Speakers — particularly wireless ones — are extremely easy to screw up. So the fact that Creative has gotten so much right with its ZiiSound D5 Wireless Speaker ($300) mightn’t seem to the average user like a major achievement, but it is: due as much to design as to technical implementation, this is one of the most impressive iPod and iPhone audio systems we’ve seen in the past three years, and the best product we’ve seen from Creative since it entered the Apple accessory market.
ZiiSound D5 has an elegantly designed black and chrome chassis that beautifully balances matte and glossy elements: the ends of the 16.5” wide audio system are gently bulging mirrors, while the roughly 4.25” depth and height are partially attributable to a tiny and unique dock that sticks out from the back, and a small sloped plastic foot that tilts the system upwards at bottom center. This foot is part of the only plastic interruption in the system’s cloth speaker cover, which obscures the drivers inside; within that central part are a front-facing single white LED light that doubles as a power and “connect” indicator, and a series of 20 top-facing LEDs that indicate the current volume level in sets of two lights per stage. On the back are a single bass port, a power button, a wall power input, and an auxiliary audio input.
Though minimalist and a little flawed in its placement of the power button in the rear—an inconvenient location—ZiiSound D5’s body is otherwise a model of restraint, quite possibly more of a spiritual and aesthetic sequel to Bowers + Wilkins’ Zeppelin than was the company’s own Zeppelin Mini. Controlling the volume is as simple as running your finger over the aforementioned set of LED lights, or adjusting it using the docked iPod or iPhone. Creative includes a power supply, and an auxiliary audio cable, but no remote. The only other extras relate to its dock, specifically plastic and rubber inserts made for various iPod and iPhone models, but not the iPad.
What ZiiSound D5’s dock accomplishes isn’t miraculous, but it’s actually quite impressive. Though the system can be used as a seemingly wired speaker—plug your iPod or iPhone into the rear dock and it will appear to hover above and behind the D5 in mid-air—the reason for the $300 price tag is a Bluetooth 2.0 audio system that works in two separate ways. First, any Dock Connector-equipped iPod or iPhone can be plugged into a small black dongle that wirelessly transmits its music to the D5 base, and enables the iPod or iPhone to adjust the system’s volume level from afar. iPod nano and iPod classic users will have to use the dongle, as will first-generation iPod touch and iPhone owners. But iPhone 3G, 3GS, and iPod touch 2G/3G users can use the integrate stereo Bluetooth features of their devices to go dongle-free, broadcasting audio to the D5 after a quick and fairly easy pairing process. Without the dongle, these devices can’t adjust the D5’s volume from afar—its top touch panel still works for this purpose, though.
There are a few interesting things about ZiiSound D5’s wired and wireless functionality. First, if you’re using the dongle, you’re always broadcasting, regardless of whether the iPod or iPhone is docked on top of D5 or not. Second, D5’s wireless reception distance with or without the dongle is well in excess of Creative’s promised 33 feet; we used an iPhone 3GS in both modes from a 60-foot distance without signal problems. Third, docked devices recharge thanks to a set of charging pins on the back of the dongle, drawing power from the iPod or iPhone when they’re being used in your hand.
Fourth is the only negative point: D5 slips up a little in not handling pairing of multiple simultaneous devices. It only remembers the last paired device, dongle or non-dongle, which means that you’ll even need to re-pair the dongle with the speaker after using the system without it. This is a real bummer for multi-iPhone or multi-iPod touch homes, and really the only major flaw that ZiiSound D5 has from a wireless standpoint.
Audio quality is included in that assessment. The key thing that has dogged wireless audio systems in the past is the price to performance ratio—the noticeable difference between the sound of a $300 wireless system versus a $300 wired one. In most cases, there’s a $50-$100 gap in performance, such that the wireless system is equivalent to a “good” $200 or $250 system, more commonly $200 rather than $300. With ZiiSound D5, there’s definitely a gap, but it’s small. We placed D5 next to a Bose SoundDock Series II, a well-established “good, not great” reference speaker for the $300 price, and though the SoundDock had a small edge over the D5—a little more treble and midrange clarity at medium volume—the difference was nowhere near as pronounced as we’d expected given that one system was operating wirelessly over Bluetooth for the same price.
Both systems reached the same ear-splitting maximum volume level, and operated well at quiet listening levels, with a sound signature that we’d describe in each case as deliberately a little on the warm side rather than neutral—entirely easy to enjoy straight out of the box, but not audiophile-level in detail or depth. Critical listeners will note that ZiiSound D5 is a little anemic in the highs, just like the SoundDock family, though it’s capable enough in the bass department to produce rich-sounding renditions of songs rather than flat ones. If this sounds like faint praise, it’s not; wireless systems all too often perform flat audio, and between the speakers and Bluetooth audio tricks Creative is using, D5 does a very good job sonically. Audio isn’t interrupted by clicks, fall-outs, or hiss, either.
Though matching Creative’s ZiiSound D5 up against the SoundDock II might seem unfair given that the late 2008 Bose design isn’t the biggest or best $300 audio system on the market, the comparison provides a very clear sense of what you can expect from D5 relative to its other $300 rivals. If you’re looking for the absolute top bang for your buck in the $300 price range, there are other wired systems that sound better, and you can find roughly equivalent wired performers to D5 in the $250 zone.
But our high recommendation is based on the fact that Creative has delivered a completely wireless audio system with nearly SoundDock-quality audio performance—and a much cooler design—at the same price point. This is without question the best wireless speaker available at its price point today; all it seriously lacks for is better handling of multiple paired devices, and now with the release of the iPad, a docking system secure enough to handle bigger devices. We wouldn’t mind seeing these tweaks in a bigger and more capable sequel, which ZiiSound D5 is excellent enough to merit.
Company and Price
Model: ZiiSound D5
Compatible: iPod classic, nano, touch, iPhone 3G/3GS