Any system like the Z-Base has one major hurdle to clear with potential buyers: It has to sound better than the speakers built into a typical TV. It's obvious on first listen that the Z-Base does. Compared with the speakers in the two TVs I own, the Z-Base delivered clearer dialogue, far deeper bass, and a much greater sense of envelopment.
The battle scenes in Tropic Thunder (Dream-Works) convinced me of the Z-Base's worth. Explosions and gunshots seemed to come from actual left and right speakers sitting a couple of feet to either side of the TV, and the sound engulfed my listening chair. The effect was more convincing than I've heard from two-speaker surround-emulation technologies such as SRS and Dolby Virtual Speaker. It also produced a wider sweet spot. The effect sounded best when I was sitting directly in front of the Z-Base, but it didn't change dramatically when I moved a few feet to the side.
The Z-Base delivered surprisingly smooth dialogue. From the reedy accent that real actor Jay Baruchel used to play onscreen actor Kevin Sandusky (in turn playing a soldier named Brooklyn) to the guttural growl Robert Downey, Jr., adopted to play Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (in turn playing Sgt. Osiris), every voice in Tropic Thunder sounded reasonably natural, without overt tonal coloration. The vocal sound was a bit thin relative to what you'd hear from a good conventional center speaker, and with no dedicated tweeter to convey the high frequencies, it lacked a sense of breath. Still, it was a gigantic improvement over any built-in TV speaker I've heard.
The woofer's output balances well with the 2-inch drivers. I wouldn't describe it as punchy or powerful, but there's enough bass that I never once felt the need to add a subwoofer. Unless you crank the woofer level control all the way up, it never booms or distorts.
Given a stereo or a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, the Z-Base 550 has enough output to cover a large bedroom or a small living room. But with some Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtracks, downmixed to stereo inside the DVD player to feed the Z-Base, the volume was too low for my taste even when I turned it all they way up. The preamp circuitry could use about 6 dB more gain.
The Z-Base is as foolproof as a home theater audio system can get, and it delivers satisfying sound that won't leave you wishing you'd instead bought a home theater in a box. For the 90% of people out there who can't (or don't want to) figure out the 100-plus connections on a typical A/V receiver, the Z-Base is the ideal route to simplicity - and therefore happiness.
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