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Zvox Z-Base 550 review: Zvox Z-Base 550

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Let's start with a clarification: Don't confuse the Zvox Z-Base 550 Low-Profile Single Cabinet Surround Sound System ($500) with any of those seriously svelte sound bar speakers crowding the market. It's not even comparable with Zvox's previous single-speaker soundbars, the 415 ($400) and 425 ($600). Those speakers were designed to either sit on a shelf in front of a TV, or wall-mounted under a flat-screen display. Instead, the Z-Base 550's style harkens back to Zvox's original (and still available) "console" designs, the 315 ($200) and 325 ($300). The difference is that the 550 is specifically designed to double as a stand for the TV itself, sandwiched between the furniture and the TV. The caveat: the TV needs to weigh less than 90 pounds, so those with flat-panel TVs with screen sizes larger than about 46 inches will want to carefully verify their TV's weight before investing in the 550.

OVR
7.1

Zvox Z-Base 550

The Good

Speaker system built into a base for small and midsize TVs; five 2-inch drivers, plus one 5.5-inch subwoofer; subwoofer output jack for use with separate subwoofer; zero setup/calibration required.

The Bad

Only supports two analog stereo inputs; base can't handle TVs heavier than 90 pounds; finicky remote needs to be pointed directly toward the speaker to work; no built-in controls means you're screwed if you lose the remote.

The Bottom Line

In addition to delivering solid sonics, the Zvox Z-Base 550 sets itself apart from competing single-speaker units with the unique capability to double as a stand for your TV.

Design and features
The Zvox Z-Base 550 is 26 inches wide by 3.6 inches high by 14.5 deep. Its medium-density fiberboard cabinet is a good deal more solidly constructed than your average plastic single speaker system. A black perforated metal grille covers the entire front baffle, and we think the high-gloss black side "cheeks" add an upscale flair to the otherwise no-frills look of the black vinyl covered speaker.

There is one bass port on the speaker's rear panel; blocking that port will result in less bass. If you must place the Z-Base 550 within a larger cabinet don't put it up against the rear of the cabinet.

The Z-Base 550 doesn't have any buttons or controls at all on its front or rear panels; so if you misplace the small credit card-style remote, you're stuck. The remote is a straightforward affair, with power, volume, mute, subwoofer volume, treble, and PhaseCue controls. That last one needs some explanation: think of it as a "space" control. With the PhaseCue control turned all the way down you just hear the sound of the Z-Base 550's three speakers without any processing, turn up the PhaseCue and the apparent soundstage width increases to create a bigger, more room-filling sound.

The subwoofer volume, treble, and PhaseCue controls are each adjustable in nine discrete steps. A blue LED behind the grille blinks in response to the remote's commands, and blinks continuously when the Z-Base 550 is muted. One caveat: You have to take care and aim the remote directly at the Z-Base 550 or the remote won't work.

Power is rated at 60 watts total for the five 2-inch drivers and the built-in 5.5-inch subwoofer. The Z-Base 550 uses Zvox's Infinite Compliance system for the outer two main speakers--they're connected to each other with an acoustic tube. According to Zvox, the system helps create big sound from a small cabinet.

Connectivity covers just the bare basics: two stereo RCA analog inputs and a subwoofer output. That's it, Zvox doesn't include digital inputs of any kind, which is annoying for a product at this price range. An auto-on/off circuit senses sound from your cable box, player, or TV and turns the Z-Base 550 on two seconds later. Three minutes after it receives no signal the speaker automatically shuts itself off.

Also note that both inputs are active simultaneously as one mixed output--if you have your DVD player and cable box plugged in and playing concurrently, you'll get a jumbled up version of both. What you'll want to do is just use the TV's audio outputs directly to the Z-Base, and then perhaps hook up an audio-only product (iPod dock, CD player, satellite radio) as well, and just be sure to only have one powered on at a time.

As mentioned, the Zvox Z-Base 550 is sturdy enough to support up to a 90-pound display. Likewise, the base of TVs sitting atop the 550 should be no larger than the unit itself--Zvox recommends avoiding TVs with bases larger than 27 inches by 13 inches. The big advantage to the 550's design is that you don't have to worry about wall mounting, and--the dirty secret of many other "just sit it in front of your TV" soundbars--the 550 won't block the TV's remote control IR receiver.

The Z-Base 550 is sold on Zvox's Web site with a 30 day satisfaction guarantee. If you don't like it, send it back and Zvox will send a full refund--including the original UPS ground shipping fees. The Z-Base 550 is also available from a limited number of dealers in the northeast United States.

Performance
Zvox doesn't claim the Z-Base 550 sounds like a bona-fide 5.1 channel system, but it's a gigantic step up from the speakers built into TVs. That's why we started our evaluations comparing the sound of the Zvox with a Vizio VO32L. Oh boy, the Mission Impossible III Blu-ray instantly sounded like a slam-dunk win for the Z-Base 550. The action sequences had credible impact and dynamics; switching over to the Vizio's puny speakers the sound was extremely harsh and dialog intelligibility was stymied by the TV's hollow sound. Of course, the Vizio was severely bass challenged compared with the Z-Base 550.

We also liked that the Z-Base 550 didn't require any fussing or setup adjustments, as soon as we made the connections it sounded fine. The built-in subwoofer really does produce a full sound, though its definition was on the soft side of neutral.

Unlike most sound bar speakers that don't provide much in the way of tone controls, you can dial-in the Z-Base 550's bass/subwoofer volume in nine steps. There are also nine discrete steps of treble adjustment at your disposal. The PhaseCue is equally adjustable, but if you add too much, the sound loses focus. Set to the minimum level you hear stereo, we used PhaseCue in the middle range to open up the soundstage, well out to the sides of the speaker.

The performances running through the Tony Bennett: American Classic DVD demonstrated the Z-Base 550's refinement. The orchestral string tone sounded nice and warm, and the speaker did a great job with the various duets with singers such as K.D. Lang and Diana Krall.

We finished up with a shoot-out with the $500 Denon DHT-FS5 soundbar and used the Mission Impossible III Blu-ray to sort out the differences. The Denon had greater overall clarity and produced a much larger, room-filling soundfield than the Zvox. That said, the Zvox had a richer, bigger sound, and dialog was more naturally balanced. With the Denon voices sounded a little thin. We liked both units for different reasons, but we'd give the nod to the Denon.

OVR
7.1

Zvox Z-Base 550

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 8