Audio, Power, And Efficiency
The first half of 2023 allowed us to get back on the road and attend some of the busiest trade shows ever for the audio industry. From CES and a deep immersion into cutting-edge innovation in the consumer space to professional audio shows at ISE, the NAMM Show, and NAB. We also attended AXPONA and more recently, an extremely successful HIGH END show in Munich, Germany. With a few other events in the mix, this provided us a very good overview of the state of the audio industry. From the most affordable (and highly competitive) segments in consumer electronics, to the pro audio segments of live performance and touring, content production, media, and broadcast.
We do it to better understand the audio industry and gain a broad outlook of the trends and the opportunities. More importantly, we can follow the companies that are active in each space, and understand how relative things can be.
How a team of engineers invests years perfecting a high-end audio design aiming for unprecedented sonic performance — expense is no object — and another team invests months designing a new system used in live performances in front of thousands of people in a stadium, or a live broadcast for millions — where failure is not an option.
How a relatively successful small company in the studio monitor space, with a few employees can be successful across many of these market and application segments, while a much larger manufacturer completely focused on the hi-fi / high-end audio space, with 10 times the number of products in its catalog, can be successful and admired in its native market, and obscure in all other markets.
Each other's products can be admired and respected by their respective user community and there's no point on comparing them since their priorities are completely different.
This paradox becomes particularly interesting in audio amplification, where the understated 19” rack design that powers a line array in a music festival — and contains 16 high-power state-of-the-art amplifier channels, the most advanced power management technologies with predictive modeling algorithms to manage the power supply, DSP and hardware sensors for real-time information of all parameters — is sold for the less than an 800W at 4 Ohm hi-fi monoblock weighing 120 lbs generating enough heat to keep a house warm through the winter. And it fascinates me as new flagship developments in audio amplification for hi-fi normally rely on very subjective claims of improved performance and marginally measured incremental improvements for products that already offer very good quality features and specifications.
This might sound like a harsh and cold perspective of the industry but it's one that product developers need to keep in mind when they're asked to design a Class-A amplifier, requiring heavy transformers, large heatsinks, and expensive components, or to design an efficient platform that saves power and is good for the environment. It's all part of the job!
Directly impacting some of those segments, in the last few years we had prominent advancements in Class-D audio amplification. Particularly amplifiers using Gallium Nitride (GaN). This technology offers much higher power, with less noise, and more important for today's requirements, GaN is much more efficient. GaN amplifiers use less power and generate less heat, although they seemingly still need to see improvements in idle losses — as we report in this issue's Market Update.
In an extreme use case for the latest audio amplifier technologies that require maximum efficiency, we find the latest generation audio chips and microspeakers used in smartphones, tablets, and laptops, which are now actually designed to function as fully-featured stereo reproduction systems.
Those use fully integrated smart amps that also include audio codecs, DACs, and sophisticated software features, apart from the power amplifier stage, all engineered to work together to provide the best audio quality experiences possible. And that's where developers find the best jobs opportunities currently in the audio industry. Yes, maybe that's not the engineering job you dreamed of, but that might be the road leading you to the most successful industry achievements — all things considered.