This might sound obvious, but everyone hears things a bit differently. You might enjoy hearing a band on full blast at a concert, where the guy sitting next to you finds it unbearably loud. Some pitches might drive you insane, while others barely notice the frequency. And while you may think your iPhone’s speaker is adequate, others might hear a warbled, tinny mess when they try to listen to their favorite song.
Enter SoundFocus, a San Francisco-based startup that’s out to provide a personalized listening experience for the iPhone. Its latest product, the Amp, is an iPhone case that doubles as an external speaker, and when paired with its corresponding app, can tailor audio playback to your tastes and needs.
SoundFocus cofounders Alex Selig and Varun Srinivasan are both passionate about sound quality, but for different reasons: Selig experienced hearing loss while growing up, and Srinivasan was a DJ. The two collaborated to create a product that fits both needs—Amp can be customized to each user, while still delivering high-end sound quality.
“Phones are already moving toward media consumption, so Amp just rounds out the experience,” said Selig, who is SoundFocus’s CEO as well as cofounder. “The best sound system you have is now in your pocket.”
Amped up and ready to go
I got a quick demo of an early version of Amp, and there’s a lot to applaud. The case has two parts that slide around either end of the iPhone and snap together, and the bottom portion connects to your iPhone’s Lightning port. You charge the Amp with a Micro-USB cable, which also charges your iPhone when the case is connected. The case even extends your iPhone’s battery life by 25 percent.
When getting started, Amp’s app walked me through the setup, asking me to listen for tones and press a button on the iPhone’s screen when I could hear certain things—kind of like a hearing test you’d get at the doctor’s office. The app then asked me to pick my listening preferences, selecting audio styles that improve clarity, add bass, and add other levels of depth to the listening experience. Amp also takes background noise into consideration and uses dynamic noise reduction technology to deliver consistent sound no matter what’s going on around you.
The app is impressive, and the sound quality of the speaker itself is stellar. With each preference tweak, you’ll hear a noticeable difference in playback. When compared to the iPhone’s speaker, Amp provides a better, richer listening experience. It has a headphone jack, too, which delivers the same improved quality. You don’t even have to be a big music buff to appreciate what the Amp can do. I wasn’t able to do any in-depth testing—just some back-and-forth comparisons between the Amp and the iPhone without the case—but even to the untrained ear, it sounds great.
We also tried a conference call, using the Amp as both our speaker and our microphone. I thought the call sounded better than a typical iPhone call on speakerphone, but not quite at the level as the Polycom Speakerphone system we use for conference calls at the Macworld office.
One big concern I have with the Amp is just that—it is big. The version I tried out was for the iPhone 5s, and the case adds considerable length—about a half of an inch—to each end of the iPhone. It wasn’t heavy, about on par with a typical battery case. But it’s much longer, which could make holding the iPhone and using its touchscreen more difficult. And I had those concerns about the iPhone 5s model—we have yet to see the bulk Amp could add to an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus.
Even though the prerelease version of the Amp sounds killer, I can’t imagine using this as a primary case. It’s more of a “use as needed” type of case, like if you know you’re going to be listening to music or if you need an extra battery boost. I’m looking forward to checking out the final version on my iPhone 6 Plus when it ships next year.
The Amp is available now for preorder for a special rate of $69, with versions for the iPhone 5/5s, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus. It ships in spring 2015, and the full price is set at $129.