Review: Griffin AirCurve iPhone Sound Amplifier
Over the past month, Griffin has released two very different docks: Simplifi, the hybrid memory card reader, USB hub, and iPod/iPhone synchronization dock, and AirCurve ($20), a decidedly low-tech product with a single purpose: it amplifies the sound from an iPhone or iPhone 3G's bottom-mounted speaker. As a cheaper alternative to adding an additional dedicated speaker to these devices, AirCurve does what it's supposed to do, but you shouldn't expect either high fidelity sound or -- critically -- speakerphone functionality while the iPhone is docked.
Unlike most of the opaque electronic docks we’ve tested, AirCurve is completely up front about what it is and is not: there is nothing electronic inside, and the box is made from two transparent plastic halves that are held together with metal screws. Once you insert one of the two included iPhone-sized rubber dock adapters—they fit only iPhone or iPhone 3G, no other device—you can see that AirCurve is doing nothing more than channeling the speaker’s sound from a small hole to a big one like a horn or a cave. Griffin has designed the dock with one other hole, a pass-through port in the center, which allows you to self-supply a USB cable and feed it through the bottom of the unit if you want to charge or sync your iPhone while it’s being used.
Note that all of this is the opposite of the typical iPhone audio accessory approach—electronic, expensive, and flashy. Instead, Griffin approached AirCurve as a cost-cutting exercise, a fact which we’ve viewed with a mix of interest and skepticism: was it really a smart idea to leave out the dock cable? Do people really want an ultra-budget passive amplification option rather than a $20-$30 speaker? And if they did, would they want something so big—roughly 3.5” deep by 4.75” wide by 1.8” tall, or roughly three times the iPhone’s thickness and larger in the other dimensions as well—that’s non-pocketable, unlike most of the low-end speakers we’ve tested?
You’ll have to make up your own mind on these subjects, but here are our opinions. First, it’s hard to argue with the dock’s delivery on its promise: we tested AirCurve against $20 and $30 pocket speaker options, including Macally’s IP-A111, and found that Griffin’s solution produced dramatically louder volume without requiring batteries or any electronic parts. Notably, the IP-A111 was barely louder than the iPhone 3G’s integrated speaker, so adding these devices together does little good, and while the original iPhone’s speaker is quieter than the IP-A111, the device’s recessed headphone port and interference also create compatibility issues. By comparison, AirCurve provides a cheap, legitimate, and physically compatible solution for iPhone amplification.
That said, we weren’t blown away by the sound quality. The amount and fidelity of sound that AirCurve puts out varies based on the volume and clarity of whatever’s docked inside; the newer 3G, turned up to maximum volume, is decidedly louder than the prior iPhone at its top volume level, but neither device is fantastically clear at its peak. Griffin claims up to 10 decibels of amplification, a number we wouldn’t dispute, but what it’s amplifying is a speaker that’s just good enough for speakerphone and casual listening—nothing more.
The single biggest issue we had with AirCurve was what it doesn’t do: it blocks the iPhone’s microphone, so you can’t use it as a passive speakerphone—it’s merely to make the speaker louder. Our editors’ uses of the iPhone on our desktops range from person to person, but as docks are concerned, we strongly prefer ones that let the bottom microphone work, and AirCurve doesn’t. You’ll need to pull the iPhone out of the dock and rest it on its back to make use of the microphone again. Apple was wise to avoid this issue in its own iPhone Docks.
Then there’s the cable issue. While we appreciate Griffin’s price-conscious rationale for leaving out a Dock Connector, the combination of the do-it-yourself cabling and rubber dock insert both make AirCurve seem cheap. Trying to stuff the cable in yourself and then having to manually connect it whenever you dock the iPhone reinforces this feeling every time you use the accessory. This is despite its otherwise solid construction and fine appearance.
Overall, AirCurve is a good but not stunning iPhone accessory. If you’re looking for amplification of the iPhone’s acceptable bottom speaker to a noticeably louder level—albeit to a point at which you’ll notice how low-fidelity the sound really is—it provides that functionality at a price point that’s hard to find objectionable. That said, if you’re looking for a desktop speakerphone option, a real charging and sync dock, or really good sound quality, you’ll want to look elsewhere.