Are you putting up with indecipherable dialogue on your TV? There are numerous solutions to countering poor sound, but buying a new soundbar is a good place to start. Massachusetts-based company Zvox virtually invented the soundbar, and it's been refining its designs in the almost 20 years since. After a detour into hearing aids, the company has been using what it learned to develop its line of AccuVoice speakers, which includes everything from the entry-level ZV100 ($100) to this new flagship AV357 soundbar -- which lists for $350 but is on sale right now at $300.
With its MDF construction (that's engineered wood for those unfamiliar with the acronym), the AV357 is both larger and more attractive than step-down models. Features are fairly sparse -- there isn't Bluetooth streaming -- but its performance is above and beyond what you'd expect from the size.
That said, compared to other soundbars at this price point, the Zvox lacks a lot of features. Competitors beat it handsomely for must-haves like advanced connectivity and usability -- as does the Zvox AV257, which is currently out of stock. But at the end of the day, the AV357 is well-built and makes TV dialogue and music sound better than any television alone.
What is it?
The Zvox AV357 is a single, 24-inch soundbar designed to improve dialogue from your TV. It doesn't offer Bluetooth, HDMI or other standard fripperies but it does have 12 levels of voice enhancement. Some soundbars have a single dialogue mode, if they're lucky, so this means the AV357 is highly configurable in comparison.
The unit offers six stages of AccuVoice boost, plus an additional six stages of SuperVoice accessed via the remote's AccuVoice button. SuperVoice is designed to reduce background sounds and boost dialogue even further. Other sound modes include a volume leveling mode (for loud commercials), PhaseCue virtual surround and bass and treble controls.
The Zvox has just two inputs: an analog and an optical digital. The analog input allows users to connect a TV or an Amazon Echo for automatic muting when issuing commands. The bar itself is covered in a relatively attractive black ash veneer and measures 23.75 inches wide, 4.19 inches deep and 2.75 inches high. I was using a fairly low-slung Westinghouse TV during my testing and found that the soundbar did block its IR port. If that's a problem for you, there sadly isn't a wall-mounting option (though you could probably find a third-party solution).
You can program your TV's remote to control the speaker's volume levels or use the included remote, which has a premium feel to it and large buttons to aid people with low vision. (It allows you to access the speaker's additional features, though it would have been great to add a SuperVoice button because this isn't obvious without consulting the manual.) Alas, unlike other Zvox speakers I've tested, the AV357 doesn't have controls on the unit. This could be an issue if, like me, you misplace the remote and need to turn down the sound in a hurry.
The soundbar is powered by a 24-watt Class D digital amplifier -- just like the AV257 -- and a complement of 3-inch, full-range speakers. If you want more bass oomph, there is a combined headphone and subwoofer output.
Personally, I prefer the features of the AV257 to the AV357 as it offers both the extra optical-analog input and has controls on the unit. It's also $80 cheaper. While I haven't heard the AV257, the other main differences are the AV357 is much wider and it features wood construction. The increased physical volume most likely contributes to the bass weight that I heard. But could I tell the soundbar was wood and not aluminum by looking at it? Not really. It was a black blob in front of the TV. I actually prefer the unique, brushed look of Zvox's aluminum soundbars to the AV357's somewhat pedestrian black ash.
How does it perform?
When setting up the AV357, I needed to tweak the sound to get it exactly how I wanted. It wasn't quite ready to go out of the box -- probably due to it using an analog TV source instead of digital. For instance, I needed to reduce "Lo" by 2, or bass drums sounded loose and floppy. Additionally, AccuVoice settings 2 and above were loud and too forward and bright -- not good for music. Finally, when set in SD 3 (Surround 3) mode, the soundbar was capable of a wide enough soundstage and bass for music.
In my previous experiences with Zvox soundbars, one of the company's consistent strengths -- in addition to great dialogue -- has been the amount of bass the brand can squeeze out of a compact cabinet. Of course, this means a lot of behind-the-scenes signal processing, and I found this could lead to some weird behavior. Bass-heavy music could pulse in and out to the beat, for example.
Luckily, this was less of an issue with the AV357. While I did notice subtle fading effects on the sparse spoken-word interlude of Fucked Up's Year of the Horse Act 1, I only heard it once during my week with the speaker. Even Alt-J's notoriously speaker-destroying 3WW didn't overload the cabinet with its deep bass bed -- at least, not after pulling back the bass control previously.
With further music listening I found Foals' What Went Down was especially enjoyable. It's a cliche, but I really did check to see if the Vizio V21 was on as the bass seemed too deep, too tuneful to be from the Zvox's small enclosure.
As you'd expect, given the company's main pitch, the Zvox was better with voices than the Vizio V21 (our current budget favorite). The AV357 offered enhanced detail, reminding me of audiophile-grade loudspeakers, and it was especially capable of deciphering gritty British cop shows like Line of Duty.
The AV357 offers so many tailored options that it encourages tweaking, but those can be taken too far. Depending on the mode, you may find that midrange heavy sounds become unnatural (e.g., Supermode 2 and 3 accentuated turning bedsheets in John Wick), making them sound like they'd been sitting out in the frost overnight. Also, at AccuVoice's highest levels the brighter sound could be uncomfortable for family members who don't need much assistance with hearing voices.
As you'd expect, the Vizio ran rings around the Zvox for home theater excitement. During Avatar's thanator chase scene, the thump of the Vizio's wireless sub enhanced the drama. Meanwhile, the Zvox came off a little thin; clear, but thin. What I didn't expect was the Zvox's dynamics. It may not be able to pump out bass, but if you don't use the volume leveling feature, the AV357 handles dynamic shifts well -- like the quiet jungle sounds of Pandora broken by gunfire.
Should you buy it?
Zvox isn't the only company making dialogue-improving soundbars: Polk, Samsung and Vizio all offer models with voice enhancement, though they offer little in the way of custom configuration. The Zvox AV357's six levels of voice control are something no other soundbar company can offer. But if you really need AccuVoice, there are cheaper Zvox soundbars that also include it, including the $100 AV100.
The more expensive SB500 and SB700 also include AccuVoice in addition to Bluetooth, and the SB500 is much larger (making it worth the extra $80). It also has a selection of onboard controls if you can't find the remote.
Features and construction aside, the AV357's main attraction is its audio performance: It's one of the clearest, most dynamic soundbars you'll find in a small enclosure. Its performance belies its size, as it is capable of excellent clarity and a deceptively deep bass. It's also surprisingly good with music. Being made of wood is one of its least interesting qualities.