IMD3: Third Order Intermodulation Distortion

We’ll begin a discussion on the topic of analog system quality. How do we measure how well an analog system works? One over-simplistic answer is to say that power gain determines how well a system operates. This is not sufficient. Instead, we must analyze the system to determine how well it works as intended, which may include the gain of the fundamental signal. Whether it is an audio amplifier, acoustic transducers, a wireless communication system or optical link, the desired signal (either transmitted or received) needs to be distinguishable from the system noise. Noise, although situationally problematic can usually be averaged out. The presence of other signals are not however. This begs the question, which other signals could we be speaking of, if there is supposed to be only one signal? The answer is that the fundamental signal also comes with second order, third order, fourth order and higher order distortion harmonic and intermodulation signals, which may not be averaged from noise. Consider the following plot:

We usually talk about Third Order Intermodulation Distortion or IMD3 in such systems primarily. Unlike the second and fourth order, the Third Order Intermodulation products are found in the same spectral region as the first order fundamental signals. Second and fourth order distortion can be filtered out using a bandpass filter for the in-band region. Note that the fifth order intermodulation distortion and seventh order intermodulation distortion can also cause an issue in-band, although these signals are usually much weaker.

Consider the use of a radar system. If a return signal is expected in a certain band, we need to be able to distinguish between the actual return and differentiate this from IMD3, else we may not be able to trust our result. We will discuss next how IMD3 is avoided.

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