ZVOX Mini Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Matthew Evert   
Thursday, 01 June 2006

Zvox Audio may sound like a new brand name, but President Tom Hannaher is no stranger to the high fidelity electronics industry. Tom has worked at Advent, with such industry pioneers such as Henry Kloss, the inventor of projection television and high fidelity cassette decks. Later, Hannaher went on to run the marketing of Cambridge Soundworks before eventually transferring his energy to Zvox. What this impressive resume boils down to is that Hannaher knows both the audio and visual side of the home theater business. Even better news is that Hannaher surrounds himself with talent that can create an incredible-sounding miniature amplifier/speaker system that can be easily set up and enjoyed. The Zvox Mini can provide amply rich sound in virtually any room, with the simplest of connections and fine-tuning, for a modest $199.

What is so special about the Zvox, you ask? The Zvox is a simple preamp, amplifier and speaker array that together emulates a complete 5.1 surround sound system. Fascinatingly, this is all contained within the confines of a small 13-inch wide by 10-inch deep cabinet. Standing a mere three-and-one-third inches tall, this all-in-one surround system can easily rest on top of a television. The medium-density fiberboard cabinet is rectangular in shape with an outwardly curved front face. This face houses the front three drivers, which are shielded by an aluminum grille. The infrared remote sensor and two knobs that control the volume and size of the soundstage (termed “PhaseCue”) are also featured on the front of the unit. Moving to the stern of this ship, you will find a power switch, subwoofer port, subwoofer volume control and audio inputs.

The cabinet features an array of three two-and-a-half-inch front speakers. These drivers are accompanied by a hidden four-by-six-inch woofer, which has a port and separate volume control located on the back of the unit. The metal back of the Zvox not only features the power and input connections, but also acts as a heat sink for its built-in amplifier. The all-inclusive cabinet is very light at only seven pounds, but do not forget the weight of the external power supply, which is an additional three pounds. Your choices of finishes are black or silver rubbery-feeling paint or smooth-feeling high-gloss white paint.

The Zvox gains special attention by allowing the user to adjust the perceived size of the soundstage by using the PhaseCue knob on the front of the unit. At the low extreme (the far left position), the soundstage is compact and focused towards the middle of the cabinet. As the knob is adjusted clockwise, the soundstage increases and eventually extends several feet to either side of the cabinet. This widening of the soundstage is achieved by taking the left and right signals from the selected input and mixing them into three signals: left plus right, left minus right, and bass. This mix of both in-phase and out-of phase signals is amplified, then fed into the four speakers. The PhaseCue knob controls the relative mix of these signals and thus the size of the soundstage.

Another great asset of the Zvox is its ability to generate powerful and full-range sound with a small cabinet. This is done by creating a back-connecting port between the otherwise sealed left and right speaker enclosures. This back channel routes low-frequency pressures from each of the two speakers together and, as a result, eliminates any undesirable acoustic rigidness in the suspension of the speakers. This Infinite Compliance technology that I just described above can yield a much more impressive sense of power than is traditionally possible with a cabinet of such petite proportions.

I decided to hook up the Zvox in a small living room on top of my NAD 515 CD player, which I placed in the center of the room on a coffee table. I then rested my 60GB Video iPod on top of the Zvox. Zvox includes all the necessary cables to connect an RCA component (my CD player) and a stereo connector component (my iPod) as inputs. The Zvox power switch, when in the standby position, will automatically turn on when a signal is detected on either input. Likewise, the unit will automatically turn itself off if no signal is detected for several minutes.

I left about 18 inches of space between the Zvox and the back wall of the room so I could get a sense of how much the subwoofer could do without the benefit of a wall right next to it. The subwoofer seemed happiest with the volume at the one o’clock dial setting and did not rattle or distort while still providing some impactful bass. If the subwoofer still does not seem to provide enough bump for your taste, Zvox offers an external subwoofer, which can be connected in place of the second input. As you will find out in the next section, it is doubtful you will need the extra help in the thump department, but who am I to say when enough is enough?

Using the provided Zvox infrared remote, I could adjust the volume up or down with ease. Two AAA batteries are provided to juice up the simplistic remote. The Zvox is capable of being hooked up to either the fixed or variable outputs of most audio components. I set the Zvox volume at about 25 percent for the CD player and had to up the volume to about 60 percent for the iPod to be at normal listening volumes. This percentage of volume demand went up substantially when both inputs were connected at the same time. I experimented with the setting of the PhaseCue knob with various types of audio sources. I found the sound to be stretched too thin and empty sounding at the far right setting of the PhaseCue for anything I tried playing. I felt compelled to leave it a quarter turn from the left extreme for music listening and more towards the center position for movie viewing.

Adding to the allure of the Zvox is the portability of the unit. The optional rechargeable battery power supply and PortaParty bag allow you to take your Zvox on the road. Each of the items can be purchased for an additional $50. The aforementioned battery can power the Zvox for up to six hours on a single eight-hour charge. That leaves this baby in the running for your next trip to the parents to escape the monotony of the Kenny G Christmas album that always finds its way into the music selection.

Music and Movies
Using the setup of the iPod mentioned earlier, I began to run some music through the Zvox to evaluate its sound quality. The Ceremony (Beggars UK) album from The Cult features a myriad of alternative rock songs, so it was an obvious choice for use with the Zvox. “White” begins a with an acoustic guitar segment that immediately lets the listener know that these musicians are for real and are ready to rock. The strums of the guitar were sweet-sounding as they danced about the midrange frequencies. The gradual merging of the bass drum, electric guitar and vocal accompaniment did not wash out the presence of the acoustic guitar at any point during the track. Again, I followed my ear’s request to leave the PhaseCue dial setting at about a quarter turn from the left extreme to avoid hearing a thin-sounding soundstage. In “Heart of Soul,” my attention was focused on frontman Ian Ashbury’s powerful vocals surrounding my ears with bliss. If the mesmerizing cries of his voice do not make you want to take singing lessons, then your senses must be numb. The details of Ashbury’s vocals were not restricted by the small cabinet of the Zvox. Deep, throaty cries and the bass-rich hums alike were all delivered without any apparent grain.

The Fugees’ Greatest Hits album (Sony) offered the bass-heavy hip hop sound I was looking for to test the bump capabilities of the Zvox. “Killing Me Softly” features the soulful vocals of R&B diva Lauren Hill. Her voice and those of the backup singers sounded warm, but had a slight echo to them, as if they were being sung in a church or large hall. The heavy bass of the drums and bass guitar had ample punch, but did not distract me from the singers’ vocals. I did turn the subwoofer volume down a little from my original one o’clock position to avoid some of the clipping I encountered. I think this was due to the recording being less that ideal, since I heard the same thing on another receiver. Once I made the adjustment, there was plenty of clean low-frequency bump hitting my chest without it sounding distorted. The track “Ready or Not” went more smoothly and had the added benefit of Wyclef Jean’s smooth vocals. The midranges, such as Jean’s raps, were noticeably clean. Some of the higher frequencies, such as the high hat were a little rolled off and missing some of the finer details I have heard from my reference system. The feeling of openness with the soundstage was not as prominent with the Zvox either. That said, the compact size and budget price of Zvox more than makes a solid case for its legitimacy.

“Transporter 2” (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) is the sequel to one of my favorite demo flicks for visitors to my home theater system. Although the acting is wretched and the plot is mostly focused on making actor Jason Statham look like Bruce Lee Bond, there are excellent sound effects. There is a scene where Jason drives his Audi off one multi-story parking complex onto another adjacent one. The adjacent parking complex is still under construction, so there are thin support bars still scattered throughout the floor of the second building. As the car landed and spun out across the floor of the parking structure, I heard the pinging noises of the support bars snapping apart all around me. The effects were more focused towards the front of the soundstage vs. the 360-degree sound that I heard from my reference system. Still, for a small cabinet with just a couple speakers, it was impressive to hear the level of surround sound that I experienced. Fans of the first “Transporter” movie won’t be disappointed: there are lots of explosions. Even several feet from the nearest wall, the Zvox’s built-in subwoofer was able to provide impact to the explosions. If you feel you need more thump, just move the cabinet closer to a wall or turn up the subwoofer volume a bit. Be careful to allow at least two inches between the back of the Zvox cabinet and the wall to ensure proper ventilation and bass reproduction.

Connecting the Zvox to my DirecTV satellite receiver would have been easier if the Zvox had digital inputs, but unfortunately the receiver had only RCA outputs. The absence of digital inputs was a bummer to me at first, but after further thought, the additional cost of adding them would have not been worth it. Once connected, I quickly tuned into one of my favorite programs, “Monster Garage” (Discovery HD). In this particular episode, Jesse James is challenged to build a flying car out of a $100,000 sports car and $5,000 worth of parts. The Wright brothers were probably spinning in their graves, knowing that they were being referenced on a reality TV show. The whizzing of the band saws slicing up sheet metal and the buzzing of the sanders brought the construction project into my lap. The build crew had a particular obsession with breaking glass during this project, so I paid particular attention to whether the Zvox ever sounded brittle. Zvox had no trouble handling the frequent crashing sounds and maintained its composure. I think the furthest the car actually got off the ground was a couple of feet, so the Wright brothers’ place in history is secure for the moment or at least until the next episode of “Monster Garage.”

The Downside
Using multiple inputs was my biggest frustration with this product. I experienced no issues with one input connected. As I added the iPod to the second input, I started to encounter some issues. First, the volume is reduced on both sources. It is a substantial decrease and something that required me to turn my iPod volume nearly all the way up to compensate. In addition to turning up the iPod volume, I also had to turn the Zvox volume up substantially higher than the CD player when the iPod input was playing. Second, I had to physically disconnect the iPod (not just pause it) from the back of the Zvox before I could hear the CD player again. Of course, when I did that it was as loud as a jetliner taking off in my ear. Occasionally, I would get a distorted signal that would break up and come back when the CD player was connected to the second input. I think some normalization of the input volumes and the presence of an explicit input selector switch (put it on the remote, too) may help the issue.

There were also some smaller issues that were of note, including the use of a clunky external power supply. I understand that this adds the flexibility to be portable, but it is ugly and heavy. A more slick power supply in a version two unit would be well appreciated. The feet of the cabinet were not well-attached and slid off during my tests. Maybe some stronger glue would fix the problem. The front two feet were actually missing from my test sample, which ended up being the source of a mystery rattle I was hearing in my tests. Some helpful number guides or frets on the subwoofer, PhaseCue and volume knobs would be helpful to easily reset to your home settings if you take it to the beach and change the settings. The use of RCA inputs would have been a better choice than the use of the mini-stereo plugs. Except for an iPod or portable CD player, most input devices will use RCAs, not stereo plugs. If you have more than one RCA device, you will need to buy a special cable to connect it to the Zvox.

As people continue to invest in increasingly high-performance home theaters, they will also want to find ways to get that sound into their lives outside of their darkened theater rooms. The Zvox mini screams for applications such as desktops, vacation homes, guest rooms, hotel rooms (it sounds 10 times better than a Bose Wave Radio for less than half the price) and beyond. With the introduction of the Zvox Mini music system, better sound can be easily had by all at an affordable price. The Zvox is easy to set up, small, portable and versatile. Now you can experience better-sounding television, music and movies without having to spend a lot or take the time learning how to set up a complicated receiver. No bigger than a cigar box, the Zvox Mini packs a large enough punch to fill any small to medium-sized room with high fidelity music. Best of all, you can enjoy the same sound at home or take it with you on the road. Seemingly, a performance this good at this price in a component this small should be impossible. It’s not – the Zvox Mini is a winner.
Manufacturer ZVOX
Model Mini Speaker System
Reviewer Matthew Evert

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