A variable attenuator is a circuit that continuously or gradually reduces the power of an input signal without noticeable signal distortion while keeping the impedance match nearly constant.
An attenuator can be used to provide precise impedance matching, since most fixed attenuators provide a well-defined impedance, or attenuators can be used in various signal level control applications. Whatever RF design techniques and techniques are used, all attenuators serve to reduce the signal level and, surprisingly, this can have many benefits in a variety of situations. RF attenuators are essential in many areas of RF circuit design, providing the ability to control the signal level at a given point in a circuit or system. RF attenuators are typically used to protect sensitive instrumentation or circuits from high-level RF signals, but they can also be used to extend the range of RF power meters and amplifiers.
FET attenuators can also be used to switch different values of electronic components in a circuit to achieve the desired level of attenuation. For example, attenuators are used at the input of an electronic device to minimize voltage or current to a value that the device can control. Attenuators are commonly used in electronic circuits to provide adequate and safe voltage. Attenuators can be designed using PIN diodes and these are used to provide different levels of attenuation.
Microwave power can be adjusted using PIN diode attenuators, which are used as control elements in most electronically adjustable attenuators. Waveguide variable attenuators provide fully electronic attenuation control, such as the use of PIN diodes to adjust the attenuation level of a component.
Waveguide tunable attenuators are particularly useful in test and measurement systems and in applications where the desired final level is not precisely known or may be within a range of levels. Waveguide attenuators can provide such control, fixed attenuators provide a single attenuation setting, and a variable attenuator provides a range of attenuation control over the desired frequency range. Using feedback techniques, attenuation can be dynamically controlled to maintain the desired attenuation level based on input and output power measurements. By controlling the voltage across a FET or the current across a diode, the specific attenuation can be varied with higher resolution than passive resistor networks.
The distortion created by the attenuator is small because the power is absorbed by the resistive elements and not by the PIN diodes. The bit-switching attenuator is very temperature tolerant because PIN diodes are not used across the full range of dynamic resistance, they are simply used as switching elements, toggling bits of the attenuator in and out of circuits. Fixed resistors are used, and accurate attenuation levels can be achieved with them, although the types of resistors used need not be inductive, and the design of the circuit must ensure that no signal leaks through each element.
Resistive attenuators are used as volume controls for radio stations and can also be used to match circuits with different resistive impedances. Passive attenuators are used in a variety of electronic devices to extend the dynamic range of an instrument by adjusting the signal level, to match the impedance of an oscillator or amplifier, to reduce the effects of mismatched input/output signals, or simply to provide isolation between different stages.