Zvox SoundBase 350 review: Affordable sound base beats many Bluetooth speakers
In history it is rarely the inventors of something who perfect it. Just look at England, the country that invented the modern game of soccer but has only won the World Cup once in its 85-year history.
Zvox invented the sound base concept -- a squat, platform-based speaker that your TV sits on -- way back in 2003, but it has been eclipsed by companies like Pioneer and Sony.
That isn't to say that the Soundbase 350 is a bad product because it's not. This budget performer is easy to use and sounds decent. It also includes Bluetooth streaming for added convenience, and it will beat the pants off any portable speaker in its $249 price range.
While the Pioneers and Sonys of the world are flashier and better performers, the Zvox will still appeal to budget-conscious buyers who need a little help deciphering TV dialogue.
The Soundbase 350 is fairly small as sound bases go, measuring only two feet across. It can support TVs no larger than 42 inches and weighing as much as 50 pounds.
The design is the same as the company has used since the dawn of the decade. It's a black, rectangular box with a little tab on the bottom right-hand side. This tab contains the minimalist controls -- power, volume +/- and input -- above which sits an orange four-character display that activates only when the remote is in use.
The remote itself is a credit-card-style model that includes all of the necessary keys, including buttons for the Accuvoice and Output Leveling mode. It tries to give a nod toward ergonomics with a beveled back, not to mention a mute and volume control on the bottom.
For an entry-level sound base, the Zvox offers a goodly assortment of capabilities, including the all-important Bluetooth wireless connectivity, complete with aptX.
The Zvox SoundBase 350 is a 3.1-channel system that includes drivers for left, right and center, plus a "subwoofer" hidden underneath.
The Zvox can decode Dolby Digital soundtracks but not DTS, as it is designed primarily to hook up to your TV with an optical digital cable. If you want DTS, you'll need your player to do the decoding.
In addition to Bluetooth, the sound base includes an optical digital input, a coaxial digital input and two analog audio inputs.
Unlike the more expensive PSB Alpha VS21 and Cambridge TV5 sound bases we've tested of late, the Soundbase 350 has bass and treble controls accessible via the remote; they each provide -4 to +4 range of adjustment. The Output Leveling feature minimized abrupt soft-to-loud volume changes, and the Accu-Voice Dialog Emphasis feature improved dialogue intelligibility, but at the same time it thinned out the sound too much.
Surround Modes 1, 2 and 3 produce increasingly wider soundstages, but only when you're directly centered in line with the speaker. Even then, we were always aware that most of the sound was coming from a small speaker. Move over to the left or right and stage width collapses, so most of the sound will appear to come from the Soundbase 350. To be fair, we've heard similar shrinkage with most sound bars and bases when listening off-axis from the speaker.
The pairing process for Bluetooth proved a little frustrating as the Zvox lacks a dedicated pairing button. This is especially annoying if you want to add a second phone to the speaker, for example if a friend comes over. We had to turn the Zvox off and set it to Bluetooth for it to become discoverable.
The Zvox Soundbase 350 sounds competent. As we put it through its paces, nothing about the sound distracted our attention from movies and concerts. You might think that's always a given, but it's not. For example, the Vizio SB4051 sound bar's overly abundant bass was impossible to ignore or turn down. As we played Blu-rays and CDs, the Soundbase 350 always sounded good -- better than a Bluetooth speaker -- but it did suffer in comparison to competitors.
Even with the Soundbase 350's surround processing set to the max, we still felt the soundstage and imaging were cramped. The Soundbase 350 sounds like the compact speaker it is. Action movies like "Black Hawk Down" lacked the impact we got from larger sound bases such as the Pioneer SP-SB03 . With action films, the SP-SB03 totally clobbered the Soundbase 350.
The SP-SB03 also had a richer/fuller tonal balance so dialogue sounded more natural, but we also noted the two designs had about the same deep bass capability. The Soundbase 350's bass definition also exceeded the SP-SB03's. The difference was much more noticeable when we played music; the SP-SB03's looser bass was muddier than the Soundbase 350's.
Music such as Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" and rapper Earl Sweatshirt's "I Don't Like Sh#*, I Don't Go Outside" albums sounded potent on the Soundbase 350, thanks to its clear, powerful bass. On the other hand, classical, acoustic jazz and bluegrass benefited from the SP-SB03's sweeter tonal balance.
Once connected via Bluetooth, the Pioneer again showed its dominance. Both units were able to produce ample bass, but the Zvox sounded tinnier and less present with rock music. Despite its superiority, there were limits to the amount of detail the Pioneer could unveil, with occasional Bluetooth distortion effects audible that weren't heard on the Zvox.
If you need a compact sound base for a small display and don't watch a steady diet of action films, the Zvox Soundbase 350 has a lot going for it at its $249 list price. It also holds its own with music, but Pioneer's excellent, but larger SP-SB03 is still the one to beat for movie and music. That one is now heavily discounted, so it's also less expensive than the Soundbase 350.