It wasn’t long ago that I had to really dig deep to understand the purpose and benefits of the emerging soundbar speaker market. The more I delved, the more I understood that something needed to be done to bring better sound quality to an aesthetics-focused listening room. The ZVOX SoundBase.555 speaker takes the next logical step. While soundbars are an improvement, they also aren’t right for most people looking to set up a simple TV on a piece of furniture. They’re also limited by size and very few can safely sit in front of a credenza-mounted TV without blocking the screen. ZVOX figured out that a larger, more sturdier form factor would not only allow a TV to sit directly on the speaker, it would allow them a greater amount of volume with which to focus on sound quality. The ZVOX SoundBase is a solution for those who aren’t planning on wall-mounting their TVs. Slide the SoundBase.555 right under your flat panel TV—on a typical piece of furniture—and you’re ready to start listening. Plus, you don’t need to add a subwoofer—the bass is good enough for most people looking for a fuller, more room-filling sound.
ZVOX SoundBase.555 Features
The thing about the features of the ZVOX SoundBase.555 is that…well, there aren’t many. Zvox isn’t trying to create a box that has everything under the sun. Instead, the company claims to focus purely on the sound—which makes sense given the target customer and the problem they are attempting to solve (poor quality audio from today’s flat panel TVs). That leaves only a few things to talk about in terms of configuring and connecting the ZVOX SoundBase.555.
To start with, there are exactly 5 inputs: Two analogue RCA inputs, an optical digital input, a coaxial digital input, and a stereo 1/8″ mini connection located on the front panel. And that’s it. There’s no HDMI, and no stereo outputs to pass on to other devices (though there is a sub out). You feed your audio into the SoundBase, and it gives you rich sound that makes your flat panel TV’s speakers go crying home to mama. The ZVOX SoundBase.555 uses five 2″ drivers for high and mid frequencies. Two are located on the left and right extremes of the MDF cabinet, and three are clustered in the middle for a center channel, anchoring the dialogue to the television. A single down-firing 5-1/4″ bass driver handles the rest, and the entire system is powered by a 70W Class D amplifier. Frequency response is given as 45 Hz to 20 kHz and we pretty much confirmed that extension with test tones. If you want more bass, the ZVOX SoundBase.555 does include a subwoofer output that can send a full-range mono signal to an external powered sub.
Configuring the ZVOX SoundBase.555
Configuring the ZVOX SoundBase is equally simple. There isn’t much to do except to make your connections and configure the desired surround settings. Regarding the former, you just choose the input you want (you can select between all 5 using the included remote control). There are three surround modes: Surround 1 (shown as “Sd 1″ on the display) emphasizes the dialogue and delivers the least amount of virtual surround effects; Surround 2 (shown as “Sd 2″ on the display) has a nice mix of virtual surround effect and reduces the dialogue presence to place it further into the mix; Surround 3 (shown as “Sd 3″ on the display) has the most virtual surround of all the modes and is the mode to use if you want the greatest effect when watching a feature film. There is also a dynamic range control included with the ZVOX SoundBase.555—a feature called “Output Leveling”. You press this button on the remote and the peaks are reduced in order to keep the SoundBase.555 from overpowering the room at night. It even works during commercials where dynamic changes in output often cause you to reach for the volume button. Finally, a “Dialog Emphasis” control toggles a broadband EQ on or off. The EQ raises volume in the dialogue frequencies located in the midband (around 1-2 kHz, near as we can discern). It can help if your room acoustics end up making the dialogue in movies difficult to understand. I personally found it a bit harsh and left it off. If you use this mode, it will supersede any Surround or Output Leveling setting you may be using. The ZVOX SoundBase.555 doesn’t ever need to be turned off once you plug it in and press the Power button on the front panel or remote control. The standby mode automatically activates after 5 minutes of silence and is automatically disengaged when you press either the Volume, Mute, or Power buttons on the front panel or the remote. If you want to place the Zvox into Standby manually, press the Mute button for 4 seconds. For our testing we connected the output of our reference Samsung 8000 series flat panel LED TV to the ZVOX Soundbase.555 using a optical TOSLink cable. The ZVOX automatically detected the input, and we kept Dialog Emphasis and Output Leveling off with the Surround Mode initially set to “1” (which is essentially “Off” as far as the SurroundBase.555 is concerned).
ZVOX SoundBase.555 Speaker Listening Tests – Movies
As mentioned above, we tried to disable as much of the DSP as possible and listened to the ZVOX with the Volume around 20, which was remarkably loud in my 250 square foot room (the range is 01 to 30). As I cycled around the Surround Modes I liked the fact that the effect was rather subtle. I had expected the Sd3 mode to be overbearing, but it just expanded the soundstage slightly, driving more of the sound into the room and recessing the dialogue into the mix. When it was all said and done, I think your preferred Surround Mode setting will be up to taste, but Sd1 will give you a bit more intelligibility without going to the extreme of using the Dialog Enhancer. I watched several movies on the ZVOX, including (but not limited to) some action movies (like Mortal Kombat and Chain Reaction) and even some animated films such as Robots and Stuart Little 2. In short, I was blown away. I had no idea a simple speaker base could put out so much volume and, well…bass. I think ZVOX should rename the line “SoundBASS” for more accuracy. Going into the review I had thought that any speaker system like this would benefit from a subwoofer, but the truth is that movies were more than enjoyable without adding anything to the system. What you hear with the ZVOX SoundBase.555 is a nice, cohesive soundstage, with dialogue that comes directly from the television (where it should be) and ambience that pours into the room. The speaker pretty much disappeared, and dialogue seemed to come from the TV. This is what you want, and it allowed the movies to really come alive. Bass on the 555 is tangible. It has both presence and punch, and I was surprised at just how much output was generated from the single bottom-loaded 5-1/4″ driver. About the only thing missing were the frequencies below the ~50Hz range where a lot of the more “tangible” sub-bass is located. The SoundBase.555 did produce significant low-end rumble and upper mid-bass, just not the kind that punched you in the chest—and, honestly, I hadn’t expected it to. Making use of the subwoofer output on the unit will give you the opportunity for that experience, but I really don’t feel it’s necessary in order to enjoy a great soundtrack in most rooms (and it kind of defeats the purpose).
ZVOX SoundBase.555 Speaker Listening Tests – Music
Where I really came away impressed was when I played some music through the ZVOX SoundBase.555. I hadn’t expected the smooth, low bass and clean vocals the system put out. I’m used to “gimmicks,” and ZVOX doesn’t seem to have any—just nice audio that doesn’t distort and which arrives at a respectable price point (you can get the ZVOX SoundBase.555 for just $299 now). Once you listen to music on the ZVOX, you will likely shift your listening habits as a result. I wanted to listen to more music in my living room once I heard this system cranked up loud. The speakers on my flat panel TV sound like Musak (elevator music for those of you under 35) in comparison. In this way you can bring new life to your existing music collection.
Considering ZVOX isn’t done perfecting and producing these products, it will be exciting to see what they have in store next. One thing is for certain, the cost of entry for a ZVOX SoundBase is absolutely worth it for those looking to set up a simple system on top of which they can place their new flat panel television. It’s the simplest device on the market that offers the best audio bang for the buck right now. Don’t let yourself use the pathetic little speakers on your flat panel TV. You spent too much to ruin all that great HD content with puny sound. If you’re not yet ready to jump into a full surround system then at least take the plunge into a ZVOX speaker. It will be one of the better A/V decisions you make all year!