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Zvox SB500 review: Zvox bar puts out grade-A sound

The unassuming Zvox SB500 is the best performing speaker the company has ever produced.

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Ty Pendlebury
Steve Guttenberg
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Ty Pendlebury

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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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Despite practically inventing both the sound bar and the sound base, Zvox is still not a household name in the way that Bose or Yamaha are. But the SB500 could be the product that brings the brand to a wider audience.

Zvox SB500 soundbar
8.0

Zvox SB500

The Good

The Zvox SB500 sound bar offers great sound quality and a simple setup process. Bass is plentiful despite the lack of a subwoofer. Styling is chic and the unit seems well put together.

The Bad

It doesn't include a wireless subwoofer, or subwoofer output jack. Deep bass can cause the soundfield to collapse into mono. The bar is taller than most and may block your TV's IR sensor if you're not wall-mounting.

The Bottom Line

The SB500 sound bar is easily the best-looking and -sounding Zvox we've ever tested, and among the best for the money, period.

Zvox founder Tom Hannaher told us at CES that he believed the $599 Zvox SB500 was the best sound bar you could buy. While that might sound like a baseless boast, it could have some truth to it. The SB500 does produce very sound good indeed, and better value for money than most sound bars we've tested.

The lack of subwoofer can be a problem, especially on bass reproduction during music playback, but the unit produces plenty of bass for watching blockbuster movies. Most sound bars exhibit some form of compromise, but the SB500's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. This is definitely Zvox's best-sounding unit yet, and if you're looking for a performance-first bar that will trounce most of the skinny, style-centric competition, it belongs on your short list.

Australian and UK pricing and availability have yet to be announced, but $599 converts to around £415 or AU$780.

Design and features

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Zvox's new sound bar, the SB500.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is no plastic cabinet with a sagging cloth cover. No, this is a tall brushed-aluminum box with a solid metal grille. Each end of the bar is covered in an attractive rubberized plastic, with one side containing the controls and the other a bass port which is supposed to prevent boominess when the unit is wall-mounted.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Like Zvox's sound bases, the SB500 are 3-channel systems with a trio of 2-inch left, right and center drivers in addition to a pair of 4-inch bass woofers. Interestingly the drivers don't extend along the width of the cabinet, stopping instead at the quarter mark on either side.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

On the right-hand side of the speaker lives an orange four-character display, which offers information on volume or input selection.

Processing features include Intellivoice for better dialog for the hearing-impaired, as well as a bass-limiting circuit which promises to give full bass without distorting at high volumes. We were surprised to note the SB500 lacks a subwoofer output jack, so you can't add a powered sub to the system.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Inputs are a little stingy for a $600 sound bar, with a single digital connection (either coaxial or optical, but not both), a stereo analog input and Bluetooth.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The remote control we received is the same credit card model we've seen on previous Zvox speakers. It's functional but not very helpful. For instance, there's no explanation as to what "sound modes 1 through 3" do. Adding "Movie" or "Music" presets would be more helpful.

Setup

Other than hooking up cables and placing the Zvox SB500 on a shelf -- or wall mounting it -- the SB500 has no setup or calibration requirements. You can fine-tune the speaker's bass and treble "on-the-fly" from the remote control if you wish.

Sound quality

We couldn't help but notice the Zvox SB500 sounded bigger than a lot of the skinny "lifestyle" sound bars we've tested here at CNET. There's a solidity to its presentation that we found hugely appealing. Voices in particular sounded naturally balanced and articulate.

We checked out the SB500's capabilities with a performance of "Turandot," from the opera scene on the "Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation" Blu-ray, and the SB500 delivered the glory. The scene has Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Benji (Simon Pegg) desperately searching for bad guys at the Vienna Opera House. The SB500 punched above its weight when Cruise exchanged body blows with the baddies, as the opera filled the magnificent theater around them. The SB500 raised the "bar" for sound quality in its price class.

To confirm that impression we compared the SB500 with the Yamaha YSP-1600 sound bar, which also lacks a subwoofer. That one sounded smaller, brighter, more confined, with less bass fullness. We also felt dialogue was better balanced and natural sounding over the SB500. Next, we popped on "The Furious 7" Blu-ray, and went directly to the car smashups, explosions, and gunfire exchanges. Again we preferred the SB500's more muscular, dynamically-alive presentation, while the YSP-1600 scaled the intensity back a notch or two.

The SB500 reasserted its gravitas during the "Gravity" Blu-ray with its solid tonal balance, natural sounding dialog, and its big and wide soundstage that extended wall-to-wall in the compact CNET listening room. That spacious sound made it easy to forget we were listening to a sound bar, and that's high praise indeed.

The SB500 may offer three levels of surround processing via the remote, but we heard little to no difference when switching especially between modes 2 and 3. Even so, the degree of spaciousness with movies was consistently satisfying.

The SB500 also trumped the YSP-1600 when we played CDs. The seriously potent funk grooves from the South Bronx post-punk, hip-hop band ESG sounded more credible over the SB500. Meanwhile the YSP-1600 struggled to keep up, sounding comparatively. The SB500 also shined with Elliott Smith's "I Don't Understand," where his multilayered vocals sounded big as life, while the YSP-1600 was leaner and thinner sounding overall. When we pumped the volume way up, the sound hardened and coarsened on both speakers. The SB500 and YSP-1600 sound best at more moderate levels.

If you're a fan of bassier styles of music, this may not be the soundbar for you. Zvox explained to us that the unit will use all available speakers to produce difficult bass to prevent distortion. What this translates to in practice is that, depending on the loudness of the bass, stereo music can come out as mono. During the deep bassline refrain from The Beta Band's "Life," for example, the soundfield collapsed and then clunkily popped back into spacious stereo once the bass stopped.

Conclusion

The Zvox SB500 is a force to be reckoned with in its price range. The sound was a cut above, and the bass and treble controls on the remote made it easy to fine tune the tonal balance of movies and music on the fly. On the other hand it can't generate the deeper bass we've heard from sound bars that come with subwoofers, so if you crave room-shaking low end, the SB500 won't get you there.

Zvox SB500 soundbar
8.0

Zvox SB500

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 8Value 8