The Superheterodyne Receiver

“Heterodyning” is a commonly used term in the design of RF wireless communication systems. It the process of using a local oscillator of a frequency close to an input signal in order to produce a lower frequency signal on the output which is the difference in the two frequencies. It is contrasted with “homodyning” which uses the same frequency for the local oscillator and the input. In a superhet receiver, the RF input and the local oscillator are easily tunable whereas the ouput IF (intermediate frequency) is fixed.


After the antenna, the front end of the receiver comprises of a band select filter and a LNA (low noise amplifier). This is needed because the electrical output of the antenna is often as small as a few microvolts and needs to be amplified, but not in a way that leads to a higher Noise Figure. The typical superhet NF should be around 8-10 dB. Then the signal is frequency multiplied or heterodyned with the local oscillator. In the frequency domain, this corresponds to a shift in frequency. The next filter is the channel select filter which has a higher Quality factor than the band select filter for enhanced selectivity.

For the filtering, the local oscillator can either be fixed or variable for downconversion to the baseband IF. If it is variable, a variable capacitor or a tuning diode is used. The local oscillator can be higher or lower in frequency than the desired frequency resulting from the heterodyning (high side or low side injection).

A common issue in the superhet receiver is image frequency, which needs to be suppressed by the initial filter to prevent interference. Often multiple mixer stages are used (called multiple conversion) to overcome the image issue. The image frequencies are given below.


Higher IF frequencies tend to be better at suppressing image as demonstrated in the term 2f_IF. The level of attenuation (in dB) of a receiver to image is given in the Image Rejection Ratio (the ratio of the output of the receiver from a signal at the received frequency, to its output for an equal strength signal at the image frequency.

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