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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?

Are audio chips interchangeable?

Meanwhile, Forward Concepts' Strauss noted that Wolfson, which made its name as the lowest-power audio D/A chips for the cellphone market, has dominated that narrow segment. But the company is beefing up its capabilities.

Wolfson, in late June, announced that its WM1811 audio hub IC is being used in Samsung's Galaxy S III smart phones. While that chip is a stereo codec with three digital audio interfaces, Wolfson also developed a much more ambitious audio system-on-a-chip, designated as WM5100integrated with noise/echo-canceling DSP. With the WM5100, the company is offering what used to be several different chips C an audio hub, a separate DSP, a noise cancellation IC C in one chip. Wolfson's audio SoCs come from an idea that "audio components in mobile phones and tablet PCs are increasingly becoming dis-integrated from the application processor," according to the company.

While that may be so, decisions on how much more features an audio chip in a smartphone should pack in aren't made by chip vendors alone. Are any of these audio chips from different suppliers interchangeable? "Absolutely not," said Cirrus' Alberty.

Cirrus takes pride in offering high-quality audio at lowest power, "without compromising the performance, he noted. The company also integrates into its audio chip numerous components like capacitors, resisters, headphone and speaker drivers and a host of passive components, to deliver "super small form factor." But in the end, what makes Cirrus' chip not interchangeable with others comes down to one thing: "the depth of the relationship we have with our customers," said Alberty. "You need to be able to execute [the plan and the technology] to the day" C meaning delivering a new chip that works, on the day it promised, not a day later.

Alberty said Cirrus is constantly looking at ways to optimize the power consumption of its audio solution. They look at blocks around its audio IC, they get rid of things on the audio chip, partition or sequence the tasks on the chip differently. But all these changes must result in meaningful improvements, he added. For instance, Cirrus recently talked about a way to improve the volume of a smartphone. As a smartphone gets thinner and thinner, the acoustic chamber is getting squeezed, thus deteriorating the quality of its speaker. "We are enabling an amplifier on our audio chip to run at higher voltage than the battery allows. It lets the smartphone offer louder expression."

However, either blindly following the integration path or running more advanced algorithms on the DSP core inside the audio chip is not exactly a sure way to give any audio chip supplier a competitive edge, especially when the supplier waits at the beck and call of its biggest customer.

The case in point is Apple's licensing of Audience, a leading supplier of noise suppression and echo cancellation chips in the smartphone market. Linley Gwennap at the Linley Group wrote earlier this year that Apple cut a deal with Audience to integrate Audience's noise-reduction custom logic directly into Apple's own A5 processor, which is used in the iPhone 4S.

It's interesting that Apple decided to include Audience's technology on the A5 processor, instead of running it on Cirrus Logic's audio chip. No analysts go so far as predicting that Cirrus' deal with Apple is sealed.

But asked whether it is worth the trouble for anyone to go out of its way to unseat Cirrus in Apple's products, Rich Wawrzyniak, senior analyst at Semico Research, said: "Probably not." Whie Wawrzyniak does not believe Cirrus' audio chip is terribly complex, he believes that gunning for Apple's sockets ('when Cirrus already has them') could require a lot of resources. "You need to come up with something much better at a lower price." A win so costly could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

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