ZVOX Z-Base 550 Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Friday, 31 July 2009

The home theater craze has ushered in the development of associated products nearly unimaginable 30 years ago. For those of us who grew up on two-channel stereo and terrible TV sound, the advent of video formats such as Betamax and VHS were our introduction to home theater. Those days now seem like ancient history, and even the most devout advocate of vintage gear would admit that the DVD format is superior in every way to the old tape cartridges. And without the DVD, our home “movie theater experiences” would be pretty dull.

My first home theater set-up was pretty typical of the time. It was 2005, and I opted for a surround  system, with a 5.1 receiver and four (two front, two rear) floor-standing speakers and a subwoofer. I remember running wires under living room carpet and trying to keep the subwoofer free of dog hair – not easy with two springer spaniels. Then there was speaker optimization, which was a challenge to dial in on each speaker's sweet spot. I had a living room that stretched more than 30 feet in width and about 12 feet across. Because of a large window and fireplace, I was limited to setting the TV in a corner and had to set the speakers in a strange parallelogram to get it all to work. Once accomplished, I enjoyed movies and music in surround and tuning into NFL games and feeling like I was part of the crowed. This old two-channel boy loved the expanded sound set-up but also knew that the set-up itself would probably stop many folks in their tracks, and running for technical support. Set-up was complicated as was the instruction manual, which although printed in about a dozen languages, failed to speak English to me. I learned by trial and error, and I'm sure many of you did, too.

But what if you want a home theater system and don't want to wire 100 yards of cable, or drill into the walls or have five, six or seven speakers cluttering your space? You want the effects of surround sound but don't have the gumption for an 8-hour install. You want great sound, period, but don't want to drop a grand on an AV receiver and speakers. In fact, you don't want to spend more than $500. The answer is the ZVOX (www.zvoxaudio.com) Z-Base 550.

ZBase with TV

The Z-Base 550 (MSRP $499.99) stands less than 4 inches high, so its space requirements are minimal. It measures 28 inches wide and 14.5 inches deep and can be used to support most flat-panel TVs from 26 to 50 inches wide and weighing up to 90 pounds. Rather than take chances on scratching the unit's top, I opted to place it on the shelf rack just below my TV, where it still could provide unimpeded sound. The cabinet is constructed from medium-density fiberboard and features lacquered side panels dressed in high glossy black. The unit weighs 20 pounds and feels solidly built. It needs to be, as the cabinet contains the amplifier, speakers, powered woofer and all circuitry to give it “surround-sound” sound.

Keep It Simple

The Z-Base's all-in-one design and one-cord set-up made it the easiest home theater component I've ever used. The owner's manual is just two pages, with the front cover even noting, “Don't Worry-This Is Going To Be Simple.” How many manuals can get away with that statement?

The back of the 550 houses two stereo RCA inputs, one RCA output should you choose to connect a powered subwoofer, an on-off switch and a power outlet. Installation took 2 minutes at most and is nearly impossible to get wrong. Put the Z-Base in place, hook it up to your TV's analog input jacks or headphone jack, plug the power cord into an outlet and call it wired. Because the Z-Base contains its own amplifier and speaker array, there's no need for an additional receiver or wires. And because the 550 is designed for direct connection to the TV, the Z-Base features no additional digital inputs such as HDMI. It's simplicity personified.

input panel

The only additional step is coordinating your TV's remote – setting it to “variable” under the “audio” sub-screen menu – which can then be used to control the Z-Base. Barring that option, the Z-Base is easily controlled with the remote control. The tiny unit has four pairs of buttons to control volume, phasecue (virtual surround), subwoofer and treble. A blue LED, located under the Z-Base's front grille, blinks when any adjustments are made. There are nine levels each of phasecue, subwoofer and treble control. When the maximum setting is reached, the light stops blinking. Although the manual suggests that many owners find a treble setting he or she likes and leave it there, I found that the best performance was achieved by tweaking each setting for whatever I was listening to, be it a TV program, DVD or CD.

Although you could run the unit through a DVD player and then into the TV, ZVOX's president and product developer Tom Hannaher advocates video switching in the TV instead of running a digital video signal through a soundbar, noting, “ZVOX has always championed an analog-based virtual surround technology because it sounds more natural, more musical than digital counterparts."

Listening

remoteThe 550 was designed by Burhoe Acoustics and EPI Loudspeakers founder Winslow Burhoem, who must be commended for doing so many things very well. Housing five 2-inch full-range speakers and a high-output  5&1/4-inch woofer, the unit employ's ZVOX's own PhaseCue virtual surround system, to produce a broad soundstage and a sound close to true surround. According to ZVOX, the 550 uses “specially treated long-excursion main drivers. All speaker magnets are powerful Neodymium models that are magnetically shielded.”

For most TV programs, the Z-Base will sit in the background and provide adequate sound for dialog-based dramas and sitcoms. Where it shines is during playback of movies and music. And it shines brightly. I own a multi-format Yamaha DVD player capable of playing DVD-Audio discs as well as SACDs. I played my DVD-Audio disc of Steely Dan's Gaucho in 2-channel stereo and sat in front of the Z-Base, about 6 feet away. The recording is stellar, with crystal clear highs and midrange. As I listened, I kept looking at my two floor-standing speakers set up on opposing sides of my TV rack. The sound from the 550 was so deep and expansive that my mind tricked me into thinking the music was coming from the twin floor-standers, even as it flowed from the ZVOX.

At times I would be standing 10 or 15 feet from the unit, and 90 degrees from the front and catch myself looking back in surprise. The soundstage envelops a room with a swath of sound that makes for pleasurable listening from almost any angle. You don't need to be in front of the speaker, though it's even better when you are.

One of my favorite ways to test a system's bass is with old-school reggae recordings. Burning Spear's 1975 release Marcus Garvey is a rhythm monster. Bassists Robbie Shakespeare and Aston Barrett rock steady against the groove of drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Tunes such as “Slavery Days” and “Tradition” were vibrant with plenty of thump and bump. Again, by tweaking the phasecue and subwoofer, I could go from pretty good sound to very good sound with just a button push or two.

zbase speaker closeupRush's Snakes & Arrows Live is a triple-DVD collection of masterfully recorded concert footage. The sound comes as close to being there as anything I've heard. Played through the Z-Base, Neil Peart's drum solo comes into your home. The drums sound like real drums, and with a bit of phasecue adjustment I could feel the bass drums reverberate through my hardwood floors. Put the band together on songs such as “The Way The Wind Blows” or “The Spirit Of Radio,” and the sound is even more dynamic.

The Z-Base also shone with movies, offering cinematic sound when you really want it. The 2000 epic Attila may not have scored big at the box office, but hearing Nick Glennie-Smith's score through the Z-Base pays dividends. And scenes of horseback-riding Huns and Romans are brought to life, sounding at times like an-house stampede. If you like big dramas or action films, the Z-Base will deliver the audio goods aplenty.

Conclusion

The ZVOX Z-Base 550 is one of the most impressive products I've heard and used. Although a single-cabinet set-up can't fully replace a proper surround system, the Z-Base makes the line between the two ever fuzzy. For just under $500, you get not just a virtual surround system, you get a great speaker system. Period. For the price, ease of use and performance, I can't imagine any way to better it.

Manufacturer ZVOX
Model Z-Base 550





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