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Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

Written by Tom Lecklider, Senior Technical Editor

Time-domain reflectometry (TDR) is a very simple concept. A voltage pulse

or step is applied to the end of a cable, and the reflections are measured
and analyzed. As with most simple concepts, the detailed implementation
determines how well practice conforms to theory.

Anritsu MS202xC/MS203xC VNA Master

Because electrical signals typically propagate at about two-thirds the

speed of light (C), the transit time for a voltage step can be very short.
The speed of light is approximately 3E8 m/s, 2E8 m/s for an electrical
signal, so it takes a voltage step 5 ns to travel 1 meter. TDR
measurements are based on reflections, which means that twice the
distance must be traversed. For a TDR, a 10-ns period is roughly
equivalent to 1 meter or 40 inches.

To determine details of faults within a 1-m length of cable requires a

sampling rate significantly faster than 100 MS/s—the rate corresponding to
a 10-ns period. For this reason, many TDRs are based on sampling scope
techniques that use equivalent time sampling (ETS). Interleaved random
sampling is a faster form of ETS found in some high-bandwidth DSOs. And,
LeCroy has developed a coherent interleaved sampling technique that also
is a form of fast ETS.

In these techniques, a repetitive signal is required. All types of ETS

reconstruct a representative waveform from samples taken on successive
repetitions of the signal. The basic sampling scope approach acquires only
one point from each repetition but successively delays the sampling
instant slightly more from one to the next. This technique is limited by
jitter in the trigger circuitry and uncertainty in the delay between the
trigger and sampling instant. Nevertheless, 50-GHz bandwidth and
equivalent sampling rates of hundreds of gigasamples/second are
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

As an example of a TDR instrument that uses this technique, Mohr and

Associates claims 0.003-in. horizontal resolution in the Model CT100. The
datasheet lists the time-base resolution as 760 fs. Solving the equation

gives X = 0.003 in. The 0.003-in. resolution is claimed

for any length cable up to the maximum 30,000-ft
range. This implies that the trigger-to-sample delay
setting has a resolution of 760 fs although it is called time-base resolution.

The CT100 datasheet also quotes a 250-kS/s maximum sampling rate that
can generate up to 500 complete TDR frames per second. For cables
shorter than 100 meters, the total step transit time is less than 1 µs. The
time between 250-kS/s samples is 4 µs. This means that for relatively
short cables the instrument can launch steps and acquire reflections at a
250-kS/s rate, developing complete 500-point TDR displays at a 500-Hz

Such a high update rate allows real-time applications to be addressed, as

described by Brandt Mohr, the company’s chief technology officer. “We
have several customers who routinely use our equipment to characterize
dynamic switch and button impedance down to 2-ms intervals.”

This is only practical if each reflected signal is nearly identical during the
time required to build a frame. Otherwise, the ETS image will not
correspond to the actual device characteristics. The total transit time for
very long cables limits the TDR frame rate that can be achieved.

Vertical resolution is equally important and another advantage of ETS.

Because the rate at which the ADC actually is running is low, very high-
resolution devices can be used—14-bit and 16-bit being common. High-
speed direct-sampling DSOs are limited to 8-bit resolution and may not be
capable of distinguishing very small perturbations in a reflected signal.
When DSOs are used in TDR applications, averaging can improve vertical
resolution at the expense of greater acquisition and processing time.

Because S parameters are defined as ratios of incident and reflected

waves, they can be determined by a TDR. Alternatively, you could use a
vector network analyzer (VNA). There is some truth to the observation that
engineers accustomed to working with scopes in the time domain prefer
TDRs while RF and microwave engineers are more comfortable with VNAs.
However, there are fundamental instrument differences as well as user

Agilent Technologies supports both conventional TDR- and VNA-based

distance-to-fault (DTF) measurement. Robert Sleigh, product marketing
engineer, digital test division—scopes, explained, “Modeling and
simulation are most accurate when using S-parameters that have
frequency content that spans from DC to the bandwidth of the system.
TDR-based measurements have an advantage because they yield S-
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

parameters that include lower frequency content than typical VNA


“On the other hand,” he continued, “TDR instruments use wide-bandwidth

receivers that do not have the dynamic range of the tuned narrow-
bandwidth receiver used in a VNA. As a result, high-frequency amplitude
and phase information suffer when measuring devices having high loss or
crosstalk. For this reason, signal-integrity engineers often combine S-
parameter measurements from TDRs and VNAs to yield a single high-
quality S-parameter file covering low and high frequencies with excellent
amplitude/phase fidelity.”
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

Under the TDR Hood

The shape and speed of the step edge are critical in a TDR. Distortion
ahead of or following the rising edge causes reflections that appear to
come from nonexistent faults in the wrong places. The speed of the edge
determines the spatial resolution. The closest two faults can be in time
and still remain distinguishable is

A 200-ps edge corresponds to a 100-ps separation or about 10 cm.

It is possible to work with rise times as short as 10 ps, but the faster the
edge, the more important the cabling and connectors become to the
overall system performance. As a guide, a rising edge contains
frequencies as high as 70% of the inverse of the rise time. As a result, you
are cabling 70-GHz components when applying a 10-ps edge. Obviously,
poor-quality cables or connectors will degrade the edge rate and perhaps
cause aberrations as well.

Dr. Alan Blankman, technical product marketing manager, signal integrity

at LeCroy, commented on the shape of the pulse used in the company’s
SPARQ Signal Integrity Network Expert instrument, “The TDR pulse has a
frequency content that is different from that used by other TDR
instruments and rises toward 40 GHz rather than being flat. This rising
frequency response plays an important role in achieving the 50-dB
dynamic range, giving us about a 12-dB improvement over a flat pulse
shape. A typical TDR pulse has frequency content that is falling, which
causes problems for achieving high dynamic range.”

A Tektronix application note explains that you may not want to examine
your PCB traces or cabling using the fastest possible TDR edge. Impedance
variations no doubt will exist and cause aberrations in the reflected pulse,
but the real signals carried by the traces or cables may not be affected by
them. For example, anomalies extending over a cable length equivalent to
a few hundred picoseconds won’t have much effect on the 1-ns rise time
typical of an ECL logic gate output.1

Conversely, an Agilent application note examines the spatial resolution

improvement possible when a Picosecond Pulse Labs Model 4015C Pulse
Generator is used to develop a 15-ps rise-time TDR pulse. The results are
contrasted with those obtained using Agilent’s standard 40-ps rise-time
pulse generator built into the Model 86100A Infiniium Digital
Communications Analyzer (DCA). For this exercise, the DCA is used as a
general-purpose 50-GHz sampling scope.2

At these speeds, the effect of the 50-GHz bandwidth sampling head cannot
be ignored because its 9-ps rise time significantly interacts with the 15-ps
edge. Agilent deconvolves the measured result to remove this effect as
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

well as imperfections in the actual test pulse. Deconvolution includes

digital filtering that allows test pulses to be simulated with faster or slower
rise times than the real 15-ps pulse.

Equally as important as the post-processing, the 4015C Generator is about

the size of a coaxial attenuator and can be operated remotely, connected
directly to the DUT. This eliminates cabling and connections that otherwise
would slow down the edge speed. The Picosceond Pulse Labs Model 4005
is a current product that also uses remote pulse heads and provides an 11-
ps edge rate.

Chris Loberg, senior technical marketing manager at Tektronix, discussed

the importance of remote sampling heads used with the company’s
multichannel TDRs based on the DSA8200 Series Mainframe: “The remote
80E10 sampling heads enable location of the TDR’s sampler as near as
possible to the measurement plane being observed while ensuring the
best signal fidelity. The intelligent TDR modules characterize crosstalk by
using TDR steps to drive one line while monitoring a second line with the
other channel.”

Inside the VNA-Based IFFT

VNAs perform frequency-domain reflectometry (FDR) by successively

applying a series of increasing frequency sine waves to the DUT and
measuring the reflections. Because the VNA’s receiver is narrowband and
tuned to the same frequency being applied, a high dynamic range results.

The frequency-domain data is transformed by an inverse FFT (IFFT) to

yield a time-domain DTF result comparable to a TDR waveform. For an
IFFT, the time span is the reciprocal of the frequency resolution, and the
time resolution is equal to 1/(2F) where F is the highest frequency.

As an example, consider testing a coaxial cable with propagation speed of

0.66 C from DC to 2.5-GHz maximum frequency. The corresponding time
interval is 200 ps or 2 cm. If 500 frequency steps of 5 MHz each are used,
the total time span is 200 ns or 20 m. For both the time span and
resolution, a factor of 2 has been included to account for the sum of the
incident and reflected distance. Increasing the size of each step as well as
the maximum frequency improves resolution but shortens the alias-free

According to Mohr and Associates’ Brandt Mohr, “Aliasing is inherent in the

IFFT and exhibited as a repetition of the time-domain waveform after a
distance proportional to the inverse of the frequency step size—the alias-
free range. Although newer VNAs can acquire many data points to
increase the alias-free range, this weakness still hinders the use of VNA or
FDR techniques, especially for cable testing.”

National Instruments’ (NI’s) David Broadbent, product marketing manager

RF and wireless test at the company, elaborated on the use of a VNA for
time-domain testing. “With a VNA, you have three different modes of
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

operation for a time-domain measurement: band-pass, low-pass step, and

low-pass impulse,” he said. “The low-pass step mimics a TDR
measurement and requires a DC path. The low-pass impulse mode
features high resolution and is used for in-depth examination of effects
caused by closely spaced components. Finally, the band-pass mode has
unlimited frequency span.”

A good example of the band-pass technique was included in a paper

delivered at the 2010 International Wire and Cable Symposium (IWCS).3

A frequency band from DC to 200 MHz is used for one test, and a separate
configuration with the same 200-MHz band but positioned between 1,700
and 1,900 MHz is used for a contrasting test. The IFFT performed on both
sets of data has an 8-µs maximum alias-free time corresponding to a 125-
kHz frequency increment. A total of 1,600 frequency measurements is

For the baseband case, the time interval is equal to 1/(2 x 200) µs or 2.5
ns, and the resulting time-domain waveform is shown as the blue trace in
Figure 1. The pass-band configuration has a highest frequency of 1,900
MHz, which corresponds to a time interval of 1/(2 x 1,900) µs or 263 ps. If
the frequency increment remains at 125 kHz, the time span still is 8 µs,
but 15,200 frequency points now are needed.

Figure 1. Comparison of Baseband and Pass-Band VNA-Based DTF Measurement © 2010


For an IFFT based on VNA frequency measurements made in the band-

pass mode, the highest frequency still sets the time interval. But, all
frequencies below the lower frequency and down to DC can be thought of
as being zero-padded. That is, the IFFT is computed as though the
frequency samples existed at the prescribed frequency spacing all the way
from DC to the highest frequency. But, because of the zero padding,
complex sinusoids only exist between the lowest and highest frequencies.
These will be added together to reconstruct the time-domain waveform as
shown by the red trace in Figure 1.4

According to the IWCS paper, “...system output is the cable reflection

response convolved with... [the] input functions. [The higher frequency
test] capable of resolving smaller point defects while [the lower
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

frequency test] sees further into the cable due to the lower frequency
content where the medium has lower loss.”3

Finally, a paper written by Yuenie Lau of Anritsu discusses possible

inaccuracies in VNA-derived DTF measurements: “The side lobes from any
peak reflection [are] the result of the IFFT mathematics conversion from
return loss in frequency to return loss in distance.... There will be
interaction between side lobes from different peaks if those peaks are in
close proximity to each other. Windowing can help to minimize the side
lobes, but there are pitfalls associated with different types of windowing.”5

The paper describes the effects of the types of windowing built into the
Site Master Series of hand-held cable and antenna analyzers. Similar
considerations apply to the recently introduced VNA Master™ and LMR
Master™. “By displaying the narrowest peak, the rectangular windowing is
able to display more details for a given distance resolution, but it also
displays the most side lobes for any given peak. The [nominal-, low-, and
minimum-side lobe] windowing filters out some or all of the side lobes but
at the expense of widening the peak’s width....”5

Trade-Offs and Applications

NI’s Mr. Broadbent described a customer’s application that required open

and short identification on-board an airplane. Portable instruments didn’t
have the desired performance. NI’s PXIe-5630 6-GHz 2-port VNA occupies
only two chassis slots and has a dynamic range greater than 100 dB. This
type of solution allowed the customer to retain the advantages of a VNA
for his purposes but within tight space constraints.

In a separate application, an Agilent TDR helped NASA locate the faulty

feedthrough connector to the external fuel tank that grounded the space
shuttle in December 2007. The TDR was used to pulse a twisted pair wire
that was more than 170 ft long with multiple connectors. The TDR isolated
the problem to an open in the feedthrough connector that was
approximately 140 ft away from the TDR output.

Mike Resso, signal integrity applications scientist at Agilent, highlighted

some of the pros and cons associated with TDRs and VNAs. TDRs are
easier to use and calibrate and generally cost less. The wide bandwidth
receiver inherently has a higher noise floor. Also, when the time-domain
data is processed by the FFT to produce S-parameters, many details of the
FFT implementation and parameter assumptions come into play. It
becomes particularly difficult to correlate answers when multiple FFT
algorithms have been used. In contrast, a VNA has a greater dynamic
range and well-established error-correction techniques such as short-open-
load-through (SOLT), through reflect line, and automatic fixture removal.

Pico Technology’s Jeff Bronks discussed Redmere Technology’s use of the

PicoScope 9211A TDR/TDT to test 3.4-Gb/s and 6-Gb/s active cable
equalizers. The USB-connected instrument has a built-in step generator
and allowed the company to characterize cables in the field instead of
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

having to ship them back to the lab. Mr. Bronks concluded, “A VNA may
still be used at the design stage to give the most accurate possible results
but is too slow and expensive for the production line. TDR/TDT is the most
economical way to test mass-produced components.”

It’s helpful to remember that neither a TDR nor a VNA actually determines
distance to a fault but can only measure time. The accuracy with which a
cable’s propagation speed is known determines how well time can be
related to distance.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Agilent has developed separate application notes, one favorable to TDRs2

and another to VNAs6, each no doubt written by the relevant company
division. Tektronix favors TDRs while acknowledging that electronic
calibration removes most of the time-consuming setup required for a VNA.
But, the company’s DSA8200 Series Mainframe can accommodate up to
eight TDR channels while automated VNA calibration typically is limited to

Dr. Andrew Dawson, sales manager, business development at Gage

Applied Technologies, highlighted the importance of bandwidth in a TDR.
“Often overlooked but almost as important as a digitizer’s sampling rate is
its analog bandwidth. If the bandwidth is significantly lower than half the
digitizer’s sampling rate—the Nyquist frequency—then the reflected
signals will be smoothed over several sample points. Users should ensure
that both the bandwidth and sampling rate of a reflectometer system are
sufficient to fulfill their spatial resolution requirements.”

There is general agreement that a VNA is more accurate than a TDR and
that a TDR is better suited to lower frequencies and a VNA to higher ones.
Nevertheless, even within these areas there can be complicating

Anritsu’s David Witkowski, product manager microwave measurement

division, explained, “A TDR’s pulse energy is largely contained near DC
and at lower frequencies. To achieve reasonable dynamic range, the TDR
has to emit a stronger pulse to get the same result as achieved by using
FDR. Because of this, there are cases in which a TDR can’t be used
because it will damage active devices in the DUT.”

Of course, TDR manufacturers can make counterclaims based on features

such as the internal calibration systems on the Mohr and Associates CT100
TDR claimed to ensure 1% accuracy over the 0°C to +50°C operating
range. Similarly, LeCroy’s Dr. Blankman cited SPARQ’s wavelet denoising
algorithm that helps achieve the instrument’s 50-dB dynamic range at 40
GHz. SPARQ also includes an internally connected SOLT calibration kit that
supports automatic calibration.
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA

Figure 2. Comparison of TDR-Based and VNA-Based Insertion Loss Measurement Data

Courtesy of Samtec7

In addition to discussing the differences between TDR and VNA cable

testing, it’s helpful to emphasize the importance of having multiple ways
of determining S-parameters and time-domain behavior. The results can
be nearly the same for each method as shown in Figure 2. Each type of
instrument has its strengths and weaknesses, so there is no clear-cut
winner in every situation.
Distance-to-Fault Is Spelled TDR or VNA


1. TDR Impedance Measurements: A Foundation for Signal Integrity,

Tektronix, Application Note, 2008.

2. Faster Risetime for TDR Measurements, Agilent Technologies,

Application Note 5988-3424EN, 2001.

3. Hayes, T. and Cook, C., “A Comparison of Time and Frequency Domain

Reflection Measurement Methods on Metallic Transmission Lines,”
Proceedings of the 59th IWCSD/IICIT, 2010, pp. 59-68.

4. Gaberson, H. A., “Applying the Inverse FFT for Filtering, Transient

Details, and Resampling,” Sound and Vibration, August 2005, pp. 18-23.

5. Lau, Y., “Understanding the Distance-to-Fault Measurement Data,”

6. Comparison of Measurement Performance between Vector Network

Analyzer and TDR Oscilloscope, Agilent Technologies, White Paper, 5990-
5446EN, 2010.

7. Comparison of Vector Network Analyzer and TDA Systems IConnect®

Generated S-Parameters, Samtec Technical Note, 2004, p. 2.

Click below
Agilent Technologies 86100C/D Infiniium DCA Click here
Anritsu VNA Master Click here
LeCroy SPARQ Click here
Mohr and Associates CT100 TDR Click here
National Instruments PXIe-5630 VNA Click here
Picosecond Pulse Labs 4005 Pulse Generator Click here
Pico Technology PicoScope 9211A TDR/TDT Click here
Tektronix 80E10 Sampling Head Click here