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  1. A technique used in radio receivers to tune to a particular frequency.

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

In electronics, the superheterodyne receiver (also known by its full name, the supersonic heterodyne receiver, or by the abbreviated form superhet) is a technique for selectively recovering information from radio waves of a particular frequency. It is used in radio and television receivers and transmitters, allowing them to be tuned to a particular frequency.


The superheterodyne principle was originally conceived in 1918 by Edwin Armstrong during World War I as a means of overcoming the deficiencies of early vacuum triodes used as high-frequency amplifiers in radio direction finding (RDF) equipment. In a triode RF amplifier, if both the plate and grid are connected to resonant circuits tuned to the same frequency, stray capacitive coupling between the grid and the plate will cause the amplifier to go into oscillation if the stage gain is much more than unity. In early designs dozens of low-gain triode stages sometimes had to be connected in cascade to make workable equipment, which drew enormous amounts of power in operation. The strategic value was so high, however, that the British Admiralty felt it was money well spent.
Armstrong had realized that higher frequency equipment would allow them to detect enemy shipping much more effectively, but at the time no practical "short wave" (defined then as any frequency above 500 kHz) amplifier existed.
It had been noticed some time before that if a regenerative receiver was allowed to go into oscillation, other receivers nearby would suddenly start picking up stations on frequencies different from those they were actually transmitted on. Armstrong (and others) soon realized that this was caused by a "supersonic" heterodyne (or beat, as in acoustic beating) between the station's carrier frequency and the oscillator frequency. Mixing two frequencies creates two new frequencies, one at the sum of the two frequencies mixed, and the other at their difference. Thus, for example, if a station were transmitting on 300 kHz and the oscillator were set to 400 kHz, the station would be heard not only at the original 300 kHz, but also at 100 kHz and 700 kHz. This process is known as heterodyning.
In a flash of insight, Armstrong suddenly realized that this was a potential solution to the "short wave" amplification problem. To monitor a frequency of 1500 kHz, he could set up an oscillator to, say, 1560 kHz, which would down-convert the signal to a 60 kHz intermediate frequency, which was far more amenable to high gain amplification using triodes.
Superheterodyne circuits originally used the self-resonance of iron-cored interstage coupling transformers to filter the intermediate frequency. Ceramic filters and crystal-lattice filters can be used as well to provide selectivity at the intermediate frequency. Early superhets used IFs as low as 20 kHz, which made them extremely susceptible to image frequency interference, but at the time the main interest was sensitivity rather than selectivity.
Armstrong was able to put his ideas into practice quite quickly, and the technique was rapidly adopted by the military; however, it was less popular when radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, due both to the need for an extra tube for the oscillator, and to the amount of technical knowledge required to operate it. For domestic radios, an alternative approach to Short Wave "Tuned RF" ("TRF") amplification called the Neutrodyne became more popular for reasons of simplicity and economy. Armstrong sold his superheterodyne patent to Westinghouse, who sold it to RCA, who monopolized the market for superheterodyne receivers until 1930.
However, by the 1930s, improvements in vacuum tube technology rapidly eroded the TRF receiver's advantages. First, the development of practical indirectly heated cathodes allowed the mixer and oscillator functions to be combined in a single Pentode tube, in the so-called Autodyne mixer. This was rapidly followed by the introduction of low-cost multi-element tubes specifically designed for superheterodyne operation, and by the mid-30s the TRF technique was rendered obsolete. Virtually all radio receivers, including the receiver sections of television sets, now use the superheterodyne principle.


The superheterodyne receiver principle overcomes certain limitations of previous receiver designs. Tuned radio frequency (TRF) receivers suffered from poor selectivity, since even filters with a high Q factor have a wide bandwidth at radio frequencies. Regenerative and super-regenerative receivers offer better sensitivity than a TRF receiver, but suffer from stability and selectivity problems.
In receivers using the superheterodyne principle, a signal at variable frequency f is converted to a fixed lower frequency, fIF, before detection. Frequency fIF is called the intermediate frequency (IF). In typical amplitude modulation (AM, as used on medium wave broadcast radio—or simply "AM radio" in the U.S.) home receivers, that frequency is usually 455 kHz; for FM VHF receivers, it is usually 10.7 MHz; for television, 45 MHz.
Using a frequency mixer, heterodyne receivers mix all of the incoming signals with an internally generated waveform called the local oscillator. The user tunes the radio by adjusting the set's oscillator frequency, fLO. In the mixer stage of a receiver, the local oscillator signal multiplies with the incoming signals, which shifts them all down in frequency. The signal that is shifted to fIF is passed on by tuned circuits, amplified, and then demodulated to recover the original audio signal. The oscillator also shifts an image of each incoming signal up in frequency by the amount fLO. Those very high frequency images are rejected by the tuned circuits in the IF stage.

High-side and low-side injection

The amount that a signal is down-shifted by the local oscillator depends on whether its frequency f is higher or lower than fLO. That is because its new frequency is |f − fLO| in either case. Therefore, there are potentially two signals that could both shift to the same fIF one at f = fLO + fIF and another at f = fLO − fIF. One or the other of those signals has to be filtered out prior to the mixer to avoid aliasing. When the upper one is filtered out, it is called high-side injection, because fLO is above the frequency of the received signal. The other case is called low-side injection. High-side injection also reverses the order of a signal's frequency components. Whether or not that actually changes the signal depends on whether it has spectral symmetry or not. The reversal can be undone later in the receiver, if necessary.

Image Frequency (fimage)

One major disadvantage to the superheterodyne receiver is the problem of image frequency. In heterodyne receivers, an image frequency is an undesired input frequency equal to the station frequency plus twice the intermediate frequency. The image frequency results in two stations being received at the same time, thus producing interference. Image frequencies can be eliminated by sufficient attenuation on the incoming signal by the RF amplifier filter of the superheterodyne receiver.
f_ = \begin f_ + 2f_ , & \mbox f_ > f_ \mbox\\ f_- 2f_, & \mbox f_

Design and its evolution

The diagram below shows the basic elements of a single conversion superhet receiver. In practice not every design will have all these elements, nor does this convey the complexity of other designs, but the essential elements of a local oscillator and a mixer followed by a filter and IF amplifier are common to all superhet circuits. Cost-optimized designs may use one active device for both local oscillator and mixer—this is sometimes called a "converter" stage. One such example is the pentagrid converter.
The advantage to this method is that most of the radio's signal path has to be sensitive to only a narrow range of frequencies. Only the front end (the part before the frequency converter stage) needs to be sensitive to a wide frequency range. For example, the front end might need to be sensitive to 1–30 MHz, while the rest of the radio might need to be sensitive only to 455 kHz, a typical IF. Only one or two tuned stages need to be adjusted to track over the tuning range of the receiver; all the intermediate-frequency stages operate at a fixed frequency which need not be adjusted.
Sometimes, to overcome obstacles such as image response, more than one IF is used. In such a case, the front end might be sensitive to 1–30 MHz, the first half of the radio to 5 MHz, and the last half to 50 kHz. Two frequency converters would be used, and the radio would be a "Double Conversion Super Heterodyne"—a common example is a television receiver where the audio information is obtained from a second stage of intermediate frequency conversion. Occasionally special-purpose receivers will use an intermediate frequency much higher than the signal, in order to obtain very high image rejection.
Superheterodyne receivers have superior characteristics to simpler receiver types in frequency stability and selectivity. It is much easier to stabilize a tuneable oscillator than a tuneable filter, especially with modern frequency synthesizer technology. IF filters can give much narrower passbands at the same Q factor than an equivalent RF filter. A fixed IF also allows the use of a crystal filter in very critical designs such as radiotelephone receivers, in which exceptionally high selectivity is necessary.
In the case of modern television receivers, no other technique was able to produce the precise bandpass characteristic needed for vestigial sideband reception, first used with the original NTSC system introduced in 1941. This originally involved a complex collection of tuneable inductors which needed careful adjustment, but since the early 1980s these have been replaced with precision electromechanical surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters. Fabricated by precision laser milling techniques, SAW filters are much cheaper to produce, can be made to extremely close tolerances, and are extremely stable in operation.
The next evolution of superheterodyne receiver design is the software defined radio architecture, where the IF processing after the initial IF filter is implemented in software. This technique is already in use in the latest design analog television receivers and digital set top boxes, where there are no coils or other resonant circuits used at all. The antenna simply connects via a small capacitor to a pin on an integrated circuit and all the signal processing is carried out digitally. Similar techniques are used in the tiny FM radios incorporated into Mobile phones and MP3 players.
Radio transmitters may also use a mixer stage to produce an output frequency, working more or less as the reverse of a superheterodyne receiver.
Drawbacks to the superheterodyne receiver include the cost of the mixer and local oscillator stages. Receivers become vulnerable to interference from signals other than the desired signal. A strong signal at the intermediate frequency may overcome the desired signal; regulatory authorities will prevent licensed transmitters from operating on these frequencies. In urban environments with many strong signals, the signals from multiple transmitters may combine in the mixer stage to interfere with the desired signal. A superheterodyne receiver may pick up a so-called "image frequency" signal that also produces a mixer output at the desired intermediate frequency; this phenomenon is sometimes used for scanner reception of transmissions outside of the receiver's official capabilities.


The Electronics Handbook


External links

superheterodyne in Czech: Superheterodyn
superheterodyne in Danish: Superheterodynmodtager
superheterodyne in German: Überlagerungsempfänger
superheterodyne in Spanish: Superheterodino
superheterodyne in Hebrew: מקלט סופרהטרודין
superheterodyne in Italian: Supereterodina
superheterodyne in Japanese: スーパーヘテロダイン受信機
superheterodyne in Dutch: Superheterodyne
superheterodyne in Norwegian: Superheterodynmottaker
superheterodyne in Polish: Superheterodyna
superheterodyne in Russian: Супергетеродинный радиоприёмник
superheterodyne in Swedish: Superheterodynmottagare
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