Computer Audio Basics: Standards and Digital Audio

Digital audio standards for desktop computers

Headphone on a desk with notebook and smartphone


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Computer audio is one of the most overlooked aspects of a computer purchase. With little information from the manufacturers, most people have a hard time figuring out exactly what it is they are getting.

Digital Audio

All audio that is recorded or played through a computer system is digital, but all audio that is played out of a speaker system is analog. The difference between these two forms of recording plays an important role in determining the ability of sound processors.

Analog audio uses a variable scale of information to try and best reproduce the original sound waves from the source. This can produce a very accurate recording, but these recording degrade between connections and generations of recordings. Digital recording takes samples of the sound waves and records it as a series of bits (ones and zeros) that best approximate the wave pattern. This means that the quality of the digital recording will vary based on the bits and samples used for the recording, but the quality loss is much lower between equipment and recording generations.

Bits and Samples

There are three primary standards used for commercial digital audio: 16-bit 44 KHz for CD Audio, 16-bit 96 KHz for DVD and 24-bit 192 KHz for DVD-Audio and some Blu-ray.

The bit depth refers to the number of bits used in the recording to determine the amplitude of the sound wave at each sample. Thus, a 16-bit bit-rate would allow for a range of 65,536 levels while a 24-bit allows for 16.7 million. The sample rate determines the number of points along the sound wave that are sampled over a period of one second. The greater the number of samples, the closer the digital representation will be to the analog sound wave.

The sample rate is different than a bitrate. Bitrate refers to the overall amount of data processed in the file per second. This is, essentially, the numbers of bits multiplied by the sample rate then converted to bytes on a per channel basis. Mathematically: (bits * sample rate * channels) / 8. So, CD-audio which is stereo or two channel would be:

(16 bits * 44000 per second * 2) / 8 = 192000 bps per channel or 192kbps bitrate

In general, it is best to look for one capable of at 16-bit 96KHz sample rates. This is the level of audio used for the 5.1 surround sound channels on DVD and Blu-ray movies. For those looking for the best audio definition, the new 24-bit 192KHz solutions offer greater audio quality.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Another aspect of audio components is a Signal-to-Noise Ratio. This is a number represented by decibels to describe the ratio of an audio signal compared to the noise levels generated by the audio component. The higher the SNR, the better the sound quality is. The average person generally cannot distinguish this noise if the SNR is greater than 90 dB.

Standards

The AC'97 audio standard developed by Intel served as an early standard; it offered standardized support for 16-bit 96 KHz audio for six channels necessary for DVD 5.1 audio sound compatibility. Since then, there have been new advances in audio thanks to the high definition video formats such as Blu-ray. To support these, a new Intel HDA standard was developed that expands audio support for up to eight channels of 30-bit 192 KHz necessary for 7.1 audio support. Most AMD hardware that is labeled as 7.1 audio support can also achieve these same levels.

Some products may carry the THX logo. This is essentially a certification that THX Laboratories thinks that the product meets or exceeds its minimum specifications. Just remember that a THX certified product will not necessarily have better performance or sound quality than one that does not. The manufacturers have to pay THX labs for the certification process.