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Zvox Z-Base 420 review: Zvox's bar sounds big, but isn't perfect

Setup: A snap, but also a buzz
The most demanding part of the Zvox Z-Base 420's setup will be picking up your TV and placing it atop the speaker. Since the Zvox has rear bass ports, you'll want to make sure there's some space between the wall or back panel of your cabinet. The front display makes it easy to adjust bass and treble, as well as any of the Z-Base 420 sound-processing features. Aside from those settings, there's no additional calibration that needs to be done.

Zvox Z-Base 420
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Sarah Tew/CNET

After setting up the Z-Base 420, we did notice it had the unsettling tendency to make our Sony KDL-40EX640's plastic cabinet vibrate and buzz. Initially we assumed it may be a quirk specific to our TV stand or TV, but a quick Google search reveals that it's not just us. Moving the TV around didn't fix the problem, and it was definitely the TV itself vibrating, rather than any loose items on the TV stand. None of the other pedestal sound bars we recently tested caused any vibrations in the same configuration, no matter how loud we cranked them.

The buzzing isn't necessarily a deal breaker, because it doesn't seem to affect every TV stand/TV combo. But if it ends up affecting your setup, it's not worth putting up with, especially when there are several solid alternatives.

Of lesser importance is the fact that the Z-Base 420 lacks onboard Dolby decoding. This won't matter in most cases, as TVs typically convert all signals to a compatible format (PCM) when using the optical output. The major exception is when using a TV's internal over-the-air tuner, as TVs output a Dolby Digital signal from their optical output, which is incompatible with the Z-Base 420 -- you just won't hear any audio. The easy workaround is to use your TV's analog output if it has one, but not all do. If you don't have analog output, you're pretty much out of luck without a more elaborate workaround. Still, for the vast majority of buyers, this won't be a problem.

Sound quality: Big sound on a budget
The Z-Base 420 has a rich sound balance, offering dramatically better sound than the speakers built into your TV. It's also equipped with several sound-processing modes that are pretty handy. Zvox's Dialogue Emphasis boosts dialogue intelligibility, and it actually works, making it easier to hear actors above the din of background noise. Output Leveling promises to reduce sudden volume changes on commercials, but we found that less effective.

The Z-Base 420 also has a three-step "PhaseCue II" virtual surround mode to increase the size of the speaker's stereo image. It worked well, but doesn't actually create true, room-filling surround sound. That's hardly unique to Zvox; few sound bars deliver bona-fide surround, just wider stereo.

Zvox Z-Base 420
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Sarah Tew/CNET

That's not to say PhaseCue is useless. With PhaseCue enabled, the Z-Base 420 sounded considerably more spacious and powerful than Bose's Solo pedestal sound bar speaker. However, while the Z-Base 420 can play louder, it also occasionally distorted when a loud movie soundtrack overtaxed the speaker. That's a poor trade-off in our book; we'd rather Zvox had tuned the Z-Base 420 correctly so it played a little softer but never distorted.

The Z-Base 420 also came up short when we compared it with the Haier SBEV40-Slim sound bar. The Haier sound bar is just 1.1 inches thick, but it includes a separate subwoofer, which really helps fill in the low-end. Not only did the SBEV40-Slim sound bigger and made more bass, it outpaced the Z-Base 420 with superior clarity on Peter Gabriel's "New Blood" concert Blu-ray. Dialogue also sounded more natural over the SBEV40-Slim, although it lacks the Dialogue Emphasis feature found on the Z-Base 420.

CDs sounded smaller and tonally thinner than Blu-rays and DVDs over the Z-Base 420, but that's a common failing of sound bar speakers. If you want a sound bar that does a decent job with music, you'll need to step up to pricey alternatives like the SpeakerCraft CS3 or the Atlantic Technology PB-235.

What about Zvox's other sound bars?
Zvox offers an extensive line of pedestal sound bars, making it easy to find a model that matches your budget and the size of your TV. We've reviewed a few more-expensive models in the past, like the 580 and the 555, and they deliver largely the same experience as the Z-Base 420. Bigger models do offer bigger sound, but we've found the difference to be less than you might think. If you're deciding between two sizes, we'd suggest going with the smaller model. You'll save money, it's less bulky and the sonic differences are marginal.

Conclusion: Less-polished, more affordable pedestal sound bar
The Zvox Z-Base is an alluring option given its sound quality and price, but it's hard to give it more than a mixed recommendation given its imperfections. Its pricier competitors are safer bets in our experience, but if you're on a tight budget and put a premium on sound quality, it's worth an audition.

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