next to them are marked the letters "dBµ". It seems like a field strength meter of some kind. Just what is that? Well, it is indeed an indicator of signal strength. Let's dig into what it means and see how it is directly related to the S-meter of old, the field strength meter.

National Radio Company

Tecsun's use of dBµ (a funny-looking, backwards 'u', which is the Greek letter µ 'mu', meaning micro, or one-millionth) is really an improperly-used, shortened version of the term dBµV. Warning! You may have also seen the term "dBu" (lowercase "u") written in various publications, associated with field strength also. It refers to something different (actually the E-field of the passing wave). We can handle that one in a separate article, so be sure not to confuse Tecsun's dBµ with dBu!

Back to Tecsun's dBµ. Let's break it down:

dB = decibels, or simply a way of expressing magnitudes of a value, like voltage, logarithmically
µV = microvolts, or millionths of a volt

Consequently, dBµV is a voltage expressed in dB above (or below) one microvolt. This is measured across a specific load impedance, commonly 50 ohms. Important! Here we have a real received voltage measured across a specific load impedance like a tuned circuit!

The 'dB' or decibel measurement is a logarithmic ratio as you may know. In terms of voltage, an increase of 6 dB is a doubling of voltage. So, if our little Tecsun receives a signal at 28 dBµ and it increases to 34 dBµ, the received voltage has doubled. Coincidentally, this is also an increase of one S-unit! Now we are getting somewhere.

Let's translate our received dBµV into actual received voltage:

dBµV   µV(millionths of a volt)
 94    50000.0
 84    15810.0
 74     5000.0
 64     1581.0
 54      500.0
 44      158.1
 34       50.0 (the S-9 of old!)
 28       25.0
 22       12.5
 16        6.3
 10        3.2
  4        1.6
 -2        0.8 (less than 1 µV sends the dB ratio to a negative value!)
 -8        0.4
-14        0.2

The following formula is used to convert dBµV to millionths of a volt:

µV = (10 ^ (dBµV/ 20))

To convert millionths of a volt back to its decibel representation:

dBµV = 20 * Log(µV)

(Log is the common logarithm, or base 10).

The modern DSP receivers like the Tecsun PL-380, 310, etc. which employ the Silicon Labs chips, measure and display dBµV as received at the tuned front end across a load. They call it the RSSI indicator. Our radio's antenna, the iron core ferrite rod, is basically a signal concentrator. The longer the rod and thus the more iron ferrite, the more the concentration, and the greater the signal voltage transferred to the radio's tuned input.

So what exactly is this so-called dBµ indicator on our DSP radios telling us?

Some time ago, more than a year ago, I posed this question to Scott Willingham, who was on the design team for the SiLabs DSP receiver chips used in these radios.

He stated:

"The RSSI (dBµ) readings are referred to the pins of the chip, which are the inputs to the LNA. In the Tecsun radios operating in the MW band, this is also the voltage across the loopstick. In SW bands, the Tecsun ULRs use a preamp/LNA on the circuit board between the whip antenna and the Si4734. In that case, the RSSI readings reflect the signal at the output of Tecsun's external LNA."

Essentially for mediumwave, the received signal is measured in microvolts right off the loopstick and then converted to dBµ, which is decibels above a base of one microvolt. Remember again, dB is just a logarithmic ratio. Of course a PL-380 is not going to read the same dBµ as a PL-310 or a PL-398, etc., because the antenna setups (loopstick lengths, whip extension, tuned circuit efficiency) are different and each will induce different received voltage levels to the radio.

A curious measurement, yes, but there is also some meaningful information here in comparing signal strengths within the same radio just like an S-meter did, and in fact there is a direct correlation to the S-meter.

The analog S-meter us old guys remember in now ancient receivers was based on S-9 indicating a 50 µV (microvolt) input signal to the antenna circuitry, at a load impedance of 50 ohms. That is, the S-meter read S-9 if the receiver S-meter was calibrated right, as the meter was further down the IF chain, and usually responded to the AGC (automatic gain control) level. Each S-unit is 6 dB apart, meaning a signal reading S-9 is 6 dB stronger than a signal reading S-8. S-9 +10dB is 10 dB greater than S-9, or one S-unit plus 4 more dB.

What does this mean? An S-9 signal is twice as strong as an S-8 signal. The received voltage is double. An S-9 signal is four times as strong as an S-7 signal. The received voltage is doubled twice.

Some direct correlation can be attempted with the SiLabs DSP chip dBµ readings used in the Tecsun radios.

S-unit        µV  dBµV  dBm
S9+60dB  50000.0   94   -13
S9+50dB  15810.0   84   -23
S9+40dB   5000.0   74   -33
S9+30dB   1581.0   64   -43
S9+20dB    500.0   54   -53
S9+10dB    158.1   44   -63
S9          50.0   34   -73
S8          25.0   28   -79
S7          12.5   22   -85
S6           6.3   16   -91
S5+4.9dB     5.6   15   -92
S5           3.2   10   -97
S4           1.6    4  -103
S3+1.9dB     1.0    0  -107
S3           0.8   -2  -109
S2           0.4   -8  -115
S1           0.2  -14  -121
Look at the S-unit and dBµV columns. As can be seen, a 34 dBµV signal (again, the Tecsun DSP radios label it dBµ) is essentially equivalent to an S-9 signal on the old S-meter setup. The 25 dBµ signal shown in the picture below represents a signal halfway between S-7 and S-8.

On the Tecsun PL-380 (at least the version I own, which registers from 15 dBµ - 63 dBµ), somewhere around 15 dBµ seems to be the signal detection threshold which translates to just below the old S-6, at 6.3 microvolts of signal. As noted elsewhere, these modern drug store consumer radios are not as sensitive as the old communications receivers we remember. S-6 on an old vacuum tube receiver was virtually "arm chair" copy. This is where an FSL or passive loop brings up the weak received signal to similar levels in the DSP radios.

So there you have it. Keep this chart handy and you can convert between Tecsun's dBµ and S-units.

Stay tuned for the second article in this series: The dBµ Versus dBu Mystery: Signal Strength vs. Field Strength?

25 dBµ, or between S-7 and S-8

Saturday, January 24, 2015

2015 US And Canadian Pattern Reference

A new US Mediumwave Pattern Reference, produced by Radio Data MW, has been uploaded. You will find it at the top of the right sidebar under LATEST US MEDIUMWAVE FILES. Radio Data MW, a program I have been working on for the last few years, accomplishes this mapping process.

Included is a complete set of GoogleMap-based, HTML-driven maps which show the most current pattern plots of all licensed US mediumwave broadcast stations from 540 - 1700 KHz. The set includes all frequencies for the indicated services: Unlimited, Daytime, Nighttime, and Critical Hours. Individual maps are grouped by channel frequency: 540, 550, 560 KHz, etc.

I will attempt to make this a regular feature on RADIO-TIMETRAVELLER, with regular yearly updates. The sidebar at the top right will have the most current links. The link will change for each new posting, so I would avoid copying and pasting it into a forum or other web page. Come to the main page of this blog instead.


The maps are HTML-based, so no regular install is necessary. Simply unzip the downloaded file and click on the individual map file to run. The map will open up in your web browser. They are self-contained, with image icons embedded right into the code. You must have an internet connection to view the maps.


Using the actual FCC database files Radio Data MW will auto-generate an interactive HTML pattern map, showing the pattern plots for all stations included at the discretion of the user. A complete set of mediumwave pattern maps can be generated in a matter of minutes. Radio Data MW generates a real pattern plot based on ground conductivity, ground dielectric constant, and can display actual (but approximate of course) signal level boundaries for Local, Distant, Fringe, Extreme mV/m levels, or any custom mV/m level chosen by the user.

The online Google Maps API is used to generate and plot each station on a map of the US. An accurate flag pin is placed at each transmitter location, and in satellite view may be zoomed in to see the actual transmitter site. Map flags are color-coded to indicate Unlimited, Daytime, Nighttime, and Critical Hours services. Each flag has a tooltip-type note, and when hovered over with the mouse will display a note on the station.

A pattern plot for each station is generated and displayed. Each pattern is calculated using standard formulas used by the FCC to compute the base values at one kilometer, and field strength formulas at distance based on the works of many people over the years. See Field Strength Calculations: A History and Field Strength Calculator One, previously posted on RADIO-TIMETRAVELLER.

Finally, an accurate ray path can be drawn from all transmitters to a user-specified receiving location by inputting latitude-longitude coordinates. Super-imposed on the pattern plots, the ray paths show the listener where he or she falls on each station's pattern, a handy guide to knowing where you stand.

Note that these maps are web-based. As stated, they use Google Maps and thus require access to Google. In order to view them you need a connection to the internet. In desktop or laptop use, they have been tested in the Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Safari browsers. If using Internet Explorer, best results are had with the latest version. Chrome works best.

These maps will work on some tablet or phone browsers. I have tested them on an Android device and it's handy to be able to display them while DXing outside or on the road. Some browsers will not allow pinch-to-zoom, where others will. Some browsers don't render the map controls correctly. Response is fair to poor on the tablet or phone due to the sheer number of HTML lines and processing required to render the maps. Such is the current state of tablet and phone browser rendering.

Hope you enjoy these pattern maps and find them useful.