Zvox SoundBase 570 Review
AT A GLANCE
Good sound quality for movies and music
Solid fiberboard enclosure
Bass and treble controls
Learns IR codes from your TV remote
AccuVoice Dialogue enhancer can sound tinny
Simplicity and well-balanced sound make this affordable TV base sound system a natural for those seeking a no-fuss solution to the awful speakers built into flat-panel displays.
The speakers built into TVs continue to be dreadful. But many people find component systems an intimidating solution. According to the folks at Zvox, “there are too many boxes, too many cords, too many remote controls, and too many owner’s manuals in the world today.” If you feel the same, you may be a candidate for a soundbar. If you want your TV to sit atop your audio system, make that a soundbase. Zvox pioneered this product category (they actually trademarked the SoundBase name) and offers models from $250 to $500. The SoundBase 570 ($300, reduced from $350) falls somewhere around the middle.
For TVs Up to 60 Inches
The SoundBase 570 is designed to go with TVs from 26 to 60 inches. The TV’s built-in pedestal must not be more than 29 inches wide or more than 13 inches deep (which leaves a 1-inch margin all around), and the set itself should not weigh more than 125 pounds. Most 60-inch plasma and LCD sets weigh less than 80 pounds, so if you stay within the size limitation, weight shouldn’t be an issue.
Like any decent speaker—but not necessarily all soundbases or bars—the 570 is made of medium-density fiberboard with rounded corners. It is covered in pleasingly textured strike-a-match vinyl and has a solid, well-made feel. You hoist it out of the box and think, hmmm, this isn’t bad for what I paid.
The front panel is covered with a metal grille, behind which is a large, easy-to-read orange display. The minimal controls include volume up/down, mute, and input, plus an analog minijack. They’re at the bottom right side of the front panel and easy to miss; perhaps they belong on the top edge, though the intent may have been to make them disappear.
This system doesn’t use HDMI or switch video. The highest-quality audio inputs are the three S/PDIF digital jacks: two optical and one coaxial. Two-meter optical and analog cables are supplied. Two pair of RCA analog input jacks are also present in addition to the front minijack. The system accepts up to a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital or stereo PCM input. When receiving a PCM stereo signal with matrix encoded old-school analog Lt/Rt Dolby Surround, it can extract the center and surround channels. It further accepts a Bluetooth signal, uses the integrated BlueGiga module, which Zvox avows to be the best available for this purpose, and it supports the aptX codec for cleaner sound.
There’s a subwoofer output, though the system doesn’t include a sub; the general idea is that you won’t need one. If you decide you have to shake the earth by adding a sub, the output passes a full-range signal, allowing you to set the crossover in the subwoofer at a recommended 50 hertz. Also included is a stereo full-range output. Rated frequency response for the system as a whole is 45 Hz to 20 kilohertz. Plus or minus how many decibels? You might well ask. See our Test Bench measurements for the answer.
The SoundBase has a quintet of 2-inch drivers firing out of the front plus a single 5.25-inch “subwoofer”—in this context, maybe more of a woofer—firing from the bottom into the half-inch gap established by the unit’s round rubber feet. The front drivers cross over to the bottom bass driver at 250 Hz. The 65-watt Class D amplifier allocates roughly half of its output to the bass driver and divides the rest among the front drivers. All of these long-excursion drivers utilize paper cones with polyurethane surrounds and are designed by Zvox and manufactured to the company’s specs.
The five front drivers deliver five channels of information but not in the way you might assume. Here, a left driver and a right driver flank three center drivers. They are served by three amp channels.
Of the three center drivers, only the one in the middle covers the tweeter range, operating from 250 Hz to 20 kHz to “ensure an even spread of high frequencies into the listening space,” explained a Zvox engineer.The driver on either side of it operates from 250 Hz to 5 kHz.
The far left driver handles both the left channel and any left-surround signals it receives from the surround processor; ditto the right side. The proprietary PhaseCue virtual surround processing mixes in the surround signals “with a relative phase relationship that causes a listener to hear each surround signal primarily toward the left or right side, outside the location of the main cabinet,” said the Zvox engineer. The result is claimed to be a soundstage up to 8 feet wide. The three-setting Surround control varies the perceived width by adjusting the level of this phase-manipulated information relative to the levels of the front channels.
In addition to the Surround mode, the SoundBase offers an AccuVoice mode (said to be derived from hearing-aid technology) that enhances dialogue and overrides the current Surround setting while in operation. An Output Leveling control reduces volume swings among different TV channels or inputs; it also boosts dialogue.
The remote control is about half the size of a conventional remote, though larger and thicker than a credit-card-sized remote. It runs on two AAA batteries (easier to find replacements for than a watch battery). Buttons include power, volume, mute, input, AccuVoice on/off, Output Leveling on/off, the three-step Surround control, an 11-step bass control, and a nine-step treble control. They are membrane buttons, which is always annoying. However, the SoundBase 570 can learn IR commands from your existing TV or set-top box remote to control power on/off, volume up/down, and mute. If you don’t expect to use the input, AccuVoice, Output Leveling, or Surround controls in day-to-day use, you could retire the factory remote to a nearby drawer.
Source components included an Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player and a Samsung cable box supplied by Time Warner Cable. While the unit does accept a Dolby Digital 5.1 input, everything else—including DTS—must be converted by the source component to generic PCM 2.0. Zvox recommends setting your player to Dolby Digital 5.1 or Multichannel Lt/Rt (not stereo) downmix, and I acted accordingly. Both sources were connected to the TV via HDMI, and the TV was connected to the SoundBase via digital optical cable.
I also used a digital coaxial cable to connect the disc player directly to the SoundBase. Although redundant, this connection allowed me to leave the TV off when I played music with the disc player and SoundBase. It also allowed an option to feed a multichannel Dolby Digital bitstream straight from the player to the SoundBase. Few TVs pass multichannel audio presented at their HDMI inputs out through their optical connections without downmixing it to stereo, so a direct connection via S/PDIF digital is guaranteed to keep those signals intact.
Contemplating the Tones
Zvox makes no claim to the SoundBase 570 being a discrete 5.0-channel soundbar, though its Dolby Digital decoder recognizes and uses the information found in the center and surround channels of Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. According to Zvox, the three settings of its PhaseCue Surround control provide steadily increasing levels of surround effects. The first setting, Sd 1 on the display, also emphasizes dialogue more than the other two.
For a definitive surround experience, I turned (as I often have) to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, being careful to choose the DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack since DTS would have been downmixed to PCM Lt/Rt or stereo. In three hours of special-effects bombardment, I discovered that while the surround modes did expand the system’s width beyond its borders by up to a couple of feet, depth was just as big an advantage. The Carl Orff–like choral music that serenades key moments in the film seemed to leap out a foot or two from the front of the base. When the lords Saruman and Sauron confer by crystal ball, the latter’s bone-chilling instruction—“build me an army worrrthy of Morrrdor”—reached even farther toward the seating position.
While dialogue was generally intelligible, occasionally a low-voiced scene would call for a button-pressing solution. I usually preferred switching from surround-rich Sd 3 to dialogue-enhancing Sd 1 because it sounded better than the alternatives. The AccuVoice control bent the tonal balance out of shape, making everything unpleasantly tinny. And the Output Leveling control, which includes a dialogue boost, required the system to operate closer to the top of its volume control’s range and induced an overall hardness. However, switching to Sd 1 had side effects of its own that affected other soundtrack elements. In the scene where Frodo approaches the inn that’s called the Prancing Pony, Sd 1 made rainfall, as well as voices, louder. But Sd 1 was the most benign solution of the three; it allowed the system to maintain its winning personality and still provide a modicum of dialogue enhancement during the quietest scenes.
SoundBase owners watching Blu-ray Discs may likely encounter titles that carry multichannel DTS soundtracks, for which the SoundBase 570 lacks onboard decoding. So I ran through a few of these, despite the fact that the downmixed PCM signals might not be received with surround encoding intact. Fire with Fire, the story of a fireman on the run from mob thugs, includes a gunfight with elongated bullet trajectories, as well as a climactic fire scene with all five channels active. The Zvox made these potentially surround-rich scenes somewhat spacious but not exactly enveloping. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, being downmixed to stereo, may not have had enough out-of-phase material to trigger the surround effects.
The soundtrack of ’71 (Blu-ray, Dolby Digital 5.1), a soldier’s story set in Belfast during “the Troubles,” includes a shocking terrorist blast in a pub. With all 5.1 channels active in the Dolby Digital soundtrack, the blast did sound subjectively big for a split second, firmed up by the oomph of the bass driver. It’s hard to get much low-bass extension out of this kind of system, but higher bass frequencies were reasonably forceful. When I sat at my desk across the room, my fingertips could feel the bass vibrating the computer’s keyboard.
The Haydn Challenge
I expect soundbases and bars to be unable to provide the last iota of resolution with well-recorded orchestral music. What I didn’t expect here was how competent and pleasurable the Zvox could be anyway. On a Chandos CD, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performs three Haydn Piano Concertos with Gábor Takács-Nagy leading the Manchester Camerata. The Zvox has no stereo mode, but among the three surround settings, there really wasn’t a bad choice for this music. Eventually, I came to prefer the surround-enhancing Sd 2 and 3 because they warmed up the overall tonal balance just a little. What consistently surprised me was the piano, which was rhythmically coherent in the right hand and pleasingly solid, if not entirely linear, in the left hand.
Jorma Kaukonen’s Quah has been in heavy rotation for several months, and this CD proved to be a slightly tougher test. I’d have thought Sd 1 would have been perfect for unadorned voice and acoustic guitar, but it turned out to be unpleasantly bright, driving me to the Sd 2 and 3 modes. I moved around the seating area, and while the vocal communicated best directly on axis, there were no dramatic shifts off axis. Repeatedly playing the Rev. Gary Davis’ “I’ll Be All Right” and “I Am the Light of This World”—partly just to cheer myself up—I experimented with pushing the bass control up one notch to strengthen Kaukonen’s bottom strings and dropping the treble down one notch to make the top strings less bright. But these were subtle variations, and I finally felt the album sounded fine with the tone controls flat in Sd 2 mode. The SoundBase 570 is a finely tuned system out of the box.
A two-channel CD with lots of embedded out-of-phase information flung the PhaseCue surround processor into interstellar overdrive. From the first few seconds, Radiohead’s Kid A sent a heavily processed secondary vocal careening out of the 2-inch paper cone on the far right, detaching more than 3 feet from the base—farther than anything in any other demo. At the same time, I felt (rather than heard) an indefinable sense of phase-manipulated fullness throughout the room that didn’t seem localized or tied to any particular element. It was like simulated surround on steroids. I could close my eyes and sense the SoundBase filling the room. It was visually discombobulating to open them and see the small object on the table. These miracles occurred in the middling Sd 2 mode.
With the SoundBase 570, Zvox confirms its mastery of the genre. This product is inexpensive and rugged. Except for the AccuVoice and Output Leveling modes, which got on my nerves, this base sounds great, with a good overall timbral balance—and with surround modes that are so musically adept that the company apparently didn’t find it necessary to include a basic stereo mode. In fact, while the 570 is great for movies, it’s a surprisingly pleasant musical performer as well—and that’s a good thing, with more and more sound system owners Bluetoothing tunes from their phones and tablets. If your flat-panel TV is looking for a dependable mate at low cost, here it is.