Zvox Audio Z-Base 580 Soundbar Page 2
Hidden behind the perforated-metal grille is a minimalist display consisting of just four orange-fluorescent LED digits. The LED segments are bright enough and big enough to be read from across a room, but they thoughtfully disappear after a few seconds, leaving no distractions in your field of view.
With so few characters available, the display can be rather cryptic. For example, when the optical digital input is selected, the display shows something that looks like "dIn1." The virtual-surround modes are rendered as "Sd1," "Sd2," etc. None of this bothered me in the least during normal use, but I would have appreciated a more communicative display when teaching the Zvox the IR commands from my remote (more on this below).
An unobtrusive set of basic front-panel controls is provided, including buttons for Mute, Volume Up/Down, and Input. There is also a 3.5mm (1/8-inch) input jack on the front, which I occasionally found handy as a quick connection point for my iPod.
Also included is a small, unlit remote, though I doubt many people will find much use for it after the Zvox has learned the appropriate commands from your TV or set-top-box remote.
Initial setup is about as simple as it gets for a home-theater audio product. A single-page Quick Setup guide illustrates how to position the unit on a TV stand or shelf, connect the power cord and a single audio cable from your TV's audio output to the corresponding input on the Zvox (I used an optical digital connection), turn on the power switch, and select the correct input.
The final steps are a bit trickier and require reference to another single-page guide cleverly titled "Your Current TV Remote Can Control Your Zvox System." Basically, you end up teaching the Zvox three commands from your TV (or set-top box) remote: Volume Up, Volume Down, and Mute. This is accomplished by pushing a couple of buttons on the Zvox front panel to put the unit in Learn mode, then following step-by-step prompts on the display. The guide document also illustrates each step.
Each command has to be taught twice to confirm its correct receipt, and if you make a mistake, the display gives cryptic error codes like "noch," which translates to "No Change." It's not the most user-friendly system, especially for those unfamiliar with learning remotes, but your efforts will be rewarded when you pick up the TV's remote and everything works exactly like everyone in the family is used to, except that the sound now comes out of the Zvox.
I did run into a couple of hiccups during the learning process. First, the guide says to "press and hold" the button on the TV remote until the display shows "- - - -." However, this never happened on my system. Things only progressed when I pressed and then released the remote button.
Second, the guide includes a forth step in which you teach the Zvox your TV's Power command. This step is neither desirable nor necessary. Having the Zvox respond to the TV's power command leaves open the possibility that the two devices will end up out of sync, with one turning off while the other turns on and vice versa. It's much better to allow the Zvox to turn itself on and off automatically. However, having already taught the Zvox my TV's command, I found it could not be erased.
In the end, I started over and when the time came to teach the power command, I picked up the Zvox remote and taught the unit its own code. Problem solved! The company later acknowledged that I could have skipped this step entirely; my Mute and Volume commands would have been retained without programming the Power command. In this case, the unit turns on when it receives any IR command. Programming a Power command maybe redundant, but when I asked Zvox about this, I was informed that "having a Power-button response is a comfort to many of our customers," and that sync issues with this setup rarely appear in practice.
Sonically speaking, the Z-Base 580 punches way above its weight class. For a single-box system, this thing really packs a wallop! But let's get one thing out of the way right off the top—the 580 does not replicate the immersive, wrap-around effect of a good 5.1-channel surround system. Nor should you expect it to. On the other hand, with the right source material, Zvox's PhaseCue II virtual-surround circuit did manage to generate a front soundstage that seemed to extend well beyond the confines of the cabinet. And that will have to do. If you want real surround sound, get yourself a system with at least five speakers. But if you want high-quality TV sound without hassles, the 580 delivers with no excuses necessary.
The 580's overall sound quality is clean, articulate, and well balanced. It's capable of playing both movies and music quite loud without overtly breaking up or otherwise distorting, and it offers enough dynamic range to make you jump when things go bump in the night. Bass response is particularly nice. The low end is not only ample and punchy, it's smoothly integrated into the overall sound in a way that's very hard to achieve with an external subwoofer. Treble response is satisfying, too, and while the 580 doesn't come close to matching the level of detail and extension produced by my $6500 B&W 801s, it doesn't embarrass itself, either.
As nice as its overall sound quality is, in the final analysis, any TV sound system lives or dies based on one key characteristic: dialog intelligibility. And the Zvox excels in this area. This does not, however, have anything to do with the 580's Dialog Enhancer function. That circuit merely manipulates the sound to make everything bright, sibilant, and grating, at least to my ears. Instead, the 580 comes by its excellent dialog reproduction honestly, by using quality drivers and engineering.
Just as I was preparing to sit down and write this review, HBO began running its new horse-racing series, Luck. In addition to a wonderful, multi-layered, bass-heavy theme song ("Splitting the Atom" by Massive Attack, which the Zvox renders beautifully), the superb cast is made up of mostly male actors with as diverse and challenging a set of vocal accents as you're ever likely to hear in a single show.
There's Dustin Hoffman, who always sounds like he's talking with a mouthful of marbles, and Nick Nolte, who plays an elderly gentleman from Kentucky who would be hard to understand even if he didn't always speak very softly. Then you have an Irish jockey, a Brooklynite agent with a stammer, a Peruvian trainer, a gravel-voiced asthmatic gambler—every character speaks with a unique and potentially difficult-to-understand accent. The Zvox managed to convey all of these and more so I could understand what they are saying without resorting to turning the sound way up or—worse—having to constantly say "What?" and replay snippets of missed dialog. If it can handle this dialog intelligibility torture-test, it can handle most anything.
Bottom Line If you're looking for a single-box home-theater audio solution to accompany up to a 70-inch flat-panel and will be placing the TV on a stand (as opposed to wall-mounting it), I can unhesitatingly recommend that you visit the Zvox Audio website and order one today. You'll have 30 days to audition the unit in your home, and if you don't like it, you can send it back. You'll be out the return shipping, but that's a small risk. Once you hear a 580 and discover how easy it is to use, I seriously doubt you'll ever want to part with it.
I'd also highly recommend the 580 to anyone who is getting a bit hard of hearing, or is dealing with loved ones who are. Not only will they greatly benefit from the Zvox's crystal-clear dialog reproduction, they'll actually be able to use it thanks to its totally transparent operation. You hear that, Mom?