B&O Tech: Headphone signal flows

#54 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen products

Someone recently asked a question on this posting regarding headphone loudness. Specifically, the question was:

“There is still a big volume difference between H8 on Bluetooth and cable. Why is that?”

I thought that this would make a good topic for a whole posting, rather than just a quick answer to a comment – so here goes…

Introduction – the building blocks

To begin, let’s take a quick look at all the blocks that we’re going to assemble in a chain later. It’s relatively important to understand one or two small details about each block.

Two start:

  • I’ve used red lines for digital signals and blue lines for analogue signals. I’ve assumed that the digital signal contains 2 audio channels, and that the analogue connections are one channel each.
  • My signal flow goes from left to right
  • I use the word “telephone” not because I’m old-fashioned (although I am that…) but because if I say “phone”, I could be mistaken for someone talking about headphones. However, the source does not have to be a telephone, it could be anything that fits the descriptions below.
  • The blocks in my signal flows should be taken as basic examples. I have not reverse-engineered a particular telephone or computer or pair of headphones. I’m just describing basic concepts here…

 

Fig 1: A Digital to Analogue converter.
Fig 1: A Digital to Analogue converter.

 

Figure 1, above, shows a 2-channel audio DAC – a Digital to Analogue Converter. This is a device (these days, it’s usually just a chip) that receives a 2-channel digital audio signal as a stream of bits at its input and outputs an analogue signal that is essentially a voltage that varies appropriately over time.

One important thing to remember here is that different DAC’s have different output levels. So, if you send a Full Scale sine wave (say, a 997 Hz, 0 dB FS) into the input of one DAC, you might get 1 V RMS out. If you sent exactly the same input into another DAC (meaning another brand or model) you might get 2 V RMS out.

You’ll find a DAC, for example, inside your telephone, since the data inside it (your MP3 and .wav files) have to be converted to an analogue signal at some point in the chain in order to move the drivers in a pair of headphones connected to the minijack output.

 

Fig 2: An Analogue to Digital converter.
Fig 2: An Analogue to Digital converter.

Figure 2, above, shows a 2-channel ADC – and Analogue to Digital Converter. This does the opposite of a DAC – it receives two analogue audio channels, each one a voltage that varies in time, and converts that to a 2-channel digital representation at its output.

One important thing to remember here is the sensitivity of the input of the ADC. When you make (or use) an ADC, one way to help maximise your signal-to-noise ratio (how much louder the music is than the background noise of the device itself) is to make the highest analogue signal level produce a full-scale representation at the digital output. However, different ADC’s have different sensitivities. One ADC might be designed so that 2.0 V RMS signal at its input results in a 0 dB FS (full scale) output. Another ADC might be designed so that a 0.5 V RMS signal at its input results in a 0 dB FS output. If you send 0.5 V RMS to the first ADC (expecting a max of 2 V RMS) then you’ll get an output of approximately -12 dB FS. If you send 2 V RMS to the second ADC (which expects a maximum of only 0.5 V RMS) then you’ll clip the signal.

 

Fig 3: A Digital Signal Processor.
Fig 3: A Digital Signal Processor.

Figure 3, above, shows a Digital Signal Processor or DSP. This is just the component that does the calculations on the audio signals. The word “calculations” here can mean a lot of different things: it might be a simple volume control, it could be the filtering for a bass or treble control, or, in an extreme case, it might be doing fancy things like compression, upmixing, bass management, processing of headphone signals to make things sound like they’re outside your head, dynamic control of signals to make sure you don’t melt your woofers – anything…

 

Fig 4: A two-channel analogue amplifier block.
Fig 4: A two-channel analogue amplifier block.

Figure 4, above, shows a two-channel analogue amplifier block. This is typically somewhere in the audio chain because the output of the DAC that is used to drive the headphones either can’t provide a high-enough voltage or current (or both) to drive the headphones. So, the amplifier is there to make the voltage higher, or to be able to provide enough current to the headphones to make them loud enough so that the kids don’t complain.

 

Fig 5: The headphone drivers - the "business end" of the headphones.
Fig 5: The headphone drivers – the “business end” of the headphones.

 

The final building block in the chain is the headphone driver itself. In most pairs of headphones, this is comprised of a circular-shaped magnet with a coil of wire inside it. The coil is glued to a diaphragm that can move like the skin of a drum. Sending electrical current back and forth through the coil causes it to move back and forth which pushes and pulls the diaphragm. That, in turn, pushes and pulls the air molecules next to it, generating high and low pressure waves that move outwards from the front of the diaphragm and towards your eardrum. If you’d like to know more about this basic concept – this posting will help.

One important thing to note about a headphone driver is its sensitivity. This is a measure of how loud the output sound is for a given input voltage. The persons who designed the headphone driver’s components determine this sensitivity by changing things like the strength of the magnet, the length of the coil of wire, the weight of the moving parts, resonant chambers around it, and other things. However, the basic point here is that different drivers will have different loudnesses at different frequencies for the same input voltage.

 

Now that we have all of those building blocks, let’s see how they’re put together so that you can listen to Foo Fighters on your phone.

 

Version 1: The good-old days

In the olden days, you had a pair of headphones with a wire hanging out of one or both sides and you plugged that wire into the headphone jack of a telephone or computer or something else. We’ll stick with the example of a telephone to keep things consistent.

Figure 6, below, shows an example of the path the audio signal takes from being a MP3 or .wav (or something else) file on your phone to the sound getting into your ears.

The file is read and then decoded into something called a “PCM” signal (Pulse Code Modulation – it doesn’t matter what this is for the purposes of this posting). So, we get to point “A” in the chain and we have audio. In some cases, the decoder doesn’t have to do anything (for example, if you use uncompressed PCM audio like a .wav file) – in other cases (like MP3) the decoder has to convert a stream of data into something that can be understood as an audio signal by the DSP. In essence, the decoder is just a kind of universal translator, because the DSP only speaks one language.

The signal then goes through the DSP, which, in a very simple case is just the volume control. For example, if you want the signal to have half the level, then the DSP just multiplies the incoming numbers (the audio signal) by 0.5 and spits them out again. (No, I’m not going to talk about dither today.) So, that gets us to point “B” in the chain. Note that, if your volume is set to maximum and you aren’t doing anything like changing the bass or treble or anything else – it could be that the DSP just spits out what it’s fed (by multiplying all incoming values by 1.0).

Now, the signal has to be converted to analogue using the DAC. Remember (from above) that the actual voltage at its output (at point “C”) is dependent on the brand and model of DAC we’re talking about. However, that will probably change anyway, since the signal is fed through the amplifiers which output to the minijack connector at point “D”.

Assuming that they’ve set the DSP so that output=input for now, then the voltage level at the output (at “D”) is determined by the telephone’s manufacturer by looking at the DAC’s output voltage and setting the gain of the amplifiers to produce a desired output.

 

Fig 6: An example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you plus a pair of passive headphones into your phone to listen to music.
Fig 6: An example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you plug a pair of passive headphones into your telephone’s headphone output to listen to music.

 

Then, you plug a pair of headphones into the minijack. The headphone drivers have a sensitivity (a measure of the amount of sound output for a given voltage/current input) that will have an influence on the output level at your eardrum. The more sensitive the drivers to the electrical input, the louder the output. However, since, in this case, we’re talking about an electromechanical system, it will not change its behaviour (much) for different sources. So, if you plug a pair of headphones into a minijack that is supplying 2.0 V RMS, you’ll get 4 times as much sound output as when you plug them into a minijack that is supplying 0.5 V RMS.

This is important, since different devices have VERY different output levels – and therefore the headphones will behave accordingly. I regularly measure the maximum output level of phones, computers, CD players, preamps and so on – just to get an idea of what’s on the market. I’ve seen maximum output levels on a headphone jack as low as 0.28 V RMS (on an Apple iPod Nano Gen4) and as high as 8.11 V RMS (on a Behringer Powerplay Pro-8 headphone distribution amp). This is a very big difference (29 dB, which also happens to be 29  times…).

 

Version 2: The more-recent past

So, you’ve recently gone out and bought yourself a newfangled pair of noise-cancelling headphones, but you’re a fan of wires, so you keep them plugged into the minijack output of your telephone. Ignoring the noise-cancelling portion, the signal flow that the audio follows, going from a file in the memory to some sound in your ears is probably something like that shown in Figure 7.

 

Fig 7: An example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you plug a pair of active headphones into your phone's headphone output to listen to music.
Fig 7: An example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you plug a pair of active headphones into your telephone’s headphone output to listen to music.

 

As you can see by comparing Figures 7 and 6, the two systems are probably identical until you hit the input of the headphones. So, everything that I said in the previous section up to the output of the telephone’s amplifiers is the same. However, things change when we hit the input of the headphones.

The input of the headphones is an analogue to digital converter. As we saw above, the designer of the ADC (and its analogue input stages) had to make a decision about its sensitivity – the relationship between the voltage of the analogue signal at its input and the level of the  digital signal at its output. In this case, the designer of the headphones had to make an assumption/decision about the maximum voltage output of the source device.

Now we’re at point “E” in the signal chain. Let’s say that there is no DSP in the headphones – no tuning, no volume – nothing. So, the signal that comes out of the ADC is sent, bit for bit, to its DAC. Just like the DAC in the source, the headphone’s DAC has some analogue output level for its digital input level. Note that there is no reason for the analogue signal level of the headphones’ input to be identical to the analogue output level of the DAC or the analogue output level of the amplifiers. The only reason a manufacturer might want to try to match the level between the analogue input and the amplifier output is if the headphones work when they’re turned off – thus connecting the source’s amplifier directly to the headphone drivers (just like in Figure 6). This was one of the goals with the BeoPlay H8 – to ensure that if your batteries die, the overall level of the headphones didn’t change considerably.

However, some headphones don’t bother with this alignment because when the batteries die, or you turn them off, they don’t work – there’s no bypass…

 

Version 3: Look ma! No wires!

These days, many people use Bluetooth to connect wirelessly from the source to the headphones. This means that some components in the chain are omitted (like the DAC’s in the source and the ADC in the headphones) and others are inserted (in Figures 8 and 9, the Bluetooth Transmitter and Receiver).

Note that, to keep things simple, I have not included the encoder and the decoder for the Bluetooth transmission in the chain. Depending mainly on your source’s capabilities, the audio signal will probably be encoded into one of the varieties of an SBC or an aptX codec before transmitting. It’s then decoded back to PCM after receiving. In theory, the output of the decoder has the same level as the input of the encoder, so I’ve left it out of this discussion. I won’t discuss either CODEC’s implications on audio quality in this posting.

Taking a look at Figure 8 or 9 and you’ll see that, in theory, the level of the digital audio signal inside the source is identical to that inside the headphones – or, at least, it can be.

Fig 6: An example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you plus a pair of passive headphones into your phone to listen to music.
Fig 8: One example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you connect a pair of active headphones to your telephone using Bluetooth to listen to music. Note that the volume control, in this example, is shown in the telephone.

 

Fig 9: One example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you connect a pair of active headphones to your telephone using Bluetooth to listen to music. Note that the volume control, in this example, is shown in the headphones.
Fig 9: One example of a basic signal flow that occurs when you connect a pair of active headphones to your telephone using Bluetooth to listen to music. Note that the volume control, in this example, is shown in the headphones.

 

This means that the potentially incorrect assumptions made by the headphone manufacturer about the analogue output levels of the source can be avoided. However, it also means that, if you have a pair of headphones like the BeoPlay H7 or H8 that can be used either via an analogue or a Bluetooth connection then there will, in many cases, be a difference in level when switching between the two signal paths.

 

For example…

Let’s take a simple case. We’ll build a pair of headphones that can be used in two ways. The first is using an analogue input that is processed through the headphone’s internal DSP (just as is shown in Figure 6). We’ll build the headphones so that they can be used with a 2.0 V RMS output – therefore we’ll set the input sensitivity so that a 2.0 V RMS signal will result in a 0 dB FS signal internally.

 

We then connect the headphones to an Apple MacBook Pro’s headphone output and we turn up the volume to maximum. This will result in an analogue violate level of 2.085 V RMS coming from the computer’s headphone output.

Now we’ll use the same headphones and connect them to an Apple iPhone 4s which has a maximum analogue output level of 0.92 V RMS. This is less than half the level of the MacBook Pro’s output. So, if we set the volume to maximum on the iPhone and play exactly the same file as on the MacBook Pro, the headphones will have half the output level.

 

A second way to connect the headphones is via Bluetooth using the signal flow shown in Figure 8. Now, if we use Bluetooth to connect the headphones to the MacBook Pro with its volume set to maximum, a 0 dB FS signal inside the computer results in a 0 dB FS signal inside the headphones.

If we connect the headphones to the iPhone 4s via Bluetooth and play the same file at maximum volume, we’ll get the same output as we did with the MacBook Pro. This is because the 0 dB FS signal inside the phone is also producing a 0 dB FS signal in the headphones.

 

So, if you’re on the computer, switching from a Bluetooth connection to an analogue wired connection using the same volume settings will result in the same output level from the headphones (because the headphones are designed for a max 2 V RMS analogue signal). However, if you’re using the telephone, switching from a Bluetooth connection to an analogue wired connection will results in a drop in the output level by more than 6 dB (because the telephone’s maximum output level is less than 1 V RMS).

 

 

Wrapping up

So, the answer to the initial question is that there’s a difference between the output of the H8 headphones when switching between Bluetooth and the cable because the output level of the source that you’re using is different from what was anticipated by the engineers who designed the input stage of the headphones. This is likely because the input stage of the headphones was designed to be compatible with a device with a higher maximum output level than the one you’re using.