We admit that we've been pretty hard on the soundbar concept. It's not that we're not on board with with concept of a simplified and streamlined audio setup; it's just that the pesky laws of physics imposed by a single, small enclosure don't appeal to us: diminished bass response, a lack of SPLs and perhaps most importantly, a reduced sense of "surroundedness" from our surround-sound. But clever designers can leverage technology to wring some magic out of soundbars, to the joy of those with limited space. And if the number of soundbars on the market is any indication, consumers like the concept. To check up on some current offerings and get a good listen for ourselves, we got our hands on two offerings from ZVOX -- the top-of-the-line 425 model and a new entry with a clever bit of design, the 550. Follow us past the break for our review.
Gallery | 24 Photos
ZVOX 425 and 550 soundbars review
The ZVOX 425 is the internet company's pick of the litter, and it looks (and at 25 pounds, weighs) the part. The metal grille fronts a trio of 3.25-inch drivers in the center, a couple more 3.25-inch drivers pushed out to the edges of the front baffle (more on these later) and a 4-inch subwoofer driver placed at each end-cap. There's a 133-Watt amplifier onboard to put all these cones in motion, and those drivers at the far left and right are used in conjunction with the PhaseCue circuitry to enhance the surround-sound experience. The $700 price tag on this single cabinet may seem heavy, but you'll notice right away that this piece of gear is solid and dense -- no plastic or hot glue-gun feel to the construction here -- and ZVOX back this favorable first impression up with specs that reach down to 35Hz. As you can see from the photos, the 425 isn't exactly petite, not quite fitting underneath our 42-inch display.
The ZVOX 550 is the company's newest offering, and it's an interesting solution to a common problem of how to locate the soundbar+TV combo. The 550 is a broad, short box that makes it easy for you to put the TV (up to about 50-inches are within spec) right on top of the speaker itself. This little bit of design might seem obvious, but we were pretty taken with how downright practical it is. Again, a metal grille is up front, and the cabinet houses five 2-inch drivers, a single 5.25-inch downward-firing woofer that is ported out the back and a 60-Watt amp. All told, the 550 is specced for 45Hz - 20kHz response. And of course, included with the $500 admission price, you get ZVOX's PhaseCue circuitry to spread the soundstage as well.
Both units are controlled with a small remote that controls standby, volume, mute, bass, treble and PhaseCue.
Bundled in with the 425 is a right-angled IEC power cord and a RCA patch cord, also right-angled. There's a good reason for the L-shaped connectors -- the 425's ports are mounted on a recessed section of the unit's bottom side. This makes for a nice tidy install, but the RCA jack clearance isn't exactly roomy, and only angled plugs will allow the 425 to sit flat on surface. Even cheap, generic RCA patch cords didn't fit properly. It's a small niggle, and probably of absolutely zero consequence to the intended audience, but we have to make a note of it. The 425 also has a knob for S.A.N.E. (sudden audio noise eliminator) -- basically a compressor circuit, which we left in the off position for the review.
The 550 does without the recessed panel, employing a more standard arrangement of RCA stereo inputs on the rear panel along with a plug for the transformer's umbilical cord. The 550 also goes without the S.A.N.E. circuitry.
Both the 425 and 550 have two RCA stereo inputs. There are no digital inputs or digital decoding. Given the constraints of a soundbar, we can understand the design choice to limit input to stereo -- what's the point of decoding every surround-sound codec when the output is tied to a single chassis? We'd much rather the engineers choose to focus on making the most enjoyable experience out of a universal sound format (in this case, stereo) rather than decode a variety of formats only to hamstring them to a soundbar.
First things first -- the stereo-only hookups are a big hint to you that neither of these soundbars are meant to compete with a 5.1-speaker system when it comes to wrapping you in a soundfield. Producing discrete channel-like sound effects is something better left to soundbars that take a "sound beam" sort of approach (which in our experience really only work well in rectangular rooms) like the Yamaha soundbars. Both ZVOX products here are aimed at producing sound that's way beyond what you'll get from speakers built into your display's cabinet, while still being svelte enough to work into a streamlined system. And on those counts, both the 425 and 550 models succeed.
In our experience, the PhaseCue circuitry definitely helped widen the soundstage without making the speakers sound too "phasey," as if the left and right channels were completely out of phase. It's a nice effect, and definitely helps the sound "separate" from the cabinet. The tradeoff is that the adjustment had a definite effect on the overall tonality of the soundbars that (not surprisingly) interacted with the treble balance. Since we generally preferred a little less PhaseCue adjustment when listening to music, and a little more while listening to soundtracks, we also had to adjust the treble up and down a little between the two types of content as well; the remote definitely comes in handy.
Let's start with the 425, which is ZVOX's full-range offering. It's a pretty hefty unit, and it has sound to match. If we had to characterize the 425's sound in one word, it'd be "bold." The bass response of the 425 is surprising, as are the sound levels that it can reach. As impressive as the low-end reach is, though, we found the speaker a little tilted towards the "dark" side -- upper registers come through clearly, but never quite sparkle. Bear in mind that we just had the Paradigm Phantoms in for audition, which have a highly detailed treble that leans in the other direction, so the contrast in sound character was especially apparent and may not be as noticeable without the back-to-back comparison.
Moving on to the 550 offered a really interesting contrast. We came away feeling like the 550 tries to do a little less, and is more successful as a result. The bass response is nowhere near as extended, but we found the overall character of the 550 more neutral than its bigger brother. Add this in to the sheer practicality of the cabinet design and the lower price point, and we think the 550 is a real winner.
Some other lessons really sunk in during our time with the ZVOX soundbars. As we said, soundbars are by nature compromised in terms of generating true surround-sound. But we really like the approach ZVOX has taken here in not compromising on sound quality. Music was very enjoyable on both units, and soundtracks were clear when watching movies. These products are all about generating high quality sound from a single cabinet, and they do so without sounding overprocessed (especially off-axis) like we've heard in some soundbars that are laden with more bells and whistles. Good, clean sound in a small, simple package -- sounds like a perfect setup for the den or bedroom, doesn't it?
"So these two guys named ZVOX come into the soundbar, and..." Seriously, these products are no joke, and based on the number of entrants in the soundbar field, the CE manufacturers agree. The simplicity of a soundbar to match svelte displays is a trend that isn't likely to go away. Even if your installation requires that you give up on discrete multichannel surround-sound, you don't have to give up on sound quality. These products are a great fit for space is limited and/or install simplicity is needed. For customers who are turned off by speakers built into TVs (which are too-often just dreck), but unwilling to string up speakers and a receiver, these soundbars are a great solution. We imagine a lot of people have a TV somewhere in the home that matches that description -- maybe it's not the main TV in the living room, but secondary viewing areas fit the bill quite nicely.
The 425 is, no doubt, the more powerful of the two products. If you need to fill a larger space or need more bass, it's the one for you. We wouldn't call $700 cheap for a soundbar, but you do get a lot of speaker (and amplifier) for the money. Remember that ZVOX is an internet-only company, so a lot of retailer margin savings are passed on to you, and it shows -- even with the 425 pumping out good volumes, there were no rattles or squeaks, just good clean sound.
For our money, the 550 fits perfectly into the soundbar niche; it not only fits easily into a flat panel display installation, it can actually be part of the installation. Its leaner tonal balance overall provides sound quality miles beyond anything we've heard from speakers built into a TV, and with a little PhaseCue added in, most folks probably won't realize the slim black TV pedestal is pumping out the sound.
In the end, the ZVOX 425 and 550 aren't for every install; but where high quality sound has to be balanced with simplicity and streamlining, they're a perfect match. If you've got a second system somwehere that's using the TV's built-in speakers, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the difference an upgrade to high-quality sound from one of these units can make.