For more than three decades ESS™ Technology has been on the cutting edge of audio technology. A privately held, fabless semiconductor company, ESS Technology designs and markets high-performance analog and audio devices for mobile, consumer, automotive, and professional audiophile systems. The company was founded in 1984 by Forest Mozer to produce synthetic speech for various devices including the first wave of speech enabled toys and iconic home computer systems, like the Commodore 64. Today ESS Technology is best known for its SABRE series of high- performance audio products.
Fred Chan and the PC Revolution
Fred Chan joined Forest Mozer in 1984 and in early 1985 assumed leadership of the company and was appointed chairman of the board. Chan was highly regarded for his technical skills and business acumen. He was the founder and former president and CEO of AC Design Inc., a VLSI chip design center, and cofounder, president, and CEO of CADCAM Technology Inc. By the end of the 1980s, the company had taken on the leadership position in speech synthesis and Chan saw the tremendous opportunity for growth in the burgeoning PC space.
In the early 1990s ESS became known as a technology pioneer for PCs when it introduced the first single-chip audio device under its AudioDrive product line. AudioDrive integrated all the elements for sound on the PC and eliminated the need for separate, expensive devices, such as add-in sound cards.
ESS Technology went public in October 1995 and began 1996 as a leader in audio solutions for the PC marketplace, with 35 percent market share. By the end of 1996, the company had shipped more than 90 million sound chips for PCs.
The Move into Consumer Electronics
In the mid-1990s, ESS further expanded its audio footprint and also began to move into the graphics space. The AudioDrive product line began offering products that included high-fidelity performance and 3D audio effects, an audio accelerator and an AC’97-compatible codec solution.
On the video front, the company released an advanced single-chip MPEG-2A/V and transport decoder for set-top box, Video CD (VCD) and DVD applications.
Entrance into the video market was accelerated by the acquisition of VideoCore Technology Inc.; a company that had mastered advanced digital video compression. The new ESS product line, called VideoDrive, was built around a proprietary core engine, and a programmable multimedia processor, which consisted of a DSP architecture integrated with a RISC processor. Videocore offered the high performance needed to decompress and display video images.
By now, the company had the necessary technology portfolio to gain entry into the high-volume consumer electronics space. By integrating both the front-end and back-end functions onto a single chip, ESS lowered overall system cost for DVD and VCD systems – without compromising video or audio performance. Core competencies in both video and audio enabled ESS to gain the number one position as a provider of SoCs to the video compact disc market, which would quickly become the DVD market.
The Start of the AUDIO Revolution
In the 2000s ESS, felt the effects of the recession and the increased pressures of commoditization, competition and a shifting ecosystem resulting from the emergence of streaming content services. These market forces caused the company to retrench and divest its DVD lines.
Laser focus was placed on improving the audio technology portfolio. A key acquisition was made in 2001 when ESS acquired a small Canadian company, SAS, for R&D operations in Kelowna, BC. The new ESS, enhanced by the synergy of the acquisition, made a vital breakthrough – they created a new 24/32-Bit 8 Channel SABRE DAC that is highly regarded by true audiophiles as the best in the Industry.
In 2007 CEO Robert Blair felt that analog technical leadership was the key to the company’s long-term success. After returning to profitability that year a deal was negotiated for Imperium Partners Group LLC to acquire ESS Technology and take the company private.
By the end of 2008, the renewed focus on analog and audio enabled the company to introduce two of its most successful product lines:
SABRE (2008) –DAC and ADC products that initially captured the professional audiophile market, and have now moved into smartphones, automobiles and recording studios.
Crescendo (2010) – Sound bar products leveraged the company’s experience with DVD OEMs who were offering mass-market, home-theatre consumer products.
In 2013 the company launched its first SABRE DAC product targeted specifically at the mobile market. These products feature the necessary low-power consumption and high-end audio requirments for audiophile grade devices.
In 2015 ESS is expanding its footprint in the mobile space with more design wins with companies like LG, Vivo and Xiaomi. High-end audiophile customers remain of paramount importance, while new adjacent markets like automotive and mainstream consumer electronics are being captured. Audio awareness is increasing as end-users realize the need for better solutions that provide better sound.
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