When it comes to MP3 player accessories, Zune owners have few choices compared to their iPod-wielding peers. Fortunately, the Kicker ZK500 speaker dock ($300) and its built-in 40-watt amplifier provide Zune-sters an equal opportunity aggravate their neighbors and rock-out at deafening levels.
The Kicker ZK500 uses a menacing all-black pyramid design that would look at home in Darth Vader's living room. Measuring 8.5 inches high by 19 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep, the Kicker ZK500 is ideally proportioned as a bookshelf or tabletop stereo, but too large for a nightstand. Two plastic handles are found on the back of the Kicker ZK500, however, with a total weight of 9.2 pounds and no option for battery power, you won't be moving the system around much. Also on the back of the Kicker ZK500 are a 3.5mm auxiliary audio input, composite video, RCA audio output, and a 6-inch bass reflex port.
The front of the Kicker ZK500 is tastefully spare, with a 2.5-inch blue LCD up top, a multifunction backlit dial below it, a set of stereo speakers, and a dock compatible with all Zune models (including first-generation, second-generation, and flash). The Kicker ZK500's dial navigation system is easy to use, especially since features are few. Pushing the dial switches between settings (EQ, volume, and auxiliary), which are displayed on the Kicker ZK500's LCD and adjusted with a turn of the dial.
The Kicker ZK500 is more brawn than brain, with a short list of features similar to the comparably priced Bose SoundDock and Klipsch iGroove. Included on the Kicker ZK500 are a 3.5mm auxiliary audio input, RCA audio output, composite video output, and bass and treble EQ settings capable of nine degrees of boost or cut. A remote control is also included with the Kicker ZK500, with buttons that mimic every function of the Zune's own navigation control pad.
There's something to be said for the Kicker ZK500's simplicity and powerful sound, but there are a few missing features we would have enjoyed. For instance, the Zune includes one of the coolest FM radios you can find on an MP3 player, yet there's no elegant way to use it with the Kicker ZK500. An alarm clock mode for blasting deep sleepers from their slumber would have been a nice addition, and although it may sound nitpicky, the capability to center our Flash Zunes using a sliding dock connector (like the one found on the Zune Home AV kit) would help to justify the Kicker ZK500's high price.
As the name implies, the Kicker ZK500 is designed to be loud--very loud. With two 5-inch woofers and 0.75-inch tweeters powered by a total of 40 watts of power, the Kicker ZK500 will have no problem fueling your next house party. To put the Kicker ZK500's volume in perspective, the dial goes up to 40, but we had to start shouting over the music about 20.
The Kicker ZK500 also impressed us with its sound quality, although it's obviously engineered to be a party machine--not a hi-fi. To get the best sound quality from the Kicker ZK500, the system volume needs to be up above background music levels to let its 6-inch backward-facing bass port fill in the lower frequencies. We were a little disappointed with the Kicker ZK500's stereo separation, however, we find that most compact stereo systems suffer in this respect.
Classical and acoustic music lovers should steer clear of the Kicker ZK500's unapologetically bombastic sound, but genres that beg to be heard loud (rock, electronic) sound fantastic. With the volume pegged at around 15, the horns and drums of Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" sound crisp without being harsh. To really flex the Kicker ZK500's muscle we ran the dense dub techno of Deadbeat's "Loneliness and Revelry" through at full volume, causing system to rattle on our desk and send our co-workers running for the exit. Even while pushed to its limits, the Kicker ZK500 maintained a relatively clean sound with a forgivable amount of low-end distortion.