Monday, September 17, 2007

Modular / Open Architecture Design

I like the fact that you can purchase the building blocks to assemble a PC to your exact specifications. The technically savvy person can buy the chassis, power supply, motherboard, cpu, memory, graphics card, sound card, disk drives, etc., etc., from several different manufacturers and put together a system that costs less or performs better than the pre-assembled systems from the major PC manufacturers. Of course, if you are not technically savvy, you can also purchase a complete system from the hundreds of retailers. Since there are so many PC manufacturers, the prices are very competitive. This is possible because of the open architecture of the PC. I think this might have contributed to the popularity and growth of the PC. On the other hand, Apple's proprietary products may be considered a little higher quality, and that may be due to the fact that Apple has greater control over their supply chain, but they also charge more for their PCs. When you compare market share, the open architecture PC is the clear winner.

Open architecture or modularity might work for an audio system similar to the way it has for PCs. Standard components could be available for the power supply(s), PC audio interface, preamp, amp modules and chassis. The preamp would be similar to a PC's motherboard. This is where the source devices would be selected and routed to the amp modules, plus it could include circuitry for analog volume control. The PC audio interface would have all the functionality of the PC's sound system. It would include the interface to the PC using USB or FireWire, along with the DSP, ADC and DAC chips. An amp module would provide the power for one channel or speaker output. Or maybe some manufacturers could design modules that provide stereo pairs at less cost. Amp modules of different power ratings, like 100W, 200W, 400W, etc. could be available, just like we currently can choose hard drives with different storage capacities. These amp modules could also come with integrated power supplies like the ASP Series from IcePower shown on the left. The chassis could be designed with standard layouts and connectors similar to what is currently available for today's PCs. There might be small cases for 2 channel stereo systems, larger 5.1 or 7.1 surround or even huge tower systems that could house enough channels for a sizable whole house audio system. Someone could choose a very basic chassis with a plastic or painted sheet metal skin and save some money, while others could purchase an expensive thick gauge aluminum chassis with a polished finish.

This open architecture approach has a few serious challenges. To be successful, the components have to be designed with standard connectors and form factors. Just like the hard drive's enclosure is designed with a 3.5" form factor and standard connectors for data and power or a PCI card that fits into the connector on the motherboard, has standard heights and widths and includes the backplate to attach to the back of the chassis. It will probably be difficult to get the component manufacturers to agree on standard connectors and form factors unless they are confident there is a large market for these standardized products. In the early PC days, the IBM architecture was very popular because IBM was a well established, respected company. I don't know of any other manufacturer that could have accomplished this level of standardization and there really isn't anybody in the audio industry with that type of clout today. Besides, most of the manufactures prefer to offer their mostly proprietary solutions.

In addition to the open architecture with standard components, there's also modular design. By this, I mean providing specific components for certain tasks. Separate components for the PC interface, the preamp, amp modules, power supplies, chassis, etc. There's also the separate components you can purchase for your home theaters and sound systems. For example, you can buy a CD and/or DVD transport, D/A processor, preamp, and amplifiers. The specialized components usually sound better, look better and cost a lot more than an integrated solution. Amplio's prototypes have been integrated solutions that include the PC interface, DAC/processor, power supplies, and amp modules all in the same chassis. However, some customers might prefer the flexibility of separate modules. We could provide different products like a preamp that combined the PC interface, DAC, volume control, etc., and amps that can be purchased in mono, stereo or multichannel configurations. Two flavors of preamps might let you choose between a 2 channel or 8 channel solution. The combination of an 8 channel preamp and 3 - 2 channel amp modules plus 1 mono amp module would result in a good 7.1 system. Here's an example of an interesting modular design for PCs called the UNI Computer. Maybe we could do something similar for the preamp and amp modules.

If you have any thoughts or questions about modular and/or open architecture design, I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to post a comment!

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