Many home theater enthusiasts dream of owning large and sophisticated surround sound speaker systems, but space and/or budget constraints sometimes rear their ugly heads, making our speaker system fantasies a practical impossibility. Apartment dwellers, for example, are often hard-pressed for floor space, yet constrained by leases that make in-wall or on-wall speaker options unworkable. Those who live in open floor plan homes, in turn, often discover their walls (or lack thereof) just won’t cooperate with proper in-wall systems designs and that routing cables to freestanding speakers can be a nightmare. For any number of reasons, scenarios arise where traditional 5.1 or 7.1- channel surround systems just aren’t appropriate. But thanks to the advent of single-enclosure multichannel speaker systems, there’s a new way for enthusiasts to pursue the surround sound dream.
About now you might be asking the $64k question, which is: Is it really possible to get satisfying surround sound from a one-box system placed at the front of the room? And with this question foremost in our minds, The Perfect Vision set out to survey a representative group of five systems spanning a wide range of price points. Our test subjects include the ZVOX 325 ($349), the Soundmatters FULLstage HD ($599), the M&K MP-4512 ($650), the Polk Audio SurroundBAR ($950), and the Yamaha YSP-1100 digital sound projector ($1699). From the outset, let us emphasize that this is a survey—not a “shootout,” where our main intent is to see what’s possible as enthusiasts climb the price/performance ladder.
The systems in this survey use different technologies to produce surround sound effects from single enclosure systems. The Yamaha and M&K designs reflect sound off of walls to achieve surround effects, while the ZVOX, Soundmatters, and Polk Audio offerings feature either active or passive surround processing schemes that, in theory, can produce surround effects without relying upon sidewall reflections.
Regardless of the technologies used, we found that all our sample systems benefited from being placed at the front and center of the room with acoustically reflective walls to the sides, though an alternative would be to place the speakers diagonally across a corner where reflective walls meet.
Before taking the plunge, prospective buyers should first ask whether their listening spaces will allow single-enclosure systems to sound their best.
The ZVOX is a self-powered, fourdriver system, featuring three forward-firing drivers (left, center, and right) plus an internal, rear-ducted subwoofer. The center speaker reproduces a mono signal, while the left and right channels play stereo information modified by ZVOX’s proprietary PhaseCue virtual surround/sound stage widening circuit. A supplementary subwoofer output jack can drive an outboard sub, if desired, but a ZVOX spokesperson said 325s are typically used as standalone systems.
One could be forgiven for sitting down with a skeptical ear for a listen to the ZVOX 325. After all, at $350, how capable could it really be to handle the challenges of surround sound favorites such as Open Range, particularly the final gunfight scene. But this small enclosure system offered pleasant surprises. Its strengths are in the middle range, and that’s where the voice is carried in movie soundtracks. So the quiet whispered comments between Boss and Charlie just before their gunfighter rivals arrive were plainly audible. The ensuing gunfight, with its many shotgun blasts and wood splintering body slams were not as dramatic as with traditional surround sound setups, but there was enough boom and crack to outplay even the best onboard TV speakers. In fact, this middle range strength makes the ZVOX ideal as a replacement system for TV speakers and its small enclosure (17 inches wide and deep; five inches high) would allow it to fit easily in most any TV wall cabinets.
The PhaseCue control actually does allow you to adjust the soundstage width for the ZVOX. It never achieves the effect of sound coming from the rear, but there is palpable depth and breadth to the soundstage that gives the 325 a full sound that belies its small size. The percussive opening of Steve Strauss’s “Youngstown” [Stockfisch] with its subtle guitar follow-on and Strauss’s baritone voice were reproduced to good effect, benefitting greatly from the ZVOX's midrange strengths.
This system is well designed for situations where space is at a premium. And it’s a shoo-in as an affordable and capable replacement for TV speakers. The surround effects don’t quite wrap all the way around, but the soundstage is wide and spacious enough to get—and keep—your attention.