Fairchild Semiconductor sounds out the mobile audio space


A clear trend for improved audio appears to be emerging in the mobile space, with a plethora of companies from chip makers to speaker manufacturers trying to bring their own brand of harmony to the handset.

Is the smartphone space any place for sound snobs, though? Fairchild Semiconductor thinks it is, after a recent customer survey found that a whopping 90% of respondents said sound quality was a major factor when buying a new mobile phone.

Back in 2009, Fairchild Semiconductor – the company which spawned Intel back in the 1968 – bought in to the audio business by acquiring it from a firm called Leadis. Since then, Fairchild has put significant effort into developing the unit, invested heavily in mobile audio IC product-line resources and building a team of over 30 audio IC designers.

The firm is certainly intent on making itself heard in the space, with technical sales centers in 5 continents, 45 direct sales offices in 17 countries, eight production facilities and five regional sales headquarters. Though products are still just in the design phase, Fairchild says it is already in talks with tier one mobile handset makers to include its audio IC designs into the next generation of sexy sounding smartphones.

RCR recently spoke to Fairchild’s Greg Davis, senior technical marketing manager for Audio Products and Signal Conditioning to listen in on the firm’s long term audio plans.

“We believe in turning the phone into a small boom box,” Davis told us, noting that despite tough competition in the space, Fairchild had managed to get its two year old business in front of the “leading handset OEMs.”

“Smart Phone and Tablet PC manufacturers have high expectations from their audio IC suppliers,” Davis explained, noting that with today’s drive for lower and lower powered devices, audio as certainly “getting the squeeze.”

Indeed, audio consumes approximately 12% of today’s typical smartphone power budget and improving audio loudness and quality has tended to rely on increasing battery capacity and size or borrowing some power budget from other functions.

That’s why Fairchild has invested a lot in ensuring that its units are way down in the milliamp range when it comes to consumption, with the firm’s engineers working relentlessly to achieve lower power dissipation to maximize sound while minimizing impact to battery juice

Fairchild says it does this in two ways, firstly through the use of a more efficient class-G, cap-free, ground-centered headphone amplifiers, and also through efficient class-D speaker amplifiers. “This makes small speakers sound louder and better,” Davis told us.

Getting the audio right is always a bit of a balancing act though, Davis explained. For a start, it’s difficult to attain louder audio without losing out a bit on battery life or achieving lower distortion. Then again, improving battery life typically comes at the cost louder audio and similarly, reducing distortion has effects on both the battery life and loudness of audio.

That’s why Fairchild is putting most of its efforts behind amplifiers, and advanced audio processing, to make  small speakers sound better and louder.

The firm claims to be significantly cheaper too, owing to more advanced packaging technologies, which bring the cost per unit down to about 30 cents.

Will the firm find audible success? We can’t predict for certain, but if you stay tuned in and keep your ears open, we’ll keep you appraised of any developments.


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