In April, we reported on xMEMS and its all-silicon solid-state fidelity microspeakers. Technology is interesting and audio technology is constantly evolving. xMEMS approached us and asked if we would give them a chance to elaborate on their technology so that our audience could be better informed.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The following was provided to us by xMEMS and is not an endorsement or advertisement by Techaeris. This is a guest editorial provided to us by xMEMS.
The characteristic image was generated using AI.
xMEMS: when the speakers are forged in silicon
By Mike Housholder, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, xMEMS
Maybe you are like me. Over time, I came to have Apple AirPods and AirPods Pros. And I regularly switch between them, depending on the situation. When I exercise, for example, I use AirPods. When I’m sitting down and focusing, I use the AirPods Pros.
Because? The occlusion effect. Both sound great, with the AirPods Pro providing the isolation for the best listening experience. However, they use tight silicone tips that are placed in my ears to occlude my ear canals: the sound of each step I take is amplified and resonates in my head.
This annoying occlusion effect also happens to my voice when I’m speaking on a Zoom call. The AirPods because they don’t cover my ears completely, they don’t have the same effect when I run or talk. Air moves in and out, and this “venting” of the amplified and resonant sounds in my body allows me to better enjoy my music or focus on a meeting without the effect of occlusion.
Of course, there are situations where open-back or closed-back headphone experiences are preferable. For example, noise canceling headphones work best with a closed fit, as long as the discomfort from the occlusion effect is tolerable. But it shouldn’t take two sets of headphones to switch between open and closed listening. Especially, for example, when it comes to some modern hearing aids, which can suffer from the same effects.
The solution is a silicon-based, solid-state method of switching between open and closed modes in the earcups itself that leverages the same innovative piezoMEMS semiconductor technology used to create a new generation of solid-state loudspeakers.
Phasing out of speaker coils – solid state technology
Traditionally, loudspeakers, whether in media rooms or headphones, create sound in the same way, using a combination of coils, magnets, and diaphragms. Multiple parts, multiple points of failure, and a high degree of variability in volume and phase from speaker to speaker. Still, such legacy speaker architecture has served the market well for a century.
But with personal audio so widespread—headphones, earphones, and a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids for more than one in 10 American adults who the CDC says suffer from hearing loss—alternative speaker architecture is needed to achieve quality. . , reliability and performance.
This architecture takes advantage of the semiconductor industry and is microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), solid-state technology, in which a loudspeaker and all its necessary elements are fabricated in silicon in a monolithic device. It’s a speaker on a chip. All that’s left is to add a DSP-controllable vent to the earcup, along with this solid-state speaker, and now you can have one pair of headphones, open or closed, for all listening situations. Also, a solid-state speaker sounds better.
Solid state technology is nothing new. Computer hard drives transitioned from spinning disks to solid-state drives starting in the 1990s. In the audio space, according to MEMS industry analyst Yole Group, solid-state MEMS microphones dominated only 5 percent of the market in 2007, but by 2022, that share was 72 percent. As solid-state speakers move into production, they could follow a similar trajectory.
The advantages of a solid state architecture are many. With no moving parts, the devices are more reliable. They are smaller and lighter. When built into headphones, solid-state speakers are less susceptible to dust and sweat if the user is out for a walk, for example. If you forget them in your pocket before doing the laundry, solid-state headphones can survive washing.
And they can be rapidly manufactured on a large scale thanks to established, high-capacity silicon fabrication plants. Instead of assembling speakers from disparate parts, we can now “etch” them in silicon using standard semiconductor packaging and processes. Results stay consistent, and ultimately this solid-state fidelity, as it’s called, creates clearer, more accurate sound.
From silicon to sound waves
Instead of a coil and magnet, solid-state speakers use thin-film piezoelectric technology as a sound actuator, the component that converts electrical signals into sound waves. Such piezoelectric technology has been key to miniaturizing many different types of electronic products.
Piezoelectric actuator film is applied in one layer as part of the semiconductor manufacturing process to the silicon that serves as the speaker’s diaphragm to move air and produce sound. It’s the rigidity of the silicon that helps deliver higher quality sound in a headphone form factor. High-end speakers sometimes use exotic, rigid materials like titanium or even diamond for the mid-range to high-range drivers so the diaphragms vibrate evenly and create clearer sound. However, most earbuds today use plastic diaphragms, which are about 1/100he the rigidity of silicon.
The uniformity and consistency of semiconductor manufacturing results in fast and accurate microspeakers. With no coil driving, and with silicon-made diaphragm and driver components, solid-state speakers respond instantly to voltage, meaning no muddying or discoloration of sound caused by resonant parts. This is critical to today’s consumer audio experiences, which increasingly include higher quality (high-resolution) audio content: lossless digitized audio, spatial audio, and more.
Which brings us back to the occlusion effect. High-quality personal audio experiences have outgrown consumers’ tolerance for hollow, boomy sounds caused by some headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs), earphones, or other devices. Simply put, an integrated solid-state micro speaker coupled with a solid-state MEMS fan system offers the best of all worlds.
Whether it’s the user touching the earcup or sensors sensing certain listening conditions, a DSP controller can open or close a dynamic vent in the earcups to optimize the listening experience. The open configuration reduces annoying occlusion effects and increases the user’s spatial awareness; closed offers the best musical experience and sound isolation.
Headphones (or IEMs or hearing aids) are the same either way. In both cases, the underlying silicon-based design ensures higher fidelity sound reproduction than existing speaker technology can deliver, while giving the user greater control over the experience. Solid-state MEMS has already revolutionized other electronic devices. Now is the time for solid state speakers to replace outdated coil and magnet technology to enable the best listening experience.
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