While surfing Kickstarter for fun projects, I spend most of my time looking at the Board and Card Games section, but I also like to poke around to see what people are doing in Portland. That’s how I originally found out about the Zooka, a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker that fits on an iPad (or a thin laptop). The Kickstarter campaign wrapped up in March, and since then the folks at Carbon Audio have been hard at work refining the design and getting it ready for launch.
Carbon Audio is formed from a few members of the New design studio and others in Portland, Oregon. They set out to make great audio solutions for specific needs. First up: the Zooka was designed to raise the iPad’s audio capacity to better match its potential as an entertainment device. I stopped in to visit the Zooka team to get a closer look at it and see how it works.
First, the basics: the Zooka is a portable Bluetooth speaker, encased in a silicone shell which is designed to fit on the edge of an iPad. It’s a firm grip which serves well as a handle — the larger diameter is a lot easier to hold onto than the thin edge of an iPad, and the silicone is a nice texture. The Zooka also fits onto a laptop (at least, on a MacBook — I don’t know how well it would fit on a laptop with a thicker or differently-shaped edge), and has a little scoop cut out so it doesn’t block the built-in webcam. In addition to the Bluetooth connection, there’s a standard 3.5mm audio input jack in case you want to use the Zooka for some other audio device. The Zooka charges via USB, has a power button and volume controls on the edge, and a built-in microphone as well.
Because of the fit, you may not be able to use the Zooka in conjunction with other iPad cases and the Smart Cover, but since it’s Bluetooth you can just set the speaker down somewhere if you don’t want to give up the case. The medical-grade silicone fits well onto the iPad, and it’s a great texture that isn’t cheap ABS plastic. The whole thing feels quite durable, and not something you need to worry about keeping out of your kids’ hands.
How does it sound? In short: pretty great.
Jason Riggs, CTO, has worked with Logitech audio and has been working with speaker technology for a long time. He explained that the biggest limitation on sound output in a tablet is simply the size: in order to increase the sound output (particularly for in the bass range) you need to move a larger volume of air — and an iPad is only so thick. Carbon Audio’s challenge was to make something that sounded good without being huge, and the tube-shaped Zooka was their solution. It increases the maximum volume and adds to the bass range.
At the time of my visit, they only had two working units (Riggs had just spent some time in China fine tuning the audio specs) but I got to try one of them out, and it’s pretty amazing how much sound comes out of the Zooka. Ok, sure, it’s not going to replace a home entertainment system, but in terms of watching a movie or playing a game on your iPad, it’s a huge leap in sound without having to hook up a big speaker to it.
The folks from Carbon Audio have worked for Logitech, made award-winning speakers, and are really interested in making products that sound good, have simple, elegant design, but are also fun and playful. Every product should solve a problem. In this case, as COO Jason Martin explained, he felt that the biggest limitation of the iPad is the limit on the sound if you’re not using headphones or some external speaker. But you shouldn’t have to carry around another speaker system with you. Headphones give the best audio experience, but can’t be shared if you’re streaming a movie with somebody else.
If you’ve got it linked to your iPhone, you can even use it as a speakerphone device. We tried it out at the office (although it was tricky getting a cell signal in their building) and it sounded pretty good, certainly better than the iPhone’s speaker phone by itself, and possibly about as good as most conference room speakerphones. I didn’t get to hear what it sounded like on the other end but they said they could hear us all pretty well sitting around the table.
Carbon Audio used Kickstarter to help gauge the interest in the Zooka, and to get investors interested in Carbon Audio as a company. They’re working on future audio products but may or may not use Kickstarter in the future. It was really seed money to get things off the ground.
The Zooka will retail for $99, with a global launch planned for August 1. If you missed the Kickstarter campaign, you’ll be able to preorder on the Carbon Audio website starting in July.
All photos by Jonathan Liu