In the common-emitter section of this chapter, we saw a SPICE analysis where the output waveform resembled a half-wave rectified shape: only half of the input waveform was reproduced, with the other half being completely cut off. Since our purpose at that time was to reproduce the entire waveshape, this constituted a problem. The solution to this problem was to add a small bias voltage to the amplifier input so that the transistor stayed in active mode throughout the entire wave cycle. This addition was called a bias voltage.
A half-wave output is not problematic for some applications. In fact, some applications may necessitate this very kind of amplification. Because it is possible to operate an amplifier in modes other than full-wave reproduction and specific applications require different ranges of reproduction, it is useful to describe the degree to which an amplifier reproduces the input waveform by designating it according to class. Amplifier class operation is categorized with alphabetical letters: A, B, C, and AB.
For Class A operation, the entire input waveform is faithfully reproduced. Although I didn't introduce this concept back in the common-emitter section, this is what we were hoping to attain in our simulations. Class A operation can only be obtained when the transistor spends its entire time in the active mode, never reaching either cutoff or saturation. To achieve this, sufficient DC bias voltage is usually set at the level necessary to drive the transistor exactly halfway between cutoff and saturation. This way, the AC input signal will be perfectly “centered” between the amplifier's high and low signal limit levels.
Class B operation is what we had the first time an AC signal was applied to the common-emitter amplifier with no DC bias voltage. The transistor spent half its time in active mode and the other half in cutoff with the input voltage too low (or even of the wrong polarity!) to forward-bias its base-emitter junction.
By itself, an amplifier operating in class B mode is not very useful. In most circumstances, the severe distortion introduced into the waveshape by eliminating half of it would be unacceptable. However, class B operation is a useful mode of biasing if two amplifiers are operated as a push-pull pair, each amplifier handling only half of the waveform at a time:
Transistor Q1 “pushes” (drives the output voltage in a positive direction with respect to ground), while transistor Q2 “pulls” the output voltage (in a negative direction, toward 0 volts with respect to ground). Individually, each of these transistors is operating in class B mode, active only for one-half of the input waveform cycle. Together, however, both function as a team to produce an output waveform identical in shape to the input waveform.
A decided advantage of the class B (push-pull) amplifier design over the class A design is greater output power capability. With a class A design, the transistor dissipates considerable energy in the form of heat because it never stops conducting current. At all points in the wave cycle it is in the active (conducting) mode, conducting substantial current and dropping substantial voltage. There is substantial power dissipated by the transistor throughout the cycle. In a class B design, each transistor spends half the time in cutoff mode, where it dissipates zero power (zero current = zero power dissipation). This gives each transistor a time to “rest” and cool while the other transistor carries the burden of the load. Class A amplifiers are simpler in design, but tend to be limited to low-power signal applications for the simple reason of transistor heat dissipation.
Another class of amplifier operation known as class AB, is somewhere between class A and class B: the transistor spends more than 50% but less than 100% of the time conducting current.
If the input signal bias for an amplifier is slightly negative (opposite of the bias polarity for class A operation), the output waveform will be further “clipped” than it was with class B biasing, resulting in an operation where the transistor spends most of the time in cutoff mode:
At first, this scheme may seem utterly pointless. After all, how useful could an amplifier be if it clips the waveform as badly as this? If the output is used directly with no conditioning of any kind, it would indeed be of questionable utility. However, with the application of a tank circuit (parallel resonant inductor-capacitor combination) to the output, the occasional output surge produced by the amplifier can set in motion a higher-frequency oscillation maintained by the tank circuit. This may be likened to a machine where a heavy flywheel is given an occasional “kick” to keep it spinning:
Called class C operation, this scheme also enjoys high power efficiency due to the fact that the transistor(s) spend the vast majority of time in the cutoff mode, where they dissipate zero power. The rate of output waveform decay (decreasing oscillation amplitude between “kicks” from the amplifier) is exaggerated here for the benefit of illustration. Because of the tuned tank circuit on the output, this circuit is usable only for amplifying signals of definite, fixed amplitude. A class C amplifier may used in an FM (frequency modulation) radio transmitter. However, the class C amplifier may not directly amplify an AM (amplitude modulated) signal due to distortion.
Another kind of amplifier operation, significantly different from Class A, B, AB, or C, is called Class D. It is not obtained by applying a specific measure of bias voltage as are the other classes of operation, but requires a radical re-design of the amplifier circuit itself. It is a little too early in this chapter to investigate exactly how a class D amplifier is built, but not too early to discuss its basic principle of operation.
A class D amplifier reproduces the profile of the input voltage waveform by generating a rapidly-pulsing squarewave output. The duty cycle of this output waveform (time “on” versus total cycle time) varies with the instantaneous amplitude of the input signal. The plots in (Figure below demonstrate this principle.
The greater the instantaneous voltage of the input signal, the greater the duty cycle of the output squarewave pulse. If there can be any goal stated of the class D design, it is to avoid active-mode transistor operation. Since the output transistor of a class D amplifier is never in the active mode, only cutoff or saturated, there will be little heat energy dissipated by it. This results in very high power efficiency for the amplifier. Of course, the disadvantage of this strategy is the overwhelming presence of harmonics on the output. Fortunately, since these harmonic frequencies are typically much greater than the frequency of the input signal, these can be filtered out by a low-pass filter with relative ease, resulting in an output more closely resembling the original input signal waveform. Class D technology is typically seen where extremely high power levels and relatively low frequencies are encountered, such as in industrial inverters (devices converting DC into AC power to run motors and other large devices) and high-performance audio amplifiers.
A term you will likely come across in your studies of electronics is something called quiescent, which is a modifier designating the zero input condition of a circuit. Quiescent current, for example, is the amount of current in a circuit with zero input signal voltage applied. Bias voltage in a transistor circuit forces the transistor to operate at a different level of collector current with zero input signal voltage than it would without that bias voltage. Therefore, the amount of bias in an amplifier circuit determines its quiescent values.
In a class A amplifier, the quiescent current should be exactly half of its saturation value (halfway between saturation and cutoff, cutoff by definition being zero). Class B and class C amplifiers have quiescent current values of zero, since these are supposed to be cutoff with no signal applied. Class AB amplifiers have very low quiescent current values, just above cutoff. To illustrate this graphically, a “load line” is sometimes plotted over a transistor's characteristic curves to illustrate its range of operation while connected to a load resistance of specific value shown in Figure below.
A load line is a plot of collector-to-emitter voltage over a range of collector currents. At the lower-right corner of the load line, voltage is at maximum and current is at zero, representing a condition of cutoff. At the upper-left corner of the line, voltage is at zero while current is at a maximum, representing a condition of saturation. Dots marking where the load line intersects the various transistor curves represent realistic operating conditions for those base currents given.
Quiescent operating conditions may be shown on this graph in the form of a single dot along the load line. For a class A amplifier, the quiescent point will be in the middle of the load line as in (Figure below.)
In this illustration, the quiescent point happens to fall on the curve representing a base current of 40 µA. If we were to change the load resistance in this circuit to a greater value, it would affect the slope of the load line, since a greater load resistance would limit the maximum collector current at saturation, but would not change the collector-emitter voltage at cutoff. Graphically, the result is a load line with a different upper-left point and the same lower-right point as in (Figure below).
Note how the new load line doesn't intercept the 75 µA curve along its flat portion as before. This is very important to realize because the non-horizontal portion of a characteristic curve represents a condition of saturation. Having the load line intercept the 75 µA curve outside of the curve's horizontal range means that the amplifier will be saturated at that amount of base current. Increasing the load resistor value is what caused the load line to intercept the 75 µA curve at this new point, and it indicates that saturation will occur at a lesser value of base current than before.
With the old, lower-value load resistor in the circuit, a base current of 75 µA would yield a proportional collector current (base current multiplied by β). In the first load line graph, a base current of 75 µA gave a collector current almost twice what was obtained at 40 µA, as the β ratio would predict. However, collector current increases marginally between base currents 75 µA and 40 µA, because the transistor begins to lose sufficient collector-emitter voltage to continue to regulate collector current.
To maintain linear (no-distortion) operation, transistor amplifiers shouldn't be operated at points where the transistor will saturate; that is, where the load line will not potentially fall on the horizontal portion of a collector current curve. We'd have to add a few more curves to the graph in Figure below before we could tell just how far we could “push” this transistor with increased base currents before it saturates.
It appears in this graph that the highest-current point on the load line falling on the straight portion of a curve is the point on the 50 µA curve. This new point should be considered the maximum allowable input signal level for class A operation. Also for class A operation, the bias should be set so that the quiescent point is halfway between this new maximum point and cutoff shown in Figure below.
Now that we know a little more about the consequences of different DC bias voltage levels, it is time to investigate practical biasing techniques. So far, I've shown a small DC voltage source (battery) connected in series with the AC input signal to bias the amplifier for whatever desired class of operation. In real life, the connection of a precisely-calibrated battery to the input of an amplifier is simply not practical. Even if it were possible to customize a battery to produce just the right amount of voltage for any given bias requirement, that battery would not remain at its manufactured voltage indefinitely. Once it started to discharge and its output voltage drooped, the amplifier would begin to drift toward class B operation.
Take this circuit, illustrated in the common-emitter section for a SPICE simulation, for instance, in Figure below.
That 2.3 volt “Vbias” battery would not be practical to include in a real amplifier circuit. A far more practical method of obtaining bias voltage for this amplifier would be to develop the necessary 2.3 volts using a voltage divider network connected across the 15 volt battery. After all, the 15 volt battery is already there by necessity, and voltage divider circuits are easy to design and build. Let's see how this might look in Figure below.
If we choose a pair of resistor values for R2 and R3 that will produce 2.3 volts across R3 from a total of 15 volts (such as 8466 Ω for R2 and 1533 Ω for R3), we should have our desired value of 2.3 volts between base and emitter for biasing with no signal input. The only problem is, this circuit configuration places the AC input signal source directly in parallel with R3 of our voltage divider. This is not acceptable, as the AC source will tend to overpower any DC voltage dropped across R3. Parallel components must have the same voltage, so if an AC voltage source is directly connected across one resistor of a DC voltage divider, the AC source will “win” and there will be no DC bias voltage added to the signal.
One way to make this scheme work, although it may not be obvious why it will work, is to place a coupling capacitor between the AC voltage source and the voltage divider as in Figure below.
The capacitor forms a high-pass filter between the AC source and the DC voltage divider, passing almost all of the AC signal voltage on to the transistor while blocking all DC voltage from being shorted through the AC signal source. This makes much more sense if you understand the superposition theorem and how it works. According to superposition, any linear, bilateral circuit can be analyzed in a piecemeal fashion by only considering one power source at a time, then algebraically adding the effects of all power sources to find the final result. If we were to separate the capacitor and R2--R3 voltage divider circuit from the rest of the amplifier, it might be easier to understand how this superposition of AC and DC would work.
With only the AC signal source in effect, and a capacitor with an arbitrarily low impedance at signal frequency, almost all the AC voltage appears across R3:
With only the DC source in effect, the capacitor appears to be an open circuit, and thus neither it nor the shorted AC signal source will have any effect on the operation of the R2--R3 voltage divider in Figure below.
Combining these two separate analyses in Figure below, we get a superposition of (almost) 1.5 volts AC and 2.3 volts DC, ready to be connected to the base of the transistor.
Enough talk -- its about time for a SPICE simulation of the whole amplifier circuit in Figure below. We will use a capacitor value of 100 µF to obtain an arbitrarily low (0.796 Ω) impedance at 2000 Hz:
Note the substantial distortion in the output waveform in Figure above. The sine wave is being clipped during most of the input signal's negative half-cycle. This tells us the transistor is entering into cutoff mode when it shouldn't (I'm assuming a goal of class A operation as before). Why is this? This new biasing technique should give us exactly the same amount of DC bias voltage as before, right?
With the capacitor and R2--R3 resistor network unloaded, it will provide exactly 2.3 volts worth of DC bias. However, once we connect this network to the transistor, it is no longer unloaded. Current drawn through the base of the transistor will load the voltage divider, thus reducing the DC bias voltage available for the transistor. Using the diode current source transistor model in Figure below to illustrate, the bias problem becomes evident.
A voltage divider's output depends not only on the size of its constituent resistors, but also on how much current is being divided away from it through a load. The base-emitter PN junction of the transistor is a load that decreases the DC voltage dropped across R3, due to the fact that the bias current joins with R3's current to go through R2, upsetting the divider ratio formerly set by the resistance values of R2 and R3. To obtain a DC bias voltage of 2.3 volts, the values of R2 and/or R3 must be adjusted to compensate for the effect of base current loading. To increase the DC voltage dropped across R3, lower the value of R2, raise the value of R3, or both.
The new resistor values of 6 kΩ and 4 kΩ (R2 and R3, respectively) in Figure above results in class A waveform reproduction, just the way we wanted.
- Class A operation is an amplifier biased to be in the active mode throughout the entire waveform cycle, thus faithfully reproducing the whole waveform.
- Class B operation is an amplifier biased so that only half of the input waveform gets reproduced: either the positive half or the negative half. The transistor spends half its time in the active mode and half its time cutoff. Complementary pairs of transistors running in class B operation are often used to deliver high power amplification in audio signal systems, each transistor of the pair handling a separate half of the waveform cycle. Class B operation delivers better power efficiency than a class A amplifier of similar output power.
- Class AB operation is an amplifier is biased at a point somewhere between class A and class B.
- Class C is an amplifier biased to amplify only a small portion of the waveform. Most of the transistor's time is spent in cutoff mode. In order for there to be a complete waveform at the output, a resonant tank circuit is often used as a “flywheel” to maintain oscillations for a few cycles after each “kick” from the amplifier. Because the transistor is not conducting most of the time, power efficiencies are high for a class C amplifier.
- Class D operation requires an advanced circuit design, and functions on the principle of representing instantaneous input signal amplitude by the duty cycle of a high-frequency squarewave. The output transistor(s) never operate in active mode, only cutoff and saturation. Little heat energy dissipated makes energy efficiency high.
- DC bias voltage on the input signal, necessary for certain classes of operation (especially class A and class C), may be obtained through the use of a voltage divider and coupling capacitor rather than a battery connected in series with the AC signal source.
Lessons In Electric Circuits copyright (C) 2000-2020 Tony R. Kuphaldt, under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.
See the Design Science License (Appendix 3) for details regarding copying and distribution.
Revised November 06, 2021
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