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Understanding the Fundamental Principles of Vector Network Analysis


In this application note, the fundamental principles of vector network analysis will be reviewed. The discussion includes the common parameters that can be measured, including the concept of scattering parameters (S-parameters). RF fundamentals such as transmission lines and the Smith chart will also be reviewed.


Network analysis is the process by which designers and manufacturers measure the electrical performance of the components and circuits used in more complex systems. When these systems are conveying signals with information content, we are most concerned with getting the signal from one point to another with maximum efficiency and minimum distortion. Vector network analysis is a method of accurately characterizing such components by measuring their effect on the amplitude and phase of swept-frequency and swept-power test signals.

Table of Contents:

  • Measurements in Communications Systems
  • Importance of Vector Measurements 
  • The Basis of Incident and Reflected Power
  • The Smith Chart 
  • Power Transfer Conditions
  • Vector Network Analysis Terminology
  • Measuring Group Delay
  • Network Characterization

Measurements in Communications Systems

In any communications system, the effect of signal distortion must be considered. While we generally think of the distortion caused by nonlinear effects (for example, when intermodulation products are produced from desired carrier signals), purely linear systems can also introduce signal distortion. Linear systems can change the time waveform of signals passing through them by altering the amplitude or phase relationships of the spectral components that make up the signal.

Let’s examine the difference between linear and nonlinear behavior more closely.

Linear devices impose magnitude and phase changes on input signals. Any sinusoid appearing at the input will also appear at the output, and at the same frequency. No new signals are created. Both active and passive nonlinear devices can shift an input signal in frequency or add other frequency components, such as harmonic and spurious signals. Large input signals can drive normally linear devices into compression or saturation, causing nonlinear operation.

For linear distortion-free transmission, the amplitude response of the device under test (DUT) must be flat and the phase response must be linear over the desired bandwidth. As an example, consider a square-wave signal rich in high-frequency components passing through a bandpass filter that passes selected frequencies with little attenuation while attenuating frequencies outside of the passband by varying amounts. 

Even if the filter has linear phase performance, the out-of-band components of the square wave will be attenuated, leaving an output signal that, in this example, is more sinusoidal in nature (Figure 2).

If the same square-wave input signal is passed through a filter that only inverts the phase of the third harmonic, but leaves the harmonic amplitudes the same, the output will be more impulse-like in nature (Figure 3). While this is true for the example filter, in general, the output waveform will appear with arbitrary distortion, depending on the amplitude and phase nonlinearities.


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