Knowles chip adds voice-activated Alexa to wireless headphones

July 10, 2019 //By James Morra
wireless headphones
Knowles, the largest player in the $1 billion global market for MEMS microphones, sells chips used in smartphones such as Apple's iPhone and smart speakers including Amazon's Echo.

But as people grow accustomed to talking to Google's Assistant, Amazon's Alexa and other voice interfaces, Knowles is trying to add voice-activated assistants to a broader range of battery-powered devices.

"Customers are asking, 'If I don't have to run some workload in the cloud, where should I put it instead?' We say you should push it out to the device. But the current architecture in terms of cost and space is inadequate," Michael Adell, Knowles's vice president of intelligent audio for mobile, told Electronic Design. "We want to be more valuable in processing audio after it touches the microphone."

Knowles is building advanced audio processing into the microphones themselves to do so. The company introduced a chip last month that lets wireless headphones respond to Alexa by saying the voice assistant's wake word instead of pressing a physical button. The chip, the IA611, combines a microphone and a digital signal processor (DSP) core in a compact single package, reducing size and cost.

Knowles also released a reference design that lowers the bar for adding voice-activated Alexa to wireless earbuds. The solution, based on Knowles's IA611 smart microphone and Bestechnic's BES2000 Bluetooth SoC, will "help developers save time and money building new devices for Alexa," said Priya Abani, Amazon’s general manager of Alexa Voice Services, in a statement last month. Chinese electronics maker Anker said it would use the solution in voice-activated versions of its wireless headphones.

Knowles is trying to address the challenges of adding Alexa to wireless earbuds and other devices with severely limited battery life. The chip, which Knowles calls a SmartMic, is designed to detect someone saying "Alexa" while blocking out loud background noise and nullifying echoes. The microphone lets the device's other audio processors stay asleep while it carefully listens for the wake word.

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