Thinking inside the box: Speakers take simple route to deliver sound

The Baltimore Sun

If the U.S. Department of Agriculture graded all of the single-box speakers awaiting an HDTV partner, it would surely certify the Zvox lineup organic.

Zvox's latest home-theater system, the Z-Base 550, forgoes highly processed sound, uses a cabinet built from medium-density fiberboard (real wood!) instead of plastic and, like a strict organic grower, avoids costly additives like HDMI video and digital audio connections.

Then it says, go ahead, place any HDTV (with stand) on it - up to 47 inches - and you've got a television base/speaker, a compact faux-surround system with tonally accurate sound and an astounding lack of modern technological trickery. Now pass the sprouts.

Zvox doesn't waver in its simple-sound-in-a-single-box approach. Like all the Zvoxes before it, the Z-Base 550's setup wouldn't challenge a fifth-grader. For the rest of us, there's a one-page guide in an owner's manual the size of a $3 Hallmark card. The system operates with a tiny, sometimes-finicky, remote with only basic controls.

It's so simple that it's possible to turn on the Z-Base 550, set the desired volume and never touch it again. It shuts off automatically when it doesn't receive a signal, turns on when it senses one.

The Z-Base 550 looks like a sound bar - the elongated speaker designed for wall-mounting next to an HDTV - run over by a semitrailer. It's only 3 1/2 inches tall, but 14 1/2 inches deep and 28 inches wide, creating a platform that withstands the weight of televisions up to 90 pounds. (The Z-Base 550 itself weighs about 20 pounds.)

The Z-Base 550's end panels, a hand-lacquered, high-gloss black, is haute couture by Zvox standards. But what do you expect from a system that invites the abuse of an HDTV pile-on?

This one-piece system has a quintet of 2-inch speakers aligned behind a metal mesh grille. The three middle speakers are full-range, all-channel (left and right) drivers. Those on either end combine the left-right channels, too. But they do more than that. By altering the in-phase and out-of-phase signals, Zvox's PhaseCue feature broadens the sound field, even though it doesn't deepen it like a surround system. That's the extent of electronic whiz-bang.

The user-adjustable PhaseCue works well with movie soundtracks, not so well with music. The remote, which sometimes doesn't work if not pointed directly at the speaker, also has nine-step gradations for volume, bass (subwoofer) and treble. Unfortunately, because the speaker has no display, there's no way, other than your trusty ears, to find your favorite setting if you've switched from The Dark Knight to Lizz Wright.

That's a little too Spartan for some people. The remote is the Z-Base 550's only control, too. Lose it, and you'll run crying to Zvox for a replacement. There are also only two analog connections, which presumes your equipment will run through your television, with everything, in turn, linked by two RCA cables to the Z-Base 550.

I can live with that, but note that these inputs are mixed as one. If you play your PlayStation 3 and the nightly news simultaneously, you'll get something sounding like Super Mario Couric. Another cost-saving design. And more: Zvox omits both HDMI and digital audio connections for Dolby Digital processing because of their licensing costs and added complexity.

"Modern TVs have loads of inputs of all kinds," Zvox's Tom Hannaher says. "At Zvox, we say, "Use 'em.' "

Winslow Burhoe, with 50-plus years of design experience, somehow extracts ample bass from a fifth speaker - a 5 1/4-inch, down-firing woofer that vents out the back panel. The Z-Base 550 ground out so much low-frequency thump during the Joker's pursuit (in a semitrailer, like the one that ran over the Z-Base) of Harvey Dent through Manhattan in The Dark Knight that I had to measure the output to believe it.

Here's what I found: The Z-Base 550 still made noise at 40 hertz, like a stand-alone budget subwoofer.

This speaker's innards would pass any home inspection. The side panels, all wood, are more than a half-inch thick, the top panels slightly thinner. They're supported by a maze of more wood inside. Such firm housing reduces distortion, contributing to the speaker's clean, more accurate sound.

There are prettier sound bars with more technological flair, but the Z-Base 550 is an old-fashioned analog voice in a digital world.

It's that simple.

zvox z-base 550

Price:: $500

Hot: : A purist's speaker; excellent bass for its size.

Not:: No on-board controls. Can't duplicate surround effects.


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