ZVOX Z-Base 550 Review
Single Cabinet Surround Sound System, $499
Since I'm not a big fan of the audio output from the integrated speakers in most HDTVs, readers often ask the natural follow-up question, "Then what should I buy for good audio?"
For many home theater enthusiasts, the answer is fundamental, a dedicated 5.1 or 7.1 audio system. But the solution isn't so simple for the average Joe or Josephine, who just wants high quality sound without all the surround sound speakers polka dotting the room and their wires snaking across the floor or through the wall.
Audio speaker manufacturers have been addressing the need for a simple, good sounding component with an all-in-one design called a sound bar. Basically, the engineers pack a multitude of speakers with an amplifier into one compact enclosure, which is usually long and not that deep or high - hence, sound bar.
I reviewed the soundmatters SLIMstage 40 a while back that fits this description well, long and only about four inches deep so it can hang right under a wall mounted flat screen TV. In contrast, the ZVOX Z-Base 550 is not quite as wide and much deeper. As its name implies, the Z-Base 550 is designed as a platform on which the TV sits.
For many who don't want to hang their TV on a wall, the Z-Base 550 is a simple answer to their HDTV's aural deficiencies. Just lift the TV, slide the Z-Base under it, attach one audio cable, power the 550 up and you're ready to rock and roll.
And boogie you will because the sound emanating from the Z-Base is robust. But even more importantly, the sonic quality is startling clear and crisp.
I have been flying recently and with the change in cabin pressure, occasionally my ears get stopped up. You know the sensation, all sounds are muffled. Finally, after mastication machinations, my ears pop and I can hear normally.
When compared to the murky sound coming from a typical set of integrated HDTV speakers, the clear-as-a-bell audio wafting from the Z-Base 550 is an ear popping experience.
Out of the Box
The non-descript black Z-Base 550 is 28" wide by 14.5" deep by 3 3/8" high. The metallic grille on the front is textured, the rest of the box is a matte black.
The unit is well built though ZVOX recommends that if you place your HDTV on top, it should not weigh more than ninety pounds. If your TV is heavier or you would prefer to mount your speaker on the wall, then ZVOX makes a more conventional looking sound bar, the Z-Vox 425xs, ($599 MSRP).
The twenty pound cabinet contains the whole kit and kaboodle, five 2" main speaker drivers, a 5.25" powered subwoofer and a 60W amplifier, all connected with a PhaseCue system that creates an impressive virtual surround effect.
On the back of the box are two basic sets of Left and Right analog audio inputs. You connect your primary audio into Input 1. Input 2 is for a second mixing input, which will not work unless Input 1 is connected. The instruction sheet says, "If you have two devices connected and playing at the same time, you will hear both devices."
The single Output jack is for an external powered subwoofer if you wish to add one. The manual suggests crossover settings for this subwoofer.
Don't be confused by this discussion of secondary audio sources and optional subwoofers. For most people, all you need to do is run one audio cable from the Audio Out of your HDTV or your set top box to the Z-Base 550.
Once the Z-Base is plugged in and switched on, its auto-on/auto-off circuit will turn the unit on about one second after you turn on your TV. And about three minutes after you turn your TV off, the Z-Base will flip to idle mode.
If your TV has a Variable Audio Out setting, then you can control the Z-Base's volume with the TV remote control. If this feature is not available, ZVOX packages a baby remote control that's smaller than a credit card. With it, you can adjust the unit's volume as well as tweak, subwoofer and treble levels and the PhaseCue control.
The remote is tiny, but the eleven buttons are raised and well spaced making them easy to use.
The instructions take up one half of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. Though it's a testament to the operational simplicity of the Z-Base that the manual really doesn't need to be larger.
The only problem I ran into was inserting the battery into the remote. I swear that the instructions said to put it in the wrong way.
Measuring the power consumption of the Z-Base 550 is a bit tricky because there are a number of variables that have a direct effect on the readings. Therefore, our sampling is much more practical than scientific.
I played the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Radio City Blu-ray disc on a Samsung BD-P2500 Blu-ray player connected to my HDTV with an HDMI cable. The TV then was feeding an analog audio signal out to the Z-Base.
With the Volume level of the Z-Base at 5 (out of 9), the reading fluctuated just below 7W. When I pumped the Volume to 9, the meter jumped to around 30W. Of course, at that volume, your neighbors two doors down may be calling the noise police.
When I turned the TV off, the meter did drop as the Z-Base settled into idle mode. The final reading was about 1.5W. Ideally, standby would be below 1W. Though I assume the unit's auto-on/auto-off circuit probably requires a little more juice.
If you really want to be power conscientious, then plug both your HDTV and the Z-Base into a power supply that can be switched totally off when the TV is not on.
Simply, for most situations, setup takes only a few steps. ZVOX even provides the audio cable. The trickiest bit might be searching through your TV's menus to see if it offers a Variable audio setting.
While you are in the audio menu of the TV, turn off any surround effects that may be in there. For example, my TV has a surround sound feature that didn't play well with the Z-Base.
Other than that, I suggest that you play with the PhaseCue, Subwoofer and Treble controls to see which settings you prefer. The instructions provide some guidance for adjusting them. Ultimately, it's a personal decision that depends on program content, your viewing room and your aural aesthetic.
The one feature that I miss on the Z-Base is a display that shows the settings for all the controls. As it is, if you want to know what your Volume level is, you need to either drop it to 1 or raise it to 9 and then count as you push the button. There is a blue LED light visible through the front grille that blinks every time you hit one of the remote control buttons.
When listening to the Z-Base 550, my ears rejoiced in a grateful hallelujah. No longer did they have to strain to hear dialog being muddied by integrated TV speakers. And the soundtracks of action movies richochet around the room. And music was sung by a heavenly choir. Hallelujah!
Even when the Volume is maxed to 9, the Z-Base produced rich, undistorted sound that can fill a medium sized room.
In this digital age, you may wonder why the Z-Base does not supply any digital audio inputs. To excerpt from the ZVOX website, "We like analog...A well-designed analog system sounds natural...Also analog is simple."
To me, the proof is in the hearing. I appreciated the tonal quality and the nuanced subtleties of the audio. And all those PhaseCue combinations of in and out of phase signals really do produce a stimulating surround sound experience.
If I had one quibble, the sound can be too crisp occasionally. Even with Treble turned down and Subwoofer punched up, Dave and Tim's guitars were a little too bright for my ears.
Can the Z-Base 550 match the performance of a separate 5.1 surround sound system? With some of the lower priced ones, it would put up a good fight. And it would be a lot simpler to setup. Against higher priced competition, size and power will triumph.
With the dropping prices for HDTVs, I realize that paying $499 for a separate audio system may seem too dear. But if you value audio, then the Z-Base 550 provides great quality at a competitive price.
When making this purchasing decision, part of the problem is that unless you can compare the Z-Base to your TV's audio, you don't know what you are missing. Luckily, ZVOX offers a thirty day home audition program.
If you are looking for a superior sounding replacement for your TV speakers, I recommend the Z-Base 550 wholeheartedly. It's a simple to use, one box solution that is ideal for those of you that are not ready to commit to a more expensive 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system.