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How to measure LDO noise

Kyle Van Renterghem


System Engineer
LDOs and Supervisors
Texas Instruments
Because measuring noise can be a difficult task, pay
particular attention to the hardware setup and analyzer
configuration before taking any measurements.

Low-dropout regulators (LDOs) are used to regulate a higher input voltage down to a
lower output voltage. Unlike switching regulators, LDOs are easy to implement and do
not create high levels of switching noise. Many applications use a switching regulator to
efficiently convert one voltage to another, and then use an LDO to filter and clean up the
voltage before it goes to the actual load device.
Device noise is a physical phenomenon due to the resistors and transistors in a circuit.
The bandgap is the largest internal noise source in an LDO.[1] This explains why low-
noise LDOs have a noise reduction pin which filters the bandgap noise using an external
capacitor, referred to as the NR cap. The customer attaches a capacitor to this pin
which creates a low-pass filter in conjunction with a large internal resistor. While the
NR capacitor offers bandgap noise filtering, it also slows the rise of the bandgap (and
therefore the output voltage) during startup.

The input voltage, output capacitor, and load current with your applications needs. Most datasheets
have little effect upon the LDOs output noise. The report RMS noise with the LDO in a unity-gain
noise can be reduced by connecting a capacitor configuration because the output noise is typically
from the LDOs output to the LDOs feedback node proportional to the gain. So if you know the unity-
(assuming the device is not being used in a unity- gain RMS noise voltage and the gain needed for
gain configuration). [2] This capacitor is known as your output voltage, you can quickly estimate what
a feed-forward cap, CFF. At high frequencies this the RMS noise voltage for your application will be.
capacitor looks more like a short, thereby reducing When comparing various LDOs, it is important to
the LDOs closed-loop gain, preventing the error compare the RMS noise at the actual output voltage
amplifier from amplifying high-frequency noise. Like you plan to use in your application.
the noise reduction capacitor, a CFF increases the
AC-
Coupling
start up time. Capacitor

Noise is often shown in a datasheet in two different Power


Supply
LDO/Filter EVM Amplifier
Spectrum
Analyzer

ways: 1) showing a plot of the spectral noise density


(in V/ Hz) versus frequency; and 2) including a line Figure 1. Block diagram of noise measurement setup.
in the electrical characteristics table stating the root-
mean-square (RMS) noise voltage in VRMS. The Noise measurement block diagram
RMS noise voltage equals the spectral noise density The block diagram in Figure 1 represents the
integrated over a specific frequency range (often noise measurement setup, which we will discuss
10 Hz-100 kHz or 100 Hz-100 kHz). This gives a later in more detail. The power supply powers
quick way of comparing the noise performance of the evaluation module (EVM), which is the printed
various LDOs, assuming the frequency range aligns circuit board (PCB) on which the LDO is placed.

How to measure LDO noise 2 July 2015


The LDO or filter before that is optional and reduces you will need to gain up the LDOs output in order
the noise coming from the power supply. The AC- to properly measure the LDOs output noise. Keep
coupling capacitor only allows the AC signal to be in mind that the noise density with multiple noise
transmitted to the subsequent circuitry. The amplifier sources is calculated by taking the root-sum-square
is also optional and allows the spectrum analyzer to of the noise sources (1):
measure the signal more easily. The amplifier is only
(1)
needed if the noise floor (noise measured without Noise density = x1 2 + x22 + ...+ xn2
an EVM connected) is too high relative to the LDOs
noise output.
There are other noise sources that need to be
Be sure that your resolution bandwidth (RBW), considered when making noise measurements,
which sets the width of the spectrum analyzers including noise internal to the spectrum analyzer
bandpass filter, is at least a decade smaller than as well as external noise sources present in the lab
your measured frequency. The smaller the RBW, where the measurement is taking place. However,
the more resolution you will see on specific you can lump all these noise sources together,
frequency content; however, a smaller RBW which becomes the effective noise floor, NNF. This is
will also increase the measurement time. Many the lowest noise measurable on your equipment in
analyzers have an AUTO feature that will increase your lab.
the RBW as frequency is increased to reduce the
To find the noise floor for your measurement, mimic
total measurement time. You may need to set the
your actual setup as closely as possible without
minimum or maximum RBW to use this feature
actually inserting the device to be tested. Once
effectively. The video bandwidth (VBW) sets the
you have the noise floor of the test setup, compare
amount of smoothing shown on the screen and it
that to the expected output noise of the device
usually should be set equal to the RBW.
under test, NDUT, to ensure that you can measure
Finally, since we are measuring noise, whos it properly. As a general rule of thumb, the noise
magnitude fluctuates due to noises random density of the measured device should be ten
properties, it is important to use the spectrum times larger than the noise floor of the setup. This
analyzers built-in averaging function, which will will keep the contribution of the noise floor to your
make multiple measurements of each point and measurement to about 0.5%. Equations 2 and 3 are
average the results. Note this is not a rolling used for determining the percent error due to the
average, which averages adjacent points, but noise floor, so you can determine what is acceptable
an average of multiple measurements at each for your situation.
frequency. As a general rule, we usually set the
If N OUT = x i N NF (2)
sample average somewhere between 25 and 50.
where N OUT is the noise density of the LDO, N NF is
Noise floor N
the noise floor, and x is the proportion of OUT
N NF
All measuring equipment has a finite resolution. For
a spectrum analyzer, this limitation is often referred
The percent
to as the noise floor. Any signal below the noise floor
error due to = x 2 +1
cannot be resolved by the analyzer. If the noise of 1 100% (3)
the noise floor x
the LDO is close to the noise floor of the analyzer,

How to measure LDO noise 3 July 2015


Amplifier AC-coupling capacitor
If the noise floor of your spectrum analyzer is too Most spectrum analyzers have input terminals that
high and causes an unacceptable amount of error are 50 terminated and cannot sink much current.
in your measurement, you can do one of two things: To keep from damaging them, the impedance of
1) buy a better spectrum analyzer; or 2) buy a low- the input terminal you need to increase. Some
noise, high-speed amplifier and use it to create a manufacturers offer high-impedance active probes;
non-inverting gain circuit. Option two may take more however, these will introduce their own noise into
time to implement correctly. You have to choose the the measurement since they are active components.
right operational amplifier (op amp), layout a board, A better way to create a high-impedance input is to
and have that board fabricated and assembled. use an AC-coupling capacitor. Usually capacitors
However, it will be significantly less expensive than are used in a bypass configuration with one terminal
buying a piece of high-performance test equipment. connected to the signal of interest and the other

If you decide to use an amplifier, make sure that the terminal connected to ground. Assuming an ideal

gain bandwidth product (GBP) is suitable for your capacitor with infinite capacitance, in a bypass

needs. Ideally you want the gain to be flat over the configuration the DC signal passes through while

range of frequencies where youll be measuring the the AC signal is shorted to ground. However, if we

output noise. For example, if you need a gain of connect one terminal of the capacitor to the output

40 dB (100 V/V) to get far enough above the noise of the LDO and the other terminal to where we

floor of your spectrum analyzer, and you want to make our measurement, the capacitor will block

measure the noise out to 10 MHz, your op amp the DC signal while allowing the AC signal to pass

should have a GBP of at least 1 GHz. If you can through, thus the name AC-coupling capacitor. In

obtain such an amplifier, you can simply divide your our case the DC is the nominal output voltage and

measured results by its gain. If, on the other hand, the AC signal is the noise voltage, which is what we

your amplifier exhibits high-frequency rolloff, you can want to measure.

measure its gain versus frequency, and then divide Since the AC-coupling capacitor has a finite
your measurement at each point by the amplifiers capacitance, it creates a high-pass filter that
gain at that frequency. attenuates signals below its cutoff frequency, fc.

The op amps input-referred noise should be as low The cutoff frequency is inversely proportional to

as possible, as this noise will be amplified by the the product of the coupling capacitance and the

circuits gain. Be careful not to let the self-generated resistance of the spectrum analyzers input terminal.

noise of the op amp obscure the signal from the Since the impedance of the spectrum analyzer is

LDO as this would defeat the purpose of the a fixed value, usually 50 , the capacitance of the

amplifier. Another noise contributor is the resistors AC-coupling capacitor determines how low of a

used to set the gain of the non-inverting amplifier. frequency can be accurately measured. Equation 4

Resistors produce thermal noise that is proportional can be used for calculating the capacitance of the

to the square root of their resistance, so choose AC-coupling capacitor.

the smallest resistance values that will not overload


1
the amplifier (remember that the amplifier must C AC = (4)
2 RIN fc
also drive the input impedance of the spectrum
analyzer).

How to measure LDO noise 4 July 2015


Since the cutoff frequency is the point where the
filter has already started attenuating the signal by 3
dB, select a cutoff frequency that is approximately
an order of magnitude lower than the lowest
frequency you will be measuring. As an example, if
you want to accurately measure down to 10 Hz with
an analyzer with a 50 input terminal, you will need
approximately 3 mF of capacitance. Remember to
account for capacitor tolerances, voltage derating,
and even temperature derating, if your testing will
be performed at a temperature other than room
Figure 3. Our shielded 5100 uF AC-coupling cap which is used for
temperature. Figure 2 shows one of our first AC- making low noise measurements.
coupling caps made to measure down to 10 Hz. We
simply soldered a bunch of caps in parallel onto a Power supplies
protoboard and then soldered a wire to each end. One way for noise to sneak into your measurement
This works, however, when measuring very low- is through the power supply. This includes both
noise LDOs, environmental noise can become an the power supply for the LDO and the power
issue. supply for any amplifiers used to gain up the LDOs
output. If available, use batteries to power both the
LDO and any gain circuitry; however, this can be
a challenge with high-current LDOs. The battery
voltage may require the voltage to be stepped down
to the desired supply voltage for the measurement.
Benchtop power supplies are convenient because
their outputs can be easily adjusted and they dont
run out of charge; however, they tend to be rather
noisy.

The output of most benchtop power supplies have


Figure 2. Our first unshielded 4000 F AC-coupling capacitor for
making noise measurements.
large spikes in the spectral noise density at the
line cycle frequency (typically 50 or 60 Hz) and
Figure 3 shows an AC-coupling capacitor we
the switching frequency of the internal converter.
made later that was shielded from environmental
Some bench top power supplies operate as linear
noise and used subminiature version A (SMA)
supplies, but the majority of most modern benchtop
connectors so all connections can be made using
supplies contain switching converters and should
shielded cables. This helped to minimize any noise
not be used without addressing the additional noise
pickup that was not coming from the device being
spikes at the switching frequency and its harmonics.
measured.
There are two ways to reduce power supply noise.
The first is to use brute-force passive filtering:
you simply build a low-pass pi filter with a cutoff

How to measure LDO noise 5 July 2015


frequency below the line cycle frequency. Such a cables reduces the noise picked up by the wires.
filter will be very large in physical size due to the Figure 4 shows an example of a test setup in a
large value inductors and capacitors. The second shielding box (with the top open); note the foam on
approach for filtering supply noise is to use a low- the bottom which prevents any shorts to ground.
noise, high-power supply rejection ratio (PSRR)
LDO as a filter. This results in a much smaller and Grounded metal box
shields measurement Coax from input supply
cheaper solution. Note that many LDOs lack high from environmental
noise
levels of PSRR at higher frequencies which is
TPS7A4700RGW:
EVM being tested
where many switching regulators operate.[3] The filters input
power supply
TPS7A47xx family of devices may be a good choice
for filtering high-frequency switching noise due to 5mF AC coupling
capacitor
its low output noise and wide-bandwidth PSRR. If a
Coax to Analyzer
suitable LDO cannot be found, use a small LC filter
to filter the switching noise.

Figure 4. Test setup in shielded box.


Shielding
No unshielded environment is free of environmental Loading the LDO
noise. This noise can appear at various points in the The last noise source to consider is the one
measurement setup. One area most likely to pick associated with the load. For a lot of automated
up environmental noise is the cabling being used testing, electronic loads are used because they
to make the measurements. The wires connecting are easily configurable to any value. However,
the positive and negative terminals of any supply when measuring noise always use resistive loads.
or measurement line are extremely susceptible Electronic loads generate their own noise profile due
to noise pickup as they create large inductive to the active circuitry they contain, and their use will
loops. Magnetic fields present in the measurement negatively affect the measurement.
environment can induce undesired high-frequency
currents in these inductive loops. To minimize these What to do with all this data?
induced currents and the noise associated with Most spectrum analyzers record the measured
them, use shielded cables and either Bayonet Neill- noise in dBV/Hz. You will need to convert these
Concelman (BNC) or SMA connectors whenever values into V/Hz. If an amplifier is being used,
feasible. these values by the amplifier gain, in V/V. After
If shielded cables are not available, keep the wires doing this for all the measured data points, you can
divide as short as possible and twist the positive graph that data versus frequency to generate the
and negative wires together to minimize the spectral noise density plot as shown in many LDO
inductive loop they create. Another good practice datasheets. Equation 5 shows how to convert from
is to put the device being measured and any other dBV/Hz to V/Hz.
boards into a grounded metal box. This box acts
as a shield for the boards used in making the dBV
V 20
=10 HZ (5)
measurement, much like the shielding on shielded
HZ

How to measure LDO noise 6 July 2015


Once you have the spectral density in V/Hz, you as possible. This gives a more accurate picture
can calculate the RMS noise by calculating the area of the noise that the load device sees at its input
under the graph across the bandwidth of interest supply since high-frequency noise can easily couple
(industry standards are 10 Hz-100 kHz and 100 Hz- through various parasitic paths to either the ground
100 kHz). To calculate this area, integrate the noise plane, supply plane, or both.
across the chosen bandwidth. If you have your Place the measurement connection as close to
data in Microsoft Excel and have converted it to the load device as possible as this will give a more
V/Hz, then you can graphically integrate the data accurate picture of the actual noise seen by the
as follows: average two adjacent points, square this load. If the board to be used does not have a SMA
number and then divide by the change in frequency or BNC connection at the output, one trick is to
between these points. Repeat this process for solder a SMA connector across the terminals of
every point in the frequency band of interest, sum either the input capacitor of the load device, or the
all of the calculations, then take the square root of output capacitor of the LDO. Note that this can
that summation. Equation 6 is the mathematical be a bit tricky to accomplish, therefore, be careful
representation of all of the above steps: with the connecting wires as they can put enough
mechanical torque on the capacitor to rip it off the
(N )
2
(n-1) +N n
RMS Noise = board (and may take the pads with it).
fn -f(n-1)
V (6) Pre-production noise benchmarking
where N n is the spectral noise in
HZ
To compare various LDOs without putting them
and fn is the frequency
on the production board, use evaluation modules
Measuring noise in an application (EVMs) to measure their output noise. It is possible
for the EVM to give different results than a
To measure the noise that a system will see
production board using the same circuit because
due to its power supply, the LDO should be
of the differences in parasitic coupling caused by
powered by whichever circuitry will be used in
different component placements and routing. To test
the actual application. This shows the noise that
an LDO on an EVM, remember to use a resistive
the downstream components see and is really
load instead of an electronic load to minimize the
a combination of the internally generated noise
loads noise contribution. Ground this load resistor
of the LDO, plus the noise of the LDOs power
as close to the negative terminal of the input power
supply, which is attenuated by the LDOs power
supply as possible to avoid generating excessive
supply rejection ratio. So if the LDO is going to be
noise on the ground plane. Large ground currents
powered by a switching regulator, it is best to use
on the relatively small ground plane of an EVM can
the exact same switching regulator used to measure
affect the noise measurement. See Figure 5 for an
the noise. You can use two separate EVMs wired
example.
together to represent the switcher and the LDO, but
ideally this measurement should be made on either
the final production board, or one that is as similar

How to measure LDO noise 7 July 2015


Additional pointers
Make sure that the noise floor of the measurement
equipment is lower than the noise floor of the LDO.
If the noise floor is larger than or close to the noise of
the LDO, use a low-noise op amp to gain up the noise
Keep the gain resistors small to limit their noise
contributions
Check to see that the gain you are using is flat across
Figure 5. Grounding the load resistor near the input supply. the frequency range you are measuring.
if its not flat, either lower the gain or make sure you
Use shielded connections whenever possible to account for the gains roll off when converting the
limit the size of any inductive loops. If the EVM does noise data.
not have a SMA or BNC connection at the output, Once you have the noise data in uV/Hz, divide by
try soldering a SMA connector across the terminals the gain of the amplifier in V/V.
of the LDOs output cap. As noted before, this The AC-coupling capacitor should be large (3-10 mF for
can prove tricky to accomplish and the resulting measuring 10 Hz) to ensure that the low-frequency noise
arrangement is fragile. is adequately captured.
Keep all connections and wires as short as possible and/
Quick setup guide
or shielded to reduce environmental noise pick up.
1. Set up the LDO and the board in preparation for testing.
2. Connect required load to VOUT using a resistive load, References
preferably grounded close to the input supply. 1. John C. Teel. Understanding Noise in Linear Regulators,
3. Place the EVM in a metal (or metal-coated) box Texas Instruments Analog Applications Journal (slyt201),
and ground it at the input supply to shield it from 2Q 2005
environmental noise. 2. Masashi Nogawa. LDO Noise Examined in Detail, Texas
4. Connect required VIN, VOUT, Venable, and so on, using Instruments Analog Applications Journal (slyt489), 4Q
shielded coax cables. 2012
5. Connect one side of the AC-coupling capacitor to the 3. Masashi Nogawa and Kyle Van Renterghem. Wide
output of the EVM. Then connect the other side of the AC- Bandwidth PSRR of LDOs, Bodos Power Systems,
coupling capacitor to the analyzer used for measurement. pp. 46-49, Mar 2011
6. Run the measurement. 4. Product Folders: TPS7A47, TPS7A35, TPS7A83

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