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Editors' note: The rating of the Zvox 425 has been changed since publication to better reflect its value compared to competing home theater systems.
Zvox makes nothing but TV speakers, and the advantages of specialization are amply evident in the newest model, the 425. At 37 inches wide, it's the biggest ever Zvox--and perfectly suited for pairing with a large, flat-screen display or rear-projection TV. Like its smaller brothers, the ultimate Zvox doesn't come loaded with useless features and gizmos and retains the company's focus on producing great-sounding single-speaker units that are easy to hook up and use. How easy is it? The "owner's manual" is a single sheet of paper! The Zvox 425 uses five 3.25-inch drivers to create an immersive, room-filling sound and two 4-inch woofers that provide enough bass that most buyers likely won't feel the need to add a separate subwoofer. The big speaker sounds equally impressive on movies and music, without a hint of the artificially processed sound we've heard from so many virtual-surround speakers. So what's not to like? The 425's focus on simplicity means it offers only three stereo-only audio inputs while it eschews digital connectivity and surround processing altogether. In other words, anyone with a more sophisticated home theater system (those with four or more AV sources) will still want an AV receiver--or a well endowed TV--to handle switching duties. The Zvox 425 retails for $700 and is available at Zvox's Web site (Zvoxaudio.com).
The Zvox 425 is about the same size as Yamaha's mammoth YSP-3000 and YSP-2000 units. Not that you'd ever confuse the various models: the more expensive Yamahas definitely have more of a high-tech sheen and offer built-in video switching capabilities not found on the more straightforward Zvox. By comparison, the Zvox 425 is a rather plain box, measuring 37 inches wide by 7.5 high and 5.5 deep. The front panel's perforated metal grille as well as volume and PhaseCue controls round out the design details (more on PhaseCue later). A small, blue LED blinks when the speaker receives commands from the remote. The speaker can be placed on a shelf above or beneath a TV--or wall-mounted with Chief Manufacturing's dedicated bracket ($60).
The small, credit-card-style remote control handles volume, mute, PhaseCue, subwoofer volume, treble, and power. We had to aim the remote directly at the speaker in order for it to work. With just nine buttons, however, programming the Zvox's functions into a good universal remote control would be a snap.
Zvox's 30.5-inch wide Model 415 ($500) is similar to the 425 but was designed for use with smaller 32- to 42-inch flat screen displays.
The Zvox 425 has a total of seven drivers: five 3.25-inch drivers are arrayed along the front, and a 4-inch subwoofer is mounted on each side cap. The front three middle drivers are center-channel speakers--and the left/right drivers work with Zvox's PhaseCue system to create a very wide stereo soundstage. The two 4-inch subwoofers produce surprisingly deep bass, and Zvox claims that because they are side-firing they minimize wall vibrations. The built-in digital amplifiers deliver 25 watts to the three center drivers, 18 watts each to the left and right speakers, and 36 watts to the two subwoofers.
The PhaseCue circuit increases stereo spread in nine steps--at its minimum setting, the sound is almost monophonic, and at its extreme upper setting the sound is stretched superwide. We preferred the sound at the 6 or 7 settings--the sound quality didn't suffer as we added PhaseCue (older Zvoxs tended to sound hollow and thin with too much PhaseCue). If you find the dialogue on some DVDs is hard to follow, just reduce PhaseCue, which will increase the relative "center-channel" volume.
On the connectivity front, the Zvox 425 is pretty minimal. The built-in amplifiers preclude the need for speaker wire from an external amp. Instead, there are just three analog audio inputs: two sets of stereo (red and white) RCA inputs on the rear panel, and a single 3.5mm input on the front for easy connections to iPods, portable CD players, and the like--anything with a headphone jack. And while it's not required, there is a subwoofer output for those who prefer the room-shaking bass of a standalone sub. The only other cable needed is the power cord.
The upside of the few inputs is that hooking up the Zvox is extremely simple and straightforward--plug in one, two, or three sets of audio cables, tweak the PhaseCue settings to your liking, and you're done. (Zvox even throws in two sets of connecting cables--one RCA, one 3.5mm). The problem for more advanced users is that it may be too simple. If you've got more than three AV sources--say, a game console in addition to a DVD player, an iPod, and a cable/satellite box--you'll want to run everything through a central switcher, such as the TV or an AV receiver, then have the line-out or monitor-out jack connected directly to the Zvox. Otherwise, you'll still need to coordinate the toggling of audio sources (on the Zvox remote) with video sources (on the TV remote) anyway--either manually or through a universal remote macro.
A related shortfall on the Zvox 425 is its complete dearth of digital audio inputs. Likewise, the Zvox doesn't decode any Dolby Digital or DTS surround signals, accepting instead only two-channel analog stereo. In other words, if you've worked to build an all-digital system (using HDMI and optical or coaxial audio connections), you'll again have to settle for using the analog "monitor out" output from your AV receiver or TV--or simply opt for Yamaha's better-equipped (and more expensive) Digital Sound Projectors instead.
The other unique feature of the Zvox 425 is the SANE control (Sudden Audio Noise Eliminator). It's a variable-dynamic range compressor that might come in handy to reduce the "sudden noise" extremes of explosions and special effects for late-night home theater sessions--what's otherwise known as a midnight mode in AV receivers. We didn't find it to be all that effective, but it couldn't hurt.
Zvox offers a two-year warranty for the model 425; that's more protection than usual for virtual surround speaker systems.
We used the Live Free or Die Hard DVD to push the Zvox 425 to the limit of its performance capabilities. The sound was really big, dialogue clear as could be, and after we adjusted the PhaseCue control, the sound was remarkably spacious. Better yet, as we pumped up the PhaseCue, we didn't detect any added processing artifacts. But the 425 is still nowhere as visceral as a decent 5.1 speaker system. For instance, in one scene where an airborne car was about to crush Bruce Willis, the dynamic punch was lacking.
That said, the Zvox 425 stands tall among competing single-speaker products in the same price range. It was notably more powerful and dynamic than the Yamaha YAS-70 Air Surround soundbar speaker ($500 list). Yes, the Yamaha had the advantage of the separate full-size sub, so its deep bass was bigger and louder than that of the Zvox. If you want a lot of bass, go for the Yamaha. But it's a quantity-over-quality deal: the Yamaha's big bottom was boomy and bloated compared to the Zvox's more controlled bass. The Zvox 425 even produces more and better bass than Yamaha's flagship YSP-4000 ($1,600 list) that doesn't come with a sub.
Our current favorite speaker-busting music DVD, Eminem's Live From New York City, didn't faze the Zvox 425 one bit. (By comparison, the Sony DAV-X10 virtual surround home theater system didn't survive unscathed.) We cranked the volume way up, and the Zvox's sound just got better and better--the hip-hop beats were deep and nicely defined. The surround mix puts the audience in the surrounds, which the Zvox 425 projected forward a few feet ahead of the speaker. Zvox doesn't promote the 425 as a "virtual" surround system, but it's certainly on a par with most of them. The Yamaha YSP-4000 is still the reigning virtual-surround champ, though: it can project surround effects much farther out into the room than the Zvox 425 or any other brand's speaker that we've heard to date.
CD sound was also excellent and--after adjusting the PhaseCue control--the stereo spread well beyond the edges of the speaker. The I'm Not There movie soundtrack on CD has a wide range of music types; everything from hard rock tunes such as The Black Keys' "The Wicked Messenger" to Mason Jennings' acoustic folk take on "The Times They Are A-Changin'" sounded great.
Summing up, we were mightily impressed with the Zvox 425's sound on movies and music. Sure, it's big, but it's still a lot less intrusive than a 5.1-channel system.
Editor's Note: The rating on this product has been dropped slightly from 7.9 to 7.6 due to competitive changes in the marketplace.