Audio Quality Explained: Bit Depth vs. Sample Rate

When it comes to audio quality, it might be challenging to keep track of everything that is going on. People use different terminology to describe audio files, and firms don’t always explain when they slap this audio jargon on their products.

Bit depth and sample rate are two phrases we frequently encounter. When we look at the attributes of an audio file, we often notice these two phrases. It’s crucial to understand what these phrases imply and how they affect audio quality, so let’s look at what they mean.

Audio Quality Explained: Bit Depth vs. Sample Rate

What Is Sample Rate and What Does It Mean?

Pixels are tiny bits of color data that combine to make a unified image in digital photos. Consider a digital audio file to be similar to a digital image. When audio is recorded, a microphone picks up the sound and sent as an electrical current to the Analog to Digital Converter (ADC).

Think of samples as the audio counterpart of pixels; the ADC captures numerous current instances and assigns them a series of binary digits (many 1s and 0s).

More samples per second mean crisper music, just as more pixels per square inch mean a clearer image. The sample rate can be defined as the number of samples taken each second.

Typical Sample Rates

For everything to work effectively, both software and hardware firms must be compliant with standard sample rates. You need to be aware with some of the standards if you work with audio in any capacity. For example, the usual sample rate for recording human speech is 8kHz. It’s about the minimum sample rate required to hear speech; much lower, and the listener will have difficulty determining the meaning of the words.

When it comes to music, the sampling rate of CD-quality audio is 44.1kHz. This translates to 44,100 samples per second for the ADC! It only gets better from there, with the next standard being 48kHz, which is more commonly utilized for movie soundtracks.

On the highest end of the range, 96kHz allows for crisper audio by more than doubling the samples per second of 44.1kHz. However, there is debate over whether 96kHz is necessary, as most people are unaware.

What Does Bit Depth Mean?

The bit depth is concerned with the amount of noise in the audio, whereas the sample rate is concerned with the audio quality. Returning to the beginning, the ADC assigns a sequence of binary numbers to each sample. Whereas, the bit depth refers to the number of binary digits per sample.

Based on the amplitude of the audio, the ADC assigns binary numbers to each sample (the strength of the current that travels from the microphone). This is how the sound wave is digitally replicated. The more bits per sample (the more ACD output pins), the more accurately the ADC can reproduce the wave.

ADCs, on the other hand, can only assign a limited amount of voltages to each sample. As a result, if a sample falls between two voltages, it is automatically rounded up, which is known as quantization noise.

The quantized digital signal (blue) only lands at 25-volt increments, despite the fact that the original wave (red) peaks at arbitrary values. Because the lower the bit depth, the less correctly the wave is reproduced, lower bit rates bring digital noise into the audio.

Bit Depths in Common Use

There are different standard bit depths in the business, just like there are various sample rates. You’ll probably see 8-bit audio as the tiniest bit depth. There is a considerable lot of noise with it, but the audio is still usable.

The next level up is usually 16-bit audio, which is what CD-quality audio contains. With 16-bit audio, you won’t usually hear any noise, and most people can record and edit it without difficulty. We have 24-bit audio above that. Professional audio engineers like bit depths of this size. There is no noise and a wider range of amplitudes to work with with 24-bit audio.

Finally, there’s 32-bit audio, which is fraught with debate like the 96kHz sampling rate. Many people assume it isn’t required. You can edit audio in 16-bit and 24-bit perfectly fine, yet 32-bit seems excessive.

What is the best Sample Rate and Bit Depth For You?

So, what are the best sample rates and bit depths for your specific requirements?

Listening in a relaxed manner

You won’t need anything more than 16-bit audio if you’re a casual listener. Some providers advertise higher bit depths to make it appear as if they provide clearer audio, but this is not the case. If you’re just listening for fun, a sample rate of 44.1kHz should suffice.

Audiophiles and engineers who work in the field of audio

When we talk about audiophiles and audio engineers, the subject shifts; they understand what DACs are and how to use other equipment to get the most out of their music. In terms of noise and dynamic range, 24-bit audio should be the best option. It can be made softer without making any audible noise, and it may also be made louder without causing any distortion.

When it comes to sampling rate, things become a little muddled. Some people claim that they can’t tell the difference between 96kHz and 44.1kHz, while others claim to be able to.

The Bottom Line

Technology may be perplexing, and it only gets worse when various phrases are thrown around without explanation. When working with digital audio, we frequently come across phrases like sample rate and bit depth, and understanding these terminologies will help you better understand what you’re listening to. 

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