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What is the purpose of an Analog-to-Digital converter?

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Most real world signals are analog in form. Sound and light have infinite values without distinct, separate levels. People are very good at seeing and hearing these signals and interpreting them. Computers on the other hand are not designed to handle analog signals. As computers store and manipulate numbers, analog signals need to be converted to a number form before a computer can deal with them.

An analog to digital converter is the device that performs the task. It evaluates a voltage that represents the signal level and converts it into a number. For audio, the number will be in the range 0 - 64,000 with a 16 bit binary number or 1 - 16,000,000 with a 24 bit binary number. Video will use a value up to 1000 using 10 binary digits for each of the three signals. The end result for video is a range of many millions of colors.

A to D converters sample the analog level fast enough to capture the changes in level as they happen. The process repeats and the numeric data can be stored or passed to other devices as a stream of numbers.

The great advantage of using numbers is that they can be stored accurately. It doesn't matter how often they are stored, copied or sent to other devices, the numbers will remain intact. At the end of the signal chain, the numbers can be converted back to analog signals to be displayed on each pixel of a television screen or amplified before being sent to loudspeakers. Although there are some tiny quality losses as the signals are first converted to digital, there will be no more loss of quality throughout the complete signal chain.*

*The description of the signal chain does not take into account the compression that is normally used in both video and audio signals. MP3 and MP4 formats compress the amount of data to make it easier to store and transmit. There are some additional quality losses in this process but ideally, the losses will not be noticeable for normal viewing and listening purposes.
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