Sound bars feel like they've been around forever now, but they're still a relatively new product; consider that the groundbreaking Yamaha YSP-1 debuted back at CES 2005. Since then, the exterior design of the units hasn't changed much, with the vast majority still consisting of a long pole-like shape that sits under your HDTV. That design has always been somewhat problematic, as an HDTV's stand is often too short or too wide to comfortably accommodate the sound bar, and even if it fits it still adds clutter to your media area.
The Zvox Z-Base 575 (along with the step-down Z-Base 550 and Z-Base 525) tackles both of these deficiencies in a clever way: the speaker is shaped like a large black box that acts as a second pedestal for your HDTV. That makes the Z-Base "disappear" on your TV stand--a remarkable feat considering the Z-Base's rather large size. That size contributes to the Z-Base's capability to fill a large room with sound; its powerful bass was better than any other sound bar we've tested that lacks a separate subwoofer. The Z-Base 575 does have its shortcomings. For instance, the feature set is minimalist, and competing systems offer significant feature step-ups, like HDMI switching on the YSP-3000 ($800 street price) or digital audio inputs on the Denon DHT-FS3 ($450 street price). However, if you don't need the extra features, dig the Z-Base 575's minimalist design, and need big sound, the Zvox Z-Base 575 fits the bill.
Design and setup
The Z-Base 575's design is almost characterless, and in this case, that's actually a good thing. The Z-Base 575 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 575 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 575 looks like nothing more than an extra block of wood to perch your HDTV on. (Zvox claims it's capable of supporting 140 pounds of weight; for reference, the Panasonic TC-P50G10 weighs 90.4 pounds.)
That's not to say the Z-Base 575 is a perfect fit for every environment. In fact, in our testing environment, we found that the extra 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.
It's also worth pointing out the Z-Base 575 is huge--it measures 36 inches wide by 16.5 inches deep by 5 inches high. We'd strongly advise measuring your existing TV stand to make sure the Z-Base 575 will fit without hanging over the edge.
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, such as adjusting the volume. This is definitely better than having no indicator light, as 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's still room to go.
The included remote of the Z-Base 575 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 are similarly sized. While we longed for some button rockers and even a basic red button for power, the Z-Base 575 is simple enough that the uninspired remote is only a minor setback. We also noticed that the Z-Base 575's volume ramps up and down a little too quickly, and does so in discrete steps. It was sometimes hard to get exactly the volume we wanted.
The Z-Base 575's sound comes from its array of five 3.25-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 Denon DHT-FS3 and Sony HT-CT100 do. Instead, the Z-Base features two 6.5-inch built-in subwoofers, with a bass port pointed toward the back. If you're looking to add more punch to the Z-Base 575's already considerable power, 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. This is certainly on the skimpy side, especially considering the Z-Base 575's $700 list price. The Sony HT-CT100 ($300 street price) offers three HDMI inputs, but has less powerful sound; the Yamaha YSP-3000 ($800 street price) has two HDMI inputs and does a better job of creating a surround effect.
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 to 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.)
The Z-Base 575 definitely sounds bigger and more powerful than any self-powered sound bar speaker without a subwoofer we've ever tested. With the Z-Base 575 you'll feel every bass thump.
Zvox's Phase Cue is capable of generating very wide stereo imaging, although it doesn't quite handle surround effects as well as some competitors can. We did appreciate its adjustability, however, as Phase Cue is adjustable over a nine-step range. The Z-Base 575 produced a much larger, wall-to-wall sound field than Atlantic Technology's FS-7.0 sound bar speaker.
In a shoot-out between those two speakers using the naval battle scenes on the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray as test material, both speakers did very well. The explosive shocks of cannon fire were a bit more dynamically alive over the FS-7.0 partnered with the SB-800 sub, but the Z-Base 575 was easily the most dynamic sound bar sans subwoofer we've tested. Its bass quality and power are at least on par with most self-powered sound bars that come with subs.
The FS-7.0's overall sound quality was a little clearer than the Z-Base 575's, but the FS-7.0 was being used with an Onkyo HT-RC180 receiver, so between that and the SB-800 sub, it's a far more expensive setup than the Z-Base 575. Adding the Atlantic Technology SB-800 sub made for a fairly subtle improvement to the Z-Base575's sound; most buyers won't need to add a sub.
It's worth reiterating that the Z-Base 575's adjustability is a major reason why we liked the sound. 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. No other manufacturers' sound bars are as adaptable.
Dialog was naturally balanced, but intelligibility suffered in the noisy battle scenes of "Master and Commander." Turning down Phase Cue helped alleviate that problem to a degree. The Z-Base 575's size advantages let it play louder without getting distorted than any self-powered sound bar we can think of. Listening to CDs was a mixed bag. They sounded perfectly fine for background listening, but cranking Bruce Springsteen, the Z-Base 575 sounded like a large (and powerful) table radio, and nothing like a good quality satellite-subwoofer system.
Zvox's smaller Z-Base 525 goes for half the Z-Base 575's price, and gets you roughly 75 percent of the sound. That is, they sound very similar overall, but the smaller model produces less bass and can't play as loud. Whether you need the extra oomph of the Z-Base 575 depends on your preferences and the size of your room.