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 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 580 ($600 street price) fell a little short of our (admittedly high) expectations. That's largely because of its sound quality, which isn't bad, but didn't impress us as much as previous Zvox units. We also didn't think the Z-Base 580 sounded that much better than the smaller (and cheaper) Z-Base 555, although the 580 does get louder thanks to its size and an additional subwoofer on the bottom, making it a better choice for large rooms. If you're not picky about sound quality or are just looking for an upgrade over your built-in TV speakers, the Z-Base 580 is an excellent choice for large rooms, especially since the Z-Base 580 gets just about everything else right. But if you're planning on playing a lot of music or looking for big home theater thrills, you'll want to look 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 the design of 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 580 is designed to hold TVs 37 to 72 inches, up to 160 pounds.) The result is that the Z-Base 580 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 580'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
The Z-Base 580 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 580 has two built-in woofers on the bottom of the unit designed to handle the low frequencies.
|Analog audio inputs
|Max connected devices
|Other: Subwoofer output
Connectivity is above average on the Z-Base 580, 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 580 is supereasy to set up. Hook up your analog and digital sources--Blu-ray, DVD, cable box, and games--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 580'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.
We started our Z-Base 580 auditions with Billy Joel's new "Live at Shea Stadium" DVD. Joel's vocals and piano were clear, but when he rocks out with his big band, the Z-Base 580 didn't rise to the occasion. The speaker's dual 6.5-inch subwoofers made a decent amount of bass, but we wished the Z-Base 580 sounded a bit fuller. Turning up the bass helped, but it still lacked weight and impact.
The Z-Base 580 features an updated version of Zvox's proprietary PhaseCue virtual-surround processing, now called PhaseCue II, which you can use in three strengths, 1, 2, or 3. We found "1" restricted the sound field to the width of the Z-Base 580; "2" spread the soundstage beyond the edge of the speaker; but "3" was too much of a good thing, and the sound was too hollow or diffused. Set to "2," the Z-Base 580 produced a spacious stereo soundstage, but the Zvox system does not try to simulate surround effects. Billy Joel's 57,000 fans' cheers and applause were confined to the front of the CNET listening room.
We next compared the Z-Base 580 with Harman Kardon's SB 16 sound-bar/subwoofer system ($600). The SB 16 has one of the biggest subs we've ever seen included with a sound-bar system, and it generated a lot more and higher-quality bass than the Z-Base 580 could muster on its own. We also thought that the SB 16's sound bar produced clearer and more natural sound; the Z-Base 580 sounded more "closed-in" and boxy than the SB 16. Joel's fans' cheers were still in the front of the room, but their cheers sounded more natural. The brutal fight scenes in the "Sin City" DVD packed substantially more wallop over the SB 16.
We used the naval battle scenes from the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray to check the Z-Base 580's Output Leveling (dynamic range compression) feature. Turning it on during a quiet scene immediately boosted the overall volume, but the volume stayed at a consistent level, whether the sailors were talking, or cannon balls were smashing through the sides of wooden ships. So when you turn down the volume for late-night listening, the clarity of the quieter scenes doesn't suffer, and 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. The Dialogue Emphasis feature was fairly subtle in its effect, but it also worked well. Between the Dialogue Emphasis and PhaseCueII adjustments, it's easy to dial in the right amount of dialogue clarity on the 580.
CD sound was acceptable, but we really noticed the Z-Base 580's limitations compared with stereo speakers when listening to CDs. The speaker can play fairly loud without distress, but we much preferred listening to the Z-Base 580 at moderate or low volume. And some tracks sounded downright bad; a few songs off Radiohead's "Amnesiac" caused the 580's woofers to buzz in a way you really don't expect to hear on a $600 sound system.
Considering the Z-Base 580's price, size, and new features, we expected more in the way of sound quality. It's certainly no competition for the Harman Kardon SB 16 in terms of performance.
The Zvox Z-Base 580 has a nearly perfect sound-bar design and a solid feature set, but it won't please critical listeners and the smaller Z-Base 555 is a better value.