The strictest test if a decoder library can seek with sample accuracy is to seek to a position, decode a video frame or a bunch of audio samples. Compare these with the frame/samples you get if you decode the file from the beginning. Of course, the timestamps must also be identical. A tool, which does this, is in
tests/seektest.c. I noticed, that video streams easily pass this test, usually even if no sample accurate access was requested. That's probably because I thought, that video streams are more difficult. So I put more brainload into them. Therefore I'll concentrate on audio streams in this post.
Audio codec details
When seeking in video streams, you have keyframes, which tell you where decoding of a stream can be resumed after a seek. It's sometimes difficult to implement this, but at least you always know what to do.
The naive approach for audio streams is to assume, that all blocks (e.g. 1152 samples for mp3) can be decoded independently. Unfortunately, reality is a bit more cruel:
This is a mechanism, which allows to make pseudo VBR in a CBR stream. If a frame can be encoded with fewer bits than allocated for the frame, it can leave the remaining bits to a subsequent (probably more complex) frame. The downside of this trick is, that after a seek, the next frame might need bits from previous frames to be fully decoded.
Most audio compression techniques work in the frequency-domain, so between the audio signal and the compression stage, there is some kind of fft-like transform.
Now, for reasons beyond this post, overlapping transforms are used by some codecs. This means, that for decoding the first samples of a compressed block, you need the last samples of the previous block. The image below shows one channel of an AAC stream for the case that the overlapping was ignored when seeking. You see that the beginning of the frame is not reconstructed properly, because the previous frame is missing.
Both the bit reservoir and the overlapping can be boiled down to a single number, which tells how many sample before the actual seek point the decoder must restart decoding. This number is set by the codec during initialization, and it's used when we seek with sample accuracy.
Mysterious liba52 behavior
Even if sample accuracy was achieved, the AC3 streams (which are on DVDs or in AVCHD files) don't achieve bit exactness. The image below shows, that there is no time shift between the signals (which means that gmerlin-avdecoder seeks correctly), but the values are not exactly the same.
First I blamed the AC3 dynamic range control for this behavior. Dynamic range compressors always have some kind memory across several frames. But even after disabling DRC, the difference was still there. I would really be curious if that's a principal property of AC3 being non-deterministic or if it's a liba52 bug.
The table below lists all audio codecs, which were taken into consideration. They represent a huge percentage of all files found in the wild. The next important codecs are the uncompressed ones, but these are always sample accurate.
|Compression||Library||Overlap||Bit reservoir||Bit exact|
|MPEG-1, layer II||libmad||-||-||+|
|MPEG-1, layer III||libmad||+||+||+|
|AAC||faad2||+||? (assumed -)||+|
|AC3||liba52||+||? (assumed -)||- (see image above)|
Obtaining the information summarized here was a very painful process with web researches and experiments. The documentation of the decoder libraries regarding sample accurate and bit exact seeking is extremely sparse if not non-existing.