PCM Audio in Home Theater

What PCM audio is and why it's important

Audio speaker
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PCM stands for Pulse Code Modulation.

PCM is used to convert analog audio signals (represented by waveforms) into digital audio signals (which are represented by 1's and 0's—much like computer data) with no compression. This allows the recording of a musical performance or movie soundtrack to fit in a smaller space (compare the size of CD to a vinyl record).

PCM Basics

PCM analog-to-digital audio conversion can be complex, depending on what content is being converted, the quality needed or desired, and how the information is stored, transferred, or distributed. However, here are the basics.

A PCM file is a digital interpretation of an analog sound wave. The goal is to replicate the properties of an analog audio signal as closely as possible.

The way the analog-to-PCM conversion is done is via a process called sampling. As mentioned above, analog sound moves in waves, while PCM is a series of 1's and 0's. In order to capture analog sound using PCM, specific points on the sound wave must be sampled (frequency). How much of the waveform is sampled at the given point (bits) is also part of the process. More sampled points and larger pieces of sound wave sampled at each point means more accuracy on the listening end. For example, in CD audio, an analog waveform is sampled 44.1 thousand times per second (or 44.1kHz), with points that are 16bits in size (depth). In other words, the digital audio standard for CD audio is 44.1kHz/16bits.

PCM Audio and Home Theater

One type of PCM, linear plus code modulation (LPCM), is used in CD, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and other digital audio applications.

In a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc player, an LPCM (usually referred to as just PCM) signal is read off a disc and can be transferred in two ways:

  • One way is by retaining its digital form and sending that signal to a home theater receiver via a digital optical, digital coaxial, or HDMI connection. The receiver then converts the PCM signal to analog so that it can be sent through the amplifiers and on to the speakers. The reason the PCM signal has to be converted to analog is that the human ear works by hearing analog audio signals.
  • The second way is for the CD, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc player to convert the PCM signal back to analog form internally, and then transfer the re-created analog signal to a home theater or stereo receiver via standard analog audio connections. In this case, the stereo or home theater receiver does not have to perform any additional conversion in order for you to hear the sound.Most CD players only provide analog audio output connections, so it is required that the PCM signal on the disc be converted to analog by the player internally. However, some CD players (as well as almost all DVD and Blu-ray Disc players) can transfer the PCM audio signal directly using the digital optical or digital coaxial connection option. In addition, most DVD and Blu-ray Disc players can also transfer PCM signals via HDMI connection.

    PCM, Dolby, and DTS

    Another trick that most DVD and Blu-ray Disc players can do is to read undecoded Dolby Digital or DTS type audio signals. Dolby and DTS are digital audio formats that use coding that compresses the information in order to fit all the surround sound audio information digitally onto a DVD or Blu-ray Disc. Usually, undecoded Dolby Digital and DTS audio files are transferred to a home theater receiver for further decoding to analog—but there is another option.

    Once read off the disc, many DVD or Blu-ray Disc players can also internally convert Dolby Digital and DTS signals to uncompressed PCM, and then pass that decoded signal directly to a home theater receiver via an HDMI connection, or convert the PCM signal to analog for output via two or multichannel analog audio outputs to a home theater receiver that has the corresponding compatible inputs.

    However, since a PCM signal is uncompressed, it takes up more bandwidth transmission space. So, if using a digital optical or coaxial connection, there is only enough room to transfer two channels of PCM audio. For CD playback that is perfectly fine, but for Dolby Digital or DTS surround signals that have been converted to PCM, you need to use an HDMI connection, as it can transfer up to eight channels of PCM audio.

    For more on how PCM functions between a Blu-ray Disc player and a home theater receiver, refer to Blu-ray Disc Player Audio Settings: Bitstream vs PCM.