How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Compact Disc Players
Page 2 of 3 (24 Questions and Answers)

431. Why can't I record songs directly onto CD's, like I can onto a tape?
To record CD's, you need a much more powerful laser and a blank recordable CD. Both of these items cost lots of money. Reading a CD does not alter the CD but writing it does. You need more laser power and a special CD disk. If you tried to record a normal CD, you would not be able to restructure its aluminum layer. You would not "erase" the old material on it and would not "write" new material onto it.

432. Why do CD's skip?
CD players must position their optical system very precisely, relative to the spinning disk itself. It uses very sophisticated electromechanical devices to keep it in place. But if you jar a player violently enough, it will lose its position and the audio may suffer. Most modern CD players save a short amount of information so that they are reading ahead of where they are playing. Even if they lose the track for a few hundredths of a second, they have enough music saved up that they can keep playing continuously. But if the upset is severe enough, they will run out of saved music and will go silent for a moment or two.

433. Why do some CD players sound better than others even if the CD is seriously scratched on the bottom half?
At this point, there should be very little difference between CD players that are playing perfect CD's. They all create almost distortionless reproductions of the original sound. However, different players use different tracking techniques and optical systems and thus have different abilities to recover from imperfections in the CD.

434. Why do you need to separate the different polarizations of light?
Any light wave can be described in terms of horizontally and/or vertically polarized light. For most things, these two polarizations are unimportant. But when light reflects from surfaces or passes through certain materials, these polarizations become important. The charges in surfaces and materials do not always respond equally to the two polarizations of light. The two polarizations may even travel through very different paths (e.g. in the polarization beam splitter).

435. Will light going in two directions in the same space create destructive interference?
In general, the answer is no—there won't be large regions of space in which the two light waves cancel one another. That's because, while the electric fields from the two waves do add to one another at each moment, those fields go in and out of phase with one another very rapidly as the waves pass and the end result is that they do not interfere with one another over broad expanses. However, there can be points or surfaces in space at which the electric fields from the waves at least partially cancel for extended periods of time and at which there is destructive interference. These points and surfaces are often observed in experiments with single frequency laser beams.

563. In a CD player, how is the digital optical signal transformed into an electrical signal? — IM, Oxford, UK
The ridges and flat regions on a compact disc's aluminum layer determine how laser light is reflected from that layer. As the disc turns and the player's laser scans across ridges and flat regions, the intensity of the reflected light fluctuates up and down. This reflected light is directed onto an array of silicon photodiodes that provide both the signals needed to keep the laser focused tightly on the aluminum layer and the signal that the player uses to recreate sound. The sound is encoded in the lengths of the ridges. A computer monitors the amount of light returning from the disc to determine how long each ridge is and how much spacing there is between it and the next ridge. The computer uses this information to obtain a series of 16 bit binary numbers for each of the two sound channels that are represented by an audio CD. A digital-to-analog converter uses these 16 bit numbers to produce currents that are eventually amplified and used to produce sound.

639. How does a CD player work? — NL, Dearborn, MI
A CD player uses a laser beam to determine the lengths of a series of ridges inside a compact disc. Infrared light from a solid-state laser is sent through several lenses, a polarizing beam splitter, and a special polarizing device called a quarter-wave plate. It's then focused through the clear plastic surface of the compact disc and onto the shiny aluminum layer inside the disc. Some of this light is reflected back through the player's optical system so that it passes through the quarter-wave plate a second time before encountering the polarizing beam splitter. The two trips through the quarter-wave plate switches the light's polarization from horizontal to vertical (or vice versa) so that instead of returning all the way to the laser, the light turns 90° at the polarizing beam splitter and is directed onto an array of photodiodes. These photodiodes measure the amount and spatial distribution of the reflected light. From this reflected light, the CD player can determine whether the laser beam is hitting a ridge or a valley on the disc's aluminum layer. It can also determine how well focused or aligned the laser beam is with the aluminum layer and its ridges. The player carefully adjusts the laser beam to follow the ridges as the disc turns and it measures how long each ridge is. The music is digitally encoded in the ridge lengths so that by measuring those lengths, the player obtains the information it needs to reproduce the music.

737. Why is CD audio better than that of a cassette? — MK, Baltimore, MD
CD audio is recorded in a digital form—as a series of numerical pressure measurements. This digital recording is a very accurate representation of the air pressure fluctuations associated with the original sounds that arrived at the microphones. During playback, these air pressure measurements are read from the CD and the original air pressure fluctuations are recreated by the speakers. While there are imperfections in the whole process of measuring air pressure fluctuations and recreating those fluctuations, the CD itself doesn't introduce any imperfections—the information read from the CD during playback is absolutely identical to the information that was recorded on the CD at the manufacturer's plant.

The same isn't true of analog recording on a cassette tape. Cassette audio is recorded in an analog form—as magnetizations of the tape surface that are proportional to the air pressure fluctuations associated with the original sounds. During playback, these magnetizations of the tape are analyzed and used to recreate the sounds. But the tape itself introduces imperfections in the reproduced sound. The information read from the tape during playback isn't quite the same as the information that was recorded on the tape at the manufacturer's plant. The tape isn't perfect and the sound that's reproduced by a tape player isn't quite the sound that was originally recorded.

1029. How do analog to digital converters change the analog input signal into a stream of numbers? — RME, Santa Monica, CA
A typical analog-to-digital converter (ADC) uses a process called "successive approximation" to find a binary number that accurately represents the voltage on an input wire. It samples the voltage on the input wire at one moment in time and then gradually constructs a binary number representing that voltage. The ADC tries various binary numbers and uses a digital-to-analog converter to form a voltage from each number. It compares the two voltages, the original and its approximation, to determine how close its current guess is to the correct value. With each successive approximation, it adds a bit a precision to its measurement so that after 16 approximations, it has a 16 bit number that accurately represents the voltage on the input wire.

For applications requiring even faster measurements, there are flash ADCs. These devices synthesize the entire range of possible voltages and then compare the input voltage directly with the complete collection of possible voltages. Since 8 binary bits can represent 256 possible numbers, an 8 bit flash ADC synthesizes 255 different voltages and makes 255 voltage comparisons simultaneously. It instantly determines where among the various voltages the input voltage falls and it reports this value in billionths of a second.

1158. Why do you hear different music coming from a compact disc when the laser of the CD player is just going around the same part of the CD over and over again? — KD, McMinnville, OR
The CD player's laser doesn't really go over the same part of the CD over and over again. As the disc turns, the laser slowly moves outward from the middle of the disc toward its edge. The laser beam is focused to an extremely small spot inside the disc and it is carefully following a tight spiral ridge in the aluminum layer inside. This ridge runs continuously from the center of the disc to its edge. With each revolution of the disc, the laser works its way outward by one more turn of the spiral. The ridge has interruptions in it every so often and it is this pattern of interruptions that contains the information needed to reproduce sound.
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