Thursday, August 25, 2005

Technology Behind Gadgets Enhances Their Enjoyment

Those who know me probably also know that I like gadgets. Yes, I just love my electronic widgets and doodads.

Take for example back in the mid-1980s when the new-fangled stereo component, the CD player, started to hit the market. It didn’t take very long for “record” stores to completely replace their stocks of vinyl albums with the new digital medium, the compact disc. And it didn’t take long for me to own one.

I’m never among the first to jump onto the bandwagon of new devices. I know that first-generation devices are always bare-bones and expensive. I grit my teeth and wait it out until the price comes down and they have worked out the bugs.

But if the technology catches on, I’m usually there for round two.

It was a similar situation when DVDs started to become popular. I love DVD. I own a DVD player that also plays Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, an audio format that has four times the resolution of standard CDs. I also own two DVD recorders – one on my computer and one on top of my TV set, which replaced my aging VCR.

To me, the technology that makes CDs and DVDs work is fascinating. Teenagers today, who may not have ever seen a vinyl record, take the technology for granted. But I know how different a CD is from an old-fashioned record.

The 45-RPM or LP vinyl discs were based on exactly the same technology that Thomas Edison used when he first recorded his voice by etching a groove onto a wax cylinder. It is an exceedingly simple concept.

Put a needle in the grooves of a vinyl record, start it rotating and the grooves cause the needle to vibrate. The only thing you have to do to hear it is amplify it.

In the old days, the amplification came by causing the needle to vibrate a diaphragm connected to the armature. The diaphragm’s vibrations were amplified by the resonance chamber of the Victrola, as the players were called.

Later, electronic amplifiers connected to speakers were used in place of the diaphragm. Finally high fidelity, or hi-fi, stereo players became the norm. But even they used Edison’s technique of setting a needle onto etched grooves, which cause it to vibrate.

The CD and DVD work on completely different principals from vinyl records. They both use lasers to read microscopic pits that are stamped within the metallic layer of a plastic disc. These pits scatter the laser light, whereas the flat areas between the pits reflect the laser light onto a sensor. Nothing is vibrating at all.

A microcomputer chip converts the series of on-and-off laser signals into the only language a computer can understand, 1s and 0s. A vast number of these 1s and 0s are then combined to form the code which the compute recognizes as a certain sound.

This digital code is then converted into an analog sound signal, by a different computer component. It is then amplified and sent to the speakers.

To me, it’s all quite fascinating. It adds an extra dimension to listening to good music. I now not only can sit back and appreciate the high quality sound of a brilliantly-mixed DVD-Audio recording in digital 5.1 surround sound, I can also appreciate the technology that went into making it all happen.

Most people don’t have to think about it; they just listen and enjoy. But, to me, thinking about how the technology works is part of the enjoyment.

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