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This article presents a theoretical model to account for acoustic emission (AE) sensor dynamics in the measurement of head-disk contact/near-contact in magnetic recording system. The AE transducing system is modeled as a linear dynamic system excited by deterministic and random input. The impulse response method and power flow method are applied, respectively, to characterize the system responses. An analytical model is established to describe the dependence of AE output on system transfer functions, filter parameters, excitation forms, contact force, velocity, topographic and mechanical parameters, as well as lubricant thickness. © 1999 American Institute of Physics.