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

Knowles, industry leader in BA design and production, teaches us about IEM design & tuning

Andrew Bellavia (Twitter) of Knowles Corporation gave a talk at AES@NAMM 2018 last month on the 27th of January and went into depth about the acoustic science behind in-ear monitors and multiple balanced armature acoustic design.
Continue reading Knowles, industry leader in BA design and production, teaches us about IEM design & tuning

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.

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.

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

The Biz: E-Earphone’s CIEM Store in Akihabara, Tokyo

Founded by an Osakan man with a full head of hair and a hope to spread the spirit of porta-fi to the masses, E-Earphone is one of Japan’s premier personal audio store chains, with storefronts in both Tokyo and Osaka metropolises.

Its aisles upon aisles of headphones and earphones are famed to the enthusiast community, and when the CIEM specialty store opened its doors last August, Nathan of OHM Image and Headfonia went to take a look (link). This glowing report of toys abound convinced me that it had to be a must-see stop while I was on vacation in Tokyo last month. Continue reading The Biz: E-Earphone’s CIEM Store in Akihabara, Tokyo