Reinventing speakers: replacing 100 year old tech with MEMS chips

reinventing speakers with MEMS chips

Can a new innovation upend a $50 billion industry that uses 100-year-old tech … and that is probably in your ears multiple times a day?

Pretty much all of us use earbuds, often wireless ones, and they all rely on old tech … literally hundred-year old tech from the 1920s with roots in the 1800s. There’s a new option based on silicon: a microchip means of creating sound. And, it could be better while also being cheaper. In this episode of TechFirst, we chat with  Mike Housholder, a VP at xMEMS Labs.

Here’s our chat:

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MEMS and speakers: replacing 100-year-old tech

(Note: this is an AI-generated summary of this podcast. As such, it will take guests’ statements as undisputed fact. This should not be taken as been written by me, John Koetsier.)

The world of audio has come a long way since the invention of the coil and magnet speaker in the 1800s. This century-old technology has served as the foundation for sound reproduction in nearly all our devices, from headphones to speakers. However, it’s time for a change. Enter xMEMS, a company at the forefront of innovation that is set to disrupt the $50 billion speaker industry with their revolutionary solid-state semiconductor alternative. In this blog post, we’ll explore the technology behind xMEMS, its benefits, its current market presence, and the company’s ambitious plans for the future.

The Problem with Legacy Speakers
For decades, we’ve relied on coil and magnet speakers for our audio needs. While they have undoubtedly improved over time, they still suffer from limitations. These mechanical devices are prone to wear and tear, lack uniformity and consistency across speakers, and can be easily damaged by external factors such as water or drops. Moreover, they struggle to provide the level of audio detail, separation, and precision that consumers desire in today’s fast-paced digital world.

Introducing xMEMS
xMEMS is here to change the game. They have developed a solid-state semiconductor alternative to traditional coil and magnet speakers. By leveraging the advantages of semiconductor technology, xMEMS can produce high-quality sound with precision and reliability. Unlike their mechanical counterparts, xMEMS speakers are more robust, resistant to damage, and have a longer lifespan. They also eliminate the need for magnets, reducing weight and electromagnetic interference in wireless devices.

The Benefits for Manufacturers and Consumers
The shift to xMEMS speakers offers several advantages for both manufacturers and consumers. From a manufacturing standpoint, solid-state components are easier to test, scale, and integrate into products. They offer greater uniformity and consistency in loudness and phase alignment, ensuring a well-balanced audio experience. Additionally, these speakers are more reliable, surviving drops, water, and dust better than their mechanical counterparts.

For consumers, xMEMS speakers deliver superior audio quality. With a faster mechanical response, they can reproduce complex and dynamic sounds with exceptional detail and separation. Imagine hearing every instrument in a song or distinguishing between background and foreground vocals with utmost clarity. Furthermore, xMEMS speakers boast a flat phase response, which means that audio is faithfully reproduced without the typical phase disturbances found in conventional speakers. This results in a more accurate sound representation, akin to that experienced at live music performances.

Current Market Presence
xMEMS has already made waves in the audio industry, with their speakers featured in premium-grade in-ear monitors and hearing aids. However, their most significant market breakthrough is on the horizon. In November, the company will launch its first true wireless stereo (TWS) earbuds with xMEMS speakers in collaboration with Creative Technology. This consumer-friendly product will offer the benefits of xMEMS technology at an affordable price point, making it accessible to a wider audience.

The Path to Market Dominance
xMEMS has ambitious plans to dominate the speaker market. While their initial focus has been on personal audio devices, such as earbuds and headphones, their ultimate goal is to reinvent loudspeakers in every form. From smartphones and smart speakers to cars and home theater systems, xMEMS aims to revolutionize sound reproduction across the board. While the physics challenges are significant, the company is already working on pioneering a transduction mechanism called ultrasonic amplitude modulation. By moving outside the conventional auditory frequency spectrum, xMEMS hopes to bring full bandwidth audio to even the largest speaker systems.

Patents and Future Competition
xMEMS understands the importance of protecting their technology and has secured over 110 patents to safeguard their innovations. While they expect competition to arise in this growing market, xMEMS’ strong intellectual property portfolio provides them with the necessary freedom of operation. Although they may not be the sole source for this technology, xMEMS is currently leading the market and anticipates significant growth as they expand into various segments.

With their solid-state semiconductor alternative, xMEMS is shaking up the speaker industry. By delivering high-quality sound with precision, reliability, and innovation, xMEMS speakers offer significant advantages over conventional coil and magnet speakers. The company’s current market presence, including collaborations with renowned brands, sets the stage for a full-scale disruption in the industry. As they continue to push boundaries with their ultrasonic modulation demodulation scheme, xMEMS is well on its way to revolutionizing sound reproduction in everyday devices. Get ready to experience audio like never before!

Full transcript: reinventing the $50 billion speaker market

Note: this is an AI-generated transcript.

John Koetsier: Can a new innovation upend a 50 billion industry that uses a hundred year old tech, still uses a hundred year old tech, and it is probably in your ears multiple times a day. Hello and welcome to tech first. My name is John Koetsier. Pretty much all of us use earbuds, maybe wireless, maybe wired. They all rely on.

Pretty old tech. It’s a hundred year old tech. Now there’s a new option that’s based on, of course, silicon. It’s a microchip. It’s a means of creating sound that is very different. It could be better while also being cheaper. Here to chat and give a big product announcement at some point is Mike Householder, a VP at XMEMS.

Welcome Mike. Thanks for having me, John. Hey, super pumped to have you. Let’s start at the beginning. One of the things that I saw in the pitch when you said, Hey, let’s chat about this, was that headphones rely on a hundred year old tech. What is this a hundred year old tech? 

Mike Housholder: Yeah it’s the speaker that we’ve all been using are pretty much our entire lives.

So the coil and magnet speaker, has been our only means of experiencing sound our entire lives. And it was invented way back in the 1800s, perfected in the 1920s and just slowly improved ever since then. But it’s a mechanical structure. It’s got. First of all, a coil and magnet for actuation.

You drive a current through that coil. It moves the magnet that then pushes through various layers of suspension, a paper or plastic diaphragm that Moves air and generates sound fundamentally unchanged for a hundred years. Wow. So what we’re replacing it with is a solid state semiconductor alternative.

So now instead of a complex mechanical system, we can produce very sophisticated, higher quality sound. With a tip. So this is a speaker on a chip that can produce very sophisticated audio. So you’re getting really all of the benefits of semiconductor technology paired with sound generation. 

John Koetsier: So let’s unpack that a little bit and talk about what those benefits are.

And it’s really interesting because totally different industry, but about a year ago I interviewed somebody and they’re making a solid state silicon based fuse box for your home. And nobody thought it was possible. Nobody thought it could be done. And they did that. And you’re talking about something that is a totally different space, but is somewhat related.

It’s solid state and using silicon chips to recreate this. Why is that a good idea? Why is that important to do? 

Mike Housholder: If you look at the consumer electronics industry, there’s just a natural gravitational pull.

To solid state components, they’re scalable, more reliable, generally faster, better performing. And really, if we look at a, an average consumer electronics product today, be it a phone a TV or whatnot, there are very few non solid state components remaining in those devices. The one remaining one.

For the most part is the speaker coming after the last survivor, exactly. There are so many examples in the industry of a traditional mechanical device being replaced by a solid state semiconductor variant. I can walk through a couple of examples. If we go to the opposite end of the audio spectrum, the microphone, most people don’t know the microphone is mostly.

Semiconductor MEMS technology today for a majority of the microphones. The mechanical microphones still exist, but the majority of the unit volumes are MEMS, MEMS semiconductors. For those who, we all have phones and PCs today, the. The spinning mechanical hard drive for the most part has been replaced by a solid state drive.

Why? It was more reliable. It’s faster. You get your data faster than a traditional spinning mechanical variant. You brought up the fuse box. You look in automotive now. Everyone’s pushing towards solid state batteries. Once a solid state variant exists, it will, over time, take the majority of unit volumes for that function.

John Koetsier: Okay so that’s a little bit about how it’s constructed, how it’s built and this overarching flow of… The world of technology towards solid state. Why is this a good thing for speakers? Why is this a good thing for headphones? Here’s some headphones that you sent me that I’ve been testing and trying out.

Why is it a good thing to apply here? 

Mike Housholder: Yeah, good question. So I’ll I’ll answer that question from two angles. One is benefits to the manufacturer of the product and then benefits to the consumer. All right. So to the manufacturer they want a solid state component because again, of all the quality and reliability advantages versus their mechanical variant, easier to test, easier to scale.

They’re more uniform than a traditional coil based speaker. And what I mean by uniformity is each speaker. Loudness level is equivalent. Their phase alignment is more consistent. So that’s what you want out of audio. When you’re trying to match a left and a right, you don’t want them louder or quieter than the other side.

You want them perfectly phased aligned. So you don’t muddy any of the the audio response. So semiconductor is just going to be more uniform and consistent. It’s going to be more reliable. It’s going to survive a lot longer. It’s going to survive drops and, water and moisture and dust better than a mechanical variant.

John Koetsier: it’s one of my original AirPods I dropped and the audio was never the same after that. 

Mike Housholder: Yep. Yep. So more robust to drop, one of the things we get asked by a lot of our customers is could it survive a washer dryer cycle? Hey, who’s left their AirPods in their jeans and run them through a washing cycle.

So the answer is yes, you can run our speakers through a washing machine and dryer and the speaker will work. We can’t guarantee the rest of the electronics is going to work, but we can say confidently the speaker is going to survive. And we also remove the magnets. So we’re taking out weight.

We’re taking out a source of electromagnetic interference with the wireless antennas in a wireless earbud. so Those are really all the benefits to a manufacturer. They like solid state. So now, but the consumer may care a little bit less about whether it’s easier to test or this or that. So really what the consumer cares about is audio quality.

Are they going to, get better music quality by putting a solid state speaker in their ears versus a conventional speaker. There are three unique aspects to our sound signature that a conventional coil based speaker doesn’t do and can’t do. So the first characteristic, is is really in the mechanical response of the speaker.

The speaker actually moves up and down. Its mechanical response is about 150 times faster than a legacy coil variant. So what does that mean to the consumer? A fast actuation means that you’re going to pump air and then you’re going to recover and be ready for that next audio stimulus a lot sooner. So as the music gets really dynamic, really complex, lots of instrumentals, multiple voices coming in, you really care about detail and separation.

You want to hear one instrument clearly delineated from the next instrument. You want to hear that background vocal as well as the front vocal, and you want to. Believe that they are all separate and unique and the slower the speaker gets, speaking of legacy speakers, some of that detail starts to muddy together and you lose that precision, that sense of separation.

A faster speaker will present that detail in all its glory. So the speed gives you that detail and separation. So that’s one unique aspect. 

John Koetsier: It’s almost like having a higher resolution display in other words. 

Mike Housholder: Exactly. So it’s the equivalent of, HD video. Now you’re really stepping into, there is HD audio.

There’s high res audio out there. Can the speaker truly resolve that content? Are you taking HD video and running it over a CRT monitor or are you pushing that HD video over a high pixel density? HD screen, same equivalent, same analogy on the audio side, the content may be HD, but can the speaker truly resolve that content and present all of that additional detail?

That’s what you can do with this speaker. So the speed is number one for the detail and separation. The second aspect of the sound signature is really flat phase response. Most it’s really not known and really not well known, but conventional speakers have a phase disturbance, a phase shift in a 500 to 2 kilohertz region, which is a really sensitive region of the human ear.

But I think the human brain has adapted to it because it’s the only way we’ve ever experienced sound. That we, we just don’t hear that phase disturbance. 

John Koetsier: What exactly is a phase disturbance in sound? 

Mike Housholder: So it’s a, it, the shift in phase will basically alter the original recording of the music.

But again, I think the human brain has been tuned to just. Ignore it, as you saw from that Brian Lucy video, he’s a mixing and mastering artist in the music industry, his argument is, so these conventional speakers have a 180 degree phase shift at the resident frequency, which is 500 hertz to 2 kilohertz.

Typically, our phase is flat. Out to 10k. There is no phase disturbance. There is no shift in phase. And, for a professional ear like Brian’s, it was immediately apparent to him that, what he is mixing and mastering, how he wants the consumer to hear the audio. He typically doesn’t find a consumer audio product that renders it as cleanly as he wanted you to hear it.

And what he heard from our speaker with the kind of the pure phase response, he finally heard a speaker that presented the audio in the way he wanted it presented to the consumer. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. So that would be more aligned with how you would hear live music, for instance. 

Mike Housholder: Correct. And the and while we’re on the phase discussion, this gets back to the uniformity and consistency out of the semiconductor process, chip to chip, our phase consistency is there.

So this really steps into spatial audio. So as you’re moving audio from the left to the right, up and down, you want perfectly phased match speakers. To render that spatial content accurately and not muddy the spatial response. So having perfectly matched left, right speakers that are perfectly uniform, you’re getting more crisp and clear spatial audio.

So the phase is in two aspects, the phase shift and the phase consistency. The third characteristic to our our sound signature is the fact is really in the materials. So most speakers today use a diaphragm material that’s, paper or plastic, there’s certainly a lot more exotic variants as you get into really expensive speakers.

But the majority of consumer low, reasonably placed speakers, paper, plastic diaphragm, what you want out of a speaker diaphragm is something that’s stiff, rigid, but lightweight, because you want the material of the diaphragm to be stiff enough that when you drive it really hard, it doesn’t go nonlinear.

You want that whole diaphragm to just stay consistent to not muddy the audio, but what you’ll see in paper or plastic, because they’re very pliant materials. When you drive it really hard, part of the diaphragm goes up. Part of the diaphragm goes down. This is a concept called speaker breakup, and that will muddy the audio and it’s most present in the mids and the highs.

Not so much in the lows. So we, being a monolithic semiconductor speaker, our speaker diaphragm is silicon. And silicon is 95 times more stiff than paper or plastic. So you have a stiff and rigid material pushing up and down, generating sound. It does not go non linear, it does not muddy the sound. So you’re getting more pristine mids and highs that you wouldn’t get from a conventional speaker.

John Koetsier: Interesting. Amazing. Very cool. One of the things that the audio engineer that you shared, he was talking about it. He talked about pistonic pressure which is something that he said you typically get with many different headphones or earbud solutions. What is that? Why don’t you have it? 

Mike Housholder: Sure.

So a conventional speaker, that paper plastic diaphragm is typically isolated or sealed front to back. The front of the speaker and the rear of the speaker are not exposed to each other. So in the front chamber of that speaker, the part that’s connected to your ear. You have that pistonic motion of that speaker diaphragm, that coil and magnet pushing up and down and it’s generate, it’s pushing air to generate sound, but it’s also creating, in a vacuum, it can create some pressure buildup in the ear.

That’s why some earbuds typically have a spatial vent in the front chamber to vent out some of that pistonic pressure. But even though they have that vent um, it can still lead to fatigue over time. If you’re going to. Watch a movie on a plane for two hours or be on your earbuds for multiple hours. It will lead to fatigue.

I think everyone’s felt it. What’s unique about our speakers again, we’re dealing with micron level precision of a semiconductor process. We can actually do. What conventional to what conventional speakers is a no, we can actually integrate micron level slits in our speaker diaphragm, because again, we got that micron level precision that as we are doing that pastonic pressure, there are little vents that are opening up and any pressure that’s building up leaks out the back.

So what we’ve observed in our own testing, our testers are working with our speakers every day. We’ve got them in our years. We’re just sensing that we can keep these earbuds in our ears longer without having those senses of fatigue. 

John Koetsier: So sounds super cool. What’s the path to market dominance and is it related to the announcement that you’re going to make?

Mike Housholder: We’re we’re at the the leading edge of that right now. Yeah, we’ve been in the market with. Product since 2020, we’ve been in, we’ve completed our production qualification with our fab and our manufacturing partners since 2021 2022. so now those production speaker chips.

Are now in the process of being integrated into consumer products, and those consumer products are now reaching production. There are a few products out in the market today using our speakers more on kind of the niche market side. We’ve got some hi fi audio earbuds, probably thousand dollar products.

Believed enough in the sound quality of our speaker to say that this is different and it’s worthy of 1, 000 price point. Those are in the market now, so you can buy in ear monitors for hi fi audio with our speakers in them. There are some hearing assistance products on the market, hearing aids with our technology, but in November, there will be our first TWS customer true wireless stereo earbuds.

Reaching the market with our speakers. So we’re at that kind of that cusp of, getting into high volume, mainstream consumer earbuds that is happening in very short order. 

John Koetsier: So if somebody wants to check it out, wants to try it, maybe they want to buy a thousand dollar pair of headphones, or maybe they just want something that’s a hundred bucks, 50 bucks, whatever.

Are there any brands that, that, that are having this in the market right now that they can check out? 

Mike Housholder: Yeah, absolutely. So on the, the hi fi audio side there, there are two, premier grade in ear monitors one from a U S company called singularity audio is a very high end in ear monitor, about a 1, 500 price point.

And then there’s another Asian in ear monitor company called Ceramic that also has an in ear monitor with our MEMS speaker in it. So those are premium products, high price point really for the audiophile who invests in audio equipment, but it really, our interest as a semiconductor company is high volume business and reaching that mainstream consumer.

There’s a forthcoming product announcement for middle of November. From Creative Technology, a well known brand in both consumer audio and PC and gaming audio. They are releasing a true wireless stereo earbud with our MEMS speakers. They will be the first MEMS speaker TWS. Brand on the market and that is coming to market at a very consumer friendly price point.

John Koetsier: Very cool. Interesting. And do you, have you patented this technology? Is it possible for others to do the same or if this takes off and everybody starts demanding this and Apple wants it in their AirPods and everything else did they have to get it from you? 

Mike Housholder: Yeah. So we we’ve been very aggressive in patenting all of our innovations we have well over 110 patents granted.

We’re a five year old company and we already have 110 patents granted covering all aspects of our technology, our process, our manufacturing methods. So we’ve gotten good freedom of operations for ourselves and for our customers with that said, there are different ways to, to design the product.

And this is a large enough market where we would expect to have competition. So I wouldn’t say that we’re going to be the only source in the world to get this stuff that’s not going to be true. But we, we have certainly, we’re certainly ahead of the market and we’ve got sufficient protection to, to have freedom of operation.

John Koetsier: , you’re obviously looking at earbuds and headphones, , first, but there are speakers all over the world. There are speakers all over the place. And as we, , add intelligence to just about every product we have, , sometimes the ability to speak to it is handy. And certainly with Alexa devices and Hey Siri at risk of getting Siri upside here, or other things like that.

, there, there are speakers all over the world. , do you have grand visions of being. In everything. 

Mike Housholder: Yes. So the North star of the company was to not just reinvent personal audio speakers. The North star of the company is to reinvent loudspeakers. So it’s the speaker in your phone, the speaker in your watch the speaker in your TV, your smart speaker.

Your car, your human retainment system. We want to touch every corner and nook and cranny of the speaker market. The easier lift for us, the fastest path to market is getting close to the year. So starting in personal audio was that easier lift to get to market, get the revenue base going.

And to continue to fund R and D for the bigger lift, which is to produce full bandwidth audio in free air and free space in a little thin semiconductor chip. So you can imagine the physics challenges that have to be overcome to achieve that. So we’re taking things in a logical, staged approach to open up different corners of the market as the technology matures.

John Koetsier: As you do that looks interesting, and I know that’s not your initial focus, but if you look at a Sonos or you look at some of the other big stereo brands, I’m assuming that you can scale up the physical size of your chip, not the chip per se, but the bit of silicon that’s doing the resonating and make it work in a larger environment.

Mike Housholder: Yeah. So this is where this is where the fundamentals of semiconductors. Instead of being a benefit, as we’ve talked about actually become more of an inhibitor, if you want to, the logical approach would be if I’ve got a six inch mid range or a six inch woofer, okay, I’ll replace that with a six inch semiconductor speaker.

And pretty soon you’ve consumed an entire semiconductor wafer, and, just financially and fiscally, that just won’t make any sense. Semiconductors are good when they’re small so that presents a physics problem, which is how do you produce sophisticated sound in free air in really tiny packages?

And again, if you look at the side profile of a conventional, say tower speaker in a home entertainment system, that speaker has some depth to it. Why does it have depth? It needs… Displacement to push air. Okay, so fundamentally, a semiconductor will always be at a disadvantage from a physics perspective.

You don’t make semiconductors sticker. They’re always going to be really thin. So you will never have that displacement of a big, a big free air speaker. This kind of gets to a forthcoming product announcement that we’re going to be making in November, uh, around our Cypress technology, which we are reinventing the transduction mechanism.

John Koetsier: I would like to know what the transduction mechanism is. 

Mike Housholder: The conventional speaker, coil based speakers, even the speakers from XMEMS that exist today, work fundamentally on a push air transduction mechanism. You have an actuator. That pushes a diaphragm, moves air and generates sound. But that displacement is fundamental to your ability to generate sound at distance.

More distance, more displacement. We’re never going to have that displacement advantage. We need to find a different way to generate sound. And, in a hundred years, there hasn’t been a product that has generated sound in a different way that could produce equal or better sound. So we are moving to a methodology or a principle of ultrasonic amplitude modulation.

So we are using all the advantages of MEMS semiconductors, which is speed, which is uniformity, consistency, to basically build an ultrasonic modulation demodulation scheme to move outside of the audio frequency spectrum, operate in ultrasonic regions to modulate and demodulate, and then extract. You basically modulate a series of air pulses to the original audio signal, then you demodulate the ultrasound and extract the audio.

So it sounds 

John Koetsier: very sci fi. 

Mike Housholder: It sounds sci fi and actually sound from ultrasound has been in research mode since the 1960s. And no one has been able to achieve a performance. significant enough to commercialize this in a broad way until now. So what this ultrasonic modulation demodulation scheme gives us that our current generation speakers don’t is additional, we already, you’ve already listened to our first generation speakers.

That’s full bandwidth audio. You heard. The lowest frequencies to the highest frequencies. But if you want to move into freer air applications or leaky applications, you need to displace more energy. In the low frequency. So by moving into ultrasonic modulation demodulation, we are now putting ultrasonic air pulses into the audio envelope.

And low frequency energy is wider. It’s wider wavelength. Yes. So we can put more air pulses into a wider wave, wavelength low frequency energy so that more air pulses generates more air pressure, which generates deeper base. 

John Koetsier: It sounds amazing. But I’m totally missing how the ultrasound, which I cannot hear because it’s above the hearing frequency that my ears, especially my ears I’m, not 22 anymore, but above the frequency that my ears can hear how that gets translated in my open air environment, maybe my home theater, whatever, to something that I can hear.

Mike Housholder: Sure. So we’re getting an input audio signal from the sound source, whether it’s your phone, your laptop, or a receiver at home. We get the input audio signal and really our controller and driver will then basically implement. A ultrasonic air pulse scheme to map each ultrasonic air pulse to the frequency of the audio.

. . So we’re gonna use that ultrasonic modulator to generate air pulses, but then we’re going to demodulate that ultrasound. To then extract that, that audio signal. So it’s just another way to generate air pressure to create sound, but outside of the audible spectrum. 

John Koetsier: Are you almost virtualizing the speaker?

Is that a way that you could describe this? Is it is the actual sound production almost happening outside of the speaker assembly, the new speaker? 

Mike Housholder: No no. There’s definitely a, a control and amplification in a separate controller chip, there’s still, our MEMS semiconductor that is, all the MEMS structures are generating the ultrasonic pulses.

Through MEMS, demodulating through valves and letting the audio flow through. So there is still fundamentally a speaker that has moving parts in it but it’s now a semiconductor and not a mechanical device. 

John Koetsier: Fascinating. I look forward to seeing it. Thank you so much for this time, Mike.

Mike Housholder: Thank you, John.


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