Center Channel Speakers
- Written by Jim Milton
- Published on 10 May 2012
Introduction to the Zbase 555
So here is the problem. Actually, there are two problems. Problem one: the new HDTV flat panels are getting thinner and thinner. The speakers inside those panels are also getting thinner and thinner. The sound from those speakers…well, it is not very good. Problem two: that new flat panel you just bought is going into a small living room area and there just isn't room for large speakers, a receiver and a subwoofer. You still want a surround sound experience, but what can you do? Fear not, my friend. ZVOX is here!
ZVOX ZBASE 555 SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: Powered Speakers in Thin, Flat Enclosure
- Drivers: Five 2" Tweeter/Mid, One 5.25" Mid/Bass
- Amplifier Power: 70 Watts, Class D
- MFR: 45 Hz - 20 kHz
- Virtual Surround Sound
- Inputs: (2) Analog Stereo RCA, (1) Optical Toslink Digital, (1) Coax Digital, (1) 3.5mm Stereo Input Jack on Front Panel
- Dimensions: 3.4" H x 28" W x 14.5" D
- Weight: 20 Pounds
- MSRP: $399
- SECRETS Tags: Speakers, ZVOX
The ZVOX Zbase 555 Design
ZVOX has been making award winning speakers for several years now. Just don't call their speakers "sound bars" as they are much more than just any ordinary sound bar. The 555 falls into their second largest sized speaker system (behind the 580) and is designed to be placed under your flat panel's pedestal base. Should you decide to mount your panel onto a wall, the Zbase 555 can comfortably sit on a shelf or table top directly under it (such as in my review).
The speakers, amplifiers and subwoofer are all built into the cabinet. All you need is a coaxial or optical cable (which is provided) to connect to the Zbase and a power cord. Literally, within 5 minutes, I had my 555 up and running. Now, what sets the newer Zbases apart from their predecessors is the fact that it can accept Dolby Digital inputs. The 555 can take in addition too the two digital inputs, two analog inputs in the back and one "minijack" analog input from the front. A 70 watt class D amp powers five 2 inch drivers in the front of the unit and a 5.25 inch ported woofer that fires down underneath.
There is also included a sub out should you feel the need to really plumb the depths of a movie sound track. The cabinet is made from a very sturdy MDF with gloss black side panels. The unit is designed to support a TV from 26-55 inches and maximum weight of 120 pounds. I was able to look inside an unassembled unit and noticed vertical bracing throughout the interior. The bracing allows the Zbase to remain light, but very rigid. All of this is packaged in a unit that is only 3 3/8 inches tall. The Zbase series is designed to accommodate all sizes of TVs, so there are choices for just about any sized TV you might have. The largest model is the Zbase 580 which sports 2 woofers, but I also was able to see a new prototype at the company headquarters that will hold the newer 60 inch TVs. Is still has not been determined if the new prototype will see the light off day, but it's nice to know ZVOX is looking in that direction.
The 555 also incorporates some electronics that simulate surround sound. Their latest iteration of this is called PhaseCue II. By manipulating the phase output from the speakers, the sound field can be expanded into one of three different modes: 1 being mild, 2 moderate and 3 full. For those of us that have difficulty hearing dialog, there is a Dialog Emphasis (DE) mode that boosts the mid range level. Output Leveling (OL) will help keep those nasty, loud commercials from blowing you out of your chair during half-time. OL brings the softest sounds up and the loudest sounds down so the overall audio output is dynamically smoothed out.
A small but fully functional remote is included, so flipping between surround modes, OL and DE can be easily done. Do you have too many remotes on your coffee table already? No worries. The basic 555 commands can be "taught" on your current cable/SAT remote so that the power ON, volume and mute buttons on your master remote can control the Zbase. The learning process was about as easy as it can get. I completed it within 3 minutes.
The 555 will power down into "stand-by" after five minutes of no audio signal detection. In general usage the 555 uses about 10 watts of power and only .45 watt in stand-by. Now that's what I would call "green"! When the 555 is powered on with the TV, there is no sound produced until you hit the volume control button. The reason for this is because in order for the Zbase to get an Energy Star rating, it powers all the way down except for the IR input. That's why it draws so little energy in "stand-by". Hitting the volume button on the remote "wakes up" the amplifier and outputs the sound. When a command is sent to the Zbase, the display lights up for about 5 seconds and then goes dark. The display is large and bright enough to easily be seen from across the room.
The ZVOX Zbase 555 Setup and In Use
I will admit that when it comes to home theater, I am somewhat of a snob. I'm into large speakers all over, multiple subwoofers, amplifiers and a pre/pro with lots of settings, buttons and knobs…and lots of wires. Sound bars, in general, leave me a bit cold. They are usually anemic sounding and screwed into the wall under the TV where they can't project sound properly into the whole room. Usually an amplifier is needed and a separate subwoofer has to augment the low end. As the volume is increased, the sound becomes strained. (I know what you are thinking: "Golly, what's not to love?").
Now I am not going to tell you that the Zbase 555 sounds as good as a 5.1 surround sound system…it does not. I'm not going to tell you that music reproduction sounds like a concert hall…it does not. But I am going to say that the overall sound quality was a huge improvement over the TV speakers on my 42 in. Samsung PDP. I set up the 555 under my wife's TV downstairs because I have been toying with the idea of getting her better sound for her viewing enjoyment but because of the small size and lay out of the room, a complete surround system would be too big and certainly too complicated for her to use. She also likes to listen to music on her iPad2 while she knits. Her TV is wall mounted and underneath it is a cabinet upon which to place the Zbase 555. The Zbase allows her to have better sound from the TV and has enough connections to add a CD player, Roku box, and a Pure Audio i-20 iPhone/iPad docking station.
By using the digital optical out from the TV, I was able to make a single connection into the back of the Zbase. The SAT box, Roku and other devices are then connected to the TV via a HDMI cable. After muting the audio output of the TV, I was able to have all the devices play through the TV into the 555. The one page instruction guide was simple enough for the average novice to follow and included step-by-step instructions and pictures. Now, let's get into some of the sound quality observations.
The first thing I noticed about the TV sound was the increase in both clarity and bass. Male voices in particular exuded more gravitas and weight. The powered woofer really added punch to the sound tracks of movies and even commercials.
The bass can be adjusted from +4 to -5. In my case, I found that the bass needed to be tamed down a bit and I ended up settling for -3 for most of my review. For surround settings, I found that 1 was not enough and 3 smeared the sound stage too much. It also made the dialog harder to hear…like the voices were coming from behind the TV and the music and effects were thrust too far forward. Setting 2 provided a nice balance with some pretty good surround effects and still maintaining clear dialog. The DE setting projected the dialog too far forward for my tastes, but I could see where this would be a boon for a hard of hearing person. No need for Grandpa to yell, "Turn it up. I can't hear Matlock!"
I connected my Earthquake CP8 subwoofer to the back of the Zbase and set the Zbase bass volume to zero. The low pass control on my sub was set to 60 Hz and I adjusted the volume on the sub until it blended with the 555.
After awhile, I just decided to disconnect the CP8 as the Zbase really did not lack very much in the low end and the external sub was a bit too rich for my smaller room. I do not recommend placing the Zbase inside a book shelf cabinet as that placement would really over augment the bass and make it difficult to tame. Still, being able to add an external sub is a smart design choice and I am glad ZVOX included it with this product.
For movie listening, I picked a dialog driven movie "Midnight in Paris" from Woody Allen. Though this movie does not contain a lot of surround effects, the natural sound of human voices were a good test for the 555. I was struck by the clarity of the voices. Male voices had a nice touch of warmth. Female voices were well defined and lacked any nasally coloration that you sometimes get with a wimpy sound bar.
For testing the surround effects, I picked "Avatar" because I knew it had lots of jungle noises and intense battle scenes. While not anywhere near the sound field of a true 5.1 system, the sound was well spread across the front of the room, with some effects coming from the far sides of the room. The bass had plenty of punch and impact. The system could play quite loudly and never sounded strained or congested.
Next I turned my attention to music and was surprised by how well it sounded through the 555. Playing some "CSN- Greatest Hits" on MOG allowed me to listen for the individual voices and harmonies of these guys. Their layered voices were spread out and not one on top of the other.
I was also able to hear a decent sound stage across the front of the room with reasonably pleasant placement of the instruments from right to left. Depth of field was present as well. Playing music from my iPhone through the Pure i-20 sounded very good too. The Pure i-20 can be used with its built in DAC to output a digital signal to the Zbase directly (which is what I did for this review). Playing music through MOG and some hi-rez music via ORAstream also played without a hitch and had the added benefit of spreading out the music in virtual surround which provided an enjoyable listening experience.
My wife was quite happy to attach her iPad2 to the dock and play Pandora to her hearts content. I might as well mention that my wife quickly got a feel for using the Zbase 555; whether movies, TV shows or music, the 555 was easy for her to use. Can you think of someone that might benefit from the simplicity of the Zbase?
Conclusions About the Zbase 555
Not everyone can be expected to have a big home theater system. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of solid choices out there. HTIB often give inferior sound and have a gaggle of wires to run. The Zbase 555 offers many pluses: The system is very easy to set up, looks stylish, has multiple in puts for both digital and analog, has a very effective dialog enhancement, provides spacious sound for both movies and music. It makes a great, stable base for your new TV. The supplied remote is functional, easy to use and the basic commands can be transferred to your current remote. You have the option to add a sub, though the 555 has plenty of punch on its own merit. It has built in digital amplification and sounds light years better than the built in TV speakers. It can be used as a music system in the home or office and provides a good "bang for the buck" value.
The minuses are few. It will not replace a decent home theater 5.1 sound system. Stereo separation and surround effects require you to sit more directly in front of the unit then a traditional speaker system. Still, its compact size and great sound makes this a good choice for those that don't want to mess with a complicated home theater setup or have limited space. It's simple to setup and use, inexpensive and sounds great. What's not to like?
Just don't call it a "sound bar".
Since the ZVOX headquarters was just one town over from where I work, I stopped by and had a nice conversation with the product designer. I'm throwing in a few pictures of the drivers that are normally sealed behind a metal grille for your viewing pleasure. I would like to thank Fred for allowing me to be one of their first visitors to their new "showroom".
Here is a close-up look at the Zbase 580 drivers as seen at the ZVOX headquarters. (Notice the phase plugs):
And finally, a close-up of the 2 inch long throw Zbase 555 drivers: