Review: TJM Innovations Bandshell for iPhone 3G/3GS
Proper execution is the difference between a good idea and a great product, and TJM Innovations' Bandshell ($20) is a good idea, decently executed. Companies with electronic engineering talent and big development budgets find ways to augment the iPhone 3G's and 3GS's speaker and microphone capabilities using Bluetooth; everyone else uses passive amplification of the speaker that's already on its bottom. That's what Bandshell does: it's a hard plastic case with a panel on the bottom that opens to serve as a passive waveguide amplifier for the speaker. Twelve different colors are available.
Creating smooth, relatively low profile cases for iPhones has become fairly easy over the last couple of years, with some developers engineering shells that are less than a millimeter thick despite anti-scratch coatings and interesting plastic moldings. Bandshell takes the opposite approach, very substantially bulking up the iPhone 3G/3GS using a surprisingly strong-feeling hard plastic that snaps together to ruggedize the iPhone inside. Not only does the svelte iPhone become a brick in the process, but its soft edges become rough thanks to both seams and a flat right side designed to let the iPhone stand up on its own edge for widescreen video viewing. Because of all this, the case doesn’t feel great in the hand, but it does feel solid, and the flat right does feel grippy.
The thick shell has some predictable positives and negatives. As promised by TJM, Bandshell’s bottom panel retracts and expands in a manner that redirects the down-firing iPhone speaker towards you, rather than the ground, and the result is perceived amplification—you hear from the front of the iPhone what you’d normally hear if you turned its bottom towards your face, instead. TJM describes the effect as improving “sound quality,” but it doesn’t, really; it’s just a louder version of the so-so sound that comes off the iPhone 3G or 3GS speaker. Those who might be expecting a profound change—or a major improvement over what you hear through the iPhones’ included headphones—may be disappointed.
Microphone performance is essentially unaffected by the use of Bandshell. Callers did not report any improvement or diminution of the sound of our voice, but did note a slight initial muffling sound when we transitioned from having the iPhone out of the case to having it inside. Thankfully, this quickly resolved, and appeared to be just the iPhone’s noise cancellation feature making an adjustment.
Bandshell’s negatives are fairly noteworthy, though. Put aside the lack of any screen protection, and the fact that the upright viewing angle of the horizontally-mounted iPhone is fairly steep; cases with fold-out rear stands tend to recline better. Our issues were with the case’s substantial bottom thickness, which renders the iPhone incompatible with virtually any Dock Connector-based accessory out there, except for cables as thin as Apple’s, so you’ll be out of luck if you’re planning on using this case with most in-car or in-home accessories. Holes have been cut out for the camera, as well as the side and top buttons—no problem with any of them, except how large they are—and the headphone port also has a tapered hole that nonetheless has issues with oversized plugs. Apple’s super-thin plugs and ones from most third-party developers who have made iPhone-specific cables will have no problems, but larger connectors, particularly L-shaped ones, are quite likely not to connect at all.
These issues are counterbalanced by Bandshell’s price. At $20, this is a relatively inexpensive iPhone 3G/3GS case, and a sturdy enough one, even if it lacks for the polish and frills that are included with most competing options these days. Some people—particularly those who aren’t dock, wired speaker, or in-car iPhone users—will have no issue just plugging Apple’s own headphones and sync cables into it, and the benefit of increased volume is modest but certainly there. Ultimately, what will make a future case like Bandshell really work for more users is a design that’s thinner and more accessory-compatible, with the same slide-out waveguide feature; we wouldn’t be surprised if TJM or someone else released such a thing for the next iteration of the iPhone.