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Sigma Sounds the Future of PCs
Posted May 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 1

May 2002|SigmaTel has seen the future of the Personal Computer and that future includes native DVD-Audio. The Austin, Texas-based chip maker demo'd its next-generation C-Major STAC9460 family of digital audio codecs at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in February. The chip is intended as a replacement for the AC '97 standard codecs now found in most PCs, which some people consider anemic and outmoded. SigmaTel was pitching their new product to a host of OEMs and systems integrators. In essence, they were telling the assembled gearheads: "Hey, the world is ready for better PC audio, and we have the chip that can do it now."

Do ordinary everyday PC users really want super-quality audio? You bet they do, says SigmaTel Vice President of Marketing Alan Hansford. "DVD player technology has moved a couple of steps beyond where the PC is at for the moment. And people are starting to say, ‘I should be getting audio from my high-powered, expensive PC that is at least as good as the audio I get from cheap consumer devices like DVD players,'" says Hansford. "People expect to get the same quality from their PC as they get in their living rooms, and right now they aren't. There's a quality gap."

The SigmaTel C-Major STAC9460 codec is a thumbnail-sized chip that can be integrated into a PC motherboard or into consumer products, such as DVD players, home theater receivers, digital VCRs, karaoke machines, game consoles, or set-top boxes. It is a 24-bit chip that offers 6-channels of Surround Sound audio complying with both DVD-Audio and Sony's Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) specs. It offers sampling rates as high as 192kHz, and SigmaTel also claims a 107dB Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR). The codec technology features two analog inputs and dual microphone inputs for Karaoke applications.

Hansford says we'll be seeing equipment using the new chips within a few months, with consumer devices leading the way. He says his company has deals with DVD player manufacturers in China and Taiwan and with several PC add-in audio card vendors, such as Creative Labs. "You'll be seeing products in time for the back-to-school roll-out rush." The company has yet to announce any deals with motherboard makers, but Hansford expects to make such announcements within 4-6 months, which is a typical lead time for such things, he says.

But don't expect the whole PC industry to convert to DVD-Audio overnight. "A fundamental PC hardware changeover generally takes about three years," says Hansford. So, the change will begin about 3 months from now, but it will progress gradually and won't be complete for 3 or 4 years, he predicts. Manufacturers will be slow to act because they are relatively happy with the status quo AC '97 standard audio codec chips they are currently using, says Hansford. He should know; Sigmatel is the PC industry's leading supplier of those kind of chips.

But nearly all of the AC '97 chips currently being incorporated into PC motherboards are "aging" 16-bit technology that provides sampling rates up to only 48kHz, says Hansford, and consumer demand for higher-quality audio will continue to mount. And even conservative manufacturers may change their tune when they hear how cheaply SigmaTel will be selling its new chips, says Hansford. And if that doesn't convince them, he thinks their ears will. "The quality is so far beyond where ISA audio used to be that you can't believe the difference."

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