Dynamic range is pretty general term for a ratio (sometimes called DNR ratio) of a highest acceptable value to lowest acceptable value that some quantity can be. It can be applied to a variety of fields, most notably electronics and RF/Microwave applications. It is typically expressed in a logarithmic scale. Dynamic range is an important figure of merit because often weak signals will need to be received as well as stronger ones all while not receiving unwanted signals.

Due to spherical spreading of waves and the two-way nature of RADAR, losses experienced by the transmitted signal are proportional to 1/(R^4). This leads to a great variance over the dynamic range of the system in terms of return. For RADAR receivers, mixers and amplifiers contribute the most to the system’s dynamic range and Noise Figure (also in dB). The lower end of the dynamic range is limited by the noise floor, which accounts for the accumulation of unwanted environmental and internal noise without the presence of a signal. The total noise floor of a receiver can be determined by adding the noise figure dB levels of each component. Applying a signal will increase the level of noise past the noise floor, and this is limited by the saturation of the amplifier or mixer. For a linear amplifier, the upper end is the 1dB compression point. This point describes the range at which the amplifier amplifies linearly with a constant increase in dB for a given dB increase at the input. Past the 1dB compression point, the amplifier deviates from this pattern.

The other points in the figure are the third and second order intercept points. Generally, the third intercept point is the most quoted on data sheets, as third order distortions are most common. Assuming the device is perfectly linear, this is the point where the third order distortion line intersects that line of constant slope. These intermodulation distortion generate the terms 2f_2 – f_1 and 2f_1 – f_2. So in a sense the third order intercept point is a measure of linearity. As shown in the figure, the third order distortion has a linear slope of 3:1. The point that the line intercepts the linear output is (IIP3, OIP3). This intercept point tends to be used as more of a rule of thumb, as the system is assumed to be “weakly linear” which does not necessarily hold up in practice.

Often manual gain control or automatic gain control can be employed to achieve the desired receiver dynamic range. This is necessary because there are such a wide variety of signals being received. Often the dynamic range can be around 120 dB or higher, for instance.

Another term used is spurious free dynamic range. Spurs are unwanted frequency components of the receiver which are generated by the mixer, ADC or any nonlinear component. The quantity represents the distance between the largest spur and fundamental tone.