You really need a true 5.1 audio system to take advantage of the surround sound mixes on Blu-ray and DVD. Unfortunately for a lot of people, that means actually having five speakers (two positioned behind the viewer) and a subwoofer on the floor. Unless you've built a dedicated home theater and put speakers in the wall, most people don't actually want a roomful of speaker stands.
Soundbars are supposed to be the solution, a single bar that sits in front of or mounts below a flat screen TV. Still, a good one still requires a subwoofer on the floor and it's an additional piece of gear. While they promise to recreate 5.1 sound, they really just give the impression with some minor phase shifts. And, while they combine the other four speakers into one long bar, they end up being a poor design compromise.
ZVOX was the first company to really understand the living room dynamic. There's usually one person who wants the flat screen TV and Blu-ray player and wants to upgrade the sound. And there's another who hates how everything looks. ZVOX's solution is the pedestal soundbar, a device that sits underneath the TV, eliminates the subwoofer and practically disappears into the room. It's brilliant.
I tested the ZVOX Audio Soundbase 320, which sells for $200 direct and is designed for 27"-42" TVs. The company makes a range of models that sell for $170 to $400, with the top end adding a few more watts and Dolby Digital decoding to the output.
The #1 advantage over a regular soundbar is that the ZVOX practically disappears into the room and could pass for a support platform. The front grille only lights up when you're using the remote and then fades back to black.
The audio setup is dead simple. Most decent TVs come with an optical output. Use the included optical cable, set your TV's audio output to external speakers and you're ready to go.
The remote is spare but the volume and mute buttons are a different size from the others which makes them easy to find in the dark. There's a "DE" dialog enhancement button that compresses the right frequencies to make conversations pop in a noisy movie.
ZVOX makes a big deal of its wood construction. Most everything else in this price range comes with plastic speaker cabinets, so that's technically a true statement. It's fair to point out that that "wood" is MDF, which still gives upgraded sound over plastic. You can plug another audio device into the front jack. The sound is excellent for both the price and for the available 30 watts per channel on this model. Its one-piece construction makes it easy to move and set up in a new place if you're not yet living a settled life.
ZVOX also doesn't overpromise on the "surround" sound, making sure not to claim it's a true replacement for a multi-speaker setup and describing its "PhaseCue II Virtual Surround Sound" processing in detail on the website.
After using the Soundbase 320 for a couple of weeks, the high-end soundbar I've got sitting in my living room looks like a terrible compromise. It still sounds pretty good but now it looks incredibly ugly and sticks out in the room. I'm now starting to wonder how the bigger, more powerful device might sound. ZVOX was the first to market with a pedestal soundbar design and it's offering a great value for the price. If you're not going to install a true 5.1 system, you should really consider one of these as an alternative to a regular soundbar. They look a lot better and there's not really a tradeoff in sound quality.