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Published on September 27th, 2011 | by Greg


ZVOX 555: The Best Soundbar Yet

That’s the un­for­tu­nate thing about mod­ern flatscreen tele­vi­sions- they are re­mark­ably flat, fair­ly easy to mount, and pro­vide a large high-def­i­ni­tion pic­ture. In do­ing so, they ac­tive­ly pre­vent good sound, as there is no way to pro­vide sol­id bass or of­fer ex­cel­lent speak­ers in these thin-frame LCD sets. Thus, many peo­ple are left with video qual­i­ty that far out­strips their au­dio, mak­ing do with the built-in tele­vi­sion speak­ers for want of a bet­ter so­lu­tion. Sure, you could mount speak­ers all over the place, and per­haps get a com­pli­cat­ed re­ceiv­er as well that looks out of place and adds an­oth­er en­tire set of ca­bling and set­up is­sues. If you’re like us, this is ac­cept­able for a big home the­ater, with 5.1 sound and at­ten­tion to place­ment. But that time and mon­ey are bet­ter spent else­where when you have a small apart­ment or con­do, when you just don’t need the has­sle, or for your up­stairs or guest bed­room.

There aren’t many op­tions here that make sense, so we are hap­py that the ZVOX 555 ex­ists. They pi­o­neered the con­cept of sound­bars- an all-in-one long speak­er that con­tains all of the mul­ti­ple pieces you might have sep­a­rat­ed. ‘Sound­bar’ is a word that has been abused by cheap and mediocre com­peti­tors, so they call them many oth­er names. And while the con­cept might sound a bit odd at first- wouldn’t this take up more space? what about the rear speak­ers?- the an­swers are sim­ple. And the 555 puts most ques­tions to rest im­me­di­ate­ly- it takes up space, to be sure, but fits snug­ly un­der your tele­vi­sion screen’s base. For those that are mount­ed in one way or an­oth­er, it does make less sense. But imag­ine tak­ing a 3.1 sys­tem and plac­ing it in­to a large, care­ful­ly craft­ed box.

We talk a lot about how sound is space- phys­i­cal lim­its con­strain how small you can make a sub­woofer and still pro­duce the nec­es­sary out­put. At a cou­ple of feet wide, and on­ly a bit over a foot deep, it’s slim­mer than be­fore.We put it up against it’s old­er sib­ling, the 575, that we re­viewed al­most two years ago. The new­er mod­el still adds 20 pounds to your stand, like­ly not a prob­lem but cer­tain­ly some­thing to con­sid­er, and about half of the 575. As be­fore, the de­sign is sim­ple- an LCD pan­el- but this time there are some much-ap­pre­ci­at­ed front in­put for use with your iPod or oth­er MP3 play­er. And ba­sic con­trols (vol­ume, in­put, mute) are on the front as well, nice­ly hid­den but handy if you are us­ing front in­puts es­pe­cial­ly. Stylish it might not be, but the ZVOX 555 will fit in and blend well with most TVs.

Set­up is su­per-sim­ple- both coax­i­al and op­ti­cal dig­i­tal in­puts are avail­able, along with nor­mal ana­log RCA in­puts (ca­ble in­clud­ed). You just need to con­nect one in­put- au­dio from your cho­sen source. A sep­a­rate sub­woofer out port is in­clud­ed, though we didn’t test it. We used a 46-inch Sam­sung tele­vi­sion in our tests, and the ZVOX added a nice bit of height to a stand that was a lit­tle low. And the 555 can hold up to 110 pounds, which might have been an is­sue a few years ago but is more than ad­e­quate now. Al­to­geth­er, five speak­ers and the sub­woofer are strate­gi­cal­ly placed with­in the sys­tem, which is stur­dy wood in­stead of cheap plas­tic. That change def­i­nite­ly ef­fects weight and cost, but sounds much bet­ter, as the bass from the Z-base is sur­pris­ing and im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing the size. We sat back, and tried a few sources- an ac­tion movie, some mu­sic (Juno Re­ac­tor, in this case, was a stand­out), and al­so some tele­vi­sion. Sure, we most­ly use web sources these days, but ev­ery now and then like to go old school and see what’s on net­work tele­vi­sion. One nifty fea­ture is that ZVOX us­es Out­put Lev­el­ing to avoid blast­ing com­mer­cials, bal­anc­ing vol­umes to avoid that deaf­en­ing ad­ver­tise­ment that sends ev­ery­one scram­bling for the re­mote.

The re­al trick here was the sound­stage- the per­ceived size of the sound, how en­velop­ing it feels. Di­a­logue is rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward, but the ZVOX 555 ex­cels at push­ing sound in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, mak­ing your movies sound big­ger and fuller, and more like you were in a the­ater. Gun­shots scream out from your sides, and al­to­geth­er it was much bet­ter than most vir­tu­al sur­round sys­tems- five speak­ers spread out of­fer a good range, and we nev­er felt boxed in. We did no­tice a bit of noise, at one point to­wards the end of a fair­ly lengthy ses­sion- about four hours of use in, some stat­ic crept up. We shift­ed the RCA ca­ble, which seemed to fix the is­sue and didn’t no­tice it again. One oth­er note: the new sys­tem can be pro­grammed to use any re­mote, not just uni­ver­sal ones. It’s ac­tu­al­ly quite cool, but it’s im­por­tant to note that your TV will still re­spond to com­mands of course (if you on­ly have one set of vol­ume con­trols, then even if you don’t have au­dio run­ning in­to your set, your TV’s speak­ers will still make noise at high­er vol­umes).

The ZVOX 555 can put out plen­ty of vol­ume, and the com­pa­ny says that it can do so de­spite draw­ing very low wattage. Even for those with a pre­de­ces­sor sys­tem, this mod­el of­fers enough im­prove­ments to sug­gest (the front and ig­i­tal in­puts be­ing key). That said, we didn’t see no­tice­ably im­proved sound- bass, in fact, was di­min­ished in our opin­ion as was out­put. The Di­a­logue Em­pha­sis fea­ture al­so felt a lit­tle lack­ing, in­deed boost­ing some di­a­logue au­di­bil­i­ty but at the cost of a fair loss to over­all qual­i­ty and bal­ance. But over­all, those seek­ing an all-in-one au­dio pack­age can’t do much bet­ter than the new ZVOX 555. It’s al­so sig­nif­i­cant­ly cheap­er than the 575 was, a rea­son­able val­ue at $400. Avail­able now, on­line pri­mar­i­ly, with a 30-day mon­ey-back guar­an­tee.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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