Intermediate frequency

The IF stage from a Motorola 19K1 television set circa 1949.

In communications and electronic engineering, an intermediate frequency (IF) is a frequency to which a carrier wave is shifted as an intermediate step in transmission or reception.[1] The intermediate frequency is created by mixing the carrier signal with a local oscillator signal in a process called heterodyning, resulting in a signal at the difference or beat frequency. Intermediate frequencies are used in superheterodyne radio receivers, in which an incoming signal is shifted to an IF for amplification before final detection is done.

Conversion to an intermediate frequency is useful for several reasons. When several stages of filters are used, they can all be set to a fixed frequency, which makes them easier to build and to tune. Lower frequency transistors generally have higher gains so fewer stages are required. It's easier to make sharply selective filters at lower fixed frequencies.

There may be several such stages of intermediate frequency in a superheterodyne receiver; two or three stages are called double (alternatively, dual) or triple conversion, respectively.

Reasons for using IF

Intermediate frequencies are used for three general reasons.[2][3] At very high (gigahertz) frequencies, signal processing circuitry performs poorly. Active devices such as transistors cannot deliver much amplification (gain).[1][4] Ordinary circuits using capacitors and inductors must be replaced with cumbersome high frequency techniques such as striplines and waveguides. So a high frequency signal is converted to a lower IF for more convenient processing. For example, in satellite dishes, the microwave downlink signal received by the dish is converted to a much lower IF at the dish, to allow a relatively inexpensive coaxial cable to carry the signal to the receiver inside the building. Bringing the signal in at the original microwave frequency would require an expensive waveguide.

A second reason, in receivers that can be tuned to different frequencies, is to convert the various different frequencies of the stations to a common frequency for processing. It is difficult to build multistage amplifiers, filters, and detectors that can have all stages track in tuning different frequencies, but it is comparatively easy to build tunable oscillators. Superheterodyne receivers tune in different frequencies by adjusting the frequency of the local oscillator on the input stage, and all processing after that is done at the same fixed frequency, the IF. Without using an IF, all the complicated filters and detectors in a radio or television would have to be tuned in unison each time the frequency was changed, as was necessary in the early tuned radio frequency receivers. A more important advantage is that it gives the receiver a constant bandwidth over its tuning range. The bandwidth of a filter is proportional to its center frequency. In receivers like the TRF in which the filtering is done at the incoming RF frequency, as the receiver is tuned to higher frequencies its bandwidth increases.

The main reason for using an intermediate frequency is to improve frequency selectivity.[1] In communication circuits, a very common task is to separate out or extract signals or components of a signal that are close together in frequency. This is called filtering. Some examples are, picking up a radio station among several that are close in frequency, or extracting the chrominance subcarrier from a TV signal. With all known filtering techniques the filter's bandwidth increases proportionately with the frequency. So a narrower bandwidth and more selectivity can be achieved by converting the signal to a lower IF and performing the filtering at that frequency. FM and television broadcasting with their narrow channel widths, as well as more modern telecommunications services such as cell phones and cable television, would be impossible without using frequency conversion.[5]


Perhaps the most commonly used intermediate frequencies for broadcast receivers are around 455 kHz for AM receivers and 10.7 MHz for FM receivers. In special purpose receivers other frequencies can be used. A dual-conversion receiver may have two intermediate frequencies, a higher one to improve image rejection and a second, lower one, for desired selectivity. A first intermediate frequency may even be higher than the input signal, so that all undesired responses can be easily filtered out by a fixed-tuned RF stage.[6]

In a digital receiver, the analog to digital converter (ADC) operates at low sampling rates, so input RF must be mixed down to IF to be processed. Intermediate frequency tends to be lower frequency range compared to the transmitted RF frequency. However, the choices for the IF are most dependent on the available components such as mixer, filters, amplifiers and others that can operate at lower frequency. There are other factors involved in deciding the IF frequency, because lower IF is susceptible to noise and higher IF can cause clock jitters.

Modern satellite television receivers use several intermediate frequencies.[7] The 500 television channels of a typical system are transmitted from the satellite to subscribers in the Ku microwave band, in two subbands of 10.7 - 11.7 and 11.7 - 12.75 GHz. The downlink signal is received by a satellite dish. In the box at the focus of the dish, called a low-noise block downconverter (LNB), each block of frequencies is converted to the IF range of 950 - 2150 MHz by two fixed frequency local oscillators at 9.75 and 10.6 GHz. One of the two blocks is selected by a control signal from the set top box inside, which switches on one of the local oscillators. This IF is carried into the building to the television receiver on a coaxial cable. At the cable company's set top box, the signal is converted to a lower IF of 480 MHz for filtering, by a variable frequency oscillator.[7] This is sent through a 30 MHz bandpass filter, which selects the signal from one of the transponders on the satellite, which carries several channels. Further processing selects the channel desired, demodulates it and sends the signal to the television.


An intermediate frequency was first used in the superheterodyne radio receiver, invented by American scientist Major Edwin Armstrong in 1918, during World War I.[8][9] A member of the Signal Corps, Armstrong was building radio direction finding equipment to track German military signals at the then-very high frequencies of 500 to 3500 kHz. The triode vacuum tube amplifiers of the day would not amplify stably above 500 kHz, however, it was easy to get them to oscillate above that frequency. Armstrong's solution was to set up an oscillator tube that would create a frequency near the incoming signal, and mix it with the incoming signal in a 'mixer' tube, creating a 'heterodyne' or signal at the lower difference frequency, where it could be amplified easily. For example, to pick up a signal at 1500 kHz the local oscillator would be tuned to 1450 kHz. Mixing the two created an intermediate frequency of 50 kHz, which was well within the capability of the tubes.

After the war, in 1920, Armstrong sold the patent for the superheterodyne to Westinghouse, who subsequently sold it to RCA. The increased complexity of the superheterodyne circuit compared to earlier regenerative or tuned radio frequency receiver designs slowed its use, but the advantages of the intermediate frequency for selectivity and static rejection eventually won out; by 1930, most radios sold were 'superhets'. During the development of radar in World War II, the superheterodyne principle was essential for downconversion of the very high radar frequencies to intermediate frequencies. Since then, the superheterodyne circuit, with its intermediate frequency, has been used in virtually all radio receivers.

Commonly used intermediate frequencies

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 F. Langford Smith (ed) Radiotron Designer's Handbook, 3rd Edition (Wireless Press 1946) Page 99
  2. Army Technical Manual TM 11-665: C-W and A-M Radio Transmitters and Receivers. US Dept. of the Army. 1952. pp. 195–197.
  3. Rembovsky, Anatoly; Ashikhmin, Alexander; Kozmin, Vladimir; et al. (2009). Radio Monitoring: Problems, Methods and Equipment. Springer Science and Business Media. p. 26. ISBN 0387981004.
  4. The 1946 Radiotron Designer's Handbook observes on page 159 that some short-wave receivers operate with an IF of 1600 kHz and that "At such a high frequency one or two additional IF stages are required are necessary to provide sufficient gain."
  5. Dixon, Robert (1998). Radio Receiver Design. CRC Press. pp. 57–61. ISBN 0824701615.
  6. Wes Hayward, Doug De Maw (ed),Solid state design for the radio amateur, (American Radio Relay League, 1977) pp. 82-87
  7. 1 2 Lundstrom, Lars-Ingemar Lundstrom (2006). Understanding Digital Television: An Introduction to DVB Systems with Satellite, Cable, Broadband and Terrestrial. US: Taylor & Francis. pp. 81–83. ISBN 0240809068.
  8. Redford, John (February 1996). "Edwin Howard Armstrong". Doomed Engineers. John Redford's personal website. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
  9. alisdair. "Superheterodyne". Retrieved 2008-05-10.
  10. Ravalico D. E., Radioelementi, Milan, Hoepli, 1992.
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