MEMS microphones surge, thanks to Apple

January 23, 2012 - The market for MEMS microphones has nearly quintupled in just the past three years, topping a projected 2 billion shipments in 2012, a rise attributed mainly to the rise of Apple and the iPhone, according to IHS iSuppli.

"While MEMS microphones have been around for many years, 2009 marked an important milestone when Apple started to buy MEMS microphones for the iPod Nano 5, and more importantly, for the iPhone 4," stated Jérémie Bouchaud, director and senior principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. "With Apple playing a huge role, the MEMS microphone market turned up the volume dramatically." Apple’s share of MEMS microphone consumption was just 6.2% of shipments in 2009, and nearly a third of the market (31%) in 2012.

Silicon microphones are "one of the great success stories in the MEMS field," according to the firm. A smartphone may need one of most MEMS-enabled features, e.g. an accelerometer or compass or gyroscope, it typically has two MEMS microphones these days — and some handset suppliers are considering designing in a third device for noise suppression and better audio recording for videos.

Interestingly, MEMS microphones’ usefulness has resisted the typical price reduction seen in technologies rapidly adopted in consumer and mobile markets, because the high-end segment (Apple, Nokia, etc.) is driven more by than just price. "Apple, for instance, pays anywhere from three to four times more than its competitors to secure performance-oriented MEMS microphones, helping to stabilize pricing for MEMS microphones as a whole," iSuppli notes.

Differentiating a smartphone/handset with better audio capabilities is increasingly important as consumers rely on their devices for even more tasks beyond simply making a phone call, such as consuming music or video content. The new Nokia Lumia is one such smartphone specifically marketing its audio and recording features. Apple’s addition of Siri voice command to the iPhone 4S has carried over into the iPhone 5 and other Apple devices including the newest iPod touch music player and iPad tablet. "Siri demonstrated the impressive functionality that could be achieved by multiple MEMS microphones featuring a lower signal-to-noise ratio," the firm notes.

More MEMS microphones in handsets has also improved audio for video recording, iSuppli points out. The iPhone 4 and 4S had two microphones (supplied by Knowles and AAC) on the side of the display — great placement for calls and voice commands, but not for recording the sound of the video taken with the main camera on the back of the phone. The iPhone 5 has those same two microphones but adds a third from Analog Devices on the back of the phone for video recording.

Worldwide MEMS microphone historical shipments, in millions of units. (Source: IHS iSuppli)

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