Monday, November 16, 2009

Signal to Noise Ratios - Rainbows in the Dark - Part 3

Not all S-Meters are calibrated, mine sure is not. Below you'll find a nice chart for the ideal S-Meter, a standard originally proposed by the Collins Radio Company 50+ years ago and it is now accepted as the de facto industry standard. (The original standard stated S-9 = 50uV, the rest are linear extrapolations)

S-Meter    Signal    dBm  
S-9 +60db  50,000uV  -13
S-9 +50db  15,811uV  -23
S-9 +40db   5,000uV  -33
S-9 +30db   1,581uV  -43
S-9 +20db     500uV  -53
S-9 +10db     158uV  -63
S-9            50uV  -73
S-8            25uV  -79               
S-7          12.5uV  -85     
S-6          6.25uV  -91      
S-5          3.13uV  -97      
S-4          1.56uV  -103      
S-3          0.78uV  -109      
S-2          0.39uV  -115      
S-1          0.20uV  -121      
S-0          0.10uV  -127

The source of this chart is ARRL's QST Magazine DEC2009, Page 45

There many ways to calibrate your S-Meter, but that lies outside of the scope of this blog. For our purposes here relative measurements will more than suffice.  So let say you are on 40 meters, typically the "noise" will be S3, or about -109dBm (your location and radio will vary, but work with me here). If your receiver has an MDS (minimum detectable signal) of -131dBm, it means you’re loosing 22dB of your dynamic range to the noise! (131-109=22dB). In this case, the S-meter is more-or-less giving you an absolute power DIFFERENCE between its MDS and the noise floor, in dB.

You then hear a CW (or any other kind) station calling CQ, and he has a S7 signal. Therefore S7-S3=S4 or 109-85=24db, so a +24db, that is a fairly clean and easy signal to work. Are you with me so far?

In my previous blog Signal to Noise Ratio - Rainbows in the Dark I created files of where I thought certain digital modes could be work under the noise level (SNR).  With some digital modes listening and decoding signals that are much much harder than that. In my previous example file of about a -7db signal, I'm talking about a -109db+7db=116db or one S-Unit under the noise! By now, we have all seen that WSPR can do -27db (maybe less).  In my last blog in this series, I posted that "CW@20WPM could only be done at -7db or better" (this was sure to draw fire from all camps)

I had a few folks tell me that they could do much better, one fellow whom I trust Dick /k2UFT, basically agreed with my -7db level estimates, but wisely suggested that I should re-do the files and embed a secret word with each file. In that way the testers would be blind and could then report what they heard and decoded.

So here is my new challenge, listen to the new files, preferably just once, just like a real QSO copy. Then  please email me (or blog post) the correct secret word embedded in each. Never mind about -3db and above, those are easy, right? -- just focus on -5db and below. Since so many folk were so confidant that could do better than -7db, I have taken the time to create four additional files with even more noisier levels. (HINT: all of the words are 8 char long)


I know, I know... I can hear you thinking out there, "What if you use a computer?", knock yourselves out, FLdigi away and/or any DSP filter you'd like to use, remember just keep it like a real QSO. Also there is no prize for being right or first, so why cheat?

As an update, I also worked with Eric /ab3DI on PSK31 vs WSPR last week, we were not able to validate that a two-way PSK31 QSO can take place @ -10db (so for now this remains a guess-ti-mate)

For those of you that are only on SSB -- What value does this provide you?? WSPR can provide you a baseline, granted for voice SSB the SNRs have better be positive. If you like to check what your link budget is for a given path, simply have your station and the remote station fire up WSPR and let them run for a day or two on the given band and given power. This will reveal the observed SNR between those points (hourly). Please understand, time of day and time of year, WX, and solar activity will all be variables, but at least you'll know that on that day you had that SNR, albeit it will vary over time but if your net is always at the same time of day, chances are the numbers you observed will provide you with a "reasonable" estimate to base further decisions concerning moving your net to a different band or time. Also no need to do just 2 stations at a time, for a regional net have a bunch of the guys try it all at once, the WSPR database will sort out all of the link budgets at once.

Once last idea, if you have a program like VOAprop by g4ILO (an excellent program!) you can use your WSPR data (observed data) to calibrate your other VOA predictions (predicted data), and in the end be able to make better predictions.

73 ki4SGU

PS. This blog series has been mentioned on SOLDERSMOKE PODCAST 118 (QRP & Homebrewers Inspirational Incense)


  1. Dick /k2UFT was nice enough to let me share these with you all...

    /// [1]
    OK - I think my inclinations were correct, the ability to copy lower than 0 using the same string of characters getting progressively weaker is definitely influenced by the learning curve.

    In your new set of recordings, at -3 all I could get was VVV NEG03 SHIP, at 0 all I got was VVV EVEN00 ESH??? 012, at +3, first try I got VVV POS03 DECKHAND 000.
    There was no copy at -15, -13, -11; at -9, trace of tone, at -7, copied VV...; at --5 copied VVV ?; ... So somewhere between 0 and +3 is my copying by ear threshold

    What surprised me was I could copy as well on the laptop speakers as I could on a set of headphones, in fact, copy was easier on the speakers as they seemed to reduce the background hiss.

    Thanks for the plug / 73 Dick K2UFT

    /// [2]
    Be my guest on posting. I do remember copying grayback somewhere among the tries but left it off of my notes. If I recall, it took about 3 passes before I copied it correctly. That was before I plugged in earphones. Earworms threw me completely, somehow I got ESH quite a few times and probably gave up since I don't know too many words that begin with ESH...

    73 Dick K2UFT

  2. Everyone is invited to GARS Techfest January 9, 2010.

  3. Simply amazing !! -9db by ear alone!

    Tue, November 17, 2009 11:42:06 AM
    From: "John P. Cummins, Sr."
    Here is what I copied with my ears and with no help from
    any electronic or mechanical apparatus

    -5 = GRAYBACK
    -7 = HOMEWORK
    -9 = JIMMINEY ??

    I think I might have been able to copy -11 with my headphones but was in a hurry.
    Pickett, AD4S

    Tue, November 17, 2009 1:43:07 PM
    From: John P. Cummins, Sr.
    To: Jorge de la Torre
    I put the headphones on and got: IMMINENT
    and I will be 74 years old in January.
    and you can post my results..!!

    Pickett, AD4S

  4. I was able to copy at the -9 level with a pair of Sony 7506 studio headphones ($90). Even with my Etymotics 6i earbuds used for audiophile mixing, I was not able to copy at lower levels, although was able to make out some more characters. I've noticed - coming from an audio background - that radio amateurs tend to use low quality headphones - they can make a difference. Maybe even give a decade back on age-related hearing loss....which is normal.

    Phil, W3HZZ