Carbon Audio Zooka Bluetooth speaker review

It all began as a Kickstarter project to create a speaker that would attach to an iPad, and ended with 678 backers and more than $70,000 in funding - far in excess of the $25,000 sought.

The idea is simple: make a speaker that reduces the need to carry fiddly extras around, and while you're at it, make it possible to use with a laptop, via Bluetooth or even a 3.5mm lead. Clearly then, some logic being applied to portable speakers that no one else had previously considered.

So with the funding done and the project a complete success, how does the Zooka hold up to critical assessment. Is it the sort of product only a Kickstarter backer could love, or is it a game-changer?

Design

As with a lot of Kickstarter products, the design of the Zooka is actually quite clever. And, again, like most crowd-funded products, it meets a need not previously met by existing speakers on the market. What the Zooka does well, is reduce the hassle of external, powered, speakers by allowing you to attach it to your tablet or computer.

This attachment is achieved through a simple slit that's cut through the medial grade silicon. It's therefore flexible, while being soft to the touch. It's a really nice device to hold, and the silicon means that it won't scratch your tablet - very important. Although it's obvious that the Zooka was designed mainly for the iPad, we're very happy to say that it's possible to attach it to other tablets too. We used it with a Sony Tablet S, and a Dell XPS 13 laptop.

At the back of the device there's a small screw hole, and on the side of the speaker there's a small metal nub sticking out. This is a little stand, which you can screw into the rear hole, to turn the whole thing into a stand. Although having this removable is a bit clumsy, and could result in your losing the stand, it's a smart idea, and a really good way to prop up your tablet while you watch video or work.

On a tablet, you can mount the speaker on either the top or bottom of the device - what you're doing will probably dictate which you choose. On our Sony tablet, we had no real choice, because the top is a lot thicker than the bottom, so we needed to keep the Zooka on the thin edge. But, that's no real problem, because auto rotate means you can still orientate the speaker and tablet as you want.

And that becomes important when it comes to the stand. When you use the Zooka on the bottom of your tablet,  it makes for a nice, upright, way to support your tablet. Ideal for working. But when it comes to watching video, if you put the speaker on the top, then the stand becomes much more suited to watching video while sitting at a table, or perhaps using the touchscreen to type on. It's actually quite remarkable how one simple mount gives you so much flexibility.

Features

We've talked a lot about how you mount the Zooka to a tablet or laptop, but as this is a Bluetooth device, you can use it with any phone, MP3 player or computer that supports Bluetooth, and that's pretty much all of them. And while you probably wouldn't want to slip your smartphone into the silicone gap, there's certainly nothing to stop you from doing so if you do needed to. We tried it with a Note II, and it actually made sense, if you're listening in your kitchen while you cook, or you just want a desk stand that acts as a speaker for your phone. And that makes even more sense when you consider that the Zooka also has a built-in microphone, to enable you to use it as a speakerphone.

The Zooka is recharged, as most things are, by USB. That's good, because it means you've got hundreds of chargers knocking around already. Once full, you should get about eight hours' battery life from the speaker, and we also noticed that it held its charge for ages too, something that's quite useful for any device that gets fairly irregular use.

Sound quality

Any speaker needs to add volume to the tablet's existing capabilities. So power is important, but so too is clarity and audio quality. When it comes to adding volume, the Zooka is great, it's not super-loud, but it adds enough volume to make a tablet something you can share with friends, without suffering through inaudible sound.

When it comes to quality, the results aren't so impressive. Audio quality is good enough, and it's certainly clear, but it doesn't have much high or low range, so it has quite a mid-range sound. That's really just like you'd find with a tablet's built-in speaker, but just amplified. It doesn't disgrace itself, but it's not an audiophile solution either.

One other thing we noticed was that during some activities, typing and such, there were crackles and pops on the audio. This may well be a problem with the Sony tablet, but it's not something we've noticed with other devices we've tried. Once music or other audio was playing though, it went away, and there were no problems with audio.

We also tested the built-in microphone, which is handy for speakerphone calls via Skype, or your phone. The quality was actually rather good. The microphone is capable of picking up sound that's quiet, and we didn't have to shout to make ourselves heard. The quality was good too, which is fabulous if you need a good speakerphone.

Verdict

The Zooka is a design triumph. It's well thought out, with a design that will suit pretty much every tablet and even phones and laptops too. The materials are high-quality and feel premium.

The downside is that the sound is a little unimpressive. Not bad, but lacking any real dynamic range, both short on bass and treble. How much this bothers you will depend on what you're buying the Zooka for. If you're after a little bit of a speaker boost, without too much concern about music, then it will be perfect. If you're looking for a high quality Bluetooth speaker, then the Zooka won't meet your expectations.

For the price, we'd have hoped for a little better audio, but the package as a whole means you're getting a solid bit of kit for your money.