Review: Carbon Audio Zooka Bluetooth Speaker
Despite the fact that tubes are sonically challenging speaker shapes, developers love their potential for aesthetic elegance. A length of pipe can be cut to hold speakers and electronic components inside, resulting in a sleek look regardless of the tube's materials. Apple accessory makers have released horizontal tube speakers for years, while vertical tube speakers have recently started to increase in numbers. Vertical speakers tend to have issues with stereo separation, and horizontal ones commonly struggle with tinniness, but with proper engineering and pricing -- see JBL's Flip -- the results can be satisfying, sometimes even stunning.
Originally announced as a Kickstarter campaign, Zooka ($100) is the latest tube-shaped speaker, and it’s of the horizontal variety, a choice that enabled developer Carbon Audio to include a couple of nifty features not found in vertical rivals. First is the addition of an iPad stand, which Carbon created by extending the tube with two finger-like hard rubber pinchers that can grasp bare iPads and iPad minis—sadly, not encased ones—plus a screw-in metal peg that attaches to Zooka’s back and keeps the iPad upright. Second is the related ability of Zooka to serve as a speaker for Apple’s laptop computers; for this, the tube is turned upside down and placed directly above a MacBook’s screen. While this flips the stereo speakers backwards, such that left becomes right and vice-versa, you’ll gain additional volume beyond the capabilities of most MacBooks’ built-in drivers, and won’t need to sacrifice additional desk space.
Carbon Audio deserves praise for including some nice differentiators in Zooka. Wrapping the speaker’s chassis in rubber enabled the company to offer it in nine different colors, including plain black, gray, and navy alongside brighter aqua blue, pink, orange, red, green, and purple options. The speaker grilles are color-matched to the rest of the body; only the removable rear stand peg remains silver, storing nicely within a recess on the speaker’s left side. A micro-USB cable is included for recharging the eight-hour battery inside Zooka, and Bluetooth wireless pairing is almost as easy as one might expect. The only issue is in re-pairing the speaker with an iOS device, which doesn’t happen automatically when the speaker powers on; you need to tap Zooka’s Bluetooth button to manually reconnect them, an inconvenience that’s been eliminated from most of today’s wireless speakers.
Unfortunately, a variety of other design compromises collectively undermine Zooka’s value as a speaker. Rather than placing the controls on Zooka’s front or sides, Carbon Audio located them on the bottom—a less than convenient location for iPad users, though it needs to be noted that the buttons were never accidentally triggered during normal use of the speaker, a concern we had. But the micro-USB charging and audio ports are on the bottom, too, precluding you from charging Zooka while it’s holding an iPad upright. It’s only a little short of mystifying that the speaker was designed this way.
There’s another less than intuitive component on the bottom, too: that’s where Zooka’s built-in microphone is located, which one might assume would lead to poor audio quality when using the unit for speakerphone calls. Surprisingly, however, callers actually preferred the way we sounded using Zooka to the audio directly from the iPhone 5’s speakerphone—at least when Zooka’s mic was facing down. When it was pointed upright, the sound quality was described as more muffled and less intelligible; there may be other app-to-app and use case differences, as well.
The key issue with Zooka is the one we expected before turning it on but hoped Carbon Audio would engineer around: the speakers’ sound quality. It’s never particularly easy to squeeze great sound out of two speakers, but the drivers here are small 1.2” units that would struggle under the best of circumstances—and here, fire off to the tube’s sides rather than directly forward. Songs played through Zooka sound flat and radio-like, with little mid-bass and virtually no bass, while peaking at a volume level that’s well shy of filling a small room. Additionally, little pops can sometimes be heard after music stops and before it starts playing, presumably due to amplifier or speaker power-saving measures. The best audio we heard from Zooka was in speakerphone mode, and then only because telephone calls require such comparatively limited frequency response.
If Zooka has any saving grace, it’s the $100 price tag, which is low enough for a combined speaker, speakerphone, and iPad stand that some users will be willing to forgive the unit’s design and sonic issues. No specific feature of this speaker has been ideally executed—the sound’s not fantastic, the stand won’t work with most iPad cases, and the control and port locations are what they are—but Zooka is like a cut-rate version of Definitive Technology’s Sound Cylinder, compromising in all regards for half the price. If the specific combination of features really appeals to you, consider it; otherwise, our advice would be to give up the stand option in favor of a tube such as JBL’s Flip or a box like Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick. You’ll pay the same price and get a significantly better audio experience.