16- or 24-bit audio interface?


Possibly a dumb question, but would I be able to play 24-bit audio files through a 16-bit audio interface? Likewise, if someone gave me 24-bit files to work with, would I be able to edit them using a 16-bit interface? I'm not clear on what's handled by the computer and what's handled by the external sound card.

Asking because I'm thinking of buying a new interface and I like the idea of a class-compliant I/O box that will run on any recent Mac, regardless of the OS or the availability of drivers. I currently have a Native Instruments Audio Kontrol 1, which I like quite a lot, but they're not keeping the drivers up to date and have probably abandoned it by now. Thinking of getting the Akai EIE which comes in a 16-bit version (class compliant; no drivers necessary) and a 24-bit version (needs drivers and Akai is slow to update). I've considered Presonus, Focusrite, etc. but the Akai gets very good reviews and has extra features (powered usb hub, four simultaneous inputs, inserts) that would be very handy in my small setup.

I don't record vocals or live instruments. I mainly use my interface to listen to music on headphones or speakers, to capture audio from records or old synths and drum machines, and to do some editing/production. I don't mind working in 16-bit, but I'm wondering if I'd be severely limited in any other respects.


PS: As a test, I generated a 30-second tone in Audacity and saved it at as a 32-bit AIFF. It plays back through my 24-bit NI box with no problems. Does that answer my question?
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Wild Horses
the soundcard handles the conversion between the analogue domain and the digital domain, e.g. to go out to your speakers or to go in to your interface from gear/external sources. These conversions are done at a sampling frequency and bit depth determined by the resolution of the converters. The soundcard is also responsible for sending the digital data from these conversions between itself and the computer.

If your soundcard is limited to 16 bit, you would need to change the bit rate of the 24 bit file you want to play back into 16 bit by a process called dithering. It's likely that most DAWs would handle this process automatically without telling you. Consumer programs like media players are less likely to do this and a 24 bit file played through them might not work properly.

Computer technology is a minefield of progressive and de-evolutionary standards, often happening at the same time. Though it seems that things have slowed down a bit recently with a focus on handheld devices.

I would try to choose a manufacturer with a good reputation for looking after their products through maintaining support, though tbh most are as guilty as each other.

Echo Audiofire range are decent, MOTU OK, RME probably the best (but pricey). Second hand might throw up some bargains.

From what you've said of your needs, 16 bit will be fine. The gains made from 24 bit are more necessary in more serious work, and unless the sounds are being presented on a really good and accurate system I doubt that the difference between 16 and 24 would be audible. (haven't checked myself and some people may disagree)

I purchased a super high end AD converter (like £3000 new), with 24 bit resolution and 192Khz sampling rate and could hear a difference, but I didn't find the difference worthwhile compared to the cost and got a good reel to reel. (which is now also being sold)
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