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Cirrus Logic to overtake Dialog in audio chips race?

Posted: 10 Aug 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:audio processors? design sockets? power management ICs?

Cirrus Logic has been steadily increasing market presence as more of its audio ICs make its way to Apple's new devices. In this EE Times U.S. report, correspondent Junkyo Yoshido analyzes how the fabless semiconductor supplier might outrun its competitors as it expands design sockets and adds power management capabilities to its chips.

When it comes to audio chips for mobile phones, Cirrus Logic isn't the only game in town. Cirrus Logic's competitors include: Dialog Semiconductor; Wolfson Microelectronics; Maxim; and Texas Instruments.

Among these vendors, Dialog has been as much an Apple captive as Cirrus. For Apple's design sockets, Dialog has been picked for its power management chip, while Cirrus is Apple's supplier of choice for its audio codec chip. The two companies have kept their design-in slots in Apple products for a couple of generations now.

Meanwhile, Maxim is considered "the number one merchant market supplier of cellphone Power Management Unit/audio chips, slightly trailing Qualcomm," according to Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, a market research firm based in Tempe, Ariz. Qualcomm is a captive supplier for its own cellphone chips. "TI is the number two in that merchant market (probably because of Nokia), only slightly behind Maxim," he added.

Although each vendor claims audio chip's superiority (high audio quality at low power), their strategies tread slightly different paths. A general trend among audio ICs used in mobile handsets, however, is that "audio amplifiers are already included with audio chip; and most cellphones have implemented audio codecs (yes, including DSP capability); and they are integrating it on the same chip as power management units (PMUs)," observed Forward Concepts' Strauss.

Could Cirrus "unseat" Dialog?

Strauss suggested that Cirrus, presumably, could add power management functions onto its own audio chip, paving the way to unseat Dialog in Apple's design sockets.

However, "That's not our focus," said Carl Alberty, director of marketing for Cirrus' Audio Division in an interview with EE Times on Monday (August 6th). "We integrate features that intelligently optimize the power management of our [audio] device, but we don't do a system-level power management," he added.

In contrast, Dialog is hanging its hat on the integration of audio into its own power management IC (PMIC). Dialog has been shipping since last year system-level power management and low-power audio ICs for Samsung's TD-SCDMA based smartphones in China. Dialog recently announced that its second PMIC including integrated audio has won Samsung's global Smartphone platform design socket. Dialog attributes its success to the company's ability to combine "in a single package or monolithically integrating, highly complex system power management functionality that is fully configurable for multiple platforms, together with low power class D audio." The upshot for Dialog's solution is "significant power and board space savings," while delivering the highest quality audio for Samsung's new smartphones, according to the company.

Cirrus, whose largest customer is Apple, demurs from that view. Asked about Dialog's PMIC with integrated audio, Alberty said, "We absolutely looked at it, but we are not seeing enough value in it." He added, "There is a class of customers who may prefer that. Calling it 'the-jack-of-all-trades approach' may not be fair to [Dialog], but it isn't what we are interested in."

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