100 ADC Symbol

ADC Symbol

An analog-to-digital converter (abbreviated ADC, A/D or A to D) is a device which converts continuous signals to discrete digital numbers. The reverse operation is performed by a digital-to-analog converter (DAC).

Typically, an ADC is an electronic device that converts an input analog voltage (or current) to a digital number proportional to the magnitude of the voltage or current. However, some non-electronic or only partially electronic devices, such as rotary encoders, can also be considered ADCs. The digital output may use different coding schemes, such as binary, Gray code or two's complement binary.


An ADC has several sources of errors. Quantization error and (assuming the ADC is intended to be linear) non-linearity is intrinsic to any analog-to-digital conversion. There is also a so-called aperture error which is due to a clock jitter and is revealed when digitizing a time-variant signal (not a constant value).

These errors are measured in a unit called the LSB, which is an abbreviation for least significant bit. In the above example of an eight-bit ADC, an error of one LSB is 1/256 of the full signal range, or about 0.4%.


All ADCs suffer from non-linearity errors caused by their physical imperfections, resulting in their output to deviate from a linear function (or some other function, in the case of a deliberately non-linear ADC) of their input. These errors can sometimes be mitigated by calibration, or prevented by testing.

Important parameters for linearity are integral non-linearity (INL) and differential non-linearity (DNL). These non-linearities reduce the dynamic range of the signals that can be digitized by the ADC, also reducing the effective resolution of the ADC.

Relative speed and precision[]

The speed of an ADC varies by type. The Wilkinson ADC is limited by the clock rate which is processable by current digital circuits. Currently, frequencies up to 300 MHz are possible. The conversion time is directly proportional to the number of channels. For a successive approximation ADC, the conversion time scales with the logarithm of the number of channels. Thus for a large number of channels, it is possible that the successive approximation ADC is faster than the Wilkinson. However, the time consuming steps in the Wilkinson are digital, while those in the successive approximation are analog. Since analog is inherently slower than digital, as the number of channels increases, the time required also increases. Thus there are competing processes at work. Flash ADCs are certainly the fastest type of the three. The conversion is basically performed in a single parallel step. For an 8-bit unit, conversion takes place in a few tens of nanoseconds.

There is, as expected, somewhat of a trade off between speed and precision. Flash ADCs have drifts and uncertainties associated with the comparator levels, which lead to poor uniformity in channel width. Flash ADCs have a resulting poor linearity. For successive approximation ADCs, poor linearity is also apparent, but less so than for flash ADCs. Here, non-linearity arises from accumulating errors from the subtraction processes. Wilkinson ADCs are the best of the three. These have the best differential non-linearity. The other types require channel smoothing in order to achieve the level of the Wilkinson.


Application to music recording[]

ADCs are integral to current music reproduction technology. Since much music production is done on computers, when an analog recording is used, an ADC is needed to create the PCM data stream that goes onto a compact disc or digital music file.

The current crop of AD converters utilized in music can sample at rates up to 192 kilohertz. Many people[citation needed] in the business consider this an overkill and pure marketing hype, due to the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem. Simply put, they say[citation needed] the analog waveform does not have enough information in it to necessitate such high sampling rates, and typical recording techniques for high-fidelity audio are usually sampled at either 44.1 kHz (the standard for CD) or 48 kHz (commonly used for radio/TV broadcast applications). However, this kind of bandwidth headroom allows the use of cheaper or faster anti-aliasing filters of less severe filtering slopes. The proponents of oversampling assert that such shallower anti-aliasing filters produce less deleterious effects on sound quality, exactly because of their gentler slopes. Others prefer entirely filterless AD conversion, arguing that aliasing is less detrimental to sound perception than pre-conversion brickwall filtering. Considerable literature exists on these matters, but commercial considerations often play a significant role. Most[citation needed] high-profile recording studios record in 24-bit/192-176.4 kHz PCM or in DSD formats, and then downsample or decimate the signal for Red-Book CD production.

Other applications[]

AD converters are used virtually everywhere where an analog signal has to be processed, stored, or transported in digital form. Fast video ADCs are used, for example, in TV tuner cards. Slow on-chip 8, 10, 12, or 16 bit ADCs are common in microcontrollers. Very fast ADCs are needed in digital oscilloscopes, and are crucial for new applications like software defined radio.