UNDERSTANDING, FINDING, &ELIMINATING GROUND LOOPS, by Bill Whitlock

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Thanks to member Bill Robinson for passing along this interesting article by Bill Whitlock(1):

0 – INTRODUCTION
“A cable is a source of potential trouble connecting two other sources of potential trouble.” This
joke among electronic system engineers is worth keeping in mind. Any signal accumulates noise
as it flows through the equipment and cables in a system. Once noise contaminates a signal, it’s
essentially impossible to remove it without altering or degrading the original signal. For this
reason, no system can be quieter than its noisiest link. Noise and interference must be prevented
along the entire signal path. Delivering a signal from one box to another may seem simple, but
when it comes to noise, the signal interface is usually the danger zone, not the equipment’s
internal signal processing.
Many designers and installers of audio/video systems think of grounding and interfacing as a
black art. How many times have you heard someone say that a cable is “picking up” noise —
presumably from the air like a radio receiver? Or that the solution is “better” shielding? Even
equipment manufacturers often don’t have a clue what’s really going on. The most basic rules of
physics are routinely overlooked, ignored, or forgotten. College electrical engineering courses
rarely even mention practical issues of grounding. As a result, myth and misinformation have
become epidemic! This course intends to replace mystery with insight and knowledge.
0.1 – HOW QUIET IS QUIET?
How much noise and interference is tolerable depends on what the system is and how it’s used. A
monitor system in a recording studio obviously needs much more immunity to ground noise and
interference than a construction site paging system. The dynamic range of a system is the ratio,
generally measured in dB, of its maximum undistorted output signal to its residual output noise or
noise floor — up to 120 dB of dynamic range may be required in high-performance sound
systems in typical homes. [19] In video systems, a 50 dB signal-to-noise ratio is a generally
accepted threshold beyond which no further improvement in images is perceivable, even by
expert viewers.
Of course, a predictable amount of “white” noise is inherent in all electronic devices and must be
expected. White noise is statistically random and its power is uniformly spread across the signal
frequency range. In an audio system, it sounds like a “hiss.” In a video system, it appears as
grainy movement or “snow” in the image. Excess random noise is generally due to improper gain
structure, which will not be discussed here. Ground noise, usually heard as hum, buzz, clicks or
pops in audio signals or seen as hum bars or specks in video signals, is generally much more
noticeable and irritating.
10 dB noise reductions are generally described as “half as loud” and 2 or 3 dB reductions as “just
noticeable.”
0.2 – MYTHS ABOUT EARTH GROUNDING AND WIRES

Read more: Ground Loop Elimination

(1) Bill Whitlock has designed pro audio-video electronics and systems since 1973. In 1989, after seven
years with Capitol Records, he assumed presidency of Jensen Transformers. He has become a
recognized expert on system interfacing issues through his writing and teaching. His landmark paper
on balanced interfaces was published in the June 1995 AES Journal, which has since become the
most popular ever printed. Other writing includes the popular “Clean Signals” column for S&VC
magazine, the ongoing “Clear Path” column for Live Sound magazine, three chapters for Glen
Ballou’s 1500-page “Handbook for Sound Engineers,” and numerous other magazine articles and
Jensen application notes. Since 1994, he has helped thousands unravel the mysteries of grounding
and signal interfacing by teaching at trade shows, universities, and professional organizations. Bill
holds several patents including the InGenius® balanced input circuit and the ExactPower®
waveform-correcting ac power voltage regulator. He is a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society and
a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

 

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San Francisco Audiophile Society

San Francisco Audiophile Society