How to determine the amount of RF Preamp gain to apply for band conditions

Content provided by: Gerald, K5SDR

When do you need to use the RF Preamp?

On HF - almost never. 

Before the instructions on how to set the preamp, a description of how signal strength is read and the effect of RF preamp gain on signals are warranted.

FlexRadio transceivers measure the signal strength at the antenna terminals in the same way that a spectrum analyzer does. If you change the RF preamp settings (turned on or to a higher gain value depending on the transceiver), if an improvement happens, the noise floor goes DOWN and the signal level stays the same.  Remember that when you engage the preamp, you have not changed the signal level at the antenna terminal. You have, however; improved the signal to noise ratio (SNR) with the preamp and therefore the noise will go down in reference to a fixed signal level. The previous statement holds true in all cases except one. That is if the radio is antenna noise limited.  

There is a caveat to adding RF preamplification; it reduces the dynamic range of the radio. If you enable the preamp (or increase gain by n-dB) and the noise floor in a FLEX-6000 goes down, the preamp will likely improve the SNR because it is exposing signals that were below the noise floor, which was NOT the atmospheric noise floor -- it was the noise figure of the preamp preventing optimal SNR. If the noise floor does not drop or it goes up, this means that you were already receiving at the atmospheric noise floor and you just (a) added unneeded gain and noise and, (b) decreased the dynamic range of your radio by the gain of the preamp.

For each 10dB of RG gain you add, it decreases your overload on the "high end" (large signal) by 10dB. If the noise floor only goes down by 1dB when you enable an additional 10 dB of RF preamplification, you decreased your dynamic range by 9dB.

In general, no RF pre-amplification is usually needed on most HF bands due to environmental and atmospheric noise at most QTHs versus the radio's internal noise.  If you add 10dB of attenuation and your noise floor does not rise, it means that your noise figure is well below the atmospheric noise floor. By adding 10dB of attenuation, you just added 10dB to your overload point and therefore an additional 10dB to your dynamic range. 

As a rule of thumb, you want your antenna noise to show an increase in your S-meter by 8-10 dB and no more. When this condition is met, it means that your receiver is not adding additional noise to the signal and that you have the correct RF preamp gain to maximize performance and optimize your signal to noise ratio (SNR). If the noise goes up more than 10 dB with the RF preamp and antenna, you have too much RF gain and the SNR is degraded.

  1. Here is the process to optimize receiver sensitivity for your given operating conditions:
    Find a clear frequency on your VFO. Bandwidth doesn't matter.
  2. Disconnect the antenna - You can select an input with no connection like RXA or XVTA.
  3. Note the dBm reading with no antenna
  4. Connect the antenna
  5. Note the reading in dBm. This is where an accurate dBm calibrated S meter really counts. Ours is truly 6 dB per S unit and measures the actual receiver sensitivity in the selected bandwidth.
  6. If the noise goes up about 8-10 dB, you have the optimal setting for the noise on your antenna for the given time of day and propagation.
  7. If the noise goes up significantly more than 10 dB, you have too much preamp gain, which will limit dynamic range for large signals. Reduce preamp gain.
  8. If the noise goes up much less than 8 dB, increase preamp gain to get it close.

If you are not working weak signals near the noise floor, then less sensitivity is better because you want to use the least amount of preamp gain that allows you to hear the signals of interest. Even attenuation can be helpful on the lower bands. This maximizes large signal dynamic range.

Why is the FLEX-6600 noise levels +10dB higher vs. the FLEX-6500 or FLEX-6700?

Now to the difference between the FLEX-6500/FLEX-6700 and the FLEX-6600. The FLEX-6600 incorporates 7th order bandpass filters on all of the HF contest bands. The 6500/6700 incorporate 3rd order filters on those bands. The 7th order filters provide greater than 50 dB of band to band isolation between the contest bands at the cost of higher insertion loss. This is excellent for Field Day, SO2R, and other contesting configurations. This additional loss is easily compensated with additional preamp gain if required.

Let's take a look at the default preamp gain strategy for the 6400 and 6600 radios. We used the "Rural" noise floor numbers for our calculations to set the default gain for each band. Note that the 6400 filters have a lower loss on the contest bands because it uses 3rd order preselector filters on all bands just as the 6500 and 6700 do. Below you can see the ITU typical noise power in dBm in a 500 Hz bandwidth with S unit call outs in red.


Given the Rural noise floor for each band and the receiver noise for each band we calculated a the target sensitivity to be 10 dB below the ITU typical. We then picked the preamp or attenuation setting. The table below shows the gain setting and the expected MDS with no antenna attached for that setting on the respective radio. If you need more or less gain for your location, antenna and operating conditions use the procedure above to adjust accordingly.



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  • 0
    Don Niles (K2PMC)

    I did your test on 20M. With preamp on and no antenna -126db. Preamp on and antenna connected -106. This would suggest too much preamp. However, with antenna connected and preamp off the reading is -86db. And, it is apparent when looking at signals on the panadapter they are much more readable with the preamp on. Am I missing something?


  • 1
    Tim Ellison

    Perform the test with the preamp off and look at the difference in dBm.

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