7 Soundbars; Simple to Luxe Page 7

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Zvox is a small Internet-based company specializing in single-cabinet speaker systems. It's committed to "less is more" audio playback, and the Model 425 is its newest offering. The single-cabinet design houses multichannel amplifiers, five 3.25-inch satellite speakers, twin 4-inch long-throw woofers, and Zvox's proprietary PhaseCue virtual-surround circuitry. Three of the satellite speakers are mounted toward the center of the cabinet and are driven by a single amplifier channel. Two more speakers are mounted toward the ends of the soundbar, and are driven by stereo amplifier channels as well as the PhaseCue circuitry upstream to open the soundfield. The side-firing woofers are mounted on the ends of the bar. Finally, a credit-card-sized remote controls a few essential features.

Setup The imposing black metal grille across the front of the Model 425 imparts an almost industrial look. Metal grilles on each end cover the side-firing woofers and a pair of cabinet ports. Front-panel buttons control power, volume, and the PhaseCue circuit, and there's a minijack convenience input for plugging in an iPod or other temporary device. Around back are two stereo analog inputs and one full-range, monaural output for connecting an optional powered sub. There's a knob for turning on and adjusting the SANE (Sudden Noise Audio Eliminator) level, which is essentially a compressor that reduces the relative volume level of loud passages. I was bummed to find that the Model 425 offers no digital audio inputs.

Since there's no subwoofer to deal with, setup and wiring are a snap. I connected a stereo line from my DVD player and hefted the weighty soundbar underneath my TV. (A custom wall-mount bracket that uses the cabinet's threaded inserts is also available.) Using the remote, I adjusted the treble and bass levels to taste, and then spent some time playing with the PhaseCue control, which seems to extract uncorrelated "out of phase" information from the stereo mix and boosts it. The effect does open up the soundfield a bit, but can sound dreadful if cranked up.

Price $700 / zvoxaudio.com / 781-599-5493
•(2) 4-in woofers; (5) 3.25-in main drivers •Finish: black •37 x 7 x 5 in; 25 lb

Music Performance Kashmir's "Kalifornia" sounded great over the Model 425. There's no mistaking good, clean sound, and that was immediately evident here. Lead singer Kasper Eistrup's vocals were exactly spot-on, with just the right amount of the slight nasal sound that's characteristic of this song. The hard-driving percussion on "Rocket Brothers" had plenty of presence, but maintained correct timbre and never sounded hard. Music sounded best with the SANE turned off and the PhaseCue turned down.

The bass on both songs was good, though not gut-wrenching - despite the sizable cabinet, the small 4-inch drivers were clearly constrained by amplifier power. Still, when I raised the bass level, I was quite satisfied by the amount of low-end sound, not to mention the tonal quality of the bass line it reproduced. This is a good-sounding stereo speaker.

Blue Man Group's "Sing Along" also sounded great. The multichannel mix was downmixed in the player, so the Zvox only received and reproduced the surround-sound channels in stereo. I would have appreciated a fader adjustment somewhere in the signal path, but the downmix was fine, and the sound quality of the Model 425 was, of course, still evident. Vocals sounded natural, high and low percussion were nicely balanced across the spectrum, and synths were tight and punchy. As with straight stereo playback, I preferred to skip the PhaseCue.

Movie Performance Turning to Superman Returns, I was pleased with the dialogue intelligibility, clean and crisp reproduction of sound effects, and generally transparent playback of the orchestral score.

Bass level is greatly affected by where the subwoofer is placed in a room, and having the woofers for deep bass built into the soundbar doesn't give you much leeway in placement. Still the Zvox did a reasonably good job of reproducing the monster LFE track in the Space Shuttle scene, especially given the arbitrary sub position and the relatively small size of the drivers. Nudging up the PhaseCue opened the soundfield a bit, while keeping dialogue intelligibility intact. It's a minor, but useful feature.

I wished that the Model 425 could deliver louder levels. My DVD player has a fixed output, and even at maximum volume, the Zvox wasn't particularly loud. Switching to a different DVD player with variable output level and boosting that source level let the soundbar drive more decent levels, but that might not be an option for some. The Model 425 could use a touch more horsepower, or at least a more liberal sensitivity setting.

Bottom Line Putting amplifiers, satellites, and subwoofers all in one box is a minimalist's dream. And the Zvox Model 425 keeps things simple with analog inputs and basic soundfield enhancement. I was very impressed by the bar's sound quality, which rivals many discrete satellite and small sub systems I've heard. It can't reproduce surround channels (even virtually), and I wish it played louder, but its smooth sound quality makes the Zvox a contender.

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