Bit-Depth & Sample Rate Decoded - How a DAC can improve your music

Unlike our ancestors from hundreds of years ago, we can take an entire orchestra with us in our pocket, or re-live a live rock show from a few years back by enjoying digital music. Thousands of unique, breath-taking songs are poised and ready to fill our ears at the push of a button. Digital compressed music files make this possible and our mobile phones are filled with our favorite songs. But how did the music get digitized and is there a best way to listen to it?

When music is originally performed, it’s all analog. Whether the audio is a vocalist, instrumental or all of the above, analog sound waves are fed into microphones and are converted to digital files in the studio. Digitizing music is preferred because it’s easily stored on a CD, computer, or portable device. The digital file cannot wear out or change like an analog record that’s been played too much. Since human ear drums are analog, however, the song must be converted back to analog before we can listen and appreciate the music. This conversion process is where the real story begins.

Analog to Digital: In the Studio

CD music is recorded at 16 bits/44.1kHz (or 16/44.1 for short). The first part of the number is the bit-depth. This records how many variations of volume the song will have. As an example, if a song has 4-bit audio, there will be 16 different levels of volume from the quietest whisper to the loudest roar. Every bit of audio that is added doubles the level of sound. 16-bit audio provides an impressive 65,536 different variations of volume while 24-bit will allow 16 million unique levels of volume.

The second number refers to sample rate. This tells us how many samples were taken for every second of music. The more samples that are taken, the more accurately the digital file will mimic the original analog performance. 16/44.1 CD music takes 44,100 samples per second while 24/96 takes 96,000 samples per second. As bit depth and sample rate increase, volume variation and accuracy will also become more precise.

Digital to Analog: In Your Home

So you’ve downloaded a song to your computer and would like to listen to it. Naturally, you plug your headphones into the 3.5mm jack on your laptop and press play. All computers, mobile phones and other digital devices have digital-to-analog converters built so music can be heard by our ears. Unfortunately, most of these DACs are inaccurate to the discerning listener. The quality of DAC that is used to convert the music back to analog has a noticeable effect on sound quality and the overall listening experience. Instead of using the built-in DAC on a laptop, CD player, or mobile phone, many customers are choosing to buy an external digital-to-analog converter to upgrade their experience. These high-end DACs can decode music ranging from 16/48 up to 32/1.4MHz on an up-sampling decoder. That’s nearly 4.3 billion lever variations with 1.4 million samples per second.

Is 24-Bit Better?

Undoubtedly a higher bit-rate will result in better audio, but whether you will notice this or not is dependent on your ear and the quality of your DAC. Some individuals have great hearing and can appreciate the subtleties of their music whereas others simply cannot discern much of a difference. Learn more about DACs and if you’re a music lover and want the best possible listening experience, consider adding an external DAC to your audio gear today.