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.

iFi Audio iEMatch

Editor’s Note: iFi Audio provided the iEMatch free of charge for the review

What is the iEMatch and why would you need one?

Continue reading iFi Audio iEMatch

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: Where is Portable Audio Going? An Overview of the New Age DAP Market

Editor’s Note: Victor leads us on a trip into the realm of DAPs, with additional insight and commentary by Mr. T. Special thanks to longtime reader and good friend Moe, who helped us fact check and gave us numerous additional resources.

If we look back at the annals of [recent] history, we’ll notice that the most primitive portable audio player was probably the battery-powered cassette player. If you are young like me, then you probably didn’t have much experience with it. Yet, the cassette tape was what put the Sony Walkman on the map. Guys like Nathan at ohm-image probably had one attached to their hips while walking to school.

Continue reading The Biz: Where is Portable Audio Going? An Overview of the New Age DAP Market

In Pictures: TEAC HA-P90SD

We didn’t get to listen to it at all, as the operating system froze and crashed repeatedly; turning the power knob to the ‘OFF’ setting couldn’t even turn it off — we had to wait until the battery drained. A very bad sign indeed.

The build quality feels similar to that of the lower cost HA-P50B, with slightly larger dimensions. It would be considered very good for a $299 budget device (as is the HA-P50B), but is starting to show its lumps as a $700 premium DAP device. Worrisome all over.

Better step up your game, TEAC.

Continue reading In Pictures: TEAC HA-P90SD

The Biz: Show Report – TAA International Hi-End Hi-Fi Show

The TAA International Hi-End Hi-Fi Show is a large annual audiophile exhibit organized by the Taiwan Audio Association.

Held this past weekend at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, the show is hi-fi heavy in the traditional sense, so it’s mostly about the KEFs, the Focals, and the Magicos of the world. However, for the past few years headphones and portables have slowly made their way into the show and now have a lasting presence. Continue reading The Biz: Show Report – TAA International Hi-End Hi-Fi Show

Rapid Reaction: Cowon Plenue P1

** UPDATED 2014/08/22 ** (scroll to bottom)

If I had to boil my thoughts down to two words to describe the Cowon Plenue P1, it’d be: artificial analog.

Sounds like it’s a bad thing, huh?

Well, I don’t know. I really don’t, I swear. Continue reading Rapid Reaction: Cowon Plenue P1