From debatable audiophile psychoacoustics to the realizable goal of 40-Gbit/second mezzanine interfaces, the electromechanical innovations required to transfer charge efficiently and reliably are matched only by the questionable marketing necessary to maintain differentiation in an area that is at once both critical and commoditized. The trend toward connector commoditization belies the many innovations at play beneath the surface, from innovative audio connectors at the low end to patented noise-mitigation, stub removal, blind vias and Micro Action Pins at the top end, with myriad form-factor nuances in between.
All combine to highlight the importance of a solid signal connection.
The connector's importance cannot be understated. A team can spend years on a multimillion-dollar design, only to have it compromised by a poor connector choice. At the height of the iPhone hysteria in 2008, EE Times spoke with Aaron Vronko, service manager at Rapid Repair, a specialist in the resuscitation of mobile devices like the iPhone, iPod and Zune. He cited weak audio-jack anchor points, overly tight ZIF sockets, weak supports on docking-station connectors and loose dock-to-mainboard connections as among the main sources of failure in otherwise-successful, multimillion-dollar designs.
The Strada Whisper backplane connectors from Tyco have a road map to 40 Gbits/s through the use of advanced techniques such as Micro Action Pin (MAP) contacts that reduce connector noise and interference.
Click on image to enlarge.
Vronko advised designers to pay more attention to their connector choices. The irony is that, thanks to the commoditization of these critical components, their selection is most often left to the contract manufacturer.
That commoditization is an offshoot of the manufacturers' efforts to be complete-solutions providers while also ensuring they are second sources for competitors' products. "Everyone is cross-licensing everyone else," said Bob Hult, director of product technology at connector market research firm Bishop and Associates Inc.
Cross licensing is one way to stay in the market; offering custom solutions is another. "When choosing a connector, the obvious advice is to be sure that it has all the features required for the job at hand," said Aries Electronics engineering manager Mike Salerno. "But ask for a custom design if you need something new."
In many cases-particularly in audio circles-designers they must wade through layers of hype and obfuscation before hitting on the right solution. In "RCA = Really Cringeful Audio" (page 32), AudioDesignLine editor Rich Pell enumerates some clear disadvantages of the venerable RCA connector, particularly with respect to its unbalanced design and its power and grounding locations. As for some vendors' "improved" RCA connectors, Pell believes the changes to be of questionable benefit and unable to be measured objectively.