ZVOX Z-Base 575 Speaker System
A Base With Good Bass
Despite the predictable claims that manufacturers make—and the breathless, indefensible hyperbolic shrieks made by computer geeks posing as audio reviewers—no one-box-solution soundbar can really replace a discrete 5.1-channel surround sound system. ZVOX founder and former Cambridge SoundWorks marketing executive Tom Hannaher knows that, and the ZVOX Website says it. Bravo.
No serious home theater enthusiast would consider a soundbar as a main system solution—unless they lived in a concrete bunker and couldn’t run wires to the back of the room. Given the putrid-sounding speakers and amplifiers that come with all of today’s flat-panel HDTVs, some kind of outboard system is mandatory—even in the bedroom. With some of today’s tall luxury mattresses, there’s a practical side to putting your HDTV atop a platform that coincidentally makes sound. You get to see the whole picture while lying down. That’s what the ZVOX Z-Base 575 accomplishes. It’s meant to go under rather than in front of your HDTV. It can handle one that weighs up to 140 pounds.
What You Get
The Z-Base 575’s sturdy, gracefully proportioned enclosure is hand built of cross-braced MDF, with side panels finished in highgloss black lacquer. It houses two 6-inch powered subwoofers, five 3.25-inch long-throw, neodymium full-range drivers, and an amp rated at 133 watts. The box is neither ugly nor attractive. It seems to just blend in and disappear, which is good.
The electronics package also includes veteran speaker designer Winslow Burhoe’s unique PhaseCue analog-domain virtual surround system. It mixes out-of-phase information from one channel with in-phase info from the other and vice-versa to create faux surround. Burhoe invented the inverted-dome tweeter and has designed speakers for Acoustic Research, KLH, Boston Acoustics, and Energy. He consults for ZVOX.
The included non-backlit remote adjusts volume and mutes the system. More importantly, it lets you adjust the subwoofer, tweeter, and PhaseCue levels in nine steps from your listening position. You can also set the volume and other levels and then put the remote in a drawer. After that, you can use your cable box’s remote control to adjust the volume. That’s a good idea because the volume jumps quickly via the ZVOX remote. The blue LED blinks when you change any of the levels. You can count the blinks as you change, but there’s no way to know their final resting place, which is a minor inconvenience. The rear panel includes two sets of RCA inputs (both are always active and mixed together) plus a single full-range mono output that you can use to power an outboard sub. In my world, that’s an awful lot of stuff for $600.
How It Sounds
Broadcast TV sound is frustratingly variable and often sounds incredibly bad. Levels vary wildly between channels and when a program cuts to commercials. I’d prefer to leave the cable box’s dynamic range control set to Wide, but the volume variation assaults make that impractical. In the bedroom at least, I set it to Normal, which applies some dynamic compression. Most non-videophile folks I know, even those with decent home theater systems, don’t even know there’s such an adjustment buried in most cable boxes’ setup menus. Worse, the default setting is Narrow, which sucks the dynamics out of the sound. Be sure you access and check yours and at least set it to Normal.
Out of the box on regular television content—even the wellproduced variety—the Z-Base 575 pushed the presence region noticeably forward. It produced thin, overly sibilant voices that were exceptionally clear and easy to understand, but it also made them sound like voice boxes disconnected from chest cavities. The boost was so pronounced that the voices seemed to be well in front of the Z-Base 575, and that had nothing to do with PhaseCue. Because of the Fletcher-Munson curve’s effect (your ear’s bass sensitivity decreases as the volume decreases) and the need to turn down the overall level well below where you’d normally have it just to push back against the presence boost, the voices’ lower octaves were further suppressed.
I’ve watched the increasingly mindless The Today Show every day for more decades than I care to admit, and I know how Matt Lauer, Meredith Viera, and Al Roker are supposed to sound. At first, they sounded really weird through this system. Their dialogue was easy to understand and probably just what your near-deaf granny might need, but it’s not what you’d want to hear. Even if you didn’t analyze what was happening and didn’t know it was a severe presence boost, you’d know that something was wrong.