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How CD Players Work
Source: "How CDs Work", HowStuffWorks (http://www.howstuffworks.com), by Marshall Brain. HowStuffWorks, Inc., 2002

CD Player
The CD player has the job of finding and reading the data stored as bumps on the
CD. Considering how small the bumps are, the CD player is an exceptionally precise piece of equipment. The drive consists of three fundamental components:

  • A drive motor spins the disc. This drive motor is precisely controlled to rotate between 200 and 500 rpm depending on which track is being read.
  • A laser and a lens system focus in on and read the bumps.
  • A tracking mechanism moves the laser assembly so that the laser's beam can follow the spiral track. The tracking system has to be able to move the laser at micron resolutions.

Inside the CD player, there is a good bit of computer technology involved in forming the data into understandable data blocks and sending them either to the DAC (in the case of an audio CD) or to the computer (in the case of a CD-ROM drive).

The fundamental job of the CD player is to focus the laser on the track of bumps. The laser beam passes through the polycarbonate layer, reflects off the aluminum layer and hits an opto-electronic device that detects changes in light. The bumps reflect light differently than the "lands" (the rest of the aluminum layer), and the opto-electronic sensor detects that change in reflectivity. The electronics in the drive interpret the changes in reflectivity in order to read the bits that make up the bytes.

The hardest part is keeping the laser beam centered on the data track. This centering is the job of the tracking system. The tracking system, as it plays the CD, has to continually move the laser outward. As the laser moves outward from the center of the disc, the bumps move past the laser faster -- this happens because the linear, or tangential, speed of the bumps is equal to the radius times the speed at which the disc is revolving (rpm). Therefore, as the laser moves outward, the spindle motor must slow the speed of the CD. That way, the bumps travel past the laser at a constant speed, and the data comes off the disc at a constant rate.

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