Lightning Review: ZVOX 550 Speaker System and Flat Panel Stand

The gadget: The ZVOX 550, the only speaker system we've ever seen designed to hold a 50" flat panel TV while packing a 60W amp, 5.25" sub, and five 2" speakers in one frame.

The Price: $550

The Verdict: Almost soooo good. While soundbars are ever more popular, in many cases, they fit awkwardly in front of your television. I fit a 40" LCD on the ZVOX box comfortably. The ZVOX feels very stable—probably more solid than my entertainment center. So that part works.

As for the sounds itself—also excellent. I simply don't have the equipment available to compare it to other $550 audio systems (and really, there's no perfect analog product). But I will say that highs, mids and lows were all crisply represented across a variety of genres. The bass, especially, made me more than happy to forgo an extra standalone subwoofer (which the system supports should you need it). And I easily filled my tiny apartment with sound.

The cabinet does vibrate a bit, though it's very quite unless you crank the bass up to max. The only reason I'd be wary is that the shaking might damage a TV over time...but my immediate, visceral response is that things are fine.

Where the cabinet falls short to me is its inputs. It supports two sources of stereo RCA plugs. And while it offers some virtual surround tech along with the option to mix the two sources, it's just not going to work for many (or most) general home theater purposes without an optical input. Even if the ZVOX only technically plays back 2.1 channel sound, it's still a vital connectivity option.

Lightning Review: ZVOX 550 Speaker System and Flat Panel Stand

Also, while I appreciate the minimal design, the tiny remote coupled with a single LED light on the system to signal power/remote commands, it's tough to know where your levels are (Is treble maxed? How much louder can I crank this?).

So given the omission of optical inputs and a limited UI, the ZVOX 550 is not quite the universal home theater product that it could be. But if you want an excellent one-cabinet audio system that can hold your giant LCD, then it may be worth the few inconveniences. [ZVOX]

Update: ZVOX has responded with this note:

I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to address the "lack of multiple/digital inputs" issue that many editors comment on regarding the Z-Base 550. I feel the need to share some insight on our design decision-making process at ZVOX:

Our primary aim is to combine great sound with simplicity. The typical TV viewer, in our opinion, is very comfortable using their TV set as a switching/control center. That's what they've done for years — plug everything into the TV, and use the TV remote to switch back and forth. It's intuitive and really simple. And modern TVs have loads of inputs of all kinds. At ZVOX, we say "use 'em!" I can connect my DVD player, Fios box and my kid's Playstation 3 to my Panasonic LCD TV, then run the analog audio out from the TV to the ZVOX. The fact that the digital-to-analog conversion is taking place in the TV, rather than in the ZVOX system six inches away, doesn't seem to make any audible difference. The system sounds great. It has all the switching I need. And it's simple to use.

If we had included 3-4 digital inputs and switching functionality, our costs would go up (Micronas boards, HDMI costs, and last-but-not-least...Dolby royalties — which for smaller manufacturers are quite substantial) and, more importantly, the switching process becomes non-intuitive. A simple example (which presumes I don't have a Harmony or other smart, macro-programmed remote): I'm watching cable and want switch to DVD. If the DVD's video is going to the TV, and it's digital audio signal is going directly to the ZVOX, I need to switch the video with my TV remote and the audio with my ZVOX remote. If I (or my wife) forget, then we end up watching DVD video while listening the cable box audio. (My wife HATES when this happens!!)

We could get around this by adding a bunch of HDMI inputs and outputs — as well as a front panel display (like the Yamaha YSP-4000), but frankly, the ZVOX 425 might then sell for the same $1400 as the Yamaha. I'd rather keep our price point relatively low, while still being able to build cabinets of real wood and use top-notch drivers and amplifiers.

Enjoy the holidays!

Tom Hannaher, ZVOX