What Are the Most Important Timing Factors for Low Power Precision Signal Chain Applications? Part 2


This article explains timing factors and solutions for reducing power while maintaining precision in low power systems, as required for measurement and monitoring applications. It explains the factors that influence timing when the ADC of choice is a successive approximation register (SAR) ADC. For sigma-delta (∑-Δ) architectures, the timing considerations differ (see Part 1 of this article series). It explores signal chain considerations in analog front-end timing, ADC timing, and digital interface timing.

Analog Front-End Timing Considerations

These three blocks in Figure 1 can be viewed independently starting with the analog front end (AFE). The type of signal chain will change the AFE but there are some common aspects that can apply to most circuits.

Figure 1. AFE timing considerations with a multiplexed SAR ADC.

Figure 2 shows the AD4696 SAR ADC, the external amplifier, and a low-pass filter that make up the AFE. The AD4696 is a 16-bit, 1 MSPS multiplexed SAR ADC with Easy Drive™ features. While external amplifiers and circuitry are required to interface with external sensors, Easy Drive features such as analog input high-Z mode and reference input high-Z mode reduce the analog input and reference drive requirements. In higher power applications, the SAR ADC’s antialiasing filter design needs to be aggressive, but for sampling lower bandwidth signals, typical of low power applications, the filter design is less demanding. The benefit to a sigma-delta architecture is that we can rely on the digital filter to determine frequency response and use the external antialiasing filter to filter at the modulator frequency. In the absence of oversampling and the inherent filtering qualities, an external analog low-pass filter is required to prevent any higher frequency signals present above the sample rate aliasing into the passband. The low-pass filter also acts to reduce wideband noise from the analog front-end circuitry, reduce the nonlinear voltage kickbacks that occur at the analog inputs, and protect the analog inputs from overvoltage events. The same principle applies to the timing considerations. See the antialiasing filter section in the article “What Are the Most Important Timing Factors for Low Power Precision Signal Chain Applications? Part 1.”

The SAR ADCs, while sampling, incorporate a sample-and-hold mechanism, which is a switch and a capacitor that captures the input signal until a conversion is gathered.

Figure 2. The AD4696 SAR ADC with an external kickback RC filter and a driver amplifier.

The design of the amplifier stage is a two-step process. The first step is to select the signal conditioning amplifier and external antialiasing stage similar to what is discussed in Part 1 of this article series. The next step is to choose an external driver amplifier (which has a bandwidth dictated by the gain; remember there is a power vs. bandwidth trade-off) that will buffer the signal conditioning antialiasing filters output and drive the ADC input. The next step is to design the kickback filter taking the total capacitance CEXT + CDAC as the total capacitance of our filter.

Multiplexed SAR ADCs suffer from the issue of kickback when switching between analog input channels. Each time the switch is closed, the internal capacitor voltage (CDAC) may be different from the voltage previously stored on the sampling capacitor (CEXT). A voltage glitch occurs when these switches close due to the difference. The energy will be shared between them, and the voltage measured between the capacitor terminals will be halved. The CEXT and CDAC values will impact filter designs and need to be considered when designing a circuit. The kickback and the choice of the ADC driver are described in detail in the AD4696 data sheet. ADC driver tools in conjunction with helpful training videos are also available.

Figure 3. High-Z mode’s impact on kickback.

The AD4696 contains an analog input high-Z mode. This significantly reduces the magnitude of the voltage kickback as seen in Figure 3. The analog input high-Z mode also reduces performance degradation caused by series resistance between the front-end amplifiers and the AD4696 analog inputs, which allows the resistor in the external RC filter to be larger compared to traditional multiplexed SAR ADCs. Using larger REXT with smaller CEXT alleviates amplifier stability concerns without significantly impacting distortion performance, although CEXT = 500 pF minimum is recommended if an internal overvoltage protection clamp is enabled to avoid stability issues. Figure 3 shows us that we can sample the required signal quicker, speeding up our system timing.

ADC Timing Considerations

The ADC that is chosen will depend on what is important in your system. There are numerous articles that touch the subject of which is a better fit in terms of performance and that compare SAR and sigma-deltas technology. In the low power space, there is plenty of overlap between SAR and sigma-deltas measuring similar signals. One thing that is clear, SAR timing is more straightforward to understand.

Figure 4. The AFE SAR timing considerations.

SAR ADCs sample the input at a point in time and consist of an acquisition phase and a conversion phase. In the acquisition phase, the sample-and-hold network or the internal capacitive network is being charged (Figure 2). In the conversion phase, the capacitor array is switched to a comparator network and a weighting on the DAC is modified until a code corresponding to the analog input is reached.

Figure 5. A typical SAR ADC timing.

The maximum conversion time is specified in the data sheet and is 415 ns for the AD4696. The minimum conversion time to acquire the signal is 1715 ns, which is the acquisition time for the AD4696 while operating at 500 kSPS. The time between conversions is the throughput rate.

In terms of timing, the main trade-off in relation to the SAR ADCs is the power consumption vs. the ADC sample rate. SAR ADCs have the advantage of having a direct linear relationship between the sample rate and supply current, which means that it can scale depending on the bandwidth of the signal of interest. The internal ADC core powers down between conversions, so when operating at lower sample rates, 10 kSPS for example, the AD4696 typically consumes 0.17 mW vs. 8 mW at 1 MSPS making the devices suitable for battery-powered applications at lower sample rates.

Figure 6. VDD current vs. sample rate.

Figure 6 shows the VDD current. If we reduce the sample rate of the AD4696 to work in the sub 100 kSPS range vs. at 500 kSPS, our IDD current drops from almost 2.5 mA to 0.5 mA. If we reduce the current further to 10 kSPS, our typical IDD current reduces to 42 µA. The rate of increase in current is linear. All digital and analog supply currents scale in a similar linear fashion, making the SAR ADC an attractive proposition for measurement of DC-to-AC signals using the same part.

Digital Interface Timing Considerations

There are several features associated with the AD4696 that would not be traditionally associated with SAR ADCs that can help low power signal chain designers achieve additional power savings but with timing implications.

Figure 7. SAR digital interface timing considerations.

A SAR ADC’s throughput rate in comparison to the sigma-delta architecture is easier to calculate as filter latency does not need to be considered:

Equation 1

CHs = the number of channels enabled.

The cycle time is the time between CNV rising edge transitions and consists of a combination of the acquisition and conversion phase but there can be overlap. The ADC can begin acquiring a signal while the conversion phase is still taking place. The time between samples on a SAR ADC can be described as cycle time tCYC or sample rate time tSR.

tCONVERT = conversion time tACQ = acquisition time

tCYC = tSR = inverse of the sample frequency, the time between samples

The sample instant of when the conversion takes place is controlled by the CNV signal rising edge. In most modes, this is provided by an external signal. The AD4696 also has an on-chip autocycle mode that can generate the convert start signal internally. This signal kick starts the conversion. There are a number of sequencer modes available on the AD4696 allowing the user to choose the order and configuration of conversions in a predefined fashion or control the next channel in the sequence on-the-fly without interrupting conversions.

The digital host must read back the data before the start of the next conversion. With higher speed signals, the SCK frequency must therefore be fast enough to read back the data from the AD4696 SPI before the next CNV rising edge (or internal convert start signal when in autocycle mode). Faster sample rates require faster SCK frequencies because the time between conversions is shorter.

The minimum required SCK frequency is a function of the sample rate, the length of the SPI frame (in bits), and the serial data output mode in use. Conversion results for a given sample are available until the start of the next conversion phase. The SCK frequency must therefore be fast enough to read the data from the AD4696 SPI before the following CNV rising edge (or internal convert start signal when autocycle mode is enabled).

Multiple SDO Digital Outputs

The AD4696 family also includes dual-SDO and quad-SDO modes. In these modes, ADC results are shifted out on SDO and additional GPIO pins in parallel. These modes significantly reduce the required SCK frequency for a given sample rate by doubling or quadrupling the number of bits output on the SPI per SCK period. This reduces the requirement on the microcontroller, which reduces the required clock from 32 MHz SPI clock to 16 MHz SPI clock when converting at 1 MSPS.

The number of SCK periods required per conversion mode frame (NSCK) is a function of the number of bits per frame (NBITS) and the number of serial data outputs (NSDO):

Equation 2

Where NSDO is 1 for single-SDO mode, 2 for dual-SDO mode, and 4 for quad-SDO mode.

The start of the conversion mode SPI frame must not occur before the tCONVERT time has elapsed and must complete early enough to adhere to the minimum tSCKCNV specification. The amount of time given to complete an SPI frame in conversion mode (tFRAME) is calculated as follows:


Where tCYC is the sample period, tCONVERT_max is the maximum, tCONVERT is the specification, and tSCKCNV is the SCK to CNV rising edge delay specification.

The fSCK is a function of tFRAME and NSCK.

Equation 3

The AD4696 data sheet includes a table that gives examples of minimum SCLK frequencies vs. several sample rates.

Autocycle Mode

For voltage or current level monitoring applications traditionally, SAR ADCs require a host controller to issue a convert signal continually for conversions to take place. The system needs to examine the data for thresholds and to make decisions based on these levels. This is not power efficient because it means the host needs to continually convert. The AD4696 can be configured to convert autonomously on a user programmed channel sequence.

Autocycle mode is a great mode to use for monitoring analog inputs. There are several options for the conversion period ranging from 10 µs (100 kSPS sample rate) to 800 µs (1.25 kSPS sample rate). This mode can be used in conjunction with threshold and hysteresis detection alerts that are configurable on a per channel basis to reduce overhead for the digital host system. In this scenario, the host controller can enter a low power state and only power up when it receives an interrupt from the AD4696 when a level is triggered.


Oversampling and decimation are inherent to sigma-delta architecture as seen in Part 1 of this article series. The AD4696 SAR ADC includes an oversampling and decimation engine to allow for further noise reduction. It effectively averages consecutive ADC samples to generate an oversampled result with higher effective resolution and lower noise. The effective number of bits increases by 1 bit every time the oversampling ratio (OSR) is increased by a factor of 4 on the AD4696.

This is especially useful in measuring a slower moving signal found in a low power signal chain application, such as temperature, that requires higher precision.

Equation 4

Where tSAMPLE = the sample period, tCYC = cycle time (1/sample rate), and OSR = oversampling ratio (a programmable value of between 4 and 64).

The trade-off, similar to sigma-delta ADCs, is between performance and speed.

Table 1. SAR Summary
Topic Timing Considerations Low Power Signal Chain Impact
Antialiasing Filter Delays can exist that impact the first conversion result(s) Less aggressive filtering needed compared to higher speed signal chains
High-Z Mode The kickback time is reduced when switching channels Power scales with sample rate; less external circuitry
Current vs. Sample Rate Reducing power reduces your sample rate Reducing your sample rate reduces power
Autocycle Mode Software configurable internal convert start Host controller can enter a low power state
Dual-SDO and Quad-SDO At higher sample rates, read back of all data not possible with single SDO Trade-off between extra circuitry and data speeds
Oversampling The interval between samples increases as the oversampling increases Increasing OSR improves noise and resolution performance

Low Power Precision Platforms

As the trend in energy cost increases globally and we learn about the impact of our energy usage on the natural world, system designers are working to achieve precision with reduced power budgets. It can be difficult to research and find the lowest power components available. Analog Devices is simplifying the design process by taking our lowest power precision components and providing a one stop shop with ready-to-go signal chains and circuits that supply system designers with the most up-to-date offerings.

Figure 8. The precision low power signal chains webpage.

Example: Low Power SAR Signal Chain

Many applications require the measurement of a small signal on top of a large DC offset or common-mode voltage. If the aim of a system is to monitor flow in an industrial environment or make a biopotential measurement, there is overlap in the approach. These signals typically need AC coupling to remove the large offset as well as biasing and gain to maximize the dynamic range of the ADC.

Our low power precision signal chains include suggestions on which devices to choose for this type of application.

Figure 9. A signal chain example.

In addition, know-how with integrated knowledge (KWIK) circuits provide a more in-depth analysis of circuits as well as the latest suggestions on up-to-date components to choose.

Flow Signal Chain Example

Take an example where we want to design a large multimeasurement system that includes flow measurement using the KWIK circuit shown in Figure 10.

(A) I want to run 10 flow sensors at 1 kSPS. Is the SAR or sigma-delta the better option?

(B) What are the AFE timing considerations?

Figure 10. The flow measurement signal chain KWIK circuit.

A. The SAR (AD4696) in conjunction with the AD8235 and ADA4505-2 amplifiers needed for signal conditioning are the best options as we can run 10 channels at 10 kSPS using an external convert signal or auto cycle mode.

B. In this case, the response vs. gain of the AD4505-2 amplifier will dictate the BW of the signal under measurement rather than the antialiasing filter response. The high-Z mode will take the pressure off the performance of the input amplifier, enabling designers to choose lower power amplifiers. The components in Figure 10 are chosen for their ultra low power performance.


When designing high resolution low power data acquisition systems, it can be difficult to find the lowest power components available and ADI’s precision low power signal chains act as a starting point for low power designs. Care must be taken in understanding the trade-offs and differences in timing when forming signal chains that incorporate sigma-delta and SAR architectures as their core ADC.

When interfacing with sensors or signals of interest, the analog front-end timing needs to account for chip level startup, sensor biasing, external filtering, and component choice. Antialiasing filters are needed with stricter requirements on SAR ADCs because sigma-delta ADCs have inherent sampling associated with their design. On the AFE, sigma-delta ADCs are incorporating PGAs while SAR technology like high-Z mode is easing the drive requirements on external amplifier circuitry.

When we consider sigma-delta ADC architecture, oversampling and decimation as well as filter latency have an impact on the throughput rate especially while converting on more than one channel. SAR throughput, on the other hand, is more straightforward to calculate because of the successive approximation approach, with the added benefit that the slower you sample, the lower the current drawn while converting.

The complexity of the sigma-delta AD4130-8 digital timing has led to the development of ACE software timing tools. These are available to simplify the understanding and aid in calculating the channel throughput rate. The same device has timing features like duty cycling, FIFO, and a standby mode to help conserve battery life, but care is necessary when looking at the achievable effective resolution when targeting a particular throughput rate.

When we examine a SAR ADC like the AD4696, we can sample at higher sample frequencies. This has its advantages but it means the digital timeframe, tFRAME,in which you need to read back is smaller, meaning faster SPI clock speeds are needed.


Maithil Pachchigar. “Design Trade-Offs of Using Precision SAR and Sigma-Delta Converters for Multiplexed Data Acquisition Systems.” Analog Devices, Inc., 2016.

Walt Kester. “Which ADC Architecture Is Right for Your Application?Analog Dialogue, Vol. 39, No. 9, June 2005.

Albert O’Grady. “Transducer/Sensor Excitation and Measurement Techniques.” Analog Dialogue, Vol. 34, No. 5, 2000.

Alan Walsh. “Front-End Amplifier and RC Filter Design for a Precision SAR Analog-to-Digital Converter.” Analog Dialogue, Vol. 46, No. 12, December 2012.

Steven Xie. “Practical Filter Design Challenges and Considerations for Precision ADCs.” Analog Dialogue, Vol. 50, No. 4, April 2016.

Walt Kester. “MT-021: ADC Architectures II: Successive Approximation ADCs.” Analog Devices, Inc., 2009.

Ke Li and Colm Slattery. “Electromagnetic Flow Meters: Design Considerations | Analog Devices.” Analog Dialogue, Vol. 50, No. 6, June 2016.

SPICE Model for a Platinum RTD Sensor.” Analog Devices, Inc., 2022.

MT-070 Tutorial: In-Amp Input RFI Protection.” Analog Devices, Inc., 2009.

Padraic O’Reilly. “What Are the Most Important Timing Factors for Low Power Precision Signal Chain Applications? Part 1.” Analog Dialogue, Vol. 56, No. 3, August 2022.



Padraic O’Reilly

Padraic O’Reilly is an electronic test and measurement applications engineer who is focused on low power precision converter signal chains. Padraic enjoys architecting signal chains that combine technologies from multiple product lines. In the past, Padraic has held various measurement and applications roles. He has expertise in both RF microwave (PLLs, radar, radio transceivers) and precision mixed-signal converter systems (DACs, ADCs, ASICs). Padraic holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from the University of Limerick.