LAS VEGAS –When Apple dropped Wolfson Microelectronics from their design sockets (including iPod Nano, iPod Touch, 3GS iPhone) a few years ago, the news sent its stock price tumbling, dragged the company into consecutive quarterly losses, and generally made Wolfson look as though it had lost its mojo.
For any chip vendor, it’s never easy to fall out of the Apple tree. What the industry needs to watch, though, is how the company picks itself up and starts all over again.
After it first admitted in early 2008 that it had lost key business supplier Apple, Wolfson acquired Sonaptic, a supplier of ambient noise cancellation technology. Wolfson has quietly beefed up its arsenal of psychoacoustic and audio post-processing software algorithms. It has also expanded its MEMS business, based on technology the company obtained through the acquisition of Oligon in early 2007.
Focused on its core competency in high quality audio, Wolfson developed what it calls “a hub designed on a single chip,” packed with ins and outs, its own micro DSPs and software, which smartly manages audio coming from different sources. In short, “we have put the bad news behind us and we’ve got new products out,” said Andy Brannan, chief commercial officer at Wolfson during an interview with EE Times at Consumer Electronics Show.
Wolfson’s “embedded audio on Linux core” has been already designed into a number of e-books and tablets, according to Brannan.
The Edinburgh, U.K.-based company’s newest endeavor, however, is focused on bringing to PCs and notebook computers “HD audio that matches with HD video.”
Although bringing HD video to PCs is long established, very little has been done to bring HD audio to PCs, noted Wolfson’s Brannan. “More HMV stores are closing. Why? It’s because many consumers are buying music from online companies like Amazon. They are downloading music directly onto their PCs,” he said. “If so, why wouldn’t they want the best HD audio experience on their PCs?”
Wolfson rolled out at the CES its new multi-channel codecs designated as WM8850 and WM8860. The WM8850 has three high performance DACs, enabling six channels of HD audio – ideal for 5.1 channel applications. The WM8860 has two stereo DACs.
For its demonstration, Wolfson engineers used Sony’s Vaio notebook computer to integrate WM8860. The company noted that no special partnership with Sony has been forged yet -- at this point.
Integrated inside the WM8860 are two high performance stereo DACs. It comes with line outputs providing a high-quality differential connection to speaker amplifiers.
Steven Tellman, customer solutions architect at Wolfson claimed that high performance ADCs integrated in the new chip offer 105dB SNR, bringing truly high quality audio to the computer.
Wolfson engineers found, while opening up Sony’s Vaio computer and putting in its new chip inside, the WM8860 was able to replace 110 passive components and 15 active components already designed into the notebook computer. That amounts to savings of 55 cents in the bill of materials, said Wolfson’s Tellman. “Further, our new chip was able to save half the PCB board space on the notebook computer.”
Wolfson engineers designed both WM8850 and 8860 to be fully compatible with the industry-standard High Definition Audio interface, compliant with Intel’s PC architecture and Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL).
The Wolfson’s devices are accompanied by a suite of software, including post-processing and equalizer, so that a PC user, channeling his inner audiophile, can specify an audio preference on-screen.
Both WM8850 and WM8860 are sampling today, priced at $4.80 in 1,000 units, according to Wolfson.
How would this compare to the cost of audio implementations done in current notebook PCs? Brannan noted, “This will be cost-neutral.”