24/192 and Beyond?

It's a sobering thought: it was the computer manufacturers and software developers, not the consumer electronics industry, who enabled the biggest audio format since the CD to become popular. The format, which hasn't done much to impress audiophiles, but has greatly enhanced the portability of music, is MP3 and CE manufacturers are only now trying to catch up with products that take advantage of its widespread use.

High-resolution audio is clearly having a tough time catching fire via the normal consumer electronics channels, so perhaps a boost from the computer industry might help in a couple of ways: making it easier to create high-rez music and making it easier for consumers to listen to it through computer-based systems.

At last week's Macworld Expo in New York City, Apple Computer unveiled the latest version of its OS X operating system, 10.2, also known by its code name during development, Jaguar. The new system features what the company is calling OS X Core Audio and is clearly aimed at audio professionals, who are needed to supply the market with high-resolution music titles. But according to Apple, Core Audio will also facilitate high resolution DVD and 3D game stereo and multi-channel audio formats for consumers.

Apple says that Core Audio manages all audio as 32-bit floating-point data. "This allows the Mac to efficiently handle 24/96 as well as higher resolutions (24/192 and beyond) that may become common in the future," says the company. "Core Audio also delivers highly optimized sample rate converters to allow programs that do not yet use this high-resolution format to provide data to Mac OS X without truncation."

Another problem the company says is addressed by Core Audio is throughput latency or the time needed for an audio signal to enter the computer, travel through the system to the application handling the data and then back out to the audio monitoring system. Apple states, "The most fundamental measure of audio performance is throughput latency. The Core Audio HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) provides ultra-low-latency communication between applications and I/O devices that is measurably more efficient than previous solutions. M-Audio reports latency as low as 40 samples on Mac OS X from the company's audio interfaces. That translates into 1ms throughput latency, even in a full multichannel environment."

Multichannel audio is also supported in 10.2, eliminating the need for third party system extensions. Apple says that the new architecture will natively enable such applications as home-theater surround sound in addition to pro features such as being able to record with more than two microphones simultaneously without additional outboard processing.