Digital speakers

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Actual digital speaker driver technology not only exists, but is quite mature, having been experimented with extensively by Bell Labs as far back as the 1920s. The design of these is disarmingly simple; the least significant bit drives a tiny speaker driver, of whatever physical design seems appropriate; a value of “1” causes this driver to be driven full amplitude, a value of “0” causes it to be completely shut off. (This allows for high efficiency in the amplifier, which at any time is either passing zero current, or required to drop the voltage by zero volts, therefore theoretically dissipating zero watts at all times). The next least significant bit drives a speaker of twice the area (most often, but not necessarily, a ring around the previous driver), again to either full amplitude, or off. The next least significant bit drives a speaker of twice this area, and so on.

There are two problems with this design which led to its being abandoned as hopelessly impractical, however; firstly, a quick calculation shows that for a reasonable number of bits required for reasonable sound reproduction quality, the size of the system becomes very large. For example, a 16 bit system to be compatible with the 16 bit audio CD standard, starting with a reasonable 2 square inch driver for the least significant bit, would require a total area for the drivers of over 900 square feet. Secondly, since this system is converting digital signal to analog, the effect of aliasing is unavoidable, so that the audio output is “reflected” at equal amplitude in the frequency domain, on the other side of the sampling frequency. Even accounting for the vastly lower efficiency of speaker drivers at such high frequencies, the result was to generate an unacceptably high level of ultrasonics accompanying the desired output. In electronic digital to analog conversion, this is addressed by the use of Low-pass filters to eliminate the spurious upper frequencies produced; however, this approach cannot be used to solve the problem with this digital loudspeaker, since it is the last link in the audio chain.

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