For some strange reason, many people misunderstand and have difficulty with the
concept of decibels (abbr. "dB"). That's really a shame because decibels are used in a wide
variety of radio and electronics applications. This form of notation is widely used because it
makes the job of calculating things like gains and losses much easier. By using decibel
notation we can replace multiplication (gains) and division (losses) with addition and
subtraction, respectively.
The decibel is nothing more than an expression of the ratio between two signals. The
signals might be voltages, currents or power levels. When rendered in the form of decibel
notation, however, the logarithms of the ratios are used rather than the straight arithmetical
ratios. It is the use of the log of the ratios that makes it possible to replace multiplication and
division calculations with addition and subtraction.
The decibel was originally conceived by the telephone industry to describe audio
signal gains and losses in telephone circuits. The original unit was named the bel after
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. In most electronics work, however, the
bel proved to be too large a unit, so the decibel (one-tenth of a bel) was adopted as the
standard notation.

Special dB Scales
Over the years different segments of the radio and electronics industry have created
special decibel scales for their own use. All of them are based on the three equations given
above. The differences are in the specified conditions under which the measurements are
made, and the specific level used as a reference point. The standard reference voltage or
power will be placed in the denominator of the equation, and is usually referred to as the "0
dB" reference level. This name comes from the fact that placing the same level in the
numerator produces a ratio of 1:1, or 0 dB. Several different special dB scales are listed

dBm. These units refer to decibels relative to one milliwatt (1 mW) of power
dissipated in a 50 ohm resistive impedance (defined as the 0 dBm reference level), and is
calculated from either 10 LOG (PWATTS/0.001) or 10 LOG (PMW). The dBm scale is used in
describing receivers and amplifiers. For example, an input signal or an output signal may be
defined in terms of dBm. Similarly, the noise floor of the receiver may be given in dBm.

dBmV. This unit is used in television receiver systems in which the system
impedance is 75 ohms, rather than the 50 ohms normally used in other RF systems. It refers
to the signal voltage, measured in decibels, with respect to a signal level of one millivolt (1
mV) across a 75 ohm resistance (0 dBmv). In many TV specs, 1 mV is the full quieting
signal that produces no "snow" (i.e. noise) in the displayed picture.

dBmV. This unit refers to a signal voltage, measured in decibels, relative to one
microvolt (1 mV) developed across a 50 ohm resistive impedance (0 dBmV).

dB (Old). An archaic dB unit used in the telephone industry prior to World War II
used 6 milliwatts dissipated in a 500 ohm resistive load at the 0 dB reference level.

Volume Units (VU). This unit is used in audio work, and largely replaces the old dB
scale given above. In the VU scale 0 VU is 1 milliwatt dissipated in a 600 ohm resistive

Antenna dB Notation
Decibel notation is frequently seen in specifications for radio antennas. The gain, the
front-to-back ratio and/or the front-to-side ratio are typically specified in decibels. In the
case of the front-to-back or front-to-side ratios the values are measured by having the
antenna look at a constant power RF source while it is rotated. The signal levels are
measured at the front, side and back so that the ratios can be calculated.
The matter of gain is a little different, however. What do you use as a reference for
antennas? There are two basic forms of gain specification: gain relative to isotropic (dBi)
and gain relative to a dipole (dBd). Gain relative to isotropic (dBi) uses a theoretical construct called an isotropic
radiator, which is a spherical source of RF energy that radiates equally well in all directions.
The available power is distributed equally across the entire surface of the sphere. Gain
antennas distribute the same amount of power over a much smaller portion of the sphere, so
calculations can easily be made. The isotropic gain method is preferred by professional
antenna designers. Gain relative to a dipole (dBd) uses a half wavelength dipole as the reference. When
both antennas are set up to intercept the same signal, then the gain of the test antenna is
found by measuring the signal levels of both the test antenna and the dipole reference
antenna, and then performing the calculation. The dBd measurement is about 2 dB higher
than the dBi measurement.

Some dB Lore
Because radio signals are discussed in decibels some rather odd notions pop up. Let's
take a look at some of those that historically have been quite popular.

The S-Meter Folly. Amateur radio operators and shortwave listeners use the Smeter
to compare signal strengths. The standard signal reporting system, worked out by
ARRL many years ago, uses S1 through S9, in which S9 represents "...an extremely strong
signal." Receiver S-meters are often calibrated to +60 dB over S-9. What does this mean?
Well, it means that telling someone they are "60-dB over S-9" means that their signal is onemillion
times stronger than an extremely strong signal. Why, that signal level ought to melt
the insulation off your transmission line?
Another S-Meter Folly. Swapping S-meter stories back and forth is basically a
useless exercise. Why? Because there are multiple standards for calibrating S-meters. There
will be a reference input signal level to establish the 0 dB point, and then an increment for
each S-unit. I've seen S-meters calibrated such that 50 mV across the 50-ohm input
impedance constitutes an S-9 signal, while other receivers required 100 mV for an S-9. I've
seen receivers calibrated at 3-dB/S-unit, while others are calibrated at 6-dB/S-unit (more

Note: A signal that is "60-dB over S-9" should have an rms input level of
(pick a standard level) 50 mV ´ 1,000,000 = 50 volts! Wow! That oughta
knock your socks off!

CBer's Folly. In the early days of Citizens Band the transceivers used vacuum tube
technology. It was quite common for CBers to boost the power of their rigs by either
changing the DC power supply voltage to all elements of the tubes, or (more common)
upping the positive voltage applied to the screen grid of the power amplifier tube. A
common modification of one series of models raised the power from the legal 5-watts to a
whopping (and illegal) 7-watts. The gain in dB is 10 LOG (7/5) = 1.46 dB. OK, so now they
have an illegal rig, but have they accomplished anything? Let's see.

The S-unit on receivers is usually defined (loosely) as the smallest change that is
easily noted by the average listener. If the conservative 3-dB/S-unit applies, then 1.46 dB
represents around half an S-unit...or about half the change that the other person can detect
with their ears! What a waste. The reliability of those circuits was reduced, the owner
exposed to legal sanctions, all for a change that no one could detect. Wow...that's smart!
Ham's Folly. Knock the CBers and you gotta knock hams as well. I once owned a
1,200-watt linear amplifier. A friend of mine also had the same model, but he traded his in
on a 2,000-watt linear amplifier. He claimed "I'm really getting out now!" Was he? The gain
at the other end would be 10 LOG (2,000/1,200) = 2.2 dB...or a bit less than an S-unit.

Because of the way power changes and signal strength are related, the FCC for a
long time restricted commercial and broadcasting stations to power increases of at least fives
times the old level. Thus, a 500-watt station would not normally be allowed to go to 1,000-
watt, but rather a minimum of 2,500-watts. Or the "standard" 1,000-watt local AM station
might go to 5,000-watts. A 5:1 change results in 6.9 dB increase, so it's about two S-units.
As to me and my friend? I kept my money in the bank while he spent his...and no
one could tell the difference between our signals.
The Huge, Monster VSWR Loss. Hams and SWLs spend a lot of time and money
reducing the VSWR of antennas to as close to 1:1 as humanly possible. But there is a point
of diminishing returns. According to one method of calculating VSWR mismatch loss, a
2.5:1 VSWR could be as much as 1.43 dB or as little as 0.89 dB. Big deal! How does that
affect an S-meter? The reason for reducing the VSWR for solid-state transmitters is the
sensitivity of the transistors in the output, not the loss.

In general, the only people who have to worry a lot about tweeking a system to
squeeze out every fractional decibel of signal are those who work with extremely weak
signals. Radio astronomers, for example, go to great lengths to get as much gain as possible,
and reduce losses to the bare minimum. But then again, they are dealing with power levels
most conveniently measured in millimicronanofemtowatts. Mere mortals can worry a little
less and get on with the prospect of enjoying our hobby!
Joseph J. Carr
Universal Radio Research
6830 Americana Parkway
Reynoldsburg, Ohio 43068

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