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Differential Readings (App Note)

Differential vs. Single-Ended

In this discussion, a voltage is the difference in electric potential between 2 points.  For a single-ended voltage reading, 1 point is an analog input terminal, while the other point is the common ground (GND) of the LabJack.  For a differential voltage reading, the 2 points are 2 analog input terminals.

Differential vs. Bipolar

Note that differential is not the same as bipolar, and they do not necessarily have anything to do with each other (but sometimes do).  Bipolar refers to a voltage that can be positive or negative, compared to unipolar which refers to a voltage which is positive only.  We use the term bipolar or true bipolar to describe a point that can be greater than or less than ground.  We use the term pseudo-bipolar to describe a voltage where the positive point can be greater than or less than the negative point (thus the difference is positive or negative), but neither point can be less than ground.

Differential vs. Isolated

Differential does not define anything about isolation.  For example, assume a 90V battery pack built out of 10x 9-volt batteries in series.  You might be tempted to use differential inputs to measure the voltage of each cell, but this will not work because you will have to define ground somewhere and will have large common-mode voltages.

Bipolar vs. Pseudobipolar

Bipolar refers to a signal that can be plus and minus versus ground.  Pseudobipolar refers to a differential signal where the voltage difference (positive - negative) can be plus or minus, but neither the positive lead or negative lead can be minus versus ground.

Take a differential voltage of -2.2 volts.  For pseudobipolar inputs, a valid way to get this voltage is if the positive lead is at 0.2V versus ground and the negative lead is at 2.4V versus ground.  For bipolar inputs, that same scenario is valid, and it is also valid if the positive lead is at -2.4V and the negative lead is at -0.2.

Why use differential?

Reasons #1 & #2 are key reasons for differential measurements.  Reason #3 is good in theory for certain situations, but most of the time single-ended measurement performs as well as differential.

1.  The signal is differential and the negative cannot be connected to GND:  For example, consider a DAQ monitoring a typical Wheatstone bridge circuit that is excited by 4V/GND from the DAQ and is outputting a 2 mV signal, which means that signal+ is about 2.001V and signal- is about 1.999V.  You cannot connect signal- to GND, because that would short out 1 leg of the bridge, so you must connect signal+ and signal- both to analog inputs and do 2 single-ended measurements or 1 differential measurement.  If the bridge was excited by a floating source (not referred to the DAQ device), you can define the common ground wherever you want so you could connect signal- to GND and just do a single-ended measurement of signal+.

2.  Measuring a small difference between 2 large voltages:  For example, consider a DAQ with a simple 1% accuracy spec.  This DAQ is monitoring a typical Wheatstone bridge circuit that is excited by 4V/GND from the DAQ and is outputting a 2 mV signal, which means that signal+ is about 2.001V and signal- is about 1.999V.  You could take single-ended readings of signal+ and signal-, and subtract them in software to find the difference, but the 1% error of each single-ended measurement is about 20 mV which is very large compared to the 2 mV difference you are trying to measure.  A direct differential measurement of the 2 mV difference with the same 1% error has just 0.02 mV of error.

3.  Rejection of common-mode noise:  Say you have signal+ and signal- coming from a floating AA battery through a long 2-wire cable, and you expect the long cable to pick up a lot of AC noise where the induced noise is the same on both wires.  Since the battery is floating, you could connect the wires to 2 differential analog inputs on the DAQ device, and then add a high-value resistor from the negative analog input to GND to provide a path for bias currents.  Since the noise at any point in time is the same on both wires, it will get subtracted out by a differential measurement.  Alternatively you could connect signal+ to an analog input and signal- to GND, for a single-ended measurement.  In theory, the wire connected to ground can't have noise because it is connected to ground, so you just have noise on the positive wire which all shows up in your measurement, but in reality it does not usually work exactly that way and you don't see 100% of the noise.  Rejection of common-mode noise is the main reason someone uses a differential connection when it is not required, but few systems see improvement due to this theoretical advantage, or more often than not the added complications lead to more problems than improvements.

Differential inputs must have a reference

The most common mistake when using differential inputs is connecting 2 signals that have no reference to ground.  Do an Internet search for "instrumentation-amplifier floating-inputs" or just see the "Floating Voltages" section of the following article about instrumentation amplifiers (in-amps):


Consider an obviously floating voltage source such as a thermocouple or AA battery.  If you simply connect the positive and negative leads to 2 analog inputs on a U6, or to IN+ and IN- on an LJTick-InAmp, there is no ground path for the bias currents that must flow in/out of the inputs.  The voltage source will try to properly hold the voltage difference between the leads, but the voltage of each lead compared to ground will likely be near one of the power rails and the common-mode voltage will not be valid.  A common solution is a resistor from the negative terminal to ground, which can be quite large if desired.  A typical resistor used with the U6/T7 would be 100k (e.g. CF14JT100K).

Another example is a bridge circuit excited by an external supply which is isolated from the U6 or LJTick-InAmp.  In this case the negative from the supply should be connected to GND (a series resistor can be considered if you don't want a direct connection between the supply ground and GND).

The common-mode voltage must be in range

Another common mistake is connecting voltages that are referenced to ground, but where the voltages compared to ground are not in the valid range.

For example, the LJTick-InAmp uses a pair of AD623 instrumentation amplifiers from Analog Devices with power rails at VS (~5 volts) and GND (0 volts).  Figures 22 and 23 of the AD623 datasheet show the common-mode range.  Note that the maximum under any condition is about 3.5 volts and the minimum is about -0.3 volts.  Signals with a common-mode voltage outside -0.3 to +3.5 volts will definitely not work, and for signals inside that range we recommend looking at the LJTIA signal range tables or online calculator from  Appendix A of the LJTick-InAmp Datasheet.

Say you have a 12 volt battery system where the battery negative is connected to LabJack/LJTIA GND.  You want to measure the current the battery is providing to some load, so you put a high-side shunt between the positive battery terminal and the load.  The shunt is providing a 100 mV signal, so the voltage compared to ground on each side of the shunt is 12.0 and 11.9 volts, and thus the common-mode voltage is 11.95 volts.  This is definitely too high for the LJTIA.  However, if a low-side shunt is used instead between the negative battery terminal and the load, the common-mode voltage is only 0.05 volts and the LJTIA is fine.

For signal ranges:

Why don't I worry about ground when I measure voltages with a simple DMM?

So why can you just take the 2 leads from a simple battery-powered DMM and measure the voltage across a battery or thermocouple, regardless of what grounds might or might not be connected?  Because the DMM is isolated and is actually taking a single-ended reading.  The black lead is ground for the DMM, but since it is isolated that ground has no meaning to the battery or thermocouple, and wherever the black lead connects is defined as ground for the DMM.

How about a fancier DMM with 2 channels, and 2 pairs of red/black leads, powered by AC mains?  First the input channels are isolated (optically or galvanically) from AC mains, so there is no common ground there, and the input channels are also isolated from each other, so the black leads are ground for each channel but not the same.  Each black lead defines ground for each channel.

Measuring the voltage of each power supply with multiple supplies in series

This is covered by the above information, but is a common enough application to warrant its own section here.

Say you have a system-under-test (SUT) consisting of 10x floating 9-volt sources (batteries, isolated power supplies) all connected in series.  You define your common reference between the T7 and SUT with a connection from the low point of the SUT (negative of 1st battery) to T7-GND.  Thus the voltage of the SUT is 0 to 90 volts compared to T7 ground.  If you then connect AIN0/1 across the +/- terminals of the 10th supply, to do a differential measurement of its voltage, those connections would be about 90V/81V versus GND which violates the common-mode limits of the LabJack analog inputs (you want to be more like ±10V per signal range links above).

In an attempt to reduce the extreme common mode voltage, you could instead define your common reference between the T7 and SUT with a connection from the mid point of the SUT (between 3rd and 4th sources) to T7-GND, but you still have ±45 volts which is too much. 

Some Solutions:

  1. Individual channel-to-channel isolation.  If the analog inputs have channel-to-channel isolation, you can connect the pair to 90V/81V and effectively have very little common-mode.  We don't have any devices with this feature at this time (written July 2019 ... watch for something within a year!), so you would have to use some sort of isolation amp on each.  One possibility is a 5B module from Dataforth.   When you have individual channel-to-channel isolation, you can think of it like using a bunch of DMMs where each DMM is connected across 1 of the supplies.
  2. Use 1 LabJack for each differential measurement and keep the LabJacks isolated from each other (easy to do over Ethernet or WiFi).
  3. Divide each signal down (e.g. LJTick-Dividers) before measuring, do single-ended measurements, and calculate the differentials in software.  This can have the problem #2 under "Why use differential" above, but by doing your own calibration on each signal you can improve things greatly.
  4. Build an amp that handles high-common mode.  TI and others make nice simple chips that are good at this without requiring isolation.

Testing differential inputs

To test differential inputs use a couple jumper wires securely clamped from AINx to VS or GND.  Here are the expected voltages of a differential reading of AIN0 with Range=10 on a U6 or T7:

AIN0=VS,      AIN1=GND:    5 volts
AIN0=VS,      AIN1=VS:       0 volts
AIN0=GND,  AIN1=VS:      -5 volts​​​​​​​
AIN0=GND,  AIN1=GND:    0 volts

This simple test also works for other ranges as the 5 or -5 readings above will just hit the limit of the range, which is fine.  For example, if Range=0.1 the reading in the 3rd row above will be about -0.1 volts.

If this test does not work in your software, try Kipling or the Test panel in LJControlPanel.

Common amplifier types

Operational Amplifier (op-amp):  Single-ended input and output.

Instrumentation Amplifier (in-amp):  Differential input and single-ended output.

Difference Amplifier (diff-amp):  Differential input and output.


Could you please explain a bit more on the isolation of a DMM ground and how it can be done.

It is not saying that a DMM can be isolated, but rather is saying that "a battery-powered DMM is isolated".  When you have a battery-powered DMM in your hand, it has no connections to earth ground or any other potential.  When you connect the DMM to the signal to be measured, it is not isolated from that signal, but is isolated from everything else.

how can I set resolution with differential analog input

I believe you are using the U6 and the UD driver.  Resolution is a device-wide setting, so you use iotype LJ_ioPUT_CONFIG with special channel LJ_chAIN_RESOLUTION, and that sets the resolution index for all analog inputs (single-ended and differential).  See Section 4.3.3 of the U6 User's Guide.

Note that range is specified on a per channel basis.  For differential, the range specified for the positive channel is used.


Could I make differential analog inputs changing even input to negative and odd input to positive

I make differential measurement with AIN0 -AIN1 but then I change the polarity a make a new measurement.  I mean than in tha t new measurement AIN0 begin negative and ANI1 begin positive, and I had problem with this.


On the U6 or T7?  The answer is no.  A differential measurement is always Channel# - Channel#+1, where Channel# is even.  So positive channel is always even.  If you want odd-even, all you have to do is multiply the reading by -1 in software.

I am planning on using a U3-HV to measure 4 analog signals, 3 single ended and one differential. The data is to be collected using a laptop. All the signals come from transducers powered by external DC power supplies. All the single ended signals are referenced to AC mains ground. Since the Labjack is powered by the laptop, is it floating whether or not the laptop is plugged into the wall? Is it safe to connect GND or SGND to the AC mains ground whether or not the laptop is plugged in and should it be done through a 100 Ohm resistor or directly? Which ground terminal should I use and does it change depending on whether the laptop is plugged in?


My recommendation would be that if you are not real sure, use a USB isolator.  If you mess up you should just blow the isolator but not hurt your host.

Section has some grounding guidelines.

With almost every AC/DC power supply, the DC outputs are isolated from the AC input, so it sounds strange that your signals are referred to AC mains ground.  Perhaps use the forum to get into more details about your particular transducers, power supplies, and wiring.

I have read this page many many times, but I am still confused about the advantages of differential or single-ended modes.

As an example, I am reading a (small) signal on a voltage divider, with the aim of meausing leakage currents.

I am reading the signal in differential mode and my minus terminal is connected to ground. Is this different or better (in terms of noise and resolution) than measuring only the + signal in single ended?

I added a new section above called "why use differential".  See if that helps.

In your case, if the negative of the signal is connected to ground anyway, the signal is single-ended so there is not reason to measure it differentially.

One quirk is on our oldest device, the U12, where you can only make use of the variable gain (PGA) with differential readings, so if the signal is smaller it does make sense to jumper the negative analog input to GND and use differential.

Thanks, very useful!!


U6 User Guide says:

'Differential channels are adjacent even/odd pairs only, such as AIN2-AIN3. Thus the positive channel must be even and the negative channel must be +1.'

Does this mean I can measure 7 channels in config differential (AIN0-AIN1, AIN2-AIN3,......,AIN12-AIN13) and 14 channels in single ended as (AIN0-GND, AIN1-GND,....., AIN13-GND) ?



Yes, that is correct.  And beyond that, if you add the Mux80 you can acquire many channels.