Editors' note: The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace. The review has not otherwise been modified.
We've been fans of Zvox's sound bars for years, but we've often griped about a few missing features: no front-panel display, digital inputs, or true input switching. Zvox has recently released two new Z-Base units (the 555 and the 580) and there's virtually nothing to complain about on the design and features end. The new front-panel display is excellent, there are two digital inputs plus true input switching, and the Z-Base pedestal remains by far our favorite sound-bar design.
Still, the Zvox Z-Base 555 fell a little short of our (admittedly high) expectations. That's largely because of its sound quality, which isn't bad, but it didn't impress us as much as previous Zvox units. If you're not picky about sound quality or are just looking for an upgrade over your built-in TV speakers, the Z-Base 555 is an excellent choice, especially since the Z-Base 555 gets just about everything else right. (It's also a standout choice for dialogue clarity, with several useful adjustment options.) But if you're planning on playing a lot of music or looking for big home theater thrills, you'll want to look at competitors like the Harman Kardon SB 16 or Vizio VHT510.
Editors' note: The Zvox Z-Base 555 and 580 have largely identical designs and features, so these sections of the reviews are very similar.
Zvox's Z-Base design is so superior to other sound bars, it's shocking that it hasn't been copied yet. Most sound bars have a tubelike shape and are designed to sit in front of your HDTV. That arrangement can work fine, but it can look awkward and sometimes the TV's IR receiver is blocked. The Z-Base design gets around all of these issues by acting as a stand for the TV. (The Z-Base 555 is designed to hold TVs 26 to 50 inches, up to 110 pounds.) The result is that the Z-Base 555 looks more like a piece of furniture than an obtrusive home audio system.
The front panel is also surprisingly well-designed. At first glance there appears to be no front-panel display, but it lights up from behind the speaker grille when needed, letting you know how the volume is or which input you're using. It's also large enough to be easily read from the couch, which isn't always the case on sound-bar systems. There are just enough front-panel buttons along the bottom edge (in case you can't find the remote), as well as a minijack input for quickly connecting an iPod.
The worst you could say about the Z-Base 555's design is that it looks bland. While the ends are capped with glossy black plastic, the rest of the cabinet is made of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) with a matte-black finish. It's a muted look, which we like, but buyers looking for something more flashy will be disappointed.
The included remote is adequate, although unexceptional. Most of the buttons are the same size and there's not enough button separation to easily control by feel. On the upside, there are larger buttons for volume up/down and mute, which make them easier to locate quickly. Overall, the remote has a generic feel compared with the more thoughtfully designed Z-Base unit.
|Front-panel display||Yes||Virtual surround||Yes|
The Z-Base 555 has most of the key features we expect at this price, including a front-panel display, included remote, and virtual surround mode. The lack of an included subwoofer may seem surprising, especially when so many cheaper competitors include a wireless sub. However, the Z-Base 555 has a built-in woofer on the bottom of the unit designed to handle the low frequencies.
|HDMI inputs||0||Coaxial inputs||1|
|Optical inputs||1||Minijack input||Yes|
|Analog audio inputs||2||Max connected devices||5|
|Other: Subwoofer output|
Connectivity is above average on the Z-Base 555, although there are no HDMI ports. The lack of HDMI is more of a convenience issue than anything else; you're not going to be missing any of the subtle (or even negligible) benefits high-resolution soundtracks offer via HDMI on a system like this. In short, you'll either need to run all your HDMI components directly to your HDTV, then use the HDTV's audio output; or you'll need to run separate audio cables from each device directly to the Zvox.
On the upside, Zvox offers true switching between all its inputs. That may seem like an obvious feature to point out, but previous Zvox systems only offered "mix" inputs--meaning that all the inputs were active at the same time.
As we've come to expect from Zvox sound-bar speakers, the Z-Base 555 is supereasy to setup. Hook up your analog and digital sources--Blu-ray, DVD, cable box, games, etc.--and you're good to go. No calibrations or setup procedures are required, and since it's a self-powered speaker, you don't have to hook it up to an AV receiver.
We expected that the Z-Base 555's analog and digital inputs would sound about the same when we hooked up both connections from our Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, but the analog connection was a little louder. Adjusting the bass and treble tone controls "on-the-fly" via the remote, without having to delve into menus, makes it easy to get the sound balance you want when changing movies or music selections.
The Z-Base 555 is a big speaker, so it shouldn't need the assistance of a subwoofer to supply a decent amount of bass. We played a variety of DVDs and Blu-rays and were satisfied with the bass, but if you want more, you can hook up a separate subwoofer to the speaker. Of course, Zvox's larger Z-Base 580, with its dual built-in 6.5-inch subwoofers, makes more bass than the Z-Base 555, which has just one 5.25-inch sub. We can't say the larger Zvox's low-end sounds a lot more powerful, but it plays louder, and while there are sound-quality differences between the two models, they weren't huge.
Blasting through the car chase scene that kicks off the "Quantum of Solace" Blu-ray, we were treated to the sounds of machine-gun fire, screeching tires, breaking glass, metal-grinding-against-metal collisions, and the mayhem was all reasonably well played by the Z-Base 555. The stereo soundstage with PhaseCue II turned up to "2" was broad and deep, but no match for the room-filling sound capabilities of a true 5.1 speaker system, like the Energy Take Classic.
Like we said, the Z-Base 555 is powerful enough to play fairly loud, but the "Quantum of Solace" Blu-ray's dynamics and bass energy were in short supply. Turning on Zvox's new Output Leveling (dynamic range compression) feature immediately boosted the overall volume, and the volume remained at a consistent level throughout the film. So if you need to turn down the volume for late-night listening, with the Output Leveling engaged you'll still hear the quieter scenes, and when you're watching action movies like this one you won't have to turn down the volume for the big explosions or special effects. We didn't detect any muffling or sound-degrading problems caused by the Output Leveling feature--it worked quite well. The Dialogue Emphasis feature was fairly subtle, but was also effective.
Moving on with the Rolling Stones' "Ladies and Gentlemen" Blu-ray, we felt the Z-Base 555 inhibited the band's music too much. The music felt constricted and somewhat "canned," sounding closer to what we'd get from a table radio or iPod dock than a good subwoofer/satellite system. The Z-Base 580 was a step up from the sound we got from the Z-Base 555 with the 'Stones; there the sound was more rock and roll. Bass oomph and finesse aren't performance strengths of either Zvox.
Straight dramatic films like "Good Night, and Good Luck" sounded excellent. The film is set in the offices at CBS Television in the early days of broadcast journalism in the 1950s. It chronicles the real-life conflict between television newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (the filmmakers used stock footage of McCarthy). The sound of the dialogue, typewriters, and ringing telephones in the smoke-filled offices was excellent.
Sound bars rarely sound great with CDs, and so it was with the Z-Base 555. The speaker sounded small and the bass lacked definition. We preferred the sound of the Z-Base 580, but that's a $600 speaker, and for that much money, Harman Kardon's SB 16 sound bar is even better. (The SB 16 also includes a large separate wireless subwoofer).
The Zvox Z-Base 555 has a nearly perfect sound-bar design and a solid feature set, but it won't please critical listeners.