This is a specific question about a specific circuit, but I'm trying to use it as a learning experience as I'm still new to electronics and need to take practical knowledge where I can get it.

I recently purchased a box online that plugs into the cd-changer port on my stock Honda car stereo and will allow me to use any RCA stereo source as an input. It's got one plug on it and an exposed wire coming off of the box-side of the plug. The included diagram has this single hanging wire labeled as "Chassis ground when using portable device" and the step-by-step instructions say "NOTE: Chassis ground BLACK/WHITE wire ONLY when installing a battery operated audio device. (i.e. MP3 Player)"

I'm reading this as "if the AUX device you're using is not connected to the car battery, you need to ground the box," but my question is: why? Why would I have to ground the circuit box only when the AUX device is not using the same power source? Would it hurt to ground the box when the AUX is connected to the car battery? I'm not really interested in this specific device, but the principles involved in the decision.

P.S. This is the box.


This is an issue with what is called a ground loop. When you have a device that powered by its own internal battery ground loops aren't an issue, but is an issue otherwise.

The simplest way I know how to explain a ground loop is that when you have 2 devices that have grounds at slightly different potentials they will start to fight with each other causing an audible hum to enter into your sound system.

ground loop

This is a simple diagram of how your grounds will be connected. In an ideal world your wires has no inductance, resistance, or capacitance. Also in an ideal world ground is ground is ground. However, we don't live in an ideal world. In our world our wires have a resistance and you can generate a slight voltage difference between the ground of each device. When each of these devices creates its slight voltage offset on its ground lines, I am sure you could start to imagine a nasty problem to solve in order to determine whats actually going to happen in the loop. In general a resonance will be found in the fluctuations of voltages on the ground resulting in the hum I mentioned before. In addition to this, a loop like this can pick up lots of noise from the environment around it.

Now, if you leave the connection between the car battery and interface disconnected you leave a single ground path for current to follow. As you add more devices you will want to follow a star or tree style topology. These topologies will remove all loops preventing all of the issues I described above. You will still have cases were there will be slightly different ground potentials, but this isn't a huge issue as they won't be having to battle with each other.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ or the loop creates an inductive loop that picks up interference. Otherwise, I agree, and it is nasty to explain. \$\endgroup\$ – Kortuk Nov 30 '10 at 2:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please expand with the actual answer. Nobody reading this site should be afraid to learn that wires and ground connections have some resistance. \$\endgroup\$ – markrages Nov 30 '10 at 4:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the explanation! I installed the unit today and was able to test the difference between connecting that wire and leaving it disconnected. When disconnected and hooked up to my iPhone, the audio was barely audible and basically just static. When connected to chassis ground, the audio was crystal clear. The only problem now is that when I have my phone plugged in and charging there is some minor static. It's barely noticeable, but worth noting for the purposes of this question. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Nov 30 '10 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Brian, Yeah, if you imagine cutting the ground line between the car battery and interface as well as car battery and audio source. This will leave the ground floating with no fixed reference, which is why you didn't get much out. The static you hear when you are charging is probably just something you will have to deal with. This is probably a combination of a small ground loop and power noise. \$\endgroup\$ – Kellenjb Nov 30 '10 at 22:15

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