USB noise on C-Media audio dongles

29.11.2015 20:11

Cheap audio dongles based on C-Media chips are a convenient source of USB-connected audio-frequency DACs, ADCs and even digital I/Os with some additional soldering. Among other things, I've used one for my 433 MHz receiver a while back. Other people have been using them for simple radios and oscilloscopes. Apparently, some models can be easily modified to measure DC voltages as well.

Of course, you get what you pay for and analog performance on these is not exactly spectacular. The most annoying thing is the amount of noise you get on the microphone input. One interesting thing I've noticed though is that the amount of noise depends a lot on the USB bus itself. The same device will work fine with one computer and be unusable on another. USB power rails are notoriously noisy and it's not surprising that these small dongles don't do a very good job of filtering them.

USB hubs and dongles used for noise measurements.

To see just how much the noise level varies with these devices, I took some measurements of digital signal power seen on the microphone input when there was no actual signal on the input.

I tested two dongles: one brand new (dongle A) and an old one from the 433 MHz receiver (dongle B). Dongle B is soldered onto a ground plane and has an extra 10 nF capacitor soldered between +5V and ground. In all cases, the microphone input was left unconnected. I also took two different unpowered USB 2.0 hubs and tested the dongles when connected directly to a host and when connected over one of these two hubs. For USB hosts, I used a CubieTruck and an Intel-based desktop PC.

Noise power versus gain for dongle A

Noise power versus gain for dongle B

Each point on the graphs above shows signal power (x2) averaged over 15 seconds using 44100 Hz sample rate. 0 dB is the maximum possible digital signal power. Both dongles use signed 16-bit integer format for samples. I varied the microphone gain of dongles as exposed by the ALSA API ("Mic" control in capture settings). The automatic gain control was turned off.

You can see that dongles connected to the CubieTruck performed much worse than when connected to the PC. It's also interesting that dongles connected over hub A seemed to have a lower noise floor, although I'm not sure that difference is significant. It's likely that USB noise was also affected by unrelated activity in the host the dongles were connected to.

Signal power versus gain for dongle A

For comparison, above is how signal power looks like versus gain when a 10 mV peak-to-peak sine wave is connected to the dongle's input. You can see that the microphone gain control allows for a bit more than 20 dB of variation in gain.

Time-frequency diagram of noise from dongle B on CubieTruck

What is causing so much noise on CubieTruck? Looking at the spectrum of the noise recorded by one of the dongles, there appear to be two distinct parts: one is on low frequencies at around 100 Hz and below. I would guess this comes from the mains hum and its harmonics. The other part is between 2 kHz and 4 kHz and changes in frequency often. Sometimes it also completely disappears (hence strange dips on the graphs above). I'm guessing this comes from some digital signals in the CubieTruck.

There's really not much you can do about this. The small PCBs don't allow for much additional filtering to be botched on (the little ceramic capacitor I added certainly didn't help much) and it's not worth doing something more elaborate since then making your own board from scratch starts to make more sense.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Analog

Comments

I find it interesting that "some models can be easily modified to measure DC voltages as well". Would you be willing to list some devices that allow relatively easy modification please? Thank you

My application requires going down to 0.1Hz and I was not able to select specific device that allows mentioned modification, ideally a small USB Audio Adapter type.
I assume both - AC coupling and High Pass digital filter OFF are needed for 0.1Hz. I used to lift HP Filter pin on ADC chip to disable filter alone - in EMU 0202, EMU 0402 devices. It worked well for me.

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