Amplifier Classes of OperationAmplifier operation is distinctly different depending on the class of operation.
RF amplifiers are classified A, AB, B or C according to the phase-angle (number of degrees of current flow during each 360-degree RF cycle) over which plate- or collector-current flows.
Class A Amplifiers
Class A amplifiers operate over a relatively small portion of a tube’s plate-current or a transistor’s collector-current range and have continuous plate- or collector-current flow throughout each RF cycle. Their efficiency in converting DC-source-power to RF-output-power is poor. DC source power that is not converted to radio frequency output power is dissipated as heat. However, in compensation, Class A amplifiers have greater input-to-output waveform linearity (lower output-signal distortion) than any other amplifier class. They are most commonly used in small-signal applications where linearity is more important than power efficiency, but also are sometimes used in large-signal applications where the need for extraordinarily high linearity outweighs cost and heat disadvantages associated with poor power efficiency.
Class B Amplifiers
Class B amplifiers have their tube control-grids or transistor bases biased near plate- or collector-current cutoff, causing plate- or collector-current to flow only during approximately 180 degrees of each RF cycle. That causes the DC-source-power to RF-output-power efficiency to be much higher than with Class A amplifiers, but at the cost of severe output cycle waveform distortion. That waveform distortion is greatly reduced in practical designs by using relatively high-Q resonant output “tank” circuits to reconstruct full RF cycles.
The effect is the same in principle as pushing a child in a swing through half-swing-cycles and letting the natural oscillatory characteristics of the swing move the child through the other half-cycles. However, low sine-wave distortion results in either case only if the Q of the oscillatory circuit (the tank circuit or the swing) is sufficiently high. Unless the Q is infinite, which it never can be, the amplitude of one-half cycle will be larger than the other, which is another way of saying there always will be some amount of harmonic energy. (Coupling an antenna system too tightly to the resonant output tank circuit of an amplifier will lower its Q, increasing the percentage of harmonic content in the output.)
Another effective method commonly used to greatly reduce Class B RF amplifier output waveform distortion (harmonic content) is to employ two amplifiers operating in “push-pull” such that one conducts on half-cycles where the other is in plate- or collector-current cutoff. Oscillatory tank circuits are still used in the outputs of Class B push-pull amplifiers to smooth switching transitions from the conduction of one amplifier to the other, and to correct other nonlinearities, but lower-Q tank circuits can be used for given percentages of harmonic content in the output. (Tank circuits can be loaded more-heavily for given percentages of harmonic output where two amplifiers operate in push-pull.)
Class AB Amplifiers
As the designation suggests, Class AB amplifiers are compromises between Class A and Class B operation. They are biased so plate- or collector-current flows less than 360 degrees, but more than 180 degrees, of each RF cycle. Any bias-point between those limits can be used, which provides a continuous selection-range extending from low-distortion, low-efficiency on one end to higher-distortion, higher-efficiency on the other.
Class AB amplifiers are widely used in SSB linear amplifier applications where low-distortion and high power-efficiency tend to both be very important. Push-pull Class AB amplifiers are especially attractive in SSB linear amplifier applications, because the greater linearity resulting from having one amplifier or the other always conducting makes it possible to bias push-pull Class AB amplifiers closer to the Class B end of the AB scale where the power-efficiency is higher. Alternatively, push-pull Class AB amplifiers can be biased far enough toward the highly-linear Class A end of the scale to make broadband operation without resonant tank circuits possible in applications where broadband operation or freedom from tuning is more important than power-efficiency.
Class C Amplifiers
Class C amplifiers are biased well beyond cutoff, so that plate- or collector-current flows less than 180 degrees of each RF cycle. That provides even higher power-efficiency than Class B operation, but with the penalty of even higher input-to-output nonlinearity, making use of relatively high-Q resonant output tank circuits to restore complete RF sine-wave cycles essential. High amplifying-nonlinearity makes them unsuitable to amplify AM, DSB, or SSB signals.
However, most Class C amplifiers can be amplitude-modulated with acceptably low distortion by varying plate- or collector-voltage, because they generally are operated in the region of plate- or collector-saturation so that the RF output voltage is very closely dependent upon instantaneous DC plate- or collector-voltage. They also are commonly used in CW and frequency-shift-keyed radiotelegraph applications and in phase- and frequency-modulated transmitter applications where signal amplitudes remain constant.
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