The amplifier is the heart of your sound system, giving your speakers or sub(s) the necessary power they need to operate correctly.
When your car amplifier starts to act up and is no longer reliable, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the issue is coming from. Knowing the symptoms of a bad ground will help you narrow down where to look to get the problem resolved quickly and with the minimum amount of inconvenience.
To save you money and effort, we’ve compiled an exhaustive list of the most common symptoms of a bad ground in a car audio system.
Without any further ado, onto the list…
Symptoms of a Bad Amp Ground
There are a number of symptoms associated with improper amp grounding. Most of these symptoms are interlinked and go hand in hand; if your amplifier is clipping, it’s also likely to be overheating, and if it’s going into protect mode, chances are that there’s an impedance mismatch or that the gain is set too high…etc.
So, any of the symptoms we listed down below could be a cause and an effect at the same time.
Distortion in the form of clipping occurs when more power is required from an amplifier than it is able to deliver. It goes hand in hand with improper grounding.
Once an amplifier is driven beyond its ability (because of impedance mismatch for example) to generate sufficient voltage to reproduce the original signal to your speakers, it becomes almost impossible to amplify the incoming signal without compromising its original form. What happens then is that the signal is amplified but in a very distorted form.
Technically speaking, instead of delivering a clean sinusoidal waveform output, the amp produces a waveform with flat peaks. In other words, the sine output signal loses its rounded peaks and troughs, hence the resulting sound reaching the speakers is distorted.
When the audio signal becomes heavily distorted, not only does the sound quality take a nosedive, but the speakers are at risk of being damaged by clipping.
Clipping signal causes heat to build across the speakers’ voice coils, making them surpass their thermal or mechanical failure rate by doing things they’re not designed to do.
Clipping can be caused mostly by improper grounding, but it can also be caused by a number of things including:
- Input sensitivity (gain) set too high
- Inadequate wire gauge (size)
- The need for a bigger alternator
- Over-equalization of the source signal
It goes without saying that if the amp’s ground connection is bad, or if the power or ground cables are too small for your amplifier, the latter may experience thermal shutdown because it isn’t getting the power it needs to deliver the output you want.
That said, make sure your ground cable is the same exact size as the power cable, and that it’s bolted directly to a part of the chassis that is sanded down and scraped clean of any paint for best possible grounding.
It should be noted, however, amplifier build quality is another big factor when it comes to amp overheating. Well-built amplifiers from recognized brands such Kicker, MTX, Alpine…etc, are designed to use the power that is provided by your vehicle’s battery and alternator in the most efficient way possible.
The efficiency of an amplifier lets you know how much of the electricity fed into your amp is converted to an audio signal and how much is wasted as heat.
Cheaply made amplifier are by their nature prone to overheating because they waste more power than they actually produce in sound. That wasted power turns into heat, which causes the amplifier to overheat.
Some premium amplifiers are featured with a fan and cooling system built-in to the chassis of the amp to dissipate heat away from the internal components. So, investing in a good amplifier will save from the hassle of overheating problems
Still, an amp should be driven within its limits, and shouldn’t be mounted in a confined space such as underneath the seats or under the carpet.
If you can’t seem to stop your amp from overheating, consider adding a cooling fan to your amp; it will shunt the heat away from your amplifier keeping it running as it should.
Here are the most common causes of amplifier overheating:
- Poor build quality
- Improper mounting
- Impedance mismatch
- Inadequate Power/Ground
- Lack of airflow
- Clogged amp case
3. Constant restarting – Cutting in and out
If your amplifier is randomly cutting out, then there’s a good chance it’s not well grounded. Improper or loose grounding is one of the most common cause of amplifier problems. A broken or loose ground cable that connects intermittently for instance can cause your amp to cut in and out constantly.
So, essentially, what you need to do is to make sure every connection is secured tightly with no stray wire strands laying out that could cause a short circuit. Especially, check that the ground connection is tight and secure.
An amp that’s constantly cutting in and out can also be caused by a wide variety of things including :
- Improper speaker connection
- Impedance mismatch
- Clipping (highly likely when the amp has clipping protection circuit)
- Overheating (provided the amp has thermal protection circuit)
- Amp starvation (as a result of improper power supply and grounding)
- Faulty internal components (faulty power supply or the end stage or both)
4. Not turning on
An amp that’s not turning on is another strong sign of a bad ground. And because grounding completes the electrical circuit powering your amplifier, an amp with a bad ground might not turn on at all.
That said, both the power and ground wires need to be thick enough to accommodate the amp’s demand for electrical current. Otherwise, the amp won’t turn on, or it won’t be able to operate efficiently in the least-worst-case scenario.
So, make sure to use an adequate amp wiring kit to allow your amplifier operate efficiently. It’s also of paramount importance to properly ground your amp and ensure that its ground wire is secured tightly, and that the connection spot is scraped clean of any paint.
An amplifier that’s not turning on can also be caused by a number to things such as:
- Blown fuse
- No remote turn on wire
- Improper grounding
- Amp mounted to a conductive surface
- No voltage in power wire
5. Going into protect mode
Almost all car amplifier are featured with “protect mode”, which is meant to prevent serious damage to the internal component of the amplifier when something goes wrong. It’s basically the electrical engineering version of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Because each amplifier is build differently, you need to read your amp’s owner’s manual to figure out if your amp is in protect mode or not.
User manuals contain walls of text and a myriad of information, so if you’re overwhelmed, here are the things to look for:
- Whether there is a protect mode indicator
- What color the indicator light is supposed to be
- If the power indicator blinks in code to tell you what the problem is
Some car amplifier don’t even have a protect mode indicator, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have protect circuits. These amps indicate protect mode by blinking the power light before turning off completely.
Going into protect mode is a strong telltale sign of bad ground. However, there are many other reasons for an amp to go into protect mode including:
- Blown speaker (or shorted out speaker wires)
- Incorrect gain setting
- Impedance mismatch
- Blown fuse
- Faulty output transistors
6. Whining noise
Noise can be introduced into a car audio system by various things. That’s the reason why it can be tricky and incredibly difficult to track down the culprit.
Improper grounding and poor amp mounting are two of the biggest causes for introducing noise into an audio system. These two causes can be easily fixed by ensuring that the amp is properly grounded and that its metal casing is isolated from the chassis of the vehicle. In some cases, you may also need to install a noise suppressor or filter.
Furthermore, your ground wire should ideally be 18″ long at most — a longer ground wire can cause noise problems.
Antenna cable, patch cables, ground wires, and all the other components have the potential to introduce unwanted noise into the your system. The challenge, however, is to actually identify the source of the noise in the first place.
7. Weak output
An amplifier won’t be able to put out its rated power unless its power and ground wires are supplying enough power to accommodate the amp’s demand for electrical current.
Having a bad ground will starve your amp, and your speakers or subwoofer will sound weak as a result.
If you think that we’ve saved the worst for the last, then you’re right. Burning or fire is the worst symptoms of a bad ground. This is because it puts you and your car at risk.
Heat comes where the resistance is. Therefore, a loose ground either on the amp or where it’s attached to your car chassis can melt amp ground terminal, launch sparks, and eventually cause fire. So, always make sure that one is tightened enough to prevent disaster.
What does good grounding look like?
When installing an amplifier in your car, the ground wire can make or break your sound system. A bad ground can cause a host of issues starting with dimming headlight all the way up to serious component damage or even fire.
So, to ensure the stability of your sound system and the components it’s comprised of, first make sure your amp ground wire doesn’t exceed 18 inches long; the shorter the length of wire the better.
Second, ensure the gauge of the ground wire matches the gauge of the power wire for proper and efficient current flow.
Third, the ground wire should be attached directly to the metal chassis of the vehicle. So, grind down the ground surface to bare metal and scrape away any paint or primer thoroughly, and then secure the terminal tightly to the vehicle’s metal chassis so the ground connection will be bare metal to bare metal.
Should I ground my amp to the battery?
Well, it depends. All 12-volt components need to be grounded at the same location. So, if your head unit is grounded directly to the battery and amplifier is grounded to a sturdy piece of metal in the trunk, they will most likely be at different ground potentials. In other words, this creates a ground loop.
Electrically speaking, a ground loop in a nutshell happens when two separate devices are intended to have the same ground reference potential but instead have a different potential between them.
In a car audio system, a ground loop will manifest itself into a hiss or hum heard in the audio reproduced by the stereo system.
With that being said, before grounding your amplifier to the battery, make sure the other components aren’t grounded to something else.