Some mighty morphing is taking place in the OEM power market, finds Phil Ward
At Olympia, PLASA was chock full of loudspeaker brands going self-powered – although, ironically, it wasn't themselves powering at all: it was a growing roster of third party suppliers. The list included Shermann Audio, Aura Audio, Blue Acoustic, EM Acoustics, FBT and others, and nobody was being shy. OEM, it seems, is suddenly respectable. The forces behind this revelation are many and varied, but one thing’s for sure. It’s OEM, Jim, but not as we know it…
Chris Full, independent sound designer and founder of Creative Sound Design, was part of the team that developed Duran Audio’s powered solutions and applies this kind of technology to the mission-critical domain of theatre, and elsewhere. He sees traditional OEM as being on the back foot.
“There aren’t that many people left doing straightforward OEM work any more,” he says. “Most of them have been bought up by the big players. Integration makes sense; we have to have powered speakers. I spent years in theatres putting in dual infrastructures when there were just a few Meyer powered products or similar. Now the market allows one framework because of the development of the technology in the power blocks. OEM is becoming affordable, too, where it happens: at one time you transferred your amplifier knowledge into your speaker in some way, whereas now the OEM – especially Class D stuff – is much more compact and efficient.
“Most loudspeakers are too small to have a complete amplifier built in, and some older models compromised the power rating to get it squeezed in. There were many trade-offs – not always obvious to people – and those who really wanted powered loudspeakers accepted them. But the technology has got better, and the trade-offs fewer – if not gone completely.”
This is a market dominated by Italian manufacturer Powersoft (pictured an exclusive shot of LiteMod 4HC and MiniMod 4 prototypes from Powersoft). Most of those loudspeakers going powered at PLASA mentioned Powersoft in dispatches, and it’s no secret that the company has devoted a lot of time and, erm, energy to building up a healthy roster of OEM customers around the world. In fact, it’s the full-time job of account manager for OEM and amp modules Matteo Bianchini to maintain and develop the complex relationships that are needed to make this business model work.
“I try to be as ubiquitous as possible,” he smiles. “And more people are being open about using our OEM products, especially in loudspeakers. We joke among ourselves that this is so they can blame us if there’s an issue…”
Supplying such a huge market demands certain economies of scale, even though the portfolio is broad. “We learned that selling amp modules is never about just selling per se,” Bianchini continues. “It’s about establishing a relationship with a manufacturer, understand his needs and be there to support them in any phase: design, certification, after sales, logistics and stock management. Any of these aspects is typically simplified when using a single solution for different product lines. So we have to make a great amp module that is also as consistent, flexible and versatile as possible, able to do many different jobs. This is why our new products, LiteMod 4HC and MiniMod 4, are conceived as platforms able to cover a huge number of different applications and configurations: we look forward to showing them officially at the next PL+S.”
Offering this technology in truly turnkey solutions with amp, heatsink and DSP all in one naturally makes the integration process easier and faster, Bianchini points out, as well as increasing the reach of Powersoft’s quality control and speeding up the time to market. “But we’re open aim to collaborate too,“ he adds, “especially with third-party DSP developers. We like our partners to have as many options as possible to tailor their own solutions.”
While launching branded rackmount products latterly, UK-based Linea Research continues to report healthy growth in its OEM power module business. Engineering director Ben Ver (pictured) explains why.
“Trying to do DSP and electronics from ground zero is extremely costly and difficult, even for huge manufacturing concerns. So yes, if you can afford it, buy an amplifier company. If you can’t, you need an OEM electronics supplier. When we started in 2003, powered speakers were definitely on every loudspeaker company’s agenda, and many thought they could do it themselves. Others, however, knew there was more to it, and they were our first customers!
“What’s happened since is, firstly, many of them tried and failed and are now seeing the advantages we can bring; and secondly we’ve got over their reticence over the sound quality of Class D – and you simply can’t have a 1,000W Class A/B amplifier in the back of a speaker. I think companies such as ourselves and Powersoft have managed to dispel worries about Class D audio in the minds of OEM customers.”
Following in the pioneering footsteps of Meyer Sound, the new landscape of high-end powered options from L-Acoustics, JBL and d&b audiotechnik has created a commercial imperative to take the powered route that is filtering down through the industry, as commercial imperatives do. This fans the flames ignited by enlightened respect for the technical challenge and acceptance of Class D, all in the warm glow of approving collaboration. “In fact,” adds Ver candidly, “putting Linea Research in it, or Powersoft or Pascal in it, will make their loudspeaker customers relax. They’ll know that the electronics come from companies that understand electronics.”
Class D for audio wouldn’t be what it is today without Hypex, the Dutch manufacturer that first hand-picked Universal Class D technology – and its inventor Bruno Putzeys – from Philips. This created the market that tempted Swedish magnetics giant ETAL into audio, and this is where ETAL Group R&D manager Martin Carlzon surveys his new quarry. “In the loudspeaker market, we now sometimes get requests to include DSP as well as power,” he says. (Pictured is Finnish monitor manufacturer Amphion use ETAL's Anaview AMS Class D amplifiers in the amplifiers that power Amphion's Professional Monitor speakers).
“We have a DSP partner that we work with, in case the customer can’t develop the DSP themselves, but otherwise it’s often a package that includes universal mains and auxiliary voltages to power their DSP board or other relevant circuitry. “We have three different series to cater for different levels of implementation. The AMS and ALC series use the same connectors, so it’s very easy to adopt any module from the series. If you make, say, a small studio monitor – which is where I would say most of our modules end up, because of the audio quality and the power range – or a large studio monitor, or a PA speaker, you can use the same DSP or Ethernet board and all you need to do is change the AMS module according to how powerful you need it to be.” One of the key drivers of ETAL’s growing loudspeaker OEM business is the kind of remedial service mentioned above: manufacturers approach them for expert advice having attempted a diversification into active speakers that proved far more difficult than they thought…
“That’s very true,” says Carlzon. “Class D design, and everything that is to do with switching, is quite complicated. You have to consider so many more issues. For example, EMI [electro-magnetic interference] is much worse with a switching amplifier and a switching power supply. You don’t have that problem in a normal Class A/B transformer. “The same applies to how the switching noise can interfere with the audio signal. It’s a much more delicate decision-making process with a Class D amplifier.”
So it would be fair to say that the recent surge in OEM activity in this field has at least partly been fuelled by the establishment of Class D as the default topology in pro audio amplification. Loudspeaker manufacturers are almost obliged to turn to expert suppliers such as ETAL and Powersoft given that the powered models they seek will almost exclusively depend upon Class D designs.
“It was relatively easy to make a good product with the kind of Class A/B amplification that was around for decades,” adds Carlzon, “but, now that Class D has achieved a good enough level of audio and EMI performance, the advantages outweigh all the other considerations – even if it means outsourcing the actual power module development to people like ourselves.”
Distributed audio for sound reinforcement offers a big future for companies like ETAL, who are able to bring the improvements in sound quality readily associated with studio monitoring to a wider audience. “We’ve introduced an audio transformer, in line with customer requests for compatibility with 100V line systems, specifically for our AMS1000 module – and we’ll develop more transformers for our other modules. We don’t need to change the design of the modules, it’s just a matter of adapting the power handling.” More established players in this field, like Powersoft and Denmark-based Pascal, have been mindful of this market from the beginning, making their power modules fully adaptable with distributed, networked audio systems with easy control access. “In our experience,” comments Pascal’s senior VP of business development Peter Frentz (pictured), “all of the following factors must be in place and optimised for specific applications within this market sector: power density and form factor; amp controls and readouts for DSP and networking; low residual noise; low idle energy consumption; future-proof regulatory compliance; and extremely high reliability.
“A good example of this is our latest U-PRO2 module, which is ideal for a networked self-powered loudspeaker for ancillary fixed-install applications. Such a cabinet is usually compact, trapezoidal but powerful, requiring slim form factor dimensions and able to deliver high peak power. To remotely monitor the health of the amp/speaker, you need clip, temperature and fault readouts. As control options, you need at least mute and standby.
“In low ambient noise environments like theatres or conference rooms the amp must have a low residual noise floor without audible ‘hiss’. Increasingly, you see TCO [Total Cost of Ownership] calculations being applied, so low ‘idle’ power consumption – when not in ‘standby’ – is important. Increased regulatory requirements are expected, so potential compliance with EuP 2013 and Energy Star is important. Last but not least, these speakers are often mounted in inaccessible locations, so an extensive high protection scheme and high reliability level is essential. The U-PRO2 is an example of a module designed to meet all of these requirements from the outset.”
Business development in general, says Frentz, offers Pascal an opportunity to stick to its OEM guns despite – or perhaps because of – endemic systems integration. “Whether a large or small company, the current common denominator is no longer to be just a speaker manufacturer but to be a complete system provider, for select market and application segments,” he says. “Recent consolidation has seen leading pro audio OEM amplifier manufacturers either being acquired by loudspeaker manufacturers or themselves evolving to become complete system providers.
“To the best of our knowledge, Pascal is the only remaining dedicated OEM supplier of professional power amplifier modules that does not produce own-brand product. Therefore the risk mitigation and rapid time-to-market advantages we offer are sought by the very largest players in the market, all the way through to the smaller and highly specialist loudspeaker system manufacturers. The small manufacturers use us because they lack the in-house capabilities, and the large manufacturers use us because they lack engineering bandwidth relative to their desired product roadmap.”
Shift into turbo
Because of this drive into distributed audio, the integration paradigm is having its unique effect on OEM power modules. This is the paradigm that delivered, once again, a record-breaking Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) exhibition in Amsterdam last month, a forum for OEM traffic in every direction. Notably, one recent UK start-up is finding itself drawn into a business model, if not unforeseen, then certainly unexpected this soon. NST Audio co-founder Dan Cartman describes how the almost universal melding of amplification and DSP has reshaped his company’s thinking. “We have the DSP technology,” he says, “but customers are asking for amplification with it – particularly from an OEM point of view.”
This is not exactly alien territory for co-founders Cartman, Andrew Grayland and Phil Key, given their industry pedigree at powerhouses such as BSS and XTA. But it is expanding their horizons beyond territory heavily farmed for software and algorithms. “We have branded, rackmount products,” says Cartman, “but for OEM we’re finding lots of gaps to fill, especially in the lower-powered product ranges. There are lots of smaller loudspeaker packages that need power and DSP control. The move to complete integration of amplifiers has accelerated hugely in the last couple of years.”
Boutique is another word to describe NST Audio, which in this market has its advantages, says Cartman. “If you’re a speaker manufacturer looking for reliability and support, you need personal attention. Small companies like dealing with small companies, and there’s plenty of room below the radar for reassuring bespoke services and solutions.” One such, combining power and DSP in two channels, will be viewable on the NST stand at Frankfurt, Cartman promises (pictured the a DSP module from NST Audio).
So while the big boys club up, OEM arrangements across the power, DSP and system management diaspora can flourish provided that the combination of flexibility and expertise provided by experienced start-ups like NST and Linea Research is available. And if ‘experienced start-up’ sounds like an oxymoron, this is the sophistication of today’s pro audio markets. Yes, amplifier modules per se are mass-produced in China, but before they can do more clever things they need to pass through the OEM chain and have custom touches applied by growing layers of experts.
Infinity and beyond
Another veil of refinement concerns the concept of ‘modular’ itself. Richard Fleming, sales and applications support manager for MC² Audio, admits that the company does not currently make any modules for anyone. “The margin is reduced,” he explains, “if it’s not in a 2U rackmounted box. Also, in fact, a lot of loudspeaker manufacturing electronics is good enough, to be honest. My background is in R&D and I’ve seen them.”
But MC² Audio has a role to play in the new power landscape, he adds. “We just launched an amplifier at ISE that’s a 4-in, 8-out processor with four channels of amplification in the box, but it can seed external active speakers via analogue outputs or Dante. So suddenly there’s an integrated control solution because you can, in fact, connect those loudspeakers. Inclusion of Dante makes the distribution of the processing so much easier and our new Delta range also has ‘dumb’ amps that have Dante connections to pick up processing from anywhere. So in many ways the system is more modular than having a module built into the back of a speaker – certainly more flexible, and probably more cost effective when the combination of DSP and ‘slave’ amps is considered.”
The connectivity is opening up, and pro audio power supply is developing into strange new shapes. It’s morphin’ time…
Top picture: Michael Michaelis is one of the main engineers on the English grime scene, best known for his work with 2016 Mercury Prize winner Skepta. (His ETAL-fitted Amphion amplifiers are sitting on a box).