What is PCM Audio? Pulse Code Modulation Explained (2023)

Nowadays, various digital audio technologies are being used in different kinds of media. One of the first digital audio types invented was pulse-code modulation (PCM). It’s still prevalent in some home audio and television equipment today.

What's PCM Audio?

Some users have asked what PCM audio is and how it works. This guide will show you what is PCM audio and which is better between PCM vs Dolby Digital and PCM vs Bitstream on smart TVs and audio devices.

Read on to learn more.


Table of Contents

What is PCM Audio?

PCM, or Pulse-code Modulation, is a digital audio technology that converts analog audio into digital form. In audiovisual (AV) applications, it’s a data-uncompressed alternative to Dolby Digital audio. Here are the most common PCM audio formats used today:

  • FLAC
  • WAV
  • AAC
  • MP3
  • AIFF
  • ALAC
  • Dolby Digital TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital DTS
  • MQA


PCM vs Dolby Digital

When picking between PCM and Dolby Digital for sound settings on your smart TV or DVD players, it will depend if your device needs uncompressed or compressed audio. If you’re watching content via a CD or DVD, it’s best to use PCM. However, if you’re watching HD content through your smart TV, it’s recommended to use Dolby Digital.

If your TV setup supports Dolby, you’ll reap the benefits of 5.1 surround sound audio. But PCM is better if you’re playing media purely through your TV’s speakers since it lacks compression.

If you have ARC support on your TV, make sure to take full advantage of it regardless of the audio setting that you’re going to choose.


PCM vs Bitstream

The main difference between PCM and Bitstream relies on the device used for decoding the compressed audio to get the uncompressed PCM data. When you use Bitstream on AV receivers, it is responsible for decoding data.

Quality-wise, Bitstream is overall better than PCM since they’re encoded to help end users have a surround sound experience. Here’s a guide on which audio technology you should use on soundbars and smart TVs:


On Soundbars

Choosing PCM vs Bitstream for your soundbar accessory will depend on your soundbar and the type of content your audio is coming from. If your TV and soundbar support Dolby Atmos, it’s recommended to pick Bitstream

When done correctly, the audio basically “passes through” whatever format your soundbar uses, allowing a full surround sound. Otherwise, if your soundbar doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, pick PCM instead.

However, if you’re playing games on consoles like the PS5, it’s better to choose PCM to let the console process the uncompressed audio from the game.


On Samsung TVs

When connecting an audio device via HDMI on your Samsung TV, you can change its audio format through the HDMI Input Audio Format option. If you plan to let your soundbar or home theatre system process the sound from your TV, choose PCM. This option is also ideal when playing audio mainly through your TV’s speakers.

But, if you want to do the opposite—have the audio from your TV processed by your home theatre system—use Bitstream. This lets you take full advantage of your sound setup with a multi-channel surround sound experience.

To change the HDMI audio format settings on your Samsung TV, follow these steps:

  1. Turn on your Samsung TV and go to Settings > Sound.
  2. Select Expert Settings and choose the HDMI Input Audio Format option.
  3. Set it to PCM or Bitstream, depending on what suits your TV audio setup best.


Final Thoughts

Picking the right audio technology on your TV, DVD player, console, soundbar, or home theatre system is crucial to have excellent sound quality when playing various media. It’s also necessary to research whether your device supports a specific audio format (PCM, Bitstream, Dolby) to avoid sound issues. Generally, you’ll need to choose PCM by default if you’re playing audio purely through your TV’s speakers and don’t use external audio accessories.

Hopefully, this guide helps you know more about PCM and what’s better between PCM vs Dolby Digital and Bitstream.