You shouldn’t realistically expect an under-$100 wireless speaker to sound magnificent, but it’s fair to hope for clean, undistorted audio (even at top volumes) and a well-designed product. Carbon Audio’s Zooka ($99.95 direct) is a victory of design—the Bluetooth speaker has a simple, colorful contour with some hidden tricks: It can act as a stand for iPads and iPhones (and other thin devices). There’s no connection for charging, but it’s still a graceful solution for watching video and listening to music wirelessly, especially on the go. The speakers are also positioned on the ends, sending sound outward and creating a wider stereo field. So it’s a bummer to see a company get one element, the design, so right and then not deliver on the audio front. The Zooka offers thin audio performance, and at top volumes on a variety of tracks, it distorts quite a bit. At moderate volumes, it delivers a decent, clean sound, but there are other speakers in this price range that offer a more rewarding audio experience.
Available in nine bright colors, the Zooka is a simple, good-looking speaker with a rubberized surface. It has a long, almost cylindrical shape, though the contour is closer to that of a teardrop. A recess at that runs along the top panel (or the bottom panel, depending on how you’re using it) creates a clasping tension that is strong enough to hold an iPad in vertical viewing mode, but light enough not to crack the screen. (It can also hold phones and attach to laptop screens.)
A cut-out area in the center of the recess allows for access to the Home button on iOS devices that are sitting in the Zooka, and a metal rod, stored in a hollowed-out compartment on the left panel, can be screwed into the back to act as a kickstand so your devices remain stable and upright.
Controls for Volume and Power, as well as a Bluetooth Pairing button, are oddly located on the bottom rounded panel that points downward when a tablet or phone is sitting in the Zooka and the kickstand is employed. It’s clearly an aesthetic decision, and I’ll admit the otherwise blank canvas of the Zooka makes for a cool, minimalist look—but you’ll be picking the Zooka up when you need to access its controls. Also on the bottom panel: a 3.5mm aux input jack and a micro-USB connection for the included charging cable.
Despite the cut-out area for the iOS home button, any Bluetooth device should work just fine with the Zooka, and there’s no real need to use it as a stand, either—it’s just an added convenience.
Similarly convenient is the ability to use it as a speakerphone for any paired mobile device—the microphone is located along the bottom panel as well, and the Bluetooth button answers calls.
The speakers themselves are positioned on the left and right panels. Small speakers like this can rarely muster much bass. Regardless, the distortion is a disappointment—simply delivering a clean, thin sound would have been fine, considering the wonderful design.
On tracks without deep bass, the Zooka can get fairly loud for its size without distorting, but it still sounds thin. There’s a decent focus on the mids that keeps it from sounding truly brittle, and the highs are crisp and articulate, but there is basically no low frequency presence. As you’d expect, based on the Zooka’s size, the Knife’s “Silent Shout” never sounds like it has the menacing deep low end that it has on a larger set of speakers, but at top volumes, despite the lack of bass delivery, the track distorts wildly.
The Zooka faces challenges from more than just deep bass. If you play Bill Callahan’s “Drover” at top volumes, his baritone vocals will distort. At closer to 75 percent, his voice has a decent richness to it, plenty of treble edge, and the distortion disappears. But if a human voice on a relatively tame track is going to cause distortion, you can expect just about any genre with dense mixes, like hip hop, rock, much of today’s pop, and electronic music, to suffer similar fates.
Basically, the Zooka needs to be used at moderate volumes—this is a well-designed, visually appealing product first, and an audio device second. Not bad for picnics and office background music, but the Zooka will not be powering your next party, or even be loud enough for a large workspace if it’s on the other side of the room.
If your budget is around the $100 limit, there are still some options that will deliver better audio performance. Its design may be fairly boring and functional compared with the Zooka, but the rugged, same-price Panasonic SC-NT10 can get quite loud for its portable size and deliver clean audio with a bit more bass response than the Zooka can. And Logitech’s nondescript-looking $100 UE Mobile Boombox also sounds a lot better than the Zooka. If you can afford to spend twice as much, consider our Editors’ Choice, the Bose SoundLink Mini—it delivers a markedly fuller sound. And there are plenty of much less expensive options, but the cheapest we recommend, with the caveat that you shouldn’t expect much in the audio quality department, is the $35 808 Audio Canz Wireless Speaker.
With such a good-looking contour and a clever design to hold mobile devices in place or snap on to laptops, it’s a shame the Zooka doesn’t sound better. If you’re in love with its looks, or you never plan to listen to your music at high volumes, you could still do worse in the audio realm, but if clean, full sound is your first priority, you need to look elsewhere. Here’s hoping Carbon Audio can find better drivers to put into a similar design next time around.
|Type||iPod, Computer, Wireless, Portable, iPad, iPhone, Android|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc