Bluetooth speakers

4 Bluetooth speakers: Improve your mobile sound

Bluetooth speakers
Credit: Barbara Krasnoff

Today's smartphones and tablets still have less-than-stellar speakers. Try one of these for a better audio experience.

It's been about six months since I reviewed five mobile Bluetooth speakers to see how well they compared. These lightweight speakers were meant to make up for the awful sound quality provided by most smartphones and tablets (and many laptops, for that matter). They ranged widely in size, price and quality -- some were great for tossing in your coat pocket, while others had the chops to offer fine audio at home.

Well, there's a whole new crop that has become available since then. For this roundup, I've gathered four recently introduced mobile Bluetooth speakers to see how they compare.

These four devices are much more similar to each other than the others. To begin with, they fall into a narrower price range: from $100 to $200.

In addition, all claim up to a 30-foot range between the speaker and the music source; in informal testing, that was pretty much borne out. All include the ability to also act as a speakerphone, should somebody call while you're playing music -- and all were able to do so in my tests, although the quality of the audio differed.

Interestingly, while their basic designs are quite different, all four speakers come in the bright mono-colors that seem to be in vogue these days. I have to admit that this made it far too easy to refer to each not by its name, but by its color -- "red speaker, "green speaker," "black speaker" and "blue speaker" -- making the testing process sound a bit like a Dr. Seuss recitation.

(All four give you a choice of which color you want, from the Solemate, which comes in black or white, to the Zooka, which lets you opt for one of nine different colors.)

I tested the speakers by playing a group of music tracks that ranged from quiet to lively to must-be-played-loud, both voice and instrumental. (For the curious, I've listed the six tunes I used as tests in the sidebar to the right.)

I also accepted a phone call while playing music and chatted with my caller for several minutes to try out the speakerphone features.

Admittedly, any judgment of the quality of these speakers must be -- by necessity -- subjective. However, with any luck, this can serve as a guide if you're trying to choose a mobile speaker for home, office or travel. (Note: We've ordered the reviews from least to most expensive.)

Zooka

Carbon Audio

Dimensions: 1.5 x 2.0 x 9.25 in.

Weight: 19.2 oz.

Price: $99.95

The Zooka is, if nothing else, interesting for its style.

The 1.5 x 2.0 x 9.25-in. oblong-shaped device has two 30mm speakers at each end and an open slot running along its length. The slot is there so you can fit the speaker onto the top of a laptop display (assuming the display is slim enough to accommodate the 0.25-in. slot). You can also fit it onto the side of a tablet, to use as a handhold.

Carbon Audio Zooka
Carbon Audio Zooka

But wait, there's more -- if you fit the bottom of your tablet into the slot, you can then pull a 2.75-in. metal rod out of a hole in one end of the Zooka and screw that into the back of the speaker; the Zooka then acts as a kickstand. (Unfortunately, when it was stored in its hidey-hole, the rod had an unfortunate tendency to slide out when I picked up the speaker.) The Zooka sits comfortably on a desktop as well.

I was able to fit the speaker onto the display of a Chromebook CR-48 laptop and a Galaxy Nexus 7 tablet. In both cases, it was something of a squeeze to accommodate it; the Zooka is obviously more suited to an iPad.

Other than its design, the Zooka is fairly minimalist. On the side opposite the slot, there is a power button with an LED indicator, volume down/up buttons and a button to pair Bluetooth connections (which is also used to pause music and to connect/disconnect a phone call). There is also a 3.5mm AUX audio-in jack and a single micro-USB-to-USB cable (a rather short one, at that -- only about 12 in.).

Even the documentation is minimal; you get a small card that shows (with pictures) how to turn the Zook on and start the Bluetooth connection. If you need any more directions, you have to go to the website.

The Zooka's casing is made of a smooth, soft-to-the-touch plastic and is available in nine different colors. According to the company, each charge provides up to 8 hours of play time.

How did it sound?

Unfortunately, while the Zooka has a nicely innovative design, its audio wasn't up to the quality of the other three speakers in this roundup. While the sound was fairly well equalized, it wasn't nearly as strong, clear or full as the others, and a lot of the subtleties of the music were lost. Of course, this is the least expensive speaker of the four reviewed here, so you're not going to get the same audio quality as something twice the cost.

As a speakerphone, the Zooka didn't really work well. There were so many digital drop-outs that sometimes I didn't understand what my caller was saying, and she reported some issues at her end as well. In short, it would only be useable for quick, emergency calls; most users would probably need to move to their phones for longer conversations.

Bottom line

The Zooka offers a reasonable sound and has an innovative design that could make it a fun gift for iPad owners. But if you're at all picky about your audio quality, you might want to spend a few more bucks for something a bit better.

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