2012 was a good year for microelectromechanical system (MEMS) microphones designed for mobile devices, according to the IHS iSuppli MEMS & Sensors Special Report. Four major applications—cell phones, laptops, headsets, and media tablets—helped the market grow with brisk shipments and revenue growth.

MEMS microphone shipments totaled 2.05 billion units in 2012, up 57% from 2011’s 1.3 billion total. IHS expects at least three more years of double-digit rate increases, with 4.65 billion MEMS microphones shipping by 2016. Also, revenue climbed 42% to $582 million in 2012, with $1.0 billion expected by 2016.

Penetration rose to 69% in cell phones last year, up from 52% in 2011 and 38% in 2010. Smart phones now are adopting multiple MEMS microphones for noise suppression, where ambient sounds must be cancelled so voice commands could be carried out effectively, such as Apple’s Siri function on its iPhones. While mid-range and high-end smart phones mostly used two microphones in 2010 and 2011, three microphones are quickly becoming the standard since Apple introduced a third device on the back of the iPhone 5 for HD video recording.

Media tablets will be the second most common application for MEMS microphones by 2016. The first generation of tablets such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab used electret condenser microphones (ECMs), but MEMS microphones started appearing with the second generation. Noise suppression and voice commands will drive the total device count in future tablets, resulting in as many as four microphones per tablet in the future.

Price and performance considerations drive the MEMS microphone market. ECMs are less expensive than MEMS microphones, but MEMS microphones offer advantages in reliability, performance, and ease of manufacturing. Also, the price gap between the two technologies has been closing. Sound quality and acoustics are becoming important differentiators in mobile devices as well.

Manufacturers like Nokia and Apple are now willing to pay a price premium for the better performance that MEMS microphones provide. Apple used ECMs for its first iPad and until the iPhone 3GS. Since then iPad 2 and iPhone 4, though, it has only used MEMS microphones. Apple and Samsung consumed the most MEMS microphones last year, accounting for 54% of the market.

Knowles Electronics was the top MEMS microphone supplier, though its share slipped from 74% of shipments in 2011 to 58% in 2012 due to increased competition. The company is a second supplier of MEMS microphones for the iPhone and a first supplier for the iPad mini. AAC, Goertek, and Analog Devices followed Knowles, though Analog Devices is the sole supplier for the iPhone 5’s third microphone. These four companies represented nearly 90% of all MEMS microphone shipments in 2012.