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Bitstream vs PCM – Which is Better for Audio?

Finding the best option in the Bitstream vs PCM debate will help you to get the best surround sound audio. Bitstream and PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) are the two industry standards for sending audio to speakers and receivers from a transmitter in a home theater system. Therefore, understanding how Bitstream and PCM work can help you in so many ways.

If you are building the perfect home theater system, you will want to get the best sound quality. So what are the differences between Bitstream and PCM? And how can they help you to build the best home theater system?

Bitstream and PCM Overview

If you are still unsure about the Bitstream and PCM basics, let’s break this down for you. These two functions help to send audio from media players and transmitters to the speakers or receivers on your home theater system. They can both produce the same sound quality, with the main differences being how the audio is compressed.

You need to check the compatibility of your devices and their supported frequencies. This will let you know if you should use PCM or Bitstream. Some connections utilize PCM better than Bitstream. However, the majority of AVRs are better for decoding in Bitstream.

It all depends on the media device or receiver you are using. This subject is more than just decoding, so let’s take a more in-depth look…

What is PCM (Pulse Code Modulation)?

What is PCM

Are you still confused about these functions and what they are? PCM is essentially an algorithm used by media devices and transmitters that represent analog waves. This method is so practical that it’s been the standard for over 100 years for transmitting audio waves.

PCM algorithms do not discriminate and will process the waves whether you are using raw or compressed audio. The algorithm decodes and sends the data to the receiver or speakers, regardless of the audio type.

The media device you use will utilize PCM to decode a file before it sends to the receiver. This type of method will be used whether you are using PCM, where the quantization levels are defined by amplitude. Or via LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation), where Quantization levels are more linearly.

100 years old and still going strong…

As mentioned above, PCM has been around for over 100 years, which has culminated in it becoming the industry standard. This means it’s highly compatible with most modern media devices. You can use it to convert an analog audio output to digital and the other way around.

You can even configure your Blu-ray player to use PCM to stream. This results in your player being able to decode files from standard Dolby, DTS, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS HD Master Audio. Your media player or device will send the decoded and uncompressed audio files directly to your home theater system receiver.

The only thing that your AVR will have to do is receive the files and send them to the speakers. This is the most common connection we use for CD players. So it makes sense that virtually all AVRs are compatible with PCM. And because it works well with both analog and digital audio, it’s the most popular method.

What is Bitstream?

Bitstream is not so much of an algorithm but more of a binary sequence. Sorry to get so technical right off the bat. When discussing the conversion of audio to digital files, experts sometimes talk about the 1’s and 0’s involved in the process.

This is essentially Bitstream binary. And although the technology is relatively old, it’s still the main framework used by PCM and other Hi-Res transmissions.

You get fewer options when using Bitstream in comparison to PCM. But in reality, the sound outputs are not that different from Bitstream. If you use your media device with Bitstream, compressed audio files will be sent to the receiver. It’s then your AVR’s job to decode the data and to send the uncompressed file to your audio output.

Configuring surround sound…

You will use this process when building a surround sound home theater system. If you set your receiver to Bitstream, it will activate the AVR processor to check for any possible surround sound functionality. If your system is configured for numerous surround sound speakers, the processor will decode the sound to these preferences.

There are several surround sound audio codecs that use Bitstream. These are Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS 96/24, DTS:X, and DTS HD Master Audio. Because the audio files are compressed, bandwidth is not an issue. That means you can use Bitstream for wired and wireless connections.

Check out these AVR receivers…

AVR receiver devices are an important component for your surround sound audio. Check out the best AVR receivers that come highly recommended by audiophiles and tech-geeks alike.

Denon AVR-S54BT Receiver

This 5-channel AVR receiver offers 4K Ultra HD and video and is a great option for your home theater system.

Sony STRDH590 5.2 Channel AVR

This classy Sony AV receiver looks great and performs even better. When you want a market-leading AVR for your surround sound system, this is a great option.

KEiid Bluetooth (V5.0) Stereo Digital AVR

When you need a 5-channel AVR that offers great value for money and lots of features, this model is the one. It’s one of the most modern and innovative AV receivers currently in the marketplace.

Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 Channel Surround Sound AVR

This amazing AVR is one of Sony’s best and fully compatible with 7.1 surround sound home theater systems. If you’re looking for the best AV receiver, this one takes some beating.

Bitstream vs PCM – In Comparison

Bitstream vs PCM

In a side-by-side comparison, the PCM vs Bitstream debate is still hard to decipher. They are both very similar if you are using the same audio format on the same speakers. The result will sound and appear very similar, which is why some people can’t differentiate between PCM and Bitstream. So, check out these side-by-side comparisons, so you get a better idea…

Compatibility

PCM is compatible with most media devices such as CD, DVD, and Blue-ray players. Bitstream is also compatible with most modern media players, especially ones that support the majority of surround sound format files.

Audio Files

With PCM methods, media players will convert audio signals into digital and vice versa, so the transmitter can send them to the receiver. Where Bitstream is concerned, the audio files are bit-encoded and must be matched with specific surround sound formats before they can be digitally transmitted.

Decoding

In regards to PCM, the media players handle the decoding of audio files before the data is sent to the receiver. When using Bitstream, the player will send the compressed audio to the receiver, which then needs to perform the decoding.

Connections

You will need a physical connection when transmitting audio streams with PCM from the player to the receiver or speakers. The transmission of audio streams with Bitstream allows you to perform that with either wired or wireless connections. As long as the media is compatible, the connection type is not so important with Bitstream.

Audio Outputs

If you are using PCM, the audio output transmission needs a much higher bandwidth to reduce the quality deterioration. Using Bitstream offers much more flexibility for speakers and receivers. This helps to deliver higher-quality audio output.

Secondary Audio

PCM offers very good support for Hi-Res secondary audio channels. Bitstream secondary audio quality is decent but has fewer options.

Transmission

PCM always works with receivers and media players that support both digital and analog sound. However, Bitstream only works with digital transmissions on compatible receivers and media players.

Optical/Coaxial

The support for digital optical and coaxial cables is limited with PCM. Bitstream supports digital and optical cables up to 5.1, making this the best option.

Comparing PCM and Bitstream shows there is not much difference between the two. And when there is, it’s pretty much minimal. However, Bitstream is better for digital connections and transmission and offers both wired and wireless options.

How Does PCM Work?

How Does PCM Work

In the modern world of surround sound home theaters, an HDMI connection is the most commonly used. So let’s take some liberties and assume you are using HDMI because you are probably using this connection.

To use your Blu-ray player with PCM, you will have to set it up correctly. Your player will need to decode all the files from Dolby, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, and DTS Master Audio, codecs, and all the related soundtracks.

Find out if PCM can handle secondary media…

By going through this setup, the media player is doing all the work and will allow you to access secondary media. This secondary audio is descriptive audio, commentaries, supplementary audio tracks, and so forth. If you need this type of access for your surround sound, using PCM is a solid choice.

If you want to connect with digital optical or coaxial connections, your options might be limited. PCM only allows two-channel signals. So you might experience some issues with the limited bandwidth capacity of transmitting uncompressed audio files.

How Does Bitstream Work?

How Does Bitstream Work

If you want to use Bitstream audio outputs for your Blu-ray player, the way to process files is different from PCM. Your player will initially bypass the DTS and Dolby decoders. This will ensure that your player will only transmit digital signals directly to your receiver.

It will then be the receiver’s responsibility to decode and convert the signals. Your receiver will have to process everything, such as the decoded uncompressed audio files, if you set your player for Bitstream transmission.

Once the files have been compressed, they do not take up much bandwidth, which is great for your surround sound system. You can then take advantage of a wide range of codecs and outputs such as Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD Master Audio, and DTS:X.

Potential issues with Bitstream…

Connection issues are something you don’t need to worry about with Bitstream due to its wired or wireless transmission. This will let you take advantage of higher frequencies if your sound system can handle top-notch audio quality.

One of the potential issues with Bitstream is when we start relying on the secondary audio settings. If the file you are using is a Hi-Res secondary format such as Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, or higher, you will get some issues.

The file will be downgraded to standard Dolby Digital or DTS. Because both files are being squeezed into the same bandwidth, it results in lower sound quality. Your outputs are severely limited when using Bitstream on Hi-Res secondary audio.

Understanding Bitstream and PCM Similarities

Although Bitstream and PCM are different methods to send audio signals, they do share many similarities. They both deliver high-quality audio. And if you take secondary audio and codecs out of the equation, you wouldn’t even notice the differences between the two.

The real truth is that regardless of playing Hi-Res or standard audio, they will sound similar when playing out the speakers. Even though the outputs are different, PCM and Bitstream both perform exceptionally well with DVD players and Blu-ray players. You will not notice the difference.

Furthermore, if you want to switch between Bitstream and PCM, there are lots of players that facilitate it. AVRs work similarly and are compatible with both. However, the major similarity between them is they need to convert audio files into analog for your speakers to play them.

Benefits of Using PCM

PCM and Bitstream perform many of the same duties, such as similar audio quality and file conversion. So, is there a specific time to use one instead of the other? Also, when and why do we need to use PCM instead of Bitstream?

Here are the main benefits of using PCM vs Bitstream:

  • When you need to unlock high-quality secondary audio.
  • When you need to use a faster connection that is direct and minimizes output latency.
  • When you want to give your receiver respite from the hassles of converting audio.
  • When you are using a sound system that is better at decoding audio files directly from the player.

It’s important to remember that PCM configurations are not particularly better or worse than Bitstream. A major drawback is that PCM only supports two-channel outputs with optical and coaxial. This can be quite restrictive for some users and a complete deal-breaker.

Compatibility, transmission, and connections…

Compatibility is also a major factor you need to consider. This makes PCM a very desirable option because it works on most modern CD, DVD, and Blu-ray players. By using PCM, the player decodes the audio files; however, it is not the smoothest transmission, especially if you have a very high-end and sophisticated home theater setup.

If you are using a wireless sound system, this PCM method is not for you. PCM transmits large audio files that need a physical connection to make them work. So if you are working with a wired system, this is a viable option.

Benefits of Using Bitstream

Benefits of Using Bitstream

Did you know that PCM actually uses Bitstream technology as part of its main foundational structure? But that doesn’t mean that PCM and Bitstream are worse or better than each other. Far from it. But Bitstream most definitely has a few benefits and advantages over PCM.

Here are some of the benefits of using Bitstream vs PCM:

  • When you need to use 5.1 surround sound with a digital optical or coaxial connection.
  • When your sound system needs more flexibility playing Hi-Res audio.
  • When using a receiver that has more audio processing power.
  • When your sound system needs to rely on a receiver to process and decode files.

Find out when to use Bitstream…

One of the major limitations of Bitstream is when you need to rely on secondary audio. Bitstream still works with secondary audio, but it’s nowhere near as good as PCM in this regard.

Generally speaking, you will get better audio quality when using Bitstream. Although this can be counteracted by using a top-notch receiver with powerful processing functions. The key benefit of using Bitstream is that you can take advantage of wireless connections. This is impossible with PCM and a reason so many home theater builders choose Bitstream.

Need a Great Receiver or Amplifier?

Let us lend a hand by checking out our in-depth reviews of the Best AV Receivers Under $1000, the Best AV Receivers Under $500, the Best Yamaha AV Receivers, the Best Desktop Headphone Amplifiers, the Best USB DACs Under $100, and the Best Portable DAC/Amp Combo you can buy in 2021.

Also, have a look at our detailed Sony STR-DN1080 7.2-Channel AV Receiver Review, our Denon AVR-X4400H AV Receiver Review, our Sony STRDH590 5.2-ch Surround Sound Home Theater Receiver Review, and our Peachtree Audio Nova 300 Review for more great items currently on the market.

Bitstream vs PCM – Final Thoughts

The main thing we have come to realize when discussing the Bitstream or PCM is that they are both viable methods for converting audio files. And they are both viable options for your surround sound system. PCM is more compatible with the majority of media players, while Bitstream can generate better sound quality with the right conditions.

Is there much difference between the two? Nah, not really. You should let the build of your current home theater system dictate the route you decide to take.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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