ZVOX Mini Sound Console Amplified Audio System
As I speed-dial my cell phone to reach my wife in the kitchen, to ask her to bring me another Dr. Pepper, it hits me: People want it easy. Too often, however, "easy" and "home theater" don't mix, unless, for example, you have the means and the know-how to hire a good custom installer to hook up your gear and configure your universal remote. ZVOX clearly understands the critical anti-work ethic of home entertainment. Their original 315 Sound Console (in our April 2005 issue) connects to a TV or audio source with a comforting "Set it, and forget it!" philosophy, previously applicable only in the realm of Ron Popeil's famous rotisseries. ZVOX's goal is to deliver spacious home theater audio with only one cable connected to a single box.
Earlier this year, ZVOX went all shrinky-dink and introduced the Mini. As the name suggests, the Mini is a more compact version of the original sound console. It's less than half the size but maintains the same basic design and full amplifier power. Each of the three main loudspeaker drivers is now 2.5 inches in diameter, and the three split 20 of the system's 40 total watts. The remaining power is reserved for the new 4-by-6-inch subwoofer. Another improvement is the addition of an idiot-proof remote control with only two buttons: volume up and down.
If you're new to ZVOX, or if you've had a few too many memory-eroding Boston lagers since our first sound console review, the technology inside the big and little iterations is the same. The proprietary PhaseCue virtual-surround circuitry and drivers work in tandem. The medium-density fiberboard box houses three full-range, single-driver loudspeakers and a rear-firing, slot-ported subwoofer. The left speaker plays L–R, or left minus right. This consists of the standard left-channel signal plus out-of-phase information from the right channel that the PhaseCue circuitry creates. You can control the amount of out-of-phase information—essentially, the extent of the soundfield-widening effect—via the PhaseCue knob. Set it lower for a more traditional sound or higher for more processing and a wider effect. The large quantity of available bass further conveys the illusion of size. The right speaker in turn combines the right signal with R–L info, while the mono center speaker plays an L+R signal. This same L+R information that, once filtered, also feeds the subwoofer. Power is distributed to the three individual speakers according to the dictates of the current PhaseCue setting. Interestingly, when PhaseCue is fully turned down, the Mini does not default to a 2.1 role with a mute center and no processing. Instead, the left and right drivers receive no signal, and only the mono L+R center driver and subwoofer are active.
A key benefit of the product design and its internal audio processing is the freedom to place the unit in a variety of different locations and still hear clear, powerful sound. You get even greater placement freedom thanks to the Mini's more petite footprint. There are no vents on the top or the bottom, so you can place the Mini on top of other gear, and you can stack components atop it without leading to excessive heat buildup. I prefer to leave the rear-panel subwoofer-level knob at about 90 percent. This is ideal for most listening situations, as the bass can slightly overpower the other channels when turned all the way up. Also on the back panel is a three-position power switch. If you leave this switch in the standby position rather than on or off, you should never need to fuss with it.
The Mini's instructions fit in their entirety onto a single sheet of paper, and the setup was an uneventful two-minute process. I simply connected the included analog stereo-to-miniplug cable from my TV's variable audio output to the Mini. Or I could have just run the mini-to-mini cable out of the TV headphone jack. The sight was refreshingly minimalist, with only an audio input and an AC power cable to worry about.
In all of my demos, PhaseCue gave a definite goose to the dialogue. It was certainly not as distinct as a dedicated center channel, but it created a convincing phantom-like effect. The evident detail in the surrounds during Master and Commander also seemed to be enhanced, while the overall sound took on a much more room-filling quality versus simple L+R. Curiously, certain individual surround effects in The Patriot sometimes sounded a little thin relative to the fullness of the other channels, as rendered by the PhaseCue process. This occurred even though the front channels were more expanded and illusion of the surrounds was even more pronounced here than on Master and Commander. Both titles had a palpable front-to-back depth that really suited the big soundtracks. Distortion was minimal, audible only in the highest highs and lowest lows, due in part to the new driver design's long throw and strong magnets. As is to be expected with the abridged cabinet space and the psychoacoustic manipulations involved, the size of the perceived sweet spot is reduced, and the sound seemed to emanate from a slightly more specific location than I'm used to. I would also recommend placing the Mini as close as possible to your display as the most realistic experience, especially if you intend to use the PhaseCue at lower levels.
HT in a Briefcase?
Another benefit of the redesign is, believe it or not, portability. The Mini is still intended primarily as a home audio product, but the optional PortaParty carrying case lets you transport the unit safely. It also allows you to use it on the go with a portable MP3 player or another source, thanks to another option: a sealed lead-acid battery. To paraphrase ZVOX founder and CEO Tom Hannaher, the words "lead" and "acid" conjure up negative images, but, if you must have both, at least they're sealed. The heavy-duty nylon bag has special pockets for the remote, cables, that mega battery, and more, tipping the scale at about 15 pounds when fully loaded. There are different packing configurations for listening to and for simply carrying the Mini. Finding the proper positioning for all of the contents and arranging all of the flaps was far more challenging than the home setup.
For a short while, I was the coolest person in the world, with my Sony PSP blasting through the Mini's formidable drivers, flaunting mobile movies, games, and music like the world has never heard. I considered taking this underarm über-rig onto my commuter train, but that's just the excuse that the men in the New Jersey Transit hats have been looking for to eject my technology-enabled butt. The PortaParty is reminiscent of the boom boxes of old for its sheer size and power, but it has a dramatic edge in performance, style, and versatility.
Arriving back in the living room, I paused one last time to savor the feng shui of that uncluttered rear panel. The clear dialogue makes the Mini a handy add-on for casual flat-screen users who want to make sure that they can hear every word. It's a good alternative to the often poor reproduction of the tiny, limited-performance speakers inside many sets. Plus, the adoption process is absolutely painless. The Mini offers outstanding sound quality, but, much like midget wrestlers, its identity is ultimately defined by its size. This new ZVOX console is great for small rooms and is a fitting complement to more diminutive equipment, such as a music micro system. You could set a notebook computer on top of the Mini for a complete DVD playback solution in scarcely more space than a Manhattan phone book. See? Sometimes big ideas do come in little packages.
• Drastic improvement over most onboard TV audio in about two minutes
• Compact new styling allows placement in even tighter spaces, or on the go
• User-friendly design tweaks, though naturally not quite as big sounding as a full 5.1 system