The long path to a flagship: a conversation with DUNU

Editor’s Note: This is our first piece of the year, and our first piece in a long time — an extensive interview with the folks behind DUNU.

Continue reading The long path to a flagship: a conversation with DUNU

Quick Thoughts: Audio-Technica ATH-LS200

Editor’s Note: This overview of the Audio-Technica ATH-LS200 is based off multiple listening sessions at headphone stores and shows, without sustained personal time with the product. Thus, it should not be regarded as a full review — in fact, our entire ‘Thoughts‘ category of articles is not meant to house comprehensive reviews. Continue reading Quick Thoughts: Audio-Technica ATH-LS200

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.

Between the Headband: FIIL’s Diva Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Editor’s Note: We’re starting a new category of articles here on CYMBACAVUM that covers headphones. Continue reading Between the Headband: FIIL’s Diva Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Op-Ed: Embrace the Jack-less revolution!

With the next generation Apple iPhone 7 set to be announced imminently, many people have bemoaned Apple’s decision (not 100% confirmed, but essentially a foregone conclusion, based on the substantial and numerous rumors) to remove the 3.5 mm analog jack from the phone. Not only have highly influential e-zines such as The Verge have come out blasting Apple for the move,a number of audiophiles have come out in arms over it as well. While it’s not a surprise that a mainstream publication comes up in arms in defense of the status quo, it is a surprise for audiophiles to do so as well. The rationale against removal of the headphone jack is that companies are doing it for the wrong reasons: DRM, cyclic consumerism, etc. It also makes total sense from an ‘if it ain’t broke…’ perspective — why mess with the simple and easy-to-use 3.5 mm jack? Reusing the same port for charging, data transfer, and headphone use also proves to be a practical impediment — what if people want to use headphones and charge their device at the same time?

I, for one, however, am in support of the move to remove the headphone jacks, especially in light of the audiophile perspective. What’s my reasoning? It’s largely in line with what most businesses are thinking — removal of the 3.5mm analog jack incentivizes accessory makers to create portable DACs and Bluetooth earphones that will retool an entire industry for the digital future. From the surface, this argument might seem like it has nothing to do with audiophiles; the pessimist will contend that most of these consumer-level DACs and BT earphones will be mediocre at best, leaving only the wired status-quo as “audiophile-grade”. This argument, however, is backwards-leaning and takes zero account for how the mass consumer sector is always the driver of progress for audiophile-oriented companies. Apple (and the rest of the tech industry, for that matter) wants to lead us into a wireless world, but audiophiles are stuck in a tethered cage.

So I ask the most adamant cord lover: why not wireless? I can imagine the replies: Bluetooth imparts too much jitter and can’t handle high-resolution files, and that well-implemented DACs are always large in footprint. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence from numerous accounts from well-regarded DAC designers against Bluetooth for high-end audio in that jitter is difficult to minimize over BT, but serious attempts at 802.11-based wireless audio have been made with the potential for more. Remember the mini-review we did on the Celsus Sound Companion One? It was using first-generation wireless streaming technology to pipe 24-bit, 192 kS/s audio across the ether. It had some kinks to sort out, for sure, but I was tantalized by the kind of potential that exists for wireless streaming. Now imagine that kind of technology refined and miniaturized.

It doesn’t all have to be wireless, either — as the world’s preeminent smartphone maker with a history of ditching legacy ports, Apple is predictably ditching the 3.5mm jack in search of streamlining its interface technologies. Yet, they’re actually moving slower than expected in this recent USB Type-C tsunami. The jack-less revolution has already begun, and it didn’t begin with Apple. Intel has come out in full force to promote the widespread adoption of USB Type-C connectors for audio, and aside from Apple, the Android cadre will almost certainly introduce myriad earphone devices to accompany its inevitable shift to USB Type-C. What this means for the DAC industry is that low-power, high-performance converters, along with low-noise voltage regulators, precision clocks, and USB modules that accompany these DACs. This is the biggest reason for audio enthusiasts to get excited about the upcoming jack-less tsunami — the dramatic change the current electronics supply chain will undergo.

The bottom line is this: as a small-volume, niche market the audiophile world will never be the primary driver of innovation in audio technology, despite purveyors’ claims of pushing the limits of audio fidelity. The lowered cost of high-end DAC chips from ESSTech over the past couple of years? That’s the result of huge orders from Korean and Chinese smartphone companies. ESSTech is now designing entire SoCs that virtually guarantee high performance, high resolution audio conversion and playback from drop-in chips that do everything. If that seems like a threat to the existence of current “high-end” DACs, audiophile companies need not fear. They should not be afraid of being sublimated by the recent wave of smartphone manufacturers introducing self-proclaimed hi-fi devices; for most enthusiasts, as the audiophile spirit doesn’t merely encompass high-performance — it is equal parts number performance and obsession over every last detail, numerically representable or not. For every Lightning or USB Type-C connected DAC device the size of a current in-line microphone coming out in the next few years costing $59, there will be another $1099 device with the same features, but designed by a single guy who spent hundreds of hours trying out every single SMD resistor and capacitor available, tweaked every oversampling ratio, and tried ten different I/V converters on his way to audio nirvana.

The Biz: More Companies Join In On The Manufacture of Balanced Armatures

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.

versante284a2-advanced-voice-technology
Knowles is trying to make things simple for all those companies looking to get into the whole wireless earbud and “hearable” business. There will be more than enough to go around, so other companies are desperately trying also to grab a piece of the pie.

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.

TSST_ODD_BA__mini_copy
TSST used its expertise in manufacturing optical pick-up modules and transferred it to the manufacture of balanced armature drivers. Like Sony’s BA drivers, these units do not use a front spout, but have a top-opening port.

 

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.

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Bellsing’s AMBA drivers are curiously similar to those offered by Knowles.

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.

iFi Audio’s iUSB 3.0: Next Generation Power

Editor’s Note: We thank iFi Audio and the Evergeneral Trading Corporation for their immense patience and coordination. We held onto the review loaner unit of the iUSB 3.0 for way longer than we’d originally intended, and their patience is much appreciated! 

We reviewed the original iUSBPower by iFi Audio about two years ago (review link) and found it immensely useful for people who wanted clean power for their USB DACs — especially those powered solely by USB power. It was a tight, compact unit with no unnecessary frills but all the functionality anyone needs. For all intents and purposes, there was little need to improve upon it. The audio world has stayed with USB 2.0 (via the UAC2 standard) and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. AMR’s lead technical head Thorsten Loesche, however, is not one to sit idly. Seeing that the USB 3.0 standard had been finalized for some time, he set out to improve upon the iUSBPower, updating both the USB protocol standard and ergonomic features.

The successor to the iFi Audio iUSB Power is here.
The successor to the iFi Audio iUSB Power is here; looks nearly the same, but it has all-new internals.

Two years later, the iUSB 3.0 is iFi Audio‘s futureproofed clean power solution; we won’t bother to list out the uses for cleaner power over USB here, as iFi Audio themselves have made this spiffy little video:

Given only a perfunctory glance, and the iUSB 3.0 would be mistaken for the last generation device; it is housed in the same exact housing as all the other iFi micro series cases — sturdy and utilitarian, just not quite luxurious. The real improvements are under the hood, and if you own more than one USB audio device and use both regularly — this is the device for you. For example, I personally own both my reference listening rig, the Resonessence Labs Concero HP (review) and a pair of KEF Egg speakers (link) for casual listening. Both can be plugged in and supplied by the iUSB 3.0, obviating the need for additional filtering devices or switches and hubs. Of course, traditional computer-specific USB components can also be connected as well, as the wider bandwidth of the USB 3.0 standard allows for the deprecated mode of UAC2 to take up only a fraction of the bandwidth, allowing for other uses like connecting an NAS, external SSD, etc.

The iUSB 3.0 has an extra pair of filtered USB outputs, making it perfect for dual output purposes.
The iUSB 3.0 has an extra pair of filtered USB outputs, making it perfect for dual output purposes.

Another subtle but significant change over the original iUSBPower is the Auto/On power sensing, which detects whether the computer’s USB bus is turned on and powers the device accordingly. Not only does this feature save on power consumption, it also prevents the passive components in a USB-powered DAC device from burning out due to overuse. The flipside, of course, is that components like TCXO/VCXO oscillators require quite a bit warm-up time to reach their most stable operating condition. The original iUSBPower was in an ‘always on’ state, but now the iUSB 3.0 gives users an option via a switch. Want your DAC to be constantly warmed up for instant musical enjoyment? Toggle the switch into the ‘On’ mode and let the power run constitutively. Don’t need that requirement? Put it on auto — it’s simple and painless.

The Auto/On toggle for automatic detection of an active USB bus can be useful for devices that do not have an on/off switch.
The Auto/On toggle for automatic detection of an active USB bus can be useful for devices that do not have an on/off switch.

For me, the extra pair of USB sockets, the future-proof 3.0 specification, and the auto power sensing — all without a penalty on cleanliness and stability of power — make the iUSB 3.0 a no-brainer. If you’re considering an USB power conditioner, look at this one — hard. AMR/iFi have definitely done their homework and made their iUSB 3.0 even more useful than the original iUSBPower device. As a clear product of evolution, it can supply two USB devices directly with full USB 3.0 Super Speed support, and auto-sense the USB handshake — all while remaining the exact same size in footprint.

The Iso-Earth function is still there, as are the connection indicator lights. Familiar, yet improved.
The Iso-Earth function is still there, as are the connection indicator lights. Familiar, yet improved.

If there’s one thing that could possibly be criticized about iUSB 3.0, it’s that it came out slightly premature and did not include support for the USB Type C connector and the USB 3.1 Gen 2 protocol extension that comes with it. From the way it looks, however, iFi will almost surely be coming out with an ‘iUSB 3.1’ next year, just as the next generation of premium USB DACs with Type C connectors (currently there’s only one USB audio device with Type C — the LG Hi-Fi Plus G5 Module) are flooding the market. For the time being, however, the iUSB 3.0 is already beyond sufficient for the way 99.9% of all USB DACs are connected (via USB 2.0). If you need to connect to two devices simultaneously, the iUSB 3.0 is the clean power module for you.

For more information regarding the iFi Audio iUSB 3.0, please visit their website: http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-iusb3-0/

ABOUT MR. T

Mr. T is an in-ear fanatic by day, and writes SOAP notes by night. He pities the fool who actually has the patience to read through his stuff.
(Full Author Bio)