Published on September 27th, 2011 | by Greg0
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.