Chances are you haven't yet heard of Carbon Audio, but the small Portland, Oregon-based firm is hoping to change that with its Kickstarter-funded Zooka wireless speaker bar. The device, released in August 2012, is great for casual, portable listening and, thanks to its clever design, is a serious contender amidst the sea of Bluetooth speakers promising to boost the audio of your smartphone, tablet, or computer. That it has the Apple seal of approval doesn’t hurt, either. Admittedly, its average sound quality doesn't quite warrant the £80 pricetag, but the Zooka has enough going for it that Carbon Audio could soon, in fact, become a household name.
Design and Features
The Zooka is a traditionally shaped speaker bar, measuring just over 25cm long. But what it lacks in groundbreaking form factor, it more than makes up for with clever, well-executed design nuances. The speaker has a silicone rubber exterior - available in nine attractive colours, including rich shades of purple, orange, and blue, as well as black and grey for those looking for a more traditional aesthetic - that makes it comfortable to grip. The rubberised exterior also makes it feel more durable than other speakers. And given that it lacks a handle, the easy grip texture is especially appreciated, as is the reassurance that it won’t scratch your device when latched on.
Despite its good looks, Zooka has a rugged feel that gives me no qualms about taking it to an outdoor event, like a picnic or to the beach. At 980g, it's not particularly lightweight, but has svelte measurements of 254 x 86 x 51mm.
In addition to being compact, a carefully thought-out design makes Zooka impressively versatile: not only is it a portable speaker, you can slide your iPad into it to be used as a stand or latch it on top of your notebook for a comfortable perch - all with a perfectly placed cut-out designed to prevent it from covering up your iSight camera or iPad home button. It also comes with a removable metal stand for a better iPad viewing angle. The speaker fits comfortably onto my second-generation iPad and over the display of my 13in MacBook Pro. (I tested its Bluetooth prowess with an iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, as well.)
One of the best things about the Zooka is its attractive, minimalist design, which features just a few, essential buttons - a power button, a Bluetooth pairing button, pause and play, as well as volume controls. There's also a micro-USB port, a 3.5mm audio jack and a simple LED light that lets you know when it is active or in need of charging. Every feature is completely functional and, as such, doesn't detract from the Zooka's sleek lines.
At each end of the bar is a speaker with two 30mm drivers for stereo sound. Zooka uses Bluetooth 2.0 to connect with other devices, so it will work with most smartphones, tablets, and computers, though, of course, it is designed for maximum functionality with Apple products.
Despite its good looks, the Zooka does have some shortcomings. If you’re blessed with particularly keen ears, it might not be the speaker for you. Though it’s not the worst I’ve heard, it delivers unbalanced sound and was evidently not designed with audiophiles in mind. That’s unsurprising given its modest technical specs, but disappointing given its £80 pricetag (though it's currently available for £73.58 via Amazon).
On songs with heavy bass, such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, the Zooka conjures up a very noticeable distortion that eats up any sharpness or clarity, especially at higher volume levels. The song takes on a muddy wobble that is unheard on better quality speakers or earphones. Other songs, like the Flaming Lips’ intentionally distorted, guitar-heavy “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 2”, sound relatively tinny and weak, with the speaker unable to reproduce the frequencies that lie at the song’s core. However, the Zooka does much better with tracks that are less bass-intensive, like Jessie Ware’s “Sweet Talk”, which sounded decent even at high volumes. Similarly, the speaker was loyal to Animal Collective’s “My Girls”, and maintained the clarity of both the vocals and the instrumentation.
Still, while the sound is far from perfect, it is bearable and could be appropriate for casual, outdoor settings where high-quality audio isn’t necessarily what you’re looking for and where the environment forgives imprecise sound.
In using it around the house, I discovered that the Zooka’s best use may be for enhancing your movie or TV show experience. Coupled with its ability to serve as a stand, it was the perfect amplifier for dialogue, even though it sometimes picks up too much on ambient noise. I watched a couple of hours' of TV shows on my iPad and was pleased with both the viewing angle and the volume provided by the Zooka - much ’louderer’, as Carbon Audio describes it, than the tablet’s puny sound.
Carbon Audio hasn’t done itself any favours by pricing the Zooka at £80 - it may be just a fraction of what you'd pay for a quality pair of speakers but it's a bit much for a Bluetooth speaker whose performance isn’t as thrilling as its design. Still, the Zooka does have some good qualities and, accordingly, I’d recommend the device perhaps for use in the likes of a dorm room or for a casual environment - if you are looking to power a serious party, however, you're better off looking at a dedicated speaker dock for your phone or MP3 player. Ultimately, the Zooka is an impressive product, especially for all of its versatility - but as is usually the case with portable Bluetooth speakers, the sound quality won't blow you away.