Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/09/passive_amplification/

Griffin cross-pollinates iPhone, Victrola

No-name Jesus Phone ampers clamor for attention

By Rik Myslewski

Posted in Media, 9th January 2009 18:06 GMT

Macworld Expo Three products shown at this week's Macworld Expo - two from no-name vendors using the big stage of Macworld Expo to test their luck - attempt to provide iPhone amplification through acoustical, rather than electronic, means. Each is interesting. None is completely successful.

All three are members of that class of off-the-wall oddities that make attendance at the annual Expo mandatory for true believers in search of products that don't have tons of marketing cash supporting them. Every Mac addict may know about iLife '09, but how many have heard of SoundClip? Ampli-Phone? AirCurve? None who didn't attend the Expo.

Finding out about products such as these is what Macworld Expo is all about. It's the annual opportunity for the Mac faithful to learn about the Little Guy's offerings, and for the Little Guy to break into the big time.

But only if their products are good enough. These three are disappointing.

Each of these ostensible iPhone amplifiers attempts to work its something-for-nothing magic by exploiting the acoustic-wave phenomenon that has been used to passively enhance amplification since the earliest days of sound recording and playback.

Boiled down to its basics, acoustic wave amplification works by tuning the size of a horn or wave guide in such a way as to allow the sound waves emanating from the small end of the chamber to be reinforced as they travel down the tube and out the wide end. Picture those giant Alpine horns in a Ricola commercial, and you'll get the idea.

Macworld Expo 2009 - Ten One Design SoundClip

It's tiny. It's unobtrusive. It's barely effective.

The least successful of the three, the SoundClip from Ten One Design, also had the distinction of being the smallest product we discovered during our peregrinations about the two convention halls that housed Macworld Expo 2009.

The SoundClip is a 3.5cm by 0.7cm piece of black plastic that clips into the 30-pin connector slot on the bottom of your iPhone. A small micro-ladle at the end of the clip cups the iPhone's tiny speaker grill, where - according to Ten One Design - it "directs sound from iPhone toward you to increase the volume and clarity for movies and speakerphone." The tiny cup - which Ten One Design refers to as the "resonance chamber" - has been "tuned" to achieve a "frequency response that is flatter, and more natural sounding."

Or so they say.

In actuality, although the amplification is perceptible, it's minimal. Also noticeable is the promised - and welcome - flattening of the iPhone's frequency curve. Again, however, that effect is minimal.

Then there's the SoundClip's price: $7.95 for a weensy shard of shiny plastic. Peter Skinner of Ten One Design justifies that pricing by saying that "It's a relatively inexpensive accessory for what it does," and that "The benefits of it more than offset the cost."

If only those benefits were more audible.

Macworld Expo 2009 - Gryphon Ampli-Phone

1920s technology vaulted into the 21st century - vertically or horizontally

The second passive iPhone amplifier, the aptly-named Ampli-Phone, is from the Gryphon Corporation, a manufacturer of glass-cutting tools. Robert Baumbach, Gryphon's President, says that the Ampli-Phone was a labor of love based on his passion for collecting antique Victrolas.

21st Century Victrola

Baumbach described the $30 Ampli-phone as "based on a Western Electric design from the 20s used in the early Vitaphone movies" that uses a folded-horn method of acoustic-wave amplification.

Although it was difficult to fully appreciate the acoustical properties of the Ampli-Phone amidst the din of the Expo floor, it was clear that bass response was clearly improved, although the overall sound was somewhat shattered and weak at the high end.

At 21cm by 14cm by 16.8cm, the Ampli-phone is a somewhat formidable desktop companion. To its bulky credit, however, it functions equally well when tipped on its side to amplify the sound of movies playing on your iPhone when it's nestled in the Ampli-phone's dock.

Macworld Expo 2009 - Griffin AirCurve

Good sound, but no movies

The third passive amplifier is the only one from a major vendor: Griffin Technology. Their wave-guide-based amplifier, the $19.95 AirCurve, is a less-imposing presence than the Ampli-Phonem - its see-through body is a compact 12cm by 9cm by 3.5cm.

Griffin's Category Manager for Connectivity and Power Products (whew...), Rick Kennedy, explained that the AirCurve is constructed of acrylic polycarbonate and that its design was a pet project of company founder Paul Griffin. According to Kennedy, "It took us about a year of engineering time to figure out how the wave guide works."

In our testing of the AirCurve in a quiet office, the music amplification worked well - but don't expect audiophile quality. It's a freakin' iPhone, fer chrissakes.

Unfortunately, as a speakerphone enhancer the AirCurve is a washout. In all the calls we tried, the sound quality was poor on both ends of the connection, with stutters and drop-outs - problems, we hasten to add, that disappeared the instant we removed our iPhone from the AirCurve.

So none of these passive amps were stunning. So what? At least Macworld Expo attendees had a chance to give them a once-over, an opportunity that would - will? - be impossible if - when? - the Expo slides into history.

Remember, every once in a while a product from an underdog changes everything. There was once, for example, a software vendor that may not have been a certified Little Guy like Ten One Design or Gryphon, but was certainly no Adobe or Microsoft: Cassady & Green. One of their products, SoundJam, found its fans, established cred - then was bought by Apple and became iTunes.

You've heard of iTunes, right?

If - when? - Macworld Expo disappears due to Apple's abandonment, where will Mac addicts go to evaluate such oddities as SoundClip and Ampli-Phone - and SoundJam? Sure, established companies such as Griffin will still be able to punt their inventive oddities on their websites, but - as usual - it's the Little Guy who's going to suffer.

And when the Little Guy has no stage upon which to perform, the show can get deadly dull quite quickly. ®