- Written by Jim Clements
- Published on 16 April 2009
ZVOX is an e-tailer based in New England. They currently manufacture and market seven different models of sound bars. Their products are available on-line direct from the manufacturer. All purchases carry a 30-day no-risk guarantee. The low profile Z-Base 550 is one of their products. It is designed to support a stand-mounted flat panel display. Will a compact 20-pound single box surround system prove worthy of recommendation?
- Main Drivers: Five 2"
- Woofer: One 5.25"
- MFR.: 45 Hz – 20 kHz
- Power Rating: 60 Watts RMS
- Inputs: Two Sets of RCA
- Outputs: One RCA Subwoofer Line-level
- Dimensions: 3.6" H x 28" W x 14.5" D
- Wt: 20 Pounds
- MSRP: $499.99 USA
The ZVOX Z-Base 550 is a one-box surround sound solution. It differs from the typical sound bar in several notable ways. To begin with, it's really a pedestal and not a "bar". Secondly, it doesn't aspire to be the central nervous system for a complex system. There are no HDMI inputs, no on-screen menus. It doesn't have video capabilities of any kind, as a matter of fact. It's a humble little audio product that is perfectly content to just sit there and produce sound better than it seemingly has any right to do. Of course there are other differences.
Design and Setup
The Z-Base 550 is a pedestal base that is designed to be placed on a shelf and then a flat screen TV can be placed on top. It's about 1-1/2 times the size of a typical turntable. It has five 2" main drivers and a single 5-1/4" subwoofer. These drivers are driven by a "60 watt" bi amp. I put the power rating in quotes because the manufacturer does not reveal the particulars behind this power spec. I must say, however, that the Z-Base 550 played to a decent sound pressure level in my master bedroom. It has a vinyl veneer top and piano gloss end caps. I placed it on my TV stand, supporting my 42" Panasonic plasma TV. It coincidentally raised the TV to the correct height as my stand is wee bit too low.
Three of the main drivers are clustered in the middle of the front baffle. The other two are placed as close to each outer cabinet edge as possible. These drivers are protected by a metal cage type of grille that is for all intents and purposes non-removable. The sub is down-firing and is also protected by a metal cage. A port exits the back of the cabinet. The manufacturer does not specify the type of loading for the sub.
Although I don't have firsthand experience with the other ZVOX products, I think I can safely say that they all have an endearing quirkiness. In the case of the Z-Base 550, there are some obvious and some not so obvious design elements that support this statement. One example is the front LED. It responds to IR commands, communicating with the user by blinking as the commands are received. That's pretty typical. The quirky part is that it glows green when the unit is off and turns blue when the unit is on. That's not exactly the most intuitive arrangement. To be fair, I have a standalone stereo amp with an LED that is red when it is on and glows green when it is off. So no harm, no foul I suppose.
There is another idiosyncrasy with the audio inputs. There are two stereo analog inputs on the back of the Z-Base 550. These are "mixing" inputs. The first input is always active. The second input goes active only when the first one is connected to a source component. As I said, they are "mixing" inputs. So the Z-Base 550 mixes the two signals together when they are both receiving a signal.
My first thought was that nobody in their right mind would want to mix two signals. (OK, DJ's but that's not who the Z-Base 550 would be for.) But later I decided that maybe if I had this unit on my desktop, then I may want to have the Z-Base 550 playing music and then mix in audio signals from my computer. That's not a concern for me because I personally don't want one of these on my desk. I probably wouldn't get a lot of work done if I did because I'd be listening to music all the time!
There is a master power toggle on the back of the unit and the Z-Base 550 turns on automatically when it senses a signal. The Z-Base 550 uses what ZVOX refers to as "PhaseCue" to simulate a surround effect from the single box solution. It simply takes the out of phase signal from one channel and adds it to the signal of the opposite driver and vice versa. This is the same way Dolby Surround used to synthesize the ambiance signal that went to the rear speakers: take the out-of-phase signals (add delay and contouring) and then feed the rear speakers with this new signal.
With the Z-Base 550, you don't have rear speakers, but adding the signal to the opposite speaker fools your mind into perceiving that the sound is coming from the sides/back. The remote has a phase cue adjustment that controls the proportion of the out of phase signals versus the direct signal which expands and contracts the perceived sound field. If you dial in too much PhaseCue, then the sound can lose specificity, become "mushy" and even sound like reverb. If you dial in the right amount, then the sound opens up nicely while retaining solid voice intelligibility.
I was concerned that the PhaseCue control would turn out to be too fiddly, but I generally found myself using one setting for movies and live music and another setting for studio albums. I wanted more phase cue for the first scenario and less for the second. Remember the flashing LED? Each control (PhaseCue, sub and treble) has 9 possible settings. So I found myself backing each control all the way off and then counted button pushes to get it to "3" or "5" or whatever. Be sure to watch the LED as the remote signals didn't always register with the unit. The steps between each setting are a little coarse, but the overall range of control is subtle enough that you can't mess up the sound too much.
One last quirky quality of the Z-Base 550 is the "tube" that connects the outer drivers. The backs of the outer drivers are connected by a tube which is built into the cabinet. ZVOX calls this their "Infinite Compliance" concept. It effectively augments the PhaseCue system by using the back pressure from each driver to mechanically couple the out of phase signals with the opposite channel. According to the designer, this makes the system sound bigger than its actual size. I can confirm that the Z-Base 550 system sounds much bigger than you would expect based on its looks.
First up was the Extreme DVD of T2. There is a scene early in the film in which Sarah Conner is working out in her cell and the orderlies enter to sedate her prior to her upcoming review hearing. She was breathing heavily when the orderlies entered the cell. Through the Z-Base 550, her breathing came through with excellent presence and believability. This really gives the viewer the sense of anxiety that was intended by the director, James Cameron. This was a nice way to start the audition.
Later, the Governator's Fatboy motorcycle came through with a satisfyingly throaty growl. The Z-Base 550 generally excelled at reproducing the sound of internal combustion engines, guns and bombs. These are a few of my favorite things . . . No, wait, that's a different film!
I wound up watching several selections from the Band of Brothers DVD box set. There is a scene in Chapter 7 where Sgt. Malarkey accidentally shoots himself in the leg with a Luger. Several of the other soldiers gather around him to treat his injury. The film switches to a perspective where you see things from Sgt. Malarkey's point of view. The men's voices eerily encompassed a 270 degree sound field through the Z-Base 550. This effect really brought me into the film and substantially heightened the overall viewing experience. The degree of wrap-around from the Z-Base 550 varied depending on the source material and normally maxed out at around 180 degrees. At times, the surround effects seemed to come from a higher plane than the direct sounds.
I also enjoyed surprisingly convincing surround effects during the final siege scene of this Chapter. The sound had good presence and drive.
The Z-Base 550 doesn't have great treble extension and could sometimes sound chesty on men's voices. It can sound a little harsh at higher volume settings. It would certainly benefit by the addition of a stand-alone subwoofer. The Z-Base 550 unit sounded big on all the films I auditioned. Was it the infinite compliance? Was it the PhaseCue? I'm not sure, but I guess it's a combination of factors.
I then auditioned the CD layer on the Hybrid SACD of Bizet's Carmen as performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Once again, the Z-Base 550 could get harsh on crescendos, so you need to keep an eye on the volume control. Once I found a good volume setting, I got very natural timbre and ambience throughout all my auditioning. The macro dynamics were quite good on Torreadore. Not bad for a "60 watt" amp. The Z-Base 550 had excellent attack on leading edges and a natural decay. Danse Boheme was simply a fantastic performance through the Z-Base 550. The music was painted on a moderately quiet background. Later on this disc, I once again enjoyed the macro dynamics on the Russian Easter Overture, Op 36.
Next, I sampled the CD layer off another Hybrid SACD, Diana Krall's The Look of Love. Starting out the sibilants in her voice on S'Wonderful were closed-in and not at all natural sounding. Also, the instruments and her voice didn't float in the air as they do on my reference system. But later on the disc, things started to heat up. Cry Me a River, for example, was a whole different experience. The snare drum was palpable and I could feel the bass in my feet and legs. Diana's voice floated on this track! Besame Mucho had good surround envelopment and I felt like I was experiencing the performance live in a night club setting. So the performance laid down by the Z-Base 550 depended on the program material. Worry not; even at its worst the Z-Base 550 was very musical.
Although I'd probably add a sub to augment the bass response of the Z-Base 550, I observed bass response that extended below 45 Hz in my bedroom. I did place the unit as close to the wall as I could.
I went ahead and purchased my review sample. It actually sounds nearly as good as the bedroom system I had a few years back that consisted of a Rega integrated amp and a pair of Rock Solid Mini Monitors. The Rega/Rock Solid system played louder. The Z-Base 550 is physically less intrusive, has PhaseCue and has a smooth and engaging frequency response. It's great in the bedroom, where I mostly watch the Today Show, the Tonight Show or the Early Show and the Late Show. Oh, and Palladia, too!