Circuit Yields Ultralow-Noise VGA

Analog Devices AD620 ADG333

A number of single-chip VGAs variable-gain amplifiers are available today. Unfortunately, they all have drawbacks, such as high noise, 55 V limit, low input impedance, or nonlinear gain/frequency characteristics. The circuit in Figure 1 is a 16-step, ultralow-noise VGA that solves many of these problems. IC1 is a low-noise quad op amp, and IC2 is a quad SPDT CMOS switch. The stages switch in successive multiplication (gain) factors using a TTL binary code. The values shown provide 0- to 45-dB gain in 3-dB steps. For best low-noise performance, the higher gain stages precede the lower gain stages. The circuit exhibits approximately 3 nV/√Hz referred to the input, for most gain settings. The highest noise is 4.5 nV/√Hz at a gain of 9 dB. Distributing the total gain across multiple stages increases the overall bandwidth. The output stage has a different configuration to yield a low-output-impedance output driver at all gain settings.

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This VGA offers ultralow noise, a wide dynamic range, and high bandwidth.
Figure 1. This VGA offers ultralow noise, a wide dynamic range, and high bandwidth.

If you need to remotely control the gain, you must concern yourself with ground loops that can compromise the low-noise characteristics of the circuit. One solution is to place optoisolators in the four digital-control lines, so that no ground connection exists between the two ends of the cable except through the power supply. The method you use is an analog differential-control voltage using an ADC to generate the 4 bits. Figure 2 shows a circuit that performs this function well. IC1 is a differential receiver, and IC2 is an 8-bit ADC. In some applications, you could get away with using only the ADC, because it already has a differential input. However, you must take care not to exceed the narrow common-mode range of the ADC's input. A more robust solution is to place a differential receiver in front of the ADC, as shown. R1 and C1 form a lowpass filter for the control voltage to the ADC. The 4 high-order bits from the ADC control the CMOS switches. As shown, the ADC operates in a self-clocking mode and needs no other controls.

An ADC controls the gain-setting codes for the circuit in Figure 1.
Figure 2. An ADC controls the gain-setting codes for the circuit in Figure 1.

R2 and C2 control the sampling frequency, approximately 640 kHz for the values shown. D1, R3, and C3 provide power-up initialization for the ADC's clocking function. The control-voltage steps are 310 mV apart, providing ample noise immunity. Table 1 shows the performance of the overall circuit with analog control. You can use R1 and R2 in Figure 1 to shift down the overall gain range with little sacrifice of noise characteristics. You can obviously alter the individual gain stages to yield other ranges and step sizes, such as 0 to 30 dB in 2-dB steps. At the expense of circuit simplicity, you could replace the quad op amp with four ultra-low-noise op amps, such as the LT1128 or AD797. This replacement lowers the noise to approximately 1.4 nV/√Hz.

Table 1. Performance versus gain
Step Gain
V/V Noise
(referred to input)
3-dB bandwidth
0 0 1 3.1 10.5
1 3 1.4 3.8 7.7
2 6 2 4.4 5.1
3 9 2.8 4.5 4.6
4 12 4 3.6 2.7
5 15 5.6 3.6 2.7
6 18 7.9 3.7 2.6
7 21 11.2 3.7 2.6
8 24 15.8 3 0.88
9 27 22.4 3 0.89
10 30 31.6 3 0.94
11 33 44.7 3 0.96
12 36 63.1 3 0.97
13 39 89.1 3 0.97
14 42 125.9 3 1.04
15 45 177.8 3 1.02

You could also increase the number of stages, thereby providing a wider dynamic range, finer gain steps, or both. The benefits of this circuit over commercially available single-chip VGAs include ultra-low noise, high bandwidth, ±13 V range, high input impedance, ground-loop immunity, and user-defined dynamic range and step size.

Materials on the topic

  1. Datasheet Analog Devices AD620
  2. Datasheet Texas Instruments ADC0804
  3. Datasheet Analog Devices ADG333
  4. Datasheet Linear Technology LT1125
  5. Datasheet PanJit S1A


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