The Carbon Audio’s $100 Zooka is a Bluetooth speaker available in black, green, gray, blue, pink, purple, red, or teal. My review unit is a color the company calls black, but it’s a decidedly non-black dark gray.
The Zooka is 9.3 inches wide, 2 inches tall, and 1.5 inches deep. It weighs two pounds, and it’s shaped sort of like a stretched, tubular teardrop. Cut into the top of that drop is a thin slit that’s the perfect thickness for grasping an iPad, the top of a MacBook, or another similarly thin surface.
A row of buttons and ports dots one edge of the Zooka: There’s a microphone (for speakerphone calls); a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) auxiliary-input jack; volume down, power, volume up, and multifunction-Bluetooth buttons; and a Micro-USB port for charging. That Bluetooth button is used for pairing; playing and pausing music; and answering, rejecting, or hanging up phone calls.
Positioned directly below the power button is a single LED that fails to convey enough useful information. Sure, it lets you know when the unit is on (solid blue), pairing (flashing blue and red), or charging (flashing blue), but it offers no indication when you’re running low on battery power. Carbon Audio says you can expect six to eight hours of battery life on a single charge, which meshed with my experience, but there’s no obvious warning when battery life is getting low; the Zooka just goes silent. (If you leave the Zooka powered on without using it for a bit, the speaker will beep intermittently to remind you not to waste the battery. After 30 minutes, it will shut off entirely.)
Included with the Zooka is a short Micro-USB cable for charging and a single iconographic setup card that fails to explain many of the speaker’s features—the company instead provides a (lengthy) link to read the full manual online. That’s a fine approach for saving paper, but it’s a little annoying when you’re trying to figure out how to use the speaker.
Poking out one side of the Zooka is a metal nub that looks like it might be a retractable antenna. But it’s instead a metal stand that can screw into a separate hole on the center of the back of the speaker. There, it serves as a leg for propping up the speaker, with an iPad propped in the speaker’s slot, for movie watching.
The Zooka’s audio sounds pedestrian: Bass presence is non-existent, and midrange and treble frequencies sound flat and muddled. It’s better to think of the Zooka as a volume boost over the built-in speakers of your tablet or laptop: While it doesn’t get crazy loud, it offers a significant volume improvement over those stock speakers. And because the speaker drivers in the Zooka point out from its left and right edges, you’ll hear a bit of stereo separation if you’re positioned squarely in front of the speaker.
However, the Zooka also suffers from Bluetooth issues. A good amount of snaps, pops, and such were the norm in my testing, rather than the exception. And the Zooka often partially missed iOS notification sounds as they came in—such sudden sounds got picked up about two-thirds of the way in, at best. (In other words, the sounds were choppily cut off.)
The speakerphone feature works typically for Bluetooth speakers at this price, which is to say not especially well. I could hear the folks on the other end fine, but to them, I sounded quiet, muffled, and as if I was, well, on a speakerphone.
Given the Zooka’s mediocre performance, the question is, who should buy it? The answer, I suppose, is folks looking for hybrid speaker/stands. To me, Bluetooth is an odd choice for such devices, since the speaker is often physically attached to the source device anyway—you might as well use a dock connection or connect the speaker using a simple audio cable and get much better sound quality. As is, while the Zooka’s design is convenient, the speaker’s performance just doesn’t offer enough to recommend it. The $100 Big Blue Live (4 out of 5 rating) offers a lot more sound for the same price, though without the novelty of attaching to a laptop screen or propping up an iPad. I’d personally rather get a good stand and a good speaker than a mediocre toaster-fridge.