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Digital Amplifiers are Here!

The wiring is on the wall for analog audio amplifiers. A new breed of digital audio power amplifiers is about to take over and they offer lots of benefits.

By Jim Rowe

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Sony's Playstation 2, announced and released with such fanfare a few months back, contains a digital audio amplifier courtesy of Tripath. Sony's new VAIO (Video Audio Integrated Operation) note-book computers also contain a similar digital audio amplifier.

When Compact Discs burst onto the audio scene in the early 1980s, they quick-ly changed the definition of ‘hifi’.

Suddenly we had a recording and playback technology which could deliver a signal-to-noise ratio of 96dB, distortion levels below 0.01%, negligible wow and flutter and a frequency response which was near enough to ‘ruler flat’ over the complete audible spectrum.

CDs delivered these benefits mainly because they took advantage of digital technology. Instead of trying to record audio waveforms faithfully in the grooves cut into vinyl records, they ‘sampled’ the waveform 44,100 times per second and turned it into a stream of binary numbers – ones and zeros – which could be recorded and played back much more faithfully. This made it possible to reconstruct a much more accurate replica of the original, when the digital samples were converted back into analog form.

The same sort of benefits came when digital technology was applied to tape recording to provide us with DAT (digital audio tape). And the improvements continue, with the new enhanced digital recording techniques such as HDCD (High Definition CD), SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-Audio – which are just coming onto the market.

But until very recently, the high quality audio available from these digital technologies still had to be converted back into analog for the last crucial step in the audio chain: power amplification to drive the speakers. That’s because up till now, analog circuitry has provided the only way to achieve a high-quality audio power amplifier.

Even today, some audiophiles will tell you that the only kind of power amplifier worth listening to is one with a class A (or at worst, class AB) push-pull output stage, with a whopping great power supply, plenty of heatsinking and loads of negative feedback.

And there’s the rub: traditional high quality analog power amps and their power supplies are big, heavy, expensive and wasteful of power.

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