Main article: Switching amplifier
Class D amplifiers are much more efficient than Class AB power amplifiers. As such, Class D amplifiers do not need large transformers and heavy heatsinks, which means that they are smaller and lighter in weight than an equivalent Class AB amplifier. All power devices in a Class D amplifier are operated in on/off mode. Output stages such as those used in pulse generators are examples of class D amplifiers. The term usually applies to devices intended to reproduce signals with a bandwidth well below the switching frequency.
These amplifiers use pulse width modulation, pulse density modulation (sometimes referred to as pulse frequency modulation) or more advanced form of modulation such as Delta-sigma modulation (for example, in the Analog Devices AD1990 Class-D audio power amplifier).
The input signal is converted to a sequence of pulses whose averaged value is directly proportional to the instantaneous amplitude of the signal. The frequency of the pulses is typically ten or more times the highest frequency of interest in the input signal. The output of such an amplifier contains unwanted spectral components (that is, the pulse frequency and its harmonics) which must be removed by a passive filter. The resulting filtered signal is then an amplified replica of the input.
The main advantage of a class D amplifier is power efficiency. Because the output pulses have a fixed amplitude, the switching elements (usually MOSFETs, but valves and bipolar transistors were once used) are switched either on or off, rather than operated in linear mode. This means that very little power is dissipated by the transistors, except during the very short interval between the on and off states. The wasted power is low because the instantaneous power dissipated in the transistor is the product of voltage and current, and one or the other is almost always close to zero. The lower losses permit the use of a smaller heat sink while the power supply requirements are lessened too.
Class D amplifiers can be controlled by either analog or digital circuits. The digital control introduces additional distortion called quantization error caused by its conversion of the input signal to a digital value.
Class D amplifiers have been widely used to control motors, and almost exclusively for small DC motors, but they are now also used as audio amplifiers, with some extra circuitry to allow analogue to be converted to a much higher frequency pulse width modulated signal. The relative difficulty of achieving good audio quality means that nearly all are used in applications where quality is not a factor, such as modestly-priced bookshelf audio systems and "DVD-receivers" in mid-price home theater systems.
High quality Class D audio amplifiers are now, however, starting to appear in the market. Tripath have called their revised Class D designs Class T. Perhaps more famously, Bang and Olufsen's ICEPower Class D system has been used in the Alpine PDX range and some Pioneer's PRS range and for other manufacturers' equipment. These revised designs have been said to rival good traditional AB amplifiers in terms of quality.
Before these higher quality designs existed an earlier use of Class D amplifiers and prolific area of application was high-powered, subwoofer amplifiers in cars. Because subwoofers are generally limited to a bandwidth of no higher than 150 Hz, the switching speed for the amplifier does not have to be as high as for a full range amplifier. The drawback with Class D designs being used to power subwoofers is that their output filters (typically inductors that convert the pulse width signal back into an analogue waveform) lower the damping factor of the amplifier.
This means that the amplifier cannot prevent the subwoofer's reactive nature from lessening the impact of low bass sounds (as explained in the feedback part of the Class AB section). Class D amplifiers for driving subwoofers are relatively inexpensive, in comparison to Class AB amplifiers. A 1000 watt Class D subwoofer amplifier that can operate at about 80% to 95% efficiency costs about $250 USD, much less than a Class AB amplifier of this power, which would cost several thousand dollars.
The letter D used to designate this amplifier class is simply the next letter after C, and does not stand for digital. Class D and Class E amplifiers are sometimes mistakenly described as "digital" because the output waveform superficially resembles a pulse-train of digital symbols, but a Class D amplifier merely converts an input waveform into a continuously pulse-width modulated (square wave) analog signal. (A digital waveform would be pulse-code modulated.)