Audio bit depth

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In digital audio, bit depth describes the number of bits of information recorded for each sample. Bit depth directly corresponds to the resolution of each sample in a set of digital audio data. Common examples of bit depth include CD quality audio, which is recorded at 16 bits, and DVD-Audio, which can support up to 24-bit audio.

Digital audio

A set of digital audio samples contains data that, when converted into an analog signal, provides the necessary information to reproduce the sound wave. In pulse-code modulation (PCM) sampling, the bit depth will limit quantities such as dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio. The bit depth will not limit frequency range, which is limited by the sample rate.

By increasing the sampling bit depth, smaller fluctuations of the audio signal can be resolved (also referred to as an increase in dynamic range). The 'rule-of-thumb' relationship between bit depth and dynamic range is, for each 1-bit increase in bit depth, the dynamic range will increase by 6 dB (see Signal-to-noise ratio#Fixed point). 24-bit digital audio has a theoretical maximum dynamic range of 144 dB, compared to 96 dB for 16-bit; however, current digital audio converter technology is limited to dynamic ranges of about 120 dB (20-bit) because of 'real world' limitations in integrated circuit design.<ref>see data sheet for AD1955 (2002)</ref>

Technically speaking, bit depth is only meaningful when applied to pure PCM devices. Non-PCM formats, such as DSD or lossy compression systems like MP3, have bit depths that are not defined in the same sense as PCM. This is particularly true for lossy audio compression, where bits are allocated to other types of information, and the bits actually allocated to individual samples are allowed to fluctuate within the constraints imposed by the allocation algorithm.

Dynamic range

The importance of bit depth in PCM audio is that it determines the maximum possible dynamic range of the signal, or the difference between the loudest possible sounds and the lowest possible noise. For a typical PCM recording, in which no noise shaping is employed and the frequency range extends most of the way to the Nyquist limit, the dynamic range in decibels is equal to 1.76 + 6.02 * bits. This formula is often simplified to 6 dB per bit, which yields the common value of 96 dB for 16-bit CD audio.

It should be restated that this is only valid for PCM sampling without post-processing. Systems such as DSD use a different modulation technique where the signal-to-noise ratio is not determined exclusively by the bit depth and the audio band does not extend to the Nyquist frequency.

What is a 'bit' of data?

Template:Main article In computing parlance, 'bit' is the abbreviation for a single 'binary digit', represented by a 0 or a 1. A digital 'word' is a binary number with more than one digit. The number of bits per word is simply how many digits there are in the corresponding number. Thus the words in commonly used PCM digital audio formats are 16 or 24 bits long. Bigger words have a greater capacity to exchange more information with the receiver.

Binary numerics are base-2; thus, each digit can only be a '0' or a '1'. In comparison, traditional decimal numerics are base-10, having digits that can only be 0 through 9. For example, the 16-bit binary number '0110111110111010' is equivalent to the 5-digit decimal number 28602.

The resolution of a 16 bit system can be calculated by using 216 which gives a value of 65,536. A 24 bit system (224) has a resolution of 16,777,216.

Bit rate

Template:Main article Bit rate refers to the amount of data, specifically bits, transmitted or received per second.

One of the most common bit rates given is that for compressed audio files. For example, an MP3 file might be described as having a bit rate of 160 kbps or 160 kbit/s or 160000 bits/second. This indicates the amount of compressed data needed to store one second of music.

The standard audio CD is said to have a data rate of 44.1 kHz/16, meaning that the audio data was sampled 44,100 times per second, with a bit depth of 16. CD tracks are usually stereo, using a left and right track, so the amount of audio data per second is double that of mono, where only a single track is used. The bit rate is then 44100 samples/second x 16 bits/sample x 2 = 1,411,200 bit/s or 1.4 Mbit/s.

This explains why, for example, a Minidisc recorder, which uses ATRAC compression, can store files lasting twice as long on a disc, if the default, recording in 2 channel stereo, is set to single channel mono recording.

To fully define a sound file's digital audio bit rates: the format of the data, the sampling rate, word size, and the number of channels (e.g. mono, stereo, four-track), must be known.

Calculating values

An audio file's bit rate can be calculated given sufficient information. Given any three of the following four values, the fourth can be calculated.

Bit rate = (sampling rate) x (bit depth) x (number of channels)

E.g., for a recording with a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, a 16 bit depth, and 2 channels (stereo):
44100 x 16 x 2 = 1411200 bits per second, or 1411.2 kbit/s


<references/> Much of the information in this article can be found in Principles of Digital Audio, 4th Edition (Pohlmann, McGraw Hill) with some contributions made by one or more users knowledgeable in the area of digital audio; the book was not the specific reference for this article. Nevertheless, it is one of possibly many printed sources for this information.

See also

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