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.

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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.

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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.

Critical Analysis: 1964|ADEL — Science or Science Fiction?

Editor’s Note: At CYMBACAVUM, we’re constantly trying to bridge science with the wonderful audio experiences we have. @miceblue takes on an scientist’s curiosity to examine Asius Technologies and 1964Ears’ ADEL — how it functions, the scientific principles behind it, and what it might or might not be. Continue reading Critical Analysis: 1964|ADEL — Science or Science Fiction?

NocturnaL Audio – Hydra V2 Custom Cable

Editor’s Note: The cable used in this review was purchased at a discounted rate. Continue reading NocturnaL Audio – Hydra V2 Custom Cable

Surfing With The Alien: The Unique Melody Martian

Unique Melody just recently announced the newest edition to its lineup, the Martian- a dual dynamic hybrid, and our friends at MusicTeck have graciously loaned us a sample for this review. Continue reading Surfing With The Alien: The Unique Melody Martian

Quick Thoughts: Ion by Soranik

Editor’s Note: Our thoughts are based on pre-production, prototype units of the Soranik Ion and may not necessarily be fully indicative of the state of the final production models. Pictures were generously provided by Soranik.

In the grand scheme of things, the financial requirements for becoming a custom IEM manufacturer are not all that stringent. You need some acrylic (or silicone), curing apparatuses, some cutting and polishing tools, a low-power field microscope, basic knowledge of circuit design, and some elbow grease — it’s no wonder several home-brew companies have popped up the past few years.

While these companies don’t necessarily have the marketing clout of, say, a Westone or Shure, they often have the charm of a singular purpose and philosophy, along with an assiduous moxie. If there is one major thing we here at CYMBACAVUM really care about when it comes to companies putting out new products, it’s effort. A product needn’t be “groundbreaking” or paradigm-shifting; what matters is that the company develop their products in a systematic,  thoughtful manner, applying scientific principle and craftsman art to a new offering.

Soranik is such a company. It’s small, it’s new, and it’s looking to gain some recognition, with one unique feature — it’s from Vietnam. Few Vietnamese companies populate the world of head-fi; Sunrise Audio comes to mind as the one major OEM/ODM with aspirations to maintain its own brand, but none have arisen from the bottom-up until now. Thus, it’s no wonder that young, cosmopolitan guys are at the helm of Soranik — Hieu Tran, the head designer, grew up in Vietnam but studied in the United Kingdom at the University of Warwick for an advanced degree in statistics and applied mathematics. It was during this time that he developed his interest in IEMs and tinkering with circuits.

However, the sonic inspiration for Soranik is not English, but Japanese. A lifelong fan of anime and admirer of the kaizen spirit of the Japanese, Tran (and his partners) developed a penchant for Keita Suyama’s FitEar IEMs and wished to localize a similar kind of sound in Vietnam. They began a few years ago, in a quasi-stealth mode, creating custom in-ears on a by-request basis. But Tran noticed that most people preferred the convenience of a universal, and being an owner of a TO GO! 334 himself, embarked on designing what he considered to be an augmented version. The result is the Ion, the first model Soranik is offering to customers beyond the familiar circles of the Vietnamese audio and musician community.

The Soranik Ion is inspired by FitEar but is a completely new earphone from the ground up.
The Soranik Ion is inspired by FitEar but is a completely new earphone from the ground up.

On first glance at the Ion, the FitEar inspiration is striking. It uses large, keyed two-pin connectors in the same way and the default colorway is near-opaque black, just like the TO GO! series from FitEar. The nozzle exit is clear, and the milled titanium tubes can be clearly seen. The build quality is good — not quite as precise as that of FitEar’s, but decent all-around. Tran spent years doing remolds for his friends before being confident enough to begin designing his own universal mold. Don’t mistake the Ion for a bizarro-esque imitation of the TO GO! 334, however —- the guts of the Ion are completely different and engineered from the ground-up to be its own beast. Soranik is rightly proud of the sweat and tears poured into the conception of the Ion, as it is the culmination of about two full years of research and experimentation from Tran.

The array of accessories for the Ion is standard-fare for a premium, custom-derived IEM: waterproof Pelican case, removable cables, and a wipe cloth.
The array of accessories for the Ion is standard-fare for a premium, custom-derived IEM: waterproof Pelican case, removable cables, and a wipe cloth.

Undoubtedly, many people will end up listening to the Ion in the months to come. They’ll share impressions on the positioning of the vocals, the slam of the bass, yada yada yada. What they won’t often mention, is how laborious the R&D process was for Tran. He tried just about everything, going through multiple different prototypes and developing his own titanium tube milling process. Ready-made titanium tubes, he felt, were too thick and made the music sound coarse. Apparently, the thickness and smoothness of the tubing affect more than the size constraints of an IEM; sonic resonances are measurably and subjectively affected as well. Local CNC contractors didn’t have the skill or patience to process low-volume, high technical requirement orders like his. So he learned to mill titanium on his own.

His main goal, though, was to improve the molasses-like bass of the 334 while preserving its vocal richness. And like a good engineer, he attempted to rectify these shortcomings with precise control of acoustic low-pass filters and judicious, minimal use of passive components.

The FitEar-style two-pin connector sockets are hand-molded.
The FitEar-style two-pin connector sockets are hand-molded.

He first sent CYMBACAVUM a prototype in September last year — a dual-woofered, dual titanium tube behemoth. They were really tip dependent (though Taylor Swift always sounded awesome with them), ranging from caramel vocals in a deep fit to energetic highs in a shallow one, and while they shared common traits with the 334, the soundstage presentation was very different. The prototype Ion had a wider, flatter soundstage, and was less smooth sounding. Fit was also a little awkward, as the nozzle exits were a bit long, causing the prototype to hang loosely off the ears. We suggested that Soranik rework the Ion prototype — mainly for purposes of ergonomics.

Fast forward six months, and the new Ion is completely different. Not only is it now much more comfortable, the sound signature is reworked. Tran collected feedback from us and others to create a different, crowd-pleaser type of signature — a good deal of bass, but well done and without strangulating impact/stuffiness. It still maintains good clarity, but with a kind of fuzzy warmth that many people like, and with the treble being smooth enough such that extremely compressed music (e.g. K-Pop) doesn’t sound horrible, all while preserving good treble extension.

The bespoke titanium tubes are a self-spun R&D project for Soranik.
The bespoke titanium tubes are a self-spun R&D project for Soranik.

Variance in sound signature due to depth of insertion is now not as variable (but is an unavoidable feature of sound physics), and coupled with the vastly improved fit, the Ion is comfortable as can be. We love the performance-style braided cables as well — these type of cables are sorely lacking in FitEar’s staple of 000/001/002/003/004/005 cables.

The Ion is a labor of love from Soranik, built with the kind of effort we here at CYMBACAVUM can really appreciate; we can’t wait to see what others have to say about it!

For more information, please visit Soranik’s Facebook page.

Standing Tall – The Pinnacle P1

Note: Mee Audio graciously provided the Pinnacle P1 free for review

MEE Audio has been without a flagship for a couple of years, since the discontinuation of the very well received A161p. The A161p was single armature design with a balanced signature leaning to the slightly warm side. The A161p, along with the venerable Audio Technica CK10, were my gateway in-ears into a more neutral frequency response, and accordingly preserve fond memory in my portable audio journey. Consequently, I’ve been looking forward to the day MEE Audio found a worthy replacement at the top of their line-up. The Pinnacle P1 has been over two years in the making, and at $199 msrp, is $100 more than their previous flagship. Can MEE Audio still still remain true to their reputation as one of the better bang for buck manufacturers out there?

P1 and Mezzo Soprano modded AK120
P1 and Mezzo Soprano modded AK120

Continue reading Standing Tall – The Pinnacle P1