Thursday, September 21, 2006

So, When Will It Ship?

I've been asked several times about the ship date for our product. I don't have an answer for that, but I can tell you about the changes or improvements we need to make to the current prototype before we are ready to ship a commercial product. In this post, I'll give a general overview of improvements needed for each of these subsystems:
  1. the chassis
  2. power supplies
  3. amplifier modules
  4. soundcard section
    a. computer interface
    b. drivers/software
    c. digital/analog section - DACs, ADC, etc.
I will provide more detailed information about each of these sections in future posts.

As you can see from the prototype photos, the current chassis is not something many people would want in their living or family rooms, unless they're really into the industrial design style. They actually might look kind of cool in an a loft space or something, but that is sooo 90's :). So we need to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing design. We would also like to minimize the size and weight, and allow for optimal heat dissipation. Fortunately, the internal components are relatively small and don't generate too much heat so we should be able to create a chassis that isn't a monster. We'd also really like to design a chassis that would let do-it-yourself (DIY) people build or upgrade their own systems. Much like you can do with PC today. This means the inside of the chassis would include the framing to mount things like power supplies, the printed circuit boards and amp modules. Ideally, the amp modules would simply slide into slots in the back of the chassis.

The main changes we plan to make with the power supplies for our commercial product will be to replace the linear power supplies with switch mode power supplies (SMPS). The latest SMPS technology designed for audio applications is very promising. Compared to general purpose SMPS, the SMPS designed for audio applications usually have much larger capacitors to provide a larger energy reserve for the faster and deeper current demands. General purpose SMPSs are typically designed for fairly constant loads, so they don't usually have large enough capacitance at the outputs for audio applications and adding capacitance to a general purpose SMPS wouldn't work very well because the feedback circuit doesn't take into account this additional capacitance and the added phase shift and oscillation would make it unstable. The main benefit with using the SMPS instead of the linear supplies is since they operate at a much higher frequency, they can be much smaller and lighter than the equivalently powered linear supplies we were using. Since a SMPS recharges its capacitors about 1000 times faster than the rate of a linear power supply, which needs a fairly large transformer and big capacitors to keep up with the current demand, the SMPS can get by with smaller capacitors.

We are pretty pleased with the amplifier modules in the conceptual prototype. The amp modules we've tested are from Hypex Electronics, a Dutch amplifier manufacturer who has developed a very good reputation for high quality products. There are a few things that can be done to optimize these for our application, which will be done if we decide to use their UcD amps in our commercial products. Since we started this business, we have discovered a few other class-D amplifier modules from other manufacturers worth considering. And there is also the possibility of developing our own class-D amp, but unlikely considering the development costs and time. To accommodate our modular chassis design, we would really like to find an amp module that will fit into a small enclosure. This enclosure would be similar to the case of a hard disk drive. It would protect the circuit components, dissipate heat and would allow for an easy method to insert the amp into the back panel of the chassis. If the sizes were standardized, you could upgrade or replace amp modules when newer, better designs were available by simply unplugging the old amp and replacing with the new. We would also be happy to support more than one amplifier manufacturer. Some of the class-D amp modules have a reputation for being very accurate and transparent to the source. These amps sound great, but if the source material isn't very good, like a poor recording, the flaws are pretty noticeable. Other class-D amp modules might be a little more forgiving of these types of recordings. I guess it all depends on your listening preferences. I think it would be nice to have a choice. Now, if only we can find a few manufacturers to work with us on a design for these standard amp cartridges. Wouldn't it be great to have the options of different amp modules just like you currently have with hard drives or video graphics cards?

The soundcard section is where we have the most work ahead of us. The current unit in our conceptual prototype was designed primarily for pro-audio applications - recording and mixing. There are quite a few components that aren't needed in a music playback or home theater system. For example, we don't need 8 balanced inputs if the audio source is the PC. The analog outputs of the pro-audio soundcards are good and usually sound better than your average A/V receiver, but they may not sound quite as good as the high-end dedicated preamp/processors. Their outputs are designed to be good enough for an audio engineer to monitor a mix, but might not meet the needs of someone that is really into critical listening. Our goal is to design a soundcard that sounds as good as some of the high-end dedicated prepros, but at a much lower cost. We've also got a lot of work to do on the software - both the drivers and the control panel applets for controlling things like volume, channel mixing, etc.

Like I said, we'll cover each of these areas in a little more detail in future posts. Please let me know what topics you would like to learn about first.

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