Skip to main content

Your next earbuds could have speakers built like microchips

Traditionally, drivers — the tiny speakers that live inside our wired and wireless earbuds — are made from various materials like paper, copper, and magnets. Manufacturing them often involves human hands. And it’s not unusual for earbud makers to include multiple drivers in one earbud to achieve the full frequency response they’re looking for. Now though, xMEMS Labs has developed an entirely different type of driver that uses the same silicon material found in microchips and is created using the same fully automated manufacturing process.

The company has announced that in addition to its Montara — the world’s first MEMS micro speaker — it’s rolling out two new models: the Cowell, a MEMS drive that can be paired with a dynamic drive, and the Montara Plus, a high-performance device intended for audiophile-grade in-ear monitors (IEMs). All three models are as much as three times smaller than the smallest equivalent traditional driver, which could make them an excellent choice for hearing aids, as well as music-listening devices.

xMEMS Cowell silicon driver.
The xMEMS Cowell silicon audio driver. Depending on the application, sound can exit through the top or an opening at the end of the housing. xMEMS Labs

If the term “MEMS” sounds familiar, it’s because the acronym, which stands for micro-electromechanical systems, already describes a type of microphone that’s used in lots of electronics, from wireless earbuds to laptops. Microphones and speakers are essentially two sides of the same coin. One takes sounds from the environment and turns them into electrical signals, and the other takes electrical signals and turns them into sounds, so it was just a matter of time before someone figured out how to make MEMS-based speakers.

An xMEMS driver seen next to a Knowles balanced armature (BA) driver.
An xMEMS driver (left), seen next to a Knowles balanced armature (BA) driver. xMEMS

The two most common driver designs inside earbuds are dynamic drivers — these are the same circular, cone-shaped speakers you’re used to seeing on full-size stereo speakers, but scaled way down — and balanced armatures (BA). Both use lots of small parts to move the air that ultimately produces the sound we hear. MEMS drivers, by contrast, are very simple: a pair of superthin silicon membranes act as the “diaphragm” (they move the air), and these membranes are bonded to layers of piezoelectric material, which act as the “motor” (they force the silicon to move in response to an electrical signal).

A silicon wafer with hundreds of xMEMS Cowell drivers.
A silicon wafer with hundreds of xMEMS Cowell drivers. xMEMS Labs

And xMEMS says this gives its designs inherent benefits over traditional drivers. Some of these benefits are purely economic. Audio manufacturers are typically forced to test their drivers to ensure that each pair of earbuds or headphones get a set that is a close match, otherwise, the sound they produce will be compromised. Using a microchip fabrication process means hundreds of MEMS drivers can be produced simultaneously from a single wafer with a high degree of conformity, virtually guaranteeing that every driver will be well within the margin of error for matching performance.

Singularity Audio's Oni IEMs with xMEMS Cowell drivers.
Singularity Audio’s Oni in-ear monitorss with xMEMS Cowell drivers. Singularity Audio

Other benefits are more tangible. Their materials and design make these silicon speakers water and dustproof with an IP58 rating right out of the box — there’s no need to design a waterproof enclosure to protect them. With no moving parts, they’re also very rugged and can stand up to a lot of abuse in terms of shock.

There may also be some significant gains in audio quality, too. For instance, xMEMS says its speakers offer extremely fast transient response — this is a speaker’s ability to accurately shift from one frequency or sound to another. The claim is that the silicon membrane is up to 9,400% stiffer than conventional diaphragm materials and that the architecture of the driver produces a response time that is a staggering 14,900%  faster. According to the company, this difference will be especially noticeable in midrange and high-frequency accuracy.

xMEMS Montara Plus silicon driver.
The xMEMS Montara Plus silicon driver. xMEMS Labs

Finally, xMEMS also claims that these enhancements make its drivers better for both spatial audio and hi-res audio, two rapidly growing trends in the streaming audio space.

Does this sound too good to be true? MEMS drivers, at least for now, can’t quite replace dynamic or BA drivers in all instances. Active noise-canceling (ANC) earbuds are a case in point. ANC earbuds are typically vented, which means a certain amount of outside sound can get in, and that requires drivers that can produce relatively high volume levels in lower frequencies. Currently, that’s not a strength of MEMS, so when manufacturers want to use them in ANC earbuds, they need to be paired with a traditional dynamic driver to fill in that low end.

MEMS technology benefits from its small size, making it ideal for earbuds, but it’s possible to use it in larger speakers too. However, in these cases, the drivers will be limited to use as tweeters, at least for the foreseeable future.

If you want to hear xMEMS drivers in action, your best bet will be to find a demo at one of several audio shows that happen each year. However, if you want to be on the very leading edge, you can also preorder a set of Singularity Audio Oni IEMs — the first set of IEMs to use xMEMS’ Montara driver. The price of being first isn’t cheap: the Oni are $1,500 during their preorder period, after which they’ll sell for $1,800.

Editors' Recommendations

Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like spatial…
JBL’s $200 Live 3 earbuds get the Tour Pro 2’s touchscreen charging case
JBL Live Flex 3 in silver.

JBL's smart, touchscreen-equipped charging case is coming to the company's latest generation of Live wireless earbuds. JBL says that the $250 Tour Pro 2 -- the wireless earbuds that debuted the smart charging case in 2023 -- rapidly sold out after they went on sale, proof, perhaps, that there's an untapped need that the touchscreen case meets.

The Live 3 were announced at CES 2024 alongside JBL's new Bluetooth speakers, wireless headphones, and party speakers and will sell for $200 when they're released in summer 2024. Like previous JBL Live wireless earbuds, the Live 3 come in three versions, but JBL has changed the naming convention to match its Tune family of wireless earbuds. The new models are the Live Flex 3, the Live Beam 3, and the Live Buds 3. Each comes in a choice of two colors: black and silver.

Read more
JBL’s first open-ear earbuds have a detachable neckband
Woman wearing JBL SoundGear Sense.

Along with updated party speakers, Bluetooth speakers, and tons of wireless earbuds and headphones, JBL has something new to show CES 2024 attendees: its first set of open-ear earbuds. They're called the SoundGear Sense, and JBL expects they'll be available by March 2024 for $150, in both black and white colors.

As with all open-ear earbuds, the SoundGear Sense let you hear your music, calls, and podcasts while allowing you to maintain perfect awareness of your surroundings. Instead of sitting inside your ear and/or sealing your ear canals with silicone tips, the SoundGear Sense sit just outside your outer ear and use air conduction (as opposed to bone conduction) to let you hear audio.

Read more
Raycon launches $149 Everyday Pro wireless earbuds and headphones
Raycon Everyday Pro earbuds and headphones.

Ahead of CES 2024, Raycon, the audio brand that gets a lot of love from social media influencers, has created a new tier for its flagship Everyday lineup of wireless earbuds and headphones: the Everyday Pro.

Both the Everyday Earbuds Pro and the Everyday Headphones Pro are priced at $149 and come in three color choices: white, black, or blue. You'll be able to buy them at the end of January.

Read more