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Zvox's bar sounds big, but isn't perfect

CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.3
  • Design: 7.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 6.0
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Average User Rating

4 stars 6 user reviews

The good The Zvox Z-Base 420 costs significantly less than competing pedestal sound bars. Its sound is rich and powerful for the price, and a huge step up from the built-in speakers on a TV. The Dialogue Emphasis mode is a great option for boosting speech over background noise. There's also a built-in front-panel display, cleverly hidden behind the speaker grilles, which many competitors lack.

The bad The cabinet of the Z-Base 420 can sometimes vibrate enough to make certain TVs buzz. And at higher volumes, it occasionally distorts. The included remote also has a cheap feel and mediocre button layout.

The bottom line The Zvox Z-Base 420 offers an uncluttered look and solid sound at a budget price, but its quirks might give some buyers pause.

CNET review

Zvox is the company that pioneered the "pedestal" sound bar design, allowing you to place the sound bar under your TV, rather than in front of it. The Zvox Z-Base 420 is priced well below its competitors ($300), but the trade-off is a "rough-around-the-edges" feel. Part of that feel is because of the literal sharp edges on its boxy design, but also the fact that at loud volumes, the Z-Base 420 will occasionally distort. The unit also vibrates more than other pedestals, which is occasionally enough to cause some TVs to audibly buzz.

Those gaffes aside, the Z-Base 420 has a lot going for it. It sounds undeniably richer and louder than the pricier, albeit more polished, Bose Solo ($400). It also has a wonderfully hidden front-panel display, which its competitors -- even the $700 SpeakerCraft CS3 -- completely lack. And that budget price is awfully tempting for the Z-Base 420's performance, unless you're willing to go for a more traditional two-piece sound bar like the Haier SBEV40-SLIM or Vizio VHT215.

Higher-end pedestal sound bars are safer choices, but the Zvox Z-Base 420 offers the allure of "a deal." If it works in your setup and you like its rectangular looks, the Zvox Z-Base 420 is an excellent value. And if you don't like it, Zvox has a 30-day money-back guarantee as long as you purchase it direct from the company's Web site.

Design: The boxiest sound bar box
Compared with a typical sound bar, the Zvox Z-Base 420's pedestal design has a major advantage. Since it sits directly on as opposed to in front of it, the pedestal doesn't block your TV's remote sensor or interfere as much with its aesthetics. The wires are also a lot easier to hide.

Z-Base 420, Bose Solo and SpeakerCraft CS3 stacked
The Zvox Z-Base 420 (middle) doesn't look quite as nice as the Bose Solo (top) or the SpeakerCraft CS3 (bottom). Sarah Tew/CNET

However, the Z-Base 420 isn't the only "pedestal"-style sound bar on the market (anymore) and the competitors look a bit nicer. The Bose Solo is much smaller overall with sleek rounded corners that mute its boxiness. The SpeakerCraft CS3 is similarly sized, but also features rounded corners and a more refined look from the front. The differences aren't huge, and aesthetics are subjective, but by our count the Zvox is a step behind in the looks department.

Zvox Z-Base 420's front-panel display
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Zvox does outdo the competition by including a front-panel display. It's ingeniously hidden behind the speaker grille, so you won't actually see the display until you're making an adjustment. It's definitely reassuring to get visual feedback when adjusting the volume or bass/treble levels; with the other two, you're left in the dark.

Zvox remote compared to others
Zvox's remote (left) is cheap-feeling and cluttered compared with the Bose Solo remote (center). Sarah Tew/CNET

Zvox includes a cheap-feeling, mushy-buttoned remote with the Z-Base 420. At this point, we're accustomed to sound bars coming with subpar remotes, but it's still frustrating, especially when the Bose Solo provides a noticeably better clicker. To be fair, you do have the option of programming your TV's remote to control the Z-Base 420, although you'll likely lose direct access to buttons like "Dialogue Enhancement." Luckily at the Z-Base 420's relatively low price, you can take your savings and buy a quality universal remote.

Features: Packed with inputs, but no Bluetooth
The Z-Base 420 has a few more inputs than its main competitors. One the back, the input selection includes two analog, one optical, and one coaxial digital audio input; there is also a minijack input on the front panel. It's nice to have the flexibility, but you really only need one input if you end up using your TV as a switcher . (However, if you have an older HDTV with just a few inputs, the Z-Base 420's extra ports will go to good use.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

While the Zvox has quite a few physical ports, we'd happily sacrifice most of them for the convenience of Bluetooth, which would enable wireless audio streaming from just about any smartphone, any iPad, and many other tablets. Bluetooth is slowly creeping into more sound bars, including the competing SpeakerCraft CS3, but with the Zvox, you'll need to use a third-party add-on like the $40 Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter if you're looking for that functionality.

Setup: A snap, but also a buzz
The most demanding part of the Zvox Z-Base 420's setup will be picking up your TV and placing it atop the speaker. Since the Zvox has rear bass ports, you'll want to make sure there's some space between the wall or back panel of your cabinet. The front display makes it easy to adjust bass and treble, as well as any of the Z-Base 420 sound-processing features. Aside from those settings, there's no additional calibration that needs to be done.

Zvox Z-Base 420
Sarah Tew/CNET

After setting up the Z-Base 420, we did notice it had the unsettling tendency to make our Sony KDL-40EX640's plastic cabinet vibrate and buzz. Initially we assumed it may be a quirk specific to our TV stand or TV, but a quick Google search reveals that it's not just us. Moving the TV around didn't fix the problem, and it was definitely the TV itself vibrating, rather than any loose items on the TV stand. None of the other pedestal sound bars we recently tested caused any vibrations in the same configuration, no matter how loud we cranked them.

The buzzing isn't necessarily a deal breaker, because it doesn't seem to affect every TV stand/TV combo. But if it ends up affecting your setup, it's not worth putting up with, especially when there are several solid alternatives.

Of lesser importance is the fact that the Z-Base 420 lacks onboard Dolby decoding. This won't matter in most cases, as TVs typically convert all signals to a compatible format (PCM) when using the optical output. The major exception is when using a TV's internal over-the-air tuner, as TVs output a Dolby Digital signal from their optical output, which is incompatible with the Z-Base 420 -- you just won't hear any audio. The easy workaround is to use your TV's analog output if it has one, but not all do. If you don't have analog output, you're pretty much out of luck without a more elaborate workaround. Still, for the vast majority of buyers, this won't be a problem.

Sound quality: Big sound on a budget
The Z-Base 420 has a rich sound balance, offering dramatically better sound than the speakers built into your TV. It's also equipped with several sound-processing modes that are pretty handy. Zvox's Dialogue Emphasis boosts dialogue intelligibility, and it actually works, making it easier to hear actors above the din of background noise. Output Leveling promises to reduce sudden volume changes on commercials, but we found that less effective.

The Z-Base 420 also has a three-step "PhaseCue II" virtual surround mode to increase the size of the speaker's stereo image. It worked well, but doesn't actually create true, room-filling surround sound. That's hardly unique to Zvox; few sound bars deliver bona-fide surround, just wider stereo.

Zvox Z-Base 420
Sarah Tew/CNET

That's not to say PhaseCue is useless. With PhaseCue enabled, the Z-Base 420 sounded considerably more spacious and powerful than Bose's Solo pedestal sound bar speaker. However, while the Z-Base 420 can play louder, it also occasionally distorted when a loud movie soundtrack overtaxed the speaker. That's a poor trade-off in our book; we'd rather Zvox had tuned the Z-Base 420 correctly so it played a little softer but never distorted.

The Z-Base 420 also came up short when we compared it with the Haier SBEV40-Slim sound bar. The Haier sound bar is just 1.1 inches thick, but it includes a separate subwoofer, which really helps fill in the low-end. Not only did the SBEV40-Slim sound bigger and made more bass, it outpaced the Z-Base 420 with superior clarity on Peter Gabriel's "New Blood" concert Blu-ray. Dialogue also sounded more natural over the SBEV40-Slim, although it lacks the Dialogue Emphasis feature found on the Z-Base 420.

CDs sounded smaller and tonally thinner than Blu-rays and DVDs over the Z-Base 420, but that's a common failing of sound bar speakers. If you want a sound bar that does a decent job with music, you'll need to step up to pricey alternatives like the SpeakerCraft CS3 or the Atlantic Technology PB-235.

What about Zvox's other sound bars?
Zvox offers an extensive line of pedestal sound bars, making it easy to find a model that matches your budget and the size of your TV. We've reviewed a few more-expensive models in the past, like the 580 and the 555 , and they deliver largely the same experience as the Z-Base 420. Bigger models do offer bigger sound, but we've found the difference to be less than you might think. If you're deciding between two sizes, we'd suggest going with the smaller model. You'll save money, it's less bulky and the sonic differences are marginal.

Conclusion: Less-polished, more affordable pedestal sound bar
The Zvox Z-Base is an alluring option given its sound quality and price, but it's hard to give it more than a mixed recommendation given its imperfections. Its pricier competitors are safer bets in our experience, but if you're on a tight budget and put a premium on sound quality, it's worth an audition.

About The Author

Matthew Moskovciak

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail... Read More

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