Surround sound and its accouterments tend to dominate a living room, requiring an AV receiver, several speakers, stands, and wires to make the whole thing work. That's why many people choose to skip surround sound, opting instead for the tinny acoustics of their TV speakers. Single-speaker solutions like the Zvox Z-Base 525 represent the middle ground, promising much better audio than your TV can produce, and without all the fuss.
The Z-Base 525 is particularly fuss-free; its unique design makes it look like nothing more than a pedestal for your HDTV. Even better, the Z-Base sounds better than most sound bars, although it doesn't have as much of the surround effect as some others. (The step-up Z-Base 575 sounds even better, but it's larger and more expensive.) Like any sound bar, it doesn't compare to a full 5.1 system, but if you can live with the compromises, the Z-Base 525 ($350) is one of the more affordable options with respectable sound, and it boasts an outstanding design.
The Z-Base 525's design is almost characterless, and in this case, that's actually a good thing. The Z-Base 525 is a black rectangular box, with the main cabinet constructed of medium-density fiberboard and with a black metal speaker grille on the front. While most sound bars are designed to sit in front of your HDTV, the Z-Base 525 is meant to act as a second "stand" for your HDTV. That's the genius behind the design. Many people have a problem with audio you can see (speakers, wires, stands), but the Z-Base 525 looks like nothing more than an extra block of wood to perch your HDTV on. (Zvox claims it's capable of supporting 90 pounds of weight; for reference, the Panasonic TC-P50G10 weighs 90.4 pounds.)
That's not to say the Z-Base 525 is a perfect fit for every environment. In fact, in our testing environment, we found that the extra 3.5 inches of height put the TV at a higher-than-desired viewing angle. We're probably more sensitive to this than the average viewer, but if you already have a tall TV stand, the Zvox might not be a good fit. Likewise, if your TV is wall mounted, the Zvox may attract more attention to itself.
The Zvox's connectivity options are simple: there are two analog stereo RCA inputs inputs on the back. Whether that's enough depends on your own setup, but it's certainly on the skimpy side (although it's more than the single input on the competing Polk SurroundBar SDA IHT).
Zvox did make a strange design decision with its audio inputs: the second audio input is described as a "mixing" input, which means you'll hear sound from two connected devices if they're playing audio. That's not a problem for most devices, which are turned off after use, but if you have an always-on DVR, it will be constantly feeding audio to your Zvox. We're guessing Zvox wanted to keep things simple by not offering the capability to truly change inputs, but it seems like an oversight when DVRs are so prevalent.
(There are a few ways around the problem. If your HDTV has stereo analog outputs, you can use it as a "switcher," which also may allow you too connect more than two devices. Secondly, if your DVR has a dedicated mute button or volume control (separate from that of the TV), you can manually lower it each time you're done watching TV).
The included remote of the Z-Base 525 is nearly as basic as the design of the main unit, but in its case that is more of a drawback. There are only 11 buttons total, but they are bunched together and similarly sized. While we longed for some button rockers and even a basic red button for power, the Z-Base 525 is simple enough that the uninspired remote is only a minor setback.