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

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.

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