How to Turn a Few Phones Into a Legit Sound System
About a year ago, Martin-Luc Archambault was at a friend’s new apartment, celebrating her move. He wanted to listen to music, but realized the A/V situation wasn’t up to the challenge. “I brought a bottle of champagne and we wanted to listen to some music, but she didn’t have her speakers unpacked,” Archambault explains. “So I just put my phone in the middle of the table, and it sounded pretty bad.”
We’ve all been there: maybe it’s on a back porch or a campsite or at the lake, when you realize no one remembered to bring a Bluetooth speaker. Back in the day, you’d simply pull your car up, open all the doors, and crank some jams on the car stereo. Or maybe Trent brought his acoustic guitar and can play some Mr. Big covers. These days, you just defer to your phone’s weak speaker.
Archambault decided to do something about that—not by going out and buying a Bluetooth speaker, but by tapping into the full potential of the thing almost everyone has with them at all times. “We all have speakers in our pockets,” Archambault says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all sync our phones perfectly to create a giant speaker?”
With a free app called AmpMe, available today for iOS and Android, CEO Archambault wants to let people do just that. After downloading the app and launching it, you choose between hosting and joining a party. If you’re a host, a four-digit Party Code pops up on the screen, which you can then share with other people around you. That lets you beam your music to their phones—provided they also have the app installed—perfectly in sync with the music coming out of the host device.
It’s not really surround sound, as there’s no channel separation from device to device. Instead, Archambault likens it to “3D sound,” with the same stereo output pumping out of every phone or tablet.
And it gets really loud. Don’t expect bass performance on par with even a mediocre Bluetooth speaker, but there’s plenty of volume. With several phones synced up, the audio is louder and the soundstage is much wider than any Bluetooth speaker out there. During a demo with several devices—different iPhones, an iPad, and a few different brands of Android phones—the only problems occurred when any of the devices had iffy connectivity. Your mileage may vary depending on your carrier and the strength of your Wi-Fi connection.
The first iteration of the app is very limited—it only works with SoundCloud, and it only works with devices running iOS or Android—but Archambault says you can expect two or three more supported services to be added in the next six months. He also plans to add support for syncing local files, as they can run those files through their own server for syncing.
The way AmpMe syncs songs from device to device is unique. Each device must be connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi or cellular service for the app to work, but the syncing between devices isn’t handled by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Instead, the host device transmits an audio “fingerprint,” a high-frequency noise pattern that sounds like the boot-up noise of a sci-fi robot. The SoundCloud song is loaded and send to the various devices, and at the same time this fingerprint technology makes sure the stream lines up so you don’t have any sort of echo effect.
“We initially thought we’d use Bluetooth to connect phones together,” Archambault explains. “We explored it, we tried it, and it worked. But the problem with Bluetooth is that you can only connect three or four devices together, and they can only be either Android or iPhones. It doesn’t work between platforms. So we discarded that and thought we’d connect them in a private Wi-Fi network. But creating a Wi-Fi network is hard, and if you have a lot of devices it slows it down.”
The high-frequency fingerprint method has other benefits, too. While devices have to be in close proximity to sync—within “earshot” of one another, as they use their built-in microphones to do the syncing—you can move them wherever you like after they’re synced up. They’re not receiving audio from the host device, they’re just streaming a synced-up feed from SoundCloud. There’s also no limit in terms of the number of devices that can be synced, just as long as they’re close enough to make the initial pairing.
AmpMe is free, and ad-free. Once more music services are added to the mix, it will be a no-brainer download for partying in a pinch—especially given that mobile hardware is headed in the right direction.
“I think speakers are going to get exponentially better on phones, just like cameras did,” Archambault says. “You won’t need Bluetooth speakers in five years. You’re already seeing it with current devices, like the Amazon Fire HDX Tablet has really good speakers and the iPad Pro has four speakers. So the trend is going our way and I think it’s good for us. I think we’re right on time for this.”