With so many companies making earphones and headsets, it’s no wonder demand for balanced armatures is on the rise. They’re not just for premium earphones anymore, as BA and hybrid earphones can now be found for under $30, and reach prices upwards of $2500.
As mentioned in a previous article of ours, ‘The Biz: What Companies Make Balanced Armature Speakers?‘, Knowles Electronics and Sonion have been at the forefront of balanced armature technology ever since earphones began using them years ago. Both companies are now additionally heavily involved in the development and component supply of hearable devices, providing the microphones, accelerometers, processing circuitry, and more. Supplying both audiophile manufacturers and mainstream makers is a tall order. When a company like Samsung strikes an order with a company to provide drivers and microphones, the volume is massive, and they expect a lot of service to go along with it. At the same time, a Knowles or Sonion needs to be flexible enough to supply as little as 1000 units at a time, while minimizing overhead and answering to shareholders. That’s why companies like Knowles are diversifying their services and transforming their products into turnkey solutions to meet the demands of companies. Their Versant technology allows manufacturers to drop in a near production-ready wireless headset system —- that’s what the Bragi Dash utilizes.
But what about the little guys —- the ones that can’t put in a 100,000 unit order? They might just turn to these two new companies.
Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology (TSST)
Founded in 2004 as a joint venture between electronic giants Toshiba and Samsung for the manufacture of optical readers and media, Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology (shortened as ‘TSST’) would be the last company any regular person would expect to get into the BA business.
Since 2004, however, the emergence of flash memory and cloud storage has shaved the optical storage media market down to Blu-Ray players and a few other specialized applications. In search of bluer business oceans, TSST decided to transfer its technical expertise in optical drive technology to balanced armatures. They contend that optical pick-up actuators found at the bottom of every optical drive tray work very similar in operation to balanced armatures. In fact, as of May 2016, TSST no longer manufactures optical drives, instead focusing on endeavors like its wide balanced armature (WBA) technology.
In order to showcase their new technology, TSST created a consumer brand in EARNiNE and introduced a single BA and dual BA model in mid-2016. Both the single-driver EN1 and the dual-driver EN2 were priced aggressively at 49,800 ₩on (~$45 USD) and 189,000 ₩on (~$160 USD), respectively.
The first implementations of these TSST WBAs are encouraging, but somewhat flawed. Both the EN1 and EN2 exhibited promising bass and treble extension, as well as manageable levels of harmonic distortion. These WBA modules also take on a similar form factor as the ones in Sony’s XBA series, which may lead to more interesting/innovative acoustic designs. However, treble resonances are somewhat worrying, with exaggerated ringing. It appears that, in an effort to create a speaker with standard properties, TSST overcompensated for ear canal gain at 2.7 kHz. Check out speakerphone‘s electroacoustic analysis of both the EN1 and EN2 over at his personal blog.
Other companies from South Korea are working with TSST; Orfeo Soundworks, another Korean company specialized in Bluetooth earphones and headsets, launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year with products utilizing TSST modules, but aborted the project early.
What can be expected from TSST? Well, for starters, based on its heritage, its balanced armature modules should have good consistency in quality control. The TSST drivers will probably need some time to establish their legitimacy amongst audiophile makers for sound quality, however. It will also have some competition. Locally, Cresyn is an old-time ODM/OEM that also owns Phiaton and also manufactures its own balanced armatures (mentioned in last year’s article). Neighboring China will likely be the even bigger competitor, however. On top of the companies we mentioned before (DTS, Hearonic, etc.), this next company might just be the one to rise to the top in China.
Shenzhen Bellsing (Estron) Acoustic Technology
Based in Shenzhen, home of China’s electronics manufacturing beltline, Bellsing is new to the game when it comes to the manufacture of balanced armatures — or so it seems. The company was apparently formed as recently as 2009, but has a slew of components for sale on the market. Not long ago, Colsan Microelectronics, a longtime distributor of Sonion and other CIEM-related parts, began carrying its products under the Bellsing-Estron flag. (Note: This is not the same company as Danish company Estron, which makes the great Linum cables)
Most interestingly, the products offered by Bellsing seem like exact clones of Knowles products that have been on the market for some time. For example, its BRC210C30017 is extremely similar is shape and characteristic to the Knowles TWFK-30017-000, right down to the coil impedance. There are some variances here and there with respect to sensitivity, however. In addition to the TWFK, Bellsing also offers analogous products of the Knowles SWFK/DWFK/DFK/WBFK, RAB, and ED product lines.
The reflex thought is to think the Bellsing is yet another flagrant Chinese violator of intellectual property rights, and that they’ve managed to reverse engineer all of Knowles products for their own self-gain. While it’s not entirely out of the question, and I do not know what the truth is, but for Bellsing to straight-up copy all of these Knowles product lines and then to market them internationally like this, would have earned them the lawsuit ire of Knowles Electronics by now. Additionally, Colsan Microelectronics, by all means a respectable company, would probably have also declined to carry its products. There should be another explanation.
It’s possible that Bellsing is subcontracted by Knowles to produce drivers, and that royalties need to be paid to Knowles. It’s even possible that Bellsing is partially funded by Knowles. It’s also possible that the technology inside is somewhat different. After all, even Sonion has a few products very similar to Knowles’, like the 2300 and the ED, or the 2000 and the CI. Balanced armature designs aren’t that easy to patent, either. All have the same fundamental design. The reason why Knowles has long been the top dog is that they can put out higher volumes than anyone else on the market, and that their product quality is the most consistent. Sonion is similar in that regard. The other companies thus far have not been able to deliver products with the same kind of consistency. So, if Bellsing is indeed delivering products on par with those from Knowles, it may be the first Chinese company to actually be able to do so, and Knowles may just have to acquiesce to another company taking away some of its business (after all, it has bigger fish to fry, like taking over the hearables market).
All this Knowles mimicry doesn’t mean that Bellsing isn’t intent on doing its own thing as well. On August 18, Bellsing held a large scale convention celebrating its new line of ‘Pride’ series balanced armature receivers, highlighting the company’s self-purported mastery over aspects of R&D and production. Bellsing hopes to gain significant global market share of BAs used in earphones, taking on the dominant American and European companies (which can be interpreted as Knowles and Sonion).
Among the first consumer products to use Bellsing Pride balanced armature receivers is the Lenovo ZUK HD-1, a 199 ¥uan ($29 USD) budget-priced hybrid earphone.
It remains unclear what Bellsing’s very public proclamation for taking over the earphone market will amount to, but they do seem primed for more opportunities than any of the other BA factories from China.