The Biz: Asahi-Kasei and ESSTech go to war over mobile superiority

There’s no question that, over the past three years, ESSTech has completely dominated the premium portable digital audio segment. The fab-less circuit design firm kicked things off in 2014 with the introduction of the now-ubiquitous ES9018-2M, a mobile-minded DAC chip designed as a two-channel die shrink of the venerated 8-channel ES9018S (itself the evolved production version of the original flagship ‘SABRE’ chip, the ES9008). The ES9018-2M was designed as a reaction to the burgeoning smartphone market; Chinese smartphone manufacturers like Meizu, hoping to differentiate their low/mid-spec releases from the Apples and Samsungs of the world, sought to bring the audio enthusiast into their fold. The first designs were crude. These manufacturers basically slapped the ES9018K2M into their smartphones and called it a day, tantamount to stuffing a six-liter turbocharged V12 into a Toyota Corolla. The circuit boards weren’t cleanly optimized, and the measured performance suffered. Nevertheless, the impressive on-paper specifications made ESSTech a prime target for partnership. The lower cost and more flexible implementation of the mobile ES9018-2M also allowed SABRE products to further permeate the hi-fi market, especially in the portable segment. We did a review of the excellent Resonessence Labs Concero HP, one of the very first products to feature the ES9018K2M (Resonessence has familial ties to ESS’ R&D division and therefore gets intimate technical advisory support) back in 2014 (review here).

Since 2014, ESS has held a death grip over the high-end mobile DAC market with its ES9018K2M and associated products, dominating everything from smartphone audio to audiophile DACs. (Image from: https://hifiduino.wordpress.com/)

Soon, it was not only the Chinese smartphone makers that were contracting with ESSTech — Samsung’s compatriot rival LG started introducing phones with bespoke SoC modules dedicated to audio. Even motherboard makers in ASUS and MSI began ordering chips from ESSTech for their premium motherboards and laptops (link) / (link). With this kind of market dominance, ESSTech loomed like an albatross over the prospects main audio IC rivals Cirrus Audio (Wolfson included), Texas Instruments, and Asahi-Kasei. The mobile game seemed bleak as they watched ESS dominate mobile in every way imaginable, fulfilling orders in a chokehold.

It didn’t mean the other companies weren’t plotting their revenge, however.

This year at CES 2017, Asahi-Kasei Microdevices (AKM) launched a counteroffensive against the domination of ESSTech in the smartphone world (link). AKM launched the AK4492 DAC, the AK4205 headphone amplifier chip, and the AK1110 low dropout (LDO) voltage regulator simultaneously as a bid to one-up ESSTech’s current ES9028Q2M DAC, ES9602Q, and ES9311 LDO regulator.

Asahi-Kasei’s announcement at CES 2017 promises to shake things up.

On paper, the corresponding products from AKM are very similar, with near identical specifications, from noise floor to DNR to feature sets. The headphone amplifier parts, especially, have nearly identical features and differing very slightly on a few minute specifications. The LDO parts are the same way. In essence, AKM’s new portable solution is targeted to match parts from ESS, component to component, spec to spec.

This announcement bodes large consequences for the highly competitive smartphone industry. If you’re reading this article on CYMBACAVUM, you most likely do not care too much about what these announcements from AKM mean for the smartphone industry. Smartphone makers merely want an alternative offering that might be slightly more affordable or can differentiate their product from the dozens of ESS-powered smartphones in existence already. They won’t care for PCB layout optimization, jitter reduction, or matched solid state components. They just want to drop these parts into their phones and get them running just to brag about their performance numbers. The average consumer won’t be able to appreciate how AKM’s oversampling method differs from ESSTech’s Hyperstream technology. But guess what? A consummate hi-fi maker would. When designing a USB DAC/amp or DAP, high-end audio designers usually implement their own I/V conversion and amplification schema, but if these new SKUs are cost effective and have the performance to boot, they’ll be willing to try out the parts and ride off the high volume coattails of the smartphone makers.

Consider the case of Astell & Kern. Their current models are equipped mostly with DAC SKUs from Cirrus Logic and have never used ESS parts — likely on purpose in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd, as well as to gain higher bargaining power with Cirrus. However, their flagship model AK380, released in late 2015, migrated to Asahi-Kasei with its dual AK4490 chips. Could Astell & Kern leverage the AK4492, AK4205, and AK1110 parts to build a replacement for its AK100-II? It’s possible, though there have been no rumors that point in that direction. Of course, it’s not just Astell & Kern. It could be a much larger entity, such as Samsung, which is fresh off its $8 billion acquisition of Harman International (parent company of AKG, Harman-Kardon, and a multitude of other brands). They’ll need to capitalize off the optics of buying up a renowned audio firm — what better way than to upgrade their smartphones with high-end audio DACs? Of course, all of this is conjecture, and we’ll have no way of knowing what AKM’s effort to go mano a mano with ESS will bring. It could drive costs down, or send the spiraling sky high with an endless stream of derivative products. AKM could have trouble with its yields of its new chips, and the announcement could very well just fizzle away. Regardless, the possibilities are endless, and for the first time in a while, an alternative to ESS and its market dominance is on the horizon.

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