Has auxiliary audio input so can act as computer speakers;
Works with all Zune models, including the Zune HD (the remote doesn't work with it however).
Remote control is a bit strange, and there's no place to store it;
No battery-powered option, which is important for some people;
Darth Vader-inspired design may not be for everyone.
Summary: I've had a Kicker ZK-500 for quite a while now, but never quite got around to reviewing it - it's a character flaw of mine that I'll sometimes start working on a review but not finish it - but seeing as Microsoft is selling the Kicker ZK-500 from their online store right now for a mere $114.99 USD, I knew that I had to share my thoughts quickly before the sale ends. This is one great-sounding speaker dock!
Buy It Before the Sale Ends
The short version: the Kicker ZK500 is the single best sounding speaker dock I've ever heard, and that goes for any MP3 player. It's compatible with all versions of the Zune, and given that the Zune HD is using the same connector, it will be compatible with that too - though you may need to tweak one of the plastic dock shells to get it to stay in place properly (UPDATE: the Zune HD sits in the cradle just fine, but the remote doesn't work with it at all). Hopefully Kicker will sell a plastic dock piece for it. At the original price of $350 USD, the ZK500 was a great-sounding high-end audio solution for people with deep pockets. At its current price of $114.99, it's a steal and I urge you to buy one if you'd like to hear what your Zune can really do - you will not be disappointed.
Getting Going with the ZK500
Unpacking the box was a pretty standard experience: the ZK500 is held in place by Styrofoam wrapped in plastic. Accessories in the box include the power cable, a relatively small AC power brick, three plastic dock adaptors (labelled A, B, and C), a remote control, a 24-inch long 3.5mm minijack male to male cable (for connecting an auxiliary source) and the manual. Looking in the manual I discovered that dock adaptor "A" is for the original Zune 30, "B" is for the Zune 80, and "C" is for the Zune 4/8. I'm not sure why they didn't just put the model number on the plastic dock pieces - it would cut down on confusion in multi-Zune scenarios.
Figure 1: The back of the ZK500. Photo Courtesy of Kicker.
The ZK500 has a few cool features that make it more than just a simple Zune speaker dock. First, it has a 3.5mm auxiliary audio input - this means you can connect any device to it and have the audio come out the ZK500 speakers. Another MP3 player? Check. A portable DVD player you want more volume for? Check. A laptop or desktop computer that you don't want to have to buy speakers for? Check. That one input port adds a lot of value to the mix. There are also three RCA jack outputs (video, stereo audio) that allow you to connect the ZK500 to a TV set for instance - again, nice flexibility.
Looks And Sounds: It Delivers
Design-wise, if Darth Vadar wanted to strap an MP3 dock to the front of his TIE Advanced X1 Starfighter, this is what he'd reach for. OK, he'd use The Force and float it his way, but you get my point. The design is bold, aggressive, and vaguely sinister. I love it! If the design is a bit much for you, you can buy a skin for it from DecalGirl. With the sale price of the ZK500, you'll have some money left over for a skin or two if you want to change the look of it. Black goes with pretty much any decor, unlike the platinum/silver motif I've seen on a lot of other speaker docks.
Sound-wise? The 5" woofers and 3/4" tweeters rip it up - the volume goes up to 40 (2 x 20 watts), but a setting of 15 is comfortably loud in my office; 20 is very loud. I once did a volume test and got to 35 before it was just too loud to continue. The ZK500 really "brings the noise" - it lacks nothing in volume. Good quality audio isn't just about volume though - the ZK500 makes your music sound good. I'm pretty picky about sound quality. More than a few reviewers thought that the Altec Lansing M604 speaker dock sounded good, but when I reviewed it I came to the opposite conclusion. The ZK500 is essentially the polar opposite sound-wise of the M604 - meaning good in every way. To be clear though, this is still a speaker dock - I prefer the sound of my Audioengine A2 or A5 speakers when it comes to pure sound quality, but the ZK500 will not disappoint when it comes to audio quality or volume. Every song, and every genre I put through it, sounded great. Bass is particularly good sounding. Want to see how strong the bass response is? Check this out:
That's a video of the iK500, but the speaker hardware is exactly the same, so that's the kind of bass response you'll get from the ZK500.
Remote Control Quirks
Figure 2: The remote control for the ZK500. Photo Courtesy of Kicker.
The remote is a bit strange - I found myself constantly picking it up backward because the KICKER logo and most of the buttons are found at the bottom of the remote. It might sound strange, but if you look at most remotes, the majority of the buttons are at the top and if there's space left over, it goes at the bottom - and I keep thinking that whenever I reach for the remote. You'd think the fact that the KICKER logo is upside down would serve as a big clue to me but more often than not I find myself looking at the top of the remote making sure that I can see the little infrared sensor.
The press and hold power button is probably the most frustrating thing about the remote - I can't think of any other remote control I have where I have to press and hold a button to turn something off or on. The buttons are comfortable enough when used a few times, but if you're trying to do complex navigation on your Zune, you'll find the buttons take a bit too much force to press and will likely end up with some tired fingers. It's great, however, that you can navigate everywhere on the Zune with the remote, unlike the Altec Langsing M604.
The Wrap Up: Snap It Up
As I said in the introduction, when the ZK500 was $350, it was a great-sounding Zune dock that was more expensive than the Zune itself and out of reach for most people. With the recent price drop - regardless of if you get it from Zune.net or Amazon.com - the ZK500 is an affordable great-sounding Zune dock. One thing of note: some people expect every speaker dock to have a battery-powered option, and the ZK500 lacks that feature. It's not an issue for me - every time I think of a battery powered boom box, Radio Raheem comes to mind - but based on a number of YouTube comments I've read on my CES video of the ZK500, this matters to some people. Interestingly, there's a carrying handle - I suppose to move it from room to room.
Despite some of the quirks with the remote - including the fact that there's no place to store it - the ZK500 earns my highest recommendation as an accessory for the Zune. It's a great product at a great price - and you can't ask for much more than that.
Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys photography, mobile devices, blogging, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, and his sometimes obedient dog. He loves a good A Capella song!
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