ZVOX 425 Single-Cabinet Surround Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Jim Swantko   
Friday, 01 August 2008

Sometimes in life, less is more. It seems the older I get, the more often I find myself muttering this popular cliché. All too often, the electronics industry does not share my affection for this philosophy, thus leaving me pulling my hair out over AV system complexities that I never dreamed possible or realized were in any way necessary. If you pay any attention to consumer electronics, as does any reader of AVRev.com, you know that there is a never-ending stream of new products always trumping the previous version with new features and complexities. Just when you think all sanity has been lost, along comes a company like ZVOX Audio. They are the proverbial breath of fresh air that this industry sometimes lacks. 

The company was created by people from some of the best-known brands in the audio arena, such as Boston Acoustics, Advent, Cambridge Soundworks and Genesis. Their philosophy is to keep their products simple, make them of high quality and offer them at affordable prices. Easier said than done, but stick with me here, as we are talking about how to make sound from your increasingly waifish HDTV sound thick and rich like Barry White (before all that fried chicken tragically caught up with him).

While perusing the ZVOX website, it became apparent to me that these guys are straight shooters. They shun complicated digital processing because it adds weirdness to the sound. They proudly state that they are analog people first and foremost and, while they do use some digital circuitry in their products, they do as little electronic tinkering with signals as possible, because doing so reduces musical accuracy. They use real wood enclosures and high-quality drivers, because they simply sound better than cheaper alternatives. I can tell these are the kind of people that I would get along with well.

The ZVOX 425 that I am reviewing is their “halo” single-cabinet surround speaker system, which retails for $699.99. It measures 36-and-a-half inches wide, five-and-three-quarters inches deep and seven-and-three-quarters inches high and weighs 25 pounds. The black cabinet is made of medium-density fiberboard, rather than plastic, which nearly all of their competitors use. It feels more like a piece of well-made furniture than a budget-minded speaker system. It’s attractive, understated and blends easily with any décor.

The cabinet is filled with five three-and-one-quarter-inch main drivers with high-end features, such as ferrofluid cooling and Neodymium magnets. On either end of the main cabinet, you will find a four-inch-long throw subwoofer in its own ported enclosure. The system is bi-amplified with a total of 133 watts of power.

All the connections to the unit are in the back, where you will find two RCA inputs and a subwoofer line out. The power cord, main power switch and S.A.N.E. (Sudden Audio Noise Eliminator) control are also accessed on the rear panel.  S.A.N.E. is an adjustable circuit that compresses sudden loud noises, which are very common in television and movies. This circuit prevents you from disturbing others who may be studying or sleeping by normalizing the large dynamics of explosions or crashes.

The front of the unit has a lighted blue power switch, two buttons for volume and two for PhaseCue adjustment. PhaseCue is a proprietary technique that manipulates the phases of various drivers to trick the ear into believing that sounds are coming from different locations than from where they are actually emanating. There is also a mini-jack input for portable devices, such as iPods. The credit card-sized remote control provides all the functions found on the front of the cabinet and adds mute, bass and treble adjustments.

The ZVOX 425 arrived very well-packaged in a double box surrounded by plenty of padding to keep it safe while in transit. The main unit is relatively small compared to the typical all-in-one speaker systems I’ve had experience with in the past. I was struck with the minimalist approach of ZVOX in regard to ancillary items. What I found was an RCA cable, a mini-cable, the previously-mentioned remote, a power cord and a one-page instruction sheet. Surely I was supposed to receive more than that, right?  Nope, that was it and it was honestly all I actually needed to get rocking.

Set-up took all of 30 seconds as I connected the analog outputs from my DirecTV HD tuner to input one and my Esoteric DV-50 analog outputs to input two. I placed the speaker cabinet in front of my television, which shares the same stand. One immediate issue I noticed was that the standard RCA cables I used were slightly sticking out past the bottom of the unit.  When the unit was placed on a hard surface like my stand, it put pressure on ends which was transferred internally to the circuitry. Over time, I could see damage occurring from this pressure. The solution is simple, however; use RCA connectors with 90-degree ends. Problem solved.

Music and Movies
Considering the designers’ desire for sonic purity, and their significant experience with music loudspeaker systems, I decided to jump right in and initially forego movies. In my opinion, if the designers could recreate high-quality music from their all-in-one speaker system, then television and movies would be child’s play.

I loaded up one of my favorite discs, which would challenge all aspects of the speaker system’s performance. Pink Floyd’s SACD Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol) covers the audio spectrum and just happened to be recorded with a quadraphonic mix, which makes it one of the very first surround recordings. I began with one of my all-time favorite songs, “Us and Them.” The saxophone through the ZVOX 425 was remarkably smooth and organic.  Nick Mason’s kick drum had remarkable weight and impact. It was tight and punchy. Vocals were clear and rich. If I had to find a fault, I’d say that the system was a bit rolled off in the highest frequencies, which was no real surprise since it contains no true tweeters. I didn’t let that fact get in the way of the otherwise superb music it was creating. I used this song to experiment with the PhaseCue feature and found it did a great job at stretching the soundstage in all directions. For my particular room, two clicks of the circuit control were all that was needed to create a full stage. Additional clicks fragmented the sound and started to really hamper the timing of the music.

Next, I moved backwards on the disk to “Time,” primarily to test the surround capabilities. The opening sequence may be one of the most famous ever recorded. It contains several alarm clocks that all ring at the same time. The recording is such that the clocks all occupy a different location in space, including behind the listener. The ZVOX sound was very convincing. It was absolutely clear that there was information coming from behind my listening position. What I found unique was that it sounded completely natural. Other single-cabinet surround systems I have listened to may have provided more surround information, but none as real. This produced a smooth grain-free quality devoid of any digital signature. The accompanying heartbeat was presented in such a way that I felt as if I was inside the heart. The beating occurred in all 360 degrees. Again, the ZVOX created not only a convincing presentation, but a musical one as well. Well, as musical as a beating heart can be. It squeezed the room with a solid thump that speakers with woofers twice the size would have a hard time replicating. Waters’ and Gilmore’s guitars hung in the room while, the background singers’ voices oozed buttery richness.

As the system had passed the musical test with flying colors, I decided to see if it was equally capable as recreating movie dynamics. I cued up Apollo 13 (Universal Studios Home Video) and jumped to the launch scene, which has always left me in awe of our space program. As expected, the ZVOX did a phenomenal job of expressing the violence unleashed by any machine generating 7.6 million pounds of force. Communications between the stricken space capsule and mission control conveyed the tension of the dire situation. I found myself completely enveloped in the story and realized I was no longer taking notes, but instead was watching the film. 

Next up was the latest, however probably not the last, iteration of the Rocky saga.  Rocky Balboa (MGM Home Entertainment) follows the aging boxer through one more fight with the current champ Mason Dixon. The final scene is set at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. It’s a familiar setting with chants of “Rocky” filling the stands as he makes his way to the ring.  The ZVOX was capable of creating that feeling of electricity in the air that only major sporting events can provide. While watching this scene, I tried to pay particular attention to the crowd and where I was in relation to it. The ZVOX did an admirable job of placing me in the stands, but the audience seemed to only occupy the 180 degrees in front of and beside me, ear to ear.  Unlike the Pink Floyd effects, which were short in duration, the crowd noise was constant. I assume that, because of this, my brain had more time to accurately process the acoustic manipulation that was taking place. I must say that, while I did notice the decrease in rear information from my reference surround system, I didn’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would. It did not take away from the experience in any way and I again found myself wrapped up in the story. This is the beauty of the ZVOX 425.  It simply gets out of the way and lets you stop listening and start experiencing.

The Downside
The downside of the ZVOX is also its charm. It’s completely bare bones in terms of features. It does not offer on-screen display, room correction, DSP sound processing or any of the other common features that many of its more expensive competitors possess. If you use more than two analog inputs and one portable device, then the ZVOX is not for you. If you want to use HDMI cabling throughout your system, then look elsewhere. If you are looking for your HDTV to provide HD-quality sound in a simple system configuration – then you are in luck with the ZVOX.

I was damn impressed by this speaker system. The word that kept coming to mind while listening to the ZVOX 425 was “analog.” There was no electronic glare, no harshness, no fatigue, just an extremely listenable product. It has tight, punchy bass, a smooth midrange and a clear detailed top end. No, it won’t replace your stack of separates, but it probably could replace your receiver and floor-standing speakers. In my opinion, that’s one hell of an accomplishment, considering its price and convenience. 

It’s extremely simple to set up and operate. It looks good and, best of all, ZVOX is so confident in their products that they offer a 30-day in-home trial and will even cover the shipping should you decide to return it. I doubt that you will, however. If you aren’t looking for the latest technological gimmick or connection option but do appreciate really good sound, you have to audition the ZVOX 425 – it’s simply beautiful
Manufacturer ZVOX
Model 425 Single-Cabinet Surround Speaker System
Reviewer Jim Swantko

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