Zvox Z-Base 580 review:

Zvox Z-Base 580

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 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.

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