Surround sound and its accouterments tend to dominate a living room, requiring an AV receiver, several speakers, stands, and wires to make the whole thing work. That's why many people choose to skip surround sound, opting instead for the tinny acoustics of their TV speakers. Single-speaker solutions like the Zvox Z-Base 525 represent the middle ground, promising much better audio than your TV without all the fuss. The Z-Base 525 is particularly fuss-free; its unique design makes it look like nothing more than a pedestal for your HDTV. Even better, the Z-Base sounds better than most sound bars, although it doesn't have as much of the surround effect as other sound bars. (The step-up Z-Base 575 sounds even better, but it's larger and more expensive.) Like any sound bar, it doesn't compare to a full 5.1 system, but if you can live with the compromises, the Z-Base 525 ($350) is one of the more affordable options with respectable sound and an outstanding design.
Design and setup
The Z-Base 525's design is almost characterless, and in this case, that's actually a good thing. The Z-Base 525 is a black rectangular box, with the main cabinet constructed of medium-density fiberboard and with a black metal speaker grille on the front. While most sound bars are designed to sit in front of your HDTV, the Z-Base 525 is meant to act as a second "stand" for your HDTV. That's the genius behind the design. Many people have a problem with audio you can see (speakers, wires, stands), but the Z-Base 525 looks like nothing more than an extra block of wood to perch your HDTV on. (Zvox claims it's capable of supporting 90 pounds of weight; for reference, the Panasonic TC-P50G10 weighs 90.4 pounds.)
That's not to say the Z-Base 525 is a perfect fit for every environment. In fact, in our testing environment, we found that the extra 3.5 inches of height put the TV at a higher-than-desired viewing angle. We're probably more sensitive to this than the average viewer, but if you already have a tall TV stand, the Zvox might not be a good fit. Likewise, if your TV is wall mounted, the Zvox may attract more attention to itself.
The only visual indicator that the Z-Base is actually on is a small blue LED in the speaker grille that lights up whenever you change a setting with the remote, like adjust the volume. This is definitely better than having no indicator light, like on the Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT, but it's still not ideal. We admit that a display on the front panel would have detracted from its design, but we wouldn't have minded at least a small LCD display on the top of the unit so we'd know if the Z-Base is pushed to the max or if there was still room to go.
The included remote of the Z-Base 525 is nearly as basic as the design of the main unit, but in its case that is more of a drawback. There are only 11 buttons total, but they are bunched together and similarly sized. While we longed for some button rockers and even a basic red button for power, the Z-Base 525 is simple enough that the uninspired remote is only a minor setback.
The Z-Base 525's sound comes from its array of five 2-inch drivers located behind the speaker grille from the front. The Z-Base 525 does not have a separate subwoofer, like some competing models such as the Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA IHT and Boston Acoustics TVee Model Two. Instead, the Z-Base features a 5.25-inches-tall built-in subwoofer, with a bass port pointed toward the back. If you're looking to add more punch, there's a subwoofer output jack to support a standalone sub.
The Zvox's connectivity options are simple; there are two analog stereo RCA inputs inputs on the back. Whether that's enough depends on your own setup, but it's certainly on the skimpy side (although it's more than the single input on the competing Polk SurroundBar SDA IHT).
Zvox did make a strange design decision with its audio inputs: the second audio input is described as a "mixing" input, which means you'll hear sound from two connected devices if they're playing audio. That's not a problem for most devices, which are turned off after use, but if you have an always-on DVR, it will be constantly feeding audio to your Zvox. We're guessing Zvox wanted to keep things simple by not offering the capability to truly change inputs, but it seems like an oversight when DVRs are so prevalent.
(There are a few ways around the problem. If your HDTV has stereo analog outputs, you can use it as a "switcher," which also may allow you too connect more than two devices. Secondly, if your DVR has a dedicated mute button or volume control (separate from that of the TV), you can manually lower it each time you're done watching TV).
It was immediately apparent that Zvox's Z-Base 525's ample size endowed it with a bigger and more dynamic sound than your average svelte sound bar. Smaller speakers are popular for their looks, but size still matters for sound.
Take a movie like "Master and Commander," which makes big demands on sound systems. The Z-Base 525 not only handled the cannon blasts with ease, it preserved a lot more of the dynamic fury than your average sound bar. That's a key "problem" with most sound bars: when confronted with highly dynamic soundtracks, they can't reproduce the sudden, really loud sounds nearly as well as a decent satellite/subwoofer would when partnered with a good-quality receiver. The Z-Base 525 gets a lot closer to that sound. On the other hand, when we put it head-to-head with the Polk SurroundBar SDA IHT, the Polk's dedicated subwoofer delivered more bass punch than the Z-Base 525, and the Polk's surround effect was better.
We loved the Z-Base 525's sound with the "Perfume" DVD. The film's lavish orchestral score emerged with a rare sense of scale and weight, and with the Phase Cue control turned up two or three steps, the soundstage occupied nearly the full width of the CNET listening room. Zvox's sound bars don't promise faux-surround sound, just a wider, bigger-than-stereo projection. It does just that.
With "Perfume" and other movies, the Z-Base 525's dialogue was fairly clear, but in densely mixed, high-impact movies like "Black Hawk Down" it was sometimes hard to hear what the actors were saying. We found that turning the Phase Cue down (or off) improved intelligibility.
The Z-Base 525's CD sound was adequate for quiet, acoustic music, but less adept with rock 'n' roll. That's true for most sound bar speakers, though.
We mostly listened to the Z-Base 525 on its own, without a separate subwoofer. Bass, supplied by the speaker's 5.25-inch woofer was fairly deep and clearly defined. We imagine that most buyers will be perfectly satisfied using the speaker that way. The low rumbling sounds of the underground caverns on the "Journey to the Center of the Earth" Blu-ray sounded ominously deep. When we added an Atlantic Technology SB-800 sub, we did hear an improvement to the movie's subterranean sounds, but a dedicated sub takes away a lot of the 525's simple design strengths.
Z-Base 525's sound quality also benefited from its adjustability. Between its treble, subwoofer, and Phase Cue controls, we could easily tweak the sound to our liking with each Blu-ray, DVD, and CD we played. That kind of adaptability is a rarity in the sound bar market.
Zvox's larger Z-Base 575 sound bar goes for double the Z-Base 525's price, and sounds very similar overall, but the smaller model produced less bass and can't play as loud. If you're planning on using the speaker in a large room, or really like to crank the volume for movies we recommend spending the extra money for the Z-Base 575.