Signal to noise ratio

Signal-to-noise ratio (often abbreviated SNR or S/N) is an electrical engineering measurement, also used in other fields (such as scientific measurements, biological cell signaling), defined as the ratio of a signal power to the noise power corrupting the signal. In less technical terms, signal-to-noise ratio compares the level of a desired signal (such as music) to the level of background noise. The higher the ratio, the less obtrusive the background noise is.

Electrical SNR and acoustics

Often the signals being compared are electromagnetic in nature, though it is also possible to apply the term to sound stimuli. Due to the definition of decibel, the SNR gives the same result independent of the type of signal which is evaluated (such as power, current, or voltage).

Signal-to-noise ratio is closely related to the concept of dynamic range, where dynamic range measures the ratio between noise and the greatest un-distorted signal on a channel. SNR measures the ratio between noise and an arbitrary signal on the channel, not necessarily the most powerful signal possible. Because of this, measuring signal-to-noise ratios requires the selection of a representative or reference signal. In audio engineering, this reference signal is usually a sine wave, sounding a tone, at a recognized and standardized nominal level or alignment level, such as 1 kHz at +4 dBu (1.228 VRMS).

SNR is usually taken to indicate an average signal-to-noise ratio, as it is possible that (near) instantaneous signal-to-noise ratios will be considerably different. The concept can be understood as normalizing the noise level to 1 (0 dB) and measuring how far the signal 'stands out'. In general, higher signal to noise is better; the signal is 'cleaner'.

Measurement devices in general

Recording of the noise of a thermogravimetric analysis device that is poorly isolated from a mechanical point of view; the middle of the curve shows a lower noise, due to a lesser surrounding human activity at night.

Any measurement device is disturbed by parasitic phenomena. This includes the electronic noise as described above, but also any external event that affects the measured phenomenon — wind, vibrations, gravitational attraction of the moon, variations of temperature, variations of humidity etc. depending on what is measured and of the sensitivity of the device.

It is often possible to reduce the noise by controlling the environment. Otherwise, when the characteristics of the noise are known and are different from the signal's, it is possible to filter it or to process the signal.

When the noise is a random perturbation and the signal is a constant value, it is possible to enhance the SNR by increasing the measurement time.

Digital signals

When using digital storage the number of bits of each value determines the maximum signal-to-noise ratio. In this case the noise is the error signal caused by the quantization of the signal, taking place in the analog-to-digital conversion. The noise level is non-linear and signal-dependent; different calculations exist for different signal models. The noise is modeled as an analog error signal being summed with the signal before quantization ("additive noise").

The modulation error ratio (MER) is a measure of the SNR in a digitally modulated signal. Like SNR, is expressed in dB.

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