Synthesizer PLL Phase Noise

- an introduction or tutorial about the essentials of synthesizer PLL phase noise showing how and where the phase noise is generated in the phase locked loop.

Synthesizer PLL phase noise is a particularly important parameter for any phase locked loop based frequency synthesizer. Although key parameters like frequency stability, frequency range and synthesizer step size, and frequency range are widely quoted in specification sheets for synthesizers, the phase noise is equally important.

The phase noise of a PLL frequency synthesizer is important for many reasons. It affects the performance of the equipment in which the synthesizer is used in a number of ways.

For signal generators a clean source is needed for the tests in which the generator may be used.

If the frequency synthesizer is used in a radio communications system, then it will affect the performance of the system. For a radio receiver used in a radio communications system it will affect parameters such as reciprocal mixing and under some conditions the noise floor.

If the frequency synthesizer is used in a transmitter, then it can cause wide-band noise to be transmitted and this could cause interference to other users. Accordingly for any radio communications application, the level of phase noise is important. As the majority of the phase noise is likely to be generated by the synthesizer, PLL phase noise characteristics are of great importance.

What is phase noise?

Phase noise is present on all signals to some degree and it is caused by small phase (and hence frequency) perturbations or jitter on the signal. It manifests itself as noise spreading out either side from the main carrier

The phase noise profile of a typical free running signal source showing the phase noise elvel falling with increased offset from the signal
Typical phase noise profile of a signal source

Note on Phase Noise:

Phase noise consists of small random perturbations in the phase of the signal, i.e. phase jitter. An ideal signal source would be able to generate a signal in which the phase advanced at a constant rate. This would produce a single spectral line on a perfect spectrum analyzer. Unfortunately all signal sources produce some phase noise or phase jitter, and these perturbations manifest themselves by broadening the bandwidth of the signal.

Click on the link for a Phase Noise tutorial

Some signal sources are better than others. Crystal oscillators are very good and have very low levels of phase noise. Free running variable frequency oscillators normally perform well. Unfortunately synthesizers, and especially those based around phase locked loops, do not always fare so well unless they are well designed. If significant levels of phase noise are present on a synthesizer used as a local oscillator in a receiver, it can adversely affect the performance of the radio in terms of reciprocal mixing.

Phase noise in synthesizers

Each of the components in a frequency synthesizer produces noise that will contribute to the overall noise that appears at the output. The actual way in which the noise from any one element in the loop contributes to the output will depend upon where it is produced. Noise generated by the VCO will affect the output in a different way to that generated in the phase detector for example.

To see how this happens take the example of noise generated by the voltage controlled oscillator. This will pass through the divider chain and appear at the output of the phase detector. It will then have to pass through the loop filter. This will only allow through those components of the noise that are below the loop cut-off frequency. These will appear on the error voltage and have the effect of cancelling out the noise on the voltage controlled oscillator. As this effect will only take place within the loop bandwidth, it will reduce the level of noise within the loop bandwidth and have no effect on noise outside the loop bandwidth.

Noise generated by the phase detector is affected in a different way. Again only the components of the noise below the loop bandwidth will pass through the low pass filter. This means that there will be no components outside the loop bandwidth appearing on the tune voltage at the control terminal of the voltage controlled oscillator, and there will be no effect on the oscillator. Those components inside the loop bandwidth will appear at the oscillator control terminal. These will affect the oscillator and appear as phase noise on the output of the voltage controlled oscillator.

Matters are made worse by the fact that the division ratio has the effect of multiplying the noise level. This arises because the synthesizer effectively has the effect of multiplying the frequency of the reference. Consequently the noise level is also multiplied by a factor of 20 log N, where N is the division ratio.

Noise generated by the reference undergoes exactly the same treatments as that generated by the phase detector. It too is multiplied by the division ratio of the loop in the same way that the phase detector noise is. This means that even though the reference oscillator may have a very good phase noise performance this can be degraded significantly, especially if division ratios are high.

Dividers normally do not produce a significant noise contribution. Any noise they produce may be combined with that of the phase detector.

The combined noise of the loop at the output generally looks like that shown in Figure 2. Here it can be seen that the noise within the loop bandwidth arises from the phase detector and the reference. Outside the loop bandwidth it arises primarily from the voltage controlled oscillator. From this it can be seen that optimisation of the noise profile is heavily dependent upon the choice of the loop bandwidth. It is also necessary to keep the division ratio in any loop down to reasonable levels. For example a 150 MHz synthesizer with a 12.5 kHz step size will require a division ratio of 12000. In turn this will degrade the phase detector and reference phase noise figures by 81 dB inside the loop bandwidth - a significant degradation by anyone's standards! Provided that division ratios are not too high then a wide loop bandwidth can help keep the voltage controlled oscillator noise levels down as well.

Typical phase noise profile of a frequency synthesizer shwoing the contributions from different elements within the loop
Noise profile of a typical synthesizer

Effects of PLL phase noise

PLL phase noise can affect different systems in different ways. However it is important that for all applications the phase noise on the signal is known and within the required limits. However phase noise can give rise to a number of different problems:

  • Wideband transmitted noise:   When PLL frequency synthesizers are used within a transmitter, a local oscillator source with large amounts of phase noise can be radiated away from the wanted frequency band. This is transmitted as wideband noise and can cause interference to other users nearby.
  • Increase in bit error rate:   For transmissions using phase modulation, the phase jitter or phase noise can cause errors in the reception of the data. PLL phase noise in both the transmitter and receiver can increase the occurrence of bit errors. It is therefore essential that the PLL phase noise is kept to acceptable limits within both the transmitter and receiver.
  • Reciprocal mixing:   This is a problem that occurs when the phase noise from the local oscillator signal is superimposed onto a strong off channel signal. This phase noise then masks out the much lower level weaker signal.

PLL phase noise is a particularly important parameter for any synthesizer. It can have a significant effect on the performance of the system in which it is used whether in a signal generator, radio communications system, or any other application. Accordingly when designing or specifying a synthesizer, the PLL phase noise is one of the major parameters that should be included in the specification from the outset. In this way, the PLL phase noise performance can be incorporated into the overall design at the earliest stages and no costly rework have to be undertaken.

By Ian Poole

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