ZVOX Z-Base 550 Single-Cabinet Surround System
What’s in That Black Box?
What if you opened up your home-theater-in-a-box system only to find—another box? Would you suspect you had suddenly plunged into an unpublished chapter of Through the Looking Glass, a strange alternate universe where boxes contain boxes? Would you be afraid that inside the second box, there might be a third box? And inside the third, a fourth? Was dropping acid and going to the Museum of Modern Art in 1978 really such a good idea?
I never did that—some friends did and told me about it. One of them still occasionally sees bats in his peripheral vision. But no matter how shaky your perceptual foundations are, let me assure you that you have nothing to fear from the ZVOX Z-Base 550. When you open the box, you will indeed find another box, but that’s only because the product itself is a neat rectangular solid.
A Firm Foundation
The Z-Base 550 is essentially a 3.5-inch-tall pedestal for a flat-panel TV that weigh less than 90 pounds. It’s about the size of many soundbar speakers, but it has much more cabinet depth. It is a completely self-contained audio system with a full array of drivers, amplification, and surround decoding of a sort. There are no front-panel controls. Hand-lacquered side panels add a quiet touch of elegance.
The back panel has two stereo analog line inputs. You’ll probably want to use the first one for a DVD player’s two-channel downmix output or for a cable or satellite box. If you can get by with only one of those, the second input might accommodate an MP3 player, as the manual suggests. The second one is a mixing input, which eliminates the need for source switching and suggests some interesting possibilities. You might choose to overlay TV ads with music or give some news event an ironic musical counterpoint. You can use the single monaural audio output to connect a subwoofer. It’s a full-range output, so the sub will need to have a low pass filtered input, not simply an LFE input. It doesn’t have video connectivity, video switching, or an onscreen display. Presumably, in this kind of limited setup, you’ll do that through the TV.
Since there are no digital inputs of any kind, it will be obvious to most readers that this system does not decode Dolby Digital, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, or any other digital surround formats. Instead, it accepts an analog stereo connection and rolls its own surround. The two-channel analog input can be anything from a straight stereo signal to a Dolby Surround–encoded signal, perhaps a two-channel mixdown of Dolby Digital or some other surround format.
It’s essential to note that this system does not decode surround formats in an orthodox (or Dolby/DTS-licensed) manner. Instead, it creates surround on its own terms.
Inside the box are a 60-watt (total) ENERGY STAR–certified amplifier, five full-range drivers, and a single 5.25-inch woofer that crosses over at 150 hertz. While the main drivers are sealed in the enclosure, the woofer is vented, and the enclosure’s size gives it a leg up on shallower bar speakers. The bass response’s quantity and evenness will pleasantly surprise you. The drivers are treated-paper cones with neodymium magnets.
The three drivers in the middle receive all-channel or mono signals. They produce an extremely stable center image with excellent vocal clarity. The two outside drivers receive a mix of front left and right signals that define a modest soundstage, and phase-manipulated signals, which produce surround-like effects.
An acoustic tube connects the two outer drivers. ZVOX’s name for this is Infinite Compliance. The custom-designed virtual surround scheme is known as PhaseCue. ZVOX credits both to designer Winslow Burhoe. He’s also the principal owner and designer of Direct Acoustics.