Shipments of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) microphones in 2012 amounted to 2.05 billion units, up 57% from 1.30 billion in 2011, according to IHS iSuppli. Shipments will climb by another 30% to 2.66 billion units in 2013, to be followed by at least three more years of notable double-digit-rate increases. By 2016, approximately 4.65 billion MEMS microphones will be shipping, IHS predicted.
Revenues also made big gains in 2012, up 42% to $582 million, on the way to a projected $1.0 billion by 2016, IHS indicated.
"Microphones continue to be one of the biggest success stories in MEMS, with the rapid growth of the device due to its increasing penetration in the four areas of cellphones, laptops, headsets and media tablets," said Jeremie Bouchaud, director and senior principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. "MEMS microphones also can be found to a lesser extent in applications such as gaming, cameras, televisions and hearing aids, contributing to their broadening use overall, with further utilization coming to set-top boxes this year and to automotive during the next three years."
For handsets - by far the top application - penetration of MEMS microphones rose to 69% in 2012, up from 52% in 2011 and 38% in 2010, IHS said. In particular, multiple microphones are now being adopted in smartphones for noise suppression, in which the cancellation of ambient sounds is crucial for handsets when carrying out voice commands, like what Siri does in the Apple iPhones. The total number of microphones per handset is also on the rise: While midrange to high-end smartphones mostly used two microphones in 2010 and 2011, three microphones are fast becoming standard ever since Apple introduced a third device on the back of the iPhone 5 for high-definition video recording.
MEMS microphones are likewise making major headway into tablets, expected to become the second-ranked application by 2016, IHS noted. Even though the first tablets on the market, such as the initial iPad from Apple and the Galaxy Tab from Samsung Electronics, used electret condenser microphones (ECM), MEMS microphones had started to appear by the second generation of tablets. New use cases for noise suppression and voice commands are expected to add to the total device count moving forward, resulting in as many as four microphones in some tablets in the future.
MEMS microphones were also present in more than half of notebooks in 2012, as well as in headsets for the iPhone 4 and 4S, IHS added.
The MEMS microphone market is driven by both price and performance considerations, IHS pointed out. While MEMS microphones remain much more expensive than ECMs - over which MEMS microphones enjoy advantages in reliability, performance and ease of manufacturing - the price gap between the two has been narrowing. Moreover, sound quality and acoustics are becoming important differentiators in mobile devices, with manufacturers like Nokia and Apple willing to pay a significant price premium to obtain better performance and recently migrating to MEMS.
Apple, for instance, used ECMs exclusively for its first iPad and until the iPhone 3GS. Since the iPad 2 and iPhone 4, however, the California-based maker has switched to solely using MEMS microphones, IHS observed.
Both Apple and Samsung were the top consumers of MEMS microphones in 2012, accounting for a combined 54% of all shipped MEMS microphones, well ahead of other significant users like LG Electronics and Motorola, according to IHS.
The top supplier of MEMS microphones was US-based Knowles Electronics, which continued to dominate even though its share of shipments in 2012 slipped to 58%, down from 74% in 2011, on the face of increased competition, said IHS. Knowles is a second supplier of MEMS microphones for the iPhone, and is a first supplier for the iPad mini.
Other important MEMS microphone suppliers were AAC and Goertek, both from China and ranked second and third, respectively, IHS said. In fourth place was Analog Devices from Massachusetts, the sole supplier in the iPhone 5 of the third microphone - a high-performance, high-revenue-generating part.
Together the four top makers represented nearly 90% of MEMS microphone shipments in 2012, with the remaining portion of the market split among seven other suppliers, including Italian-French supplier STMicroelectronics in fifth place, IHS said.
Chinese makers figure prominently in the industry - as do Chinese smartphones and handset manufacturers acting as consumers, emerging as a major driving force after utilizing some 200 million MEMS microphone units in 2012, IHS noted.