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.

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.

The Empire Strikes Back: Empire Ears Line-up Overview

Editor’s Note: shotgunshane was able to get a 10-day loan of the Empire Ears’ universal lineup; read the introduction, or jump straight to sound impressions

By now most of you have probably heard of EarWerkz , perhaps from one of our reports on the company (read more) and their previous flagship Legend CIEM (read more); many of you might even be owners of an EarWerkz product as I am.

But in case you didn’t know, I’m sad to report, EarWerkz is no more; but before you shed tears and scream to the audio gods, “Why hath thou forsaken me!”, you should know that Jack and team are back for the attack, this time as Empire Ears. The King is dead, long live the King! Continue reading The Empire Strikes Back: Empire Ears Line-up Overview

News: Reid Heath Acoustics Introduces the DualCoil™ T20

Reid Heath Acoustics (RHA) has not been around for all that long, but in the three or so years that it has been, the Glasgow-based audio firm has done a whole lot to up its profile in the competitive and increasingly crowded earphone space. New companies constantly come and go, and while there have been a number that have caught the eye of both the serious enthusiast and mainstream aficionado, only RHA has held true to a commitment of reinvestment into heavy duty research & development. Continue reading News: Reid Heath Acoustics Introduces the DualCoil™ T20

Electroacoustic Measurements from speakerphone

Editor’s Announcement: Ladies and gentlemen, we have great news to announce — CYMBACAVUM will now provide in-house acoustic measurements!

Our newest contributor is speakerphone; he has been running his own acoustic measurement blog, http://clarityfidelity.blogspot.kr/, but will be partnering with us to deliver measurement results on select items featured on this website. Occasionally, he will also be delivering commentary regarding measurement results and products. As a modest guy, speakerphone claims that his English isn’t that good and is reticent to provide opinion pieces, but Mr. T thinks otherwise and will be encouraging him to open up with thoughts!

We believe speakerphone is an invaluable addition to the CYMBACAVUM team and will help enrich readers’ experience by helping us correlate our perceptual experience with data sets comparable across products. His measurement methodology is finely tuned to comply all current international standards of information for the measurement of headphones and earphones, as well as recent developments and revelations in headphone acoustic research.

The following details protocol to be followed in all forthcoming electroacoustic measurements:

Apparatus

All posted measurements, unless otherwise noted, ​will comply with IEC 60318-4 (formerly IEC 60711), ITU-T Recommendation P.57, and ANSI S3.25 standards for artificial ears.​

Measurement Acquisition

Acquisition follows a modified IEC 60268-7 standard, with ~0 Ω output impedance (instead of 120 Ω) for the output amplifier (NwAvGuy’s O2 headphone amplifier). The modified standard is used to better suit low input impedance devices, such as the IEMs and other earphones being measured. For reference, both Knowles and Sonion also qualify their balanced armature receivers with output amplifiers possessing ~0 Ω output impedance.

For frequency response analysis, the source signal is pink periodic noise (smoothed 1/24th of an octave). For harmonic distortion analysis, the source signal is stepped sine (1/6 octave increments).

Unless otherwise noted, unprocessed data points obtained from frequency response analysis will further apply the following compensation models:

  • Diffuse Field Target, following the ISO 11904-2 standard (indicated only from 20 – 10,000 Hz), with a 10,000 – 20,000 Hz extension at -6 dB/octave
  • Olive-Welti In-Room Target (Olive, Sean; Welti, Todd; McMullin, Elisabeth at AES), from acoustic research at Harman International.

References

  • IEC 60318-4 : Electroacoustics – Simulators of human head and ear – Part 4: Occluded-ear simulator for the measurement of earphones coupled to the ear by means of ear inserts [Link]
  • ITU-T Rec. P.57 : Series P: Telephone transmission quality, Objective measuring apparatus : artificial ears [Link]
  • IEC 60268-7 : Corrigendum 1- Sound system equipment – Part 7: Headphones and earphones [Link]
  • ISO 11904-2 : Determination of sound immission from sound sources placed close to the ear [Link]
  • ​Olive-Welti Target : Listener Preferences for In-Room Loudspeaker and Headphone Target Responses [Link]

CYMBACAVUM’s new look: why the change

To All My Fellow Audio Geeks,

CYMBACAVUM began over a year and a half ago, basically by accident. I never thought it’d last this long, or that I’d end up solidifying so many friendships and learning new things. It has been a struggle to keep things going here, as the majority of us on the writing roster keep busy schedules — many of us are full-time working professionals, in rigorous academic programs, or both. However, for the love of the hobby, we’ve stuck it out, and we’re so happy to have made it this far, and to have been able to reach so many people all around the globe. Continue reading CYMBACAVUM’s new look: why the change

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