William Kanner—Bill to his friends—has more than 50 years of experience writing about and marketing consumer audio and video products. He began his career as a freelance audio gear reviewer and was published in magazines such as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and the list goes on. He held staff positions at various publications and was Managing Editor of AudioVideo International, a major trade monthly, for three years.
The AV157, the latest product from Massachusetts-based ZVOX, incorporates the firm's "AccuVoice" technology, which is designed to boost and clarify the hard-to-hear and often-garbled dialogue elements that abound in many movies. While priced at $299.99, the new soundbar is not the least-expensive unit on the market, but it is by no means the most extravagant, either.
In some senses, the AV157 is simplicity itself. If you took the grille off the 17-inch long by 3-3/8-inch deep by 2-7/8-inch high unit, you'd be looking at a trio of 2-by-3-inch drivers and an LCD display panel. The soundbar's back panel sports a pair of threaded screw sockets for easy wall mounting. There also are four jacks, one for the power supply, one for an optical digital cable, and two mini-jacks (one for analog audio input and the other an output for headphones or a subwoofer). The AV157 is also Alexa-ready via its analog input jack. Plug in an Echo or Echo Dot, and when the AV157 senses a verbal query or command it will lower the volume of whatever you're currently listening to.
ZVOX includes all needed accessories in the box. Included are a six-foot optical digital cable, a second cable terminated at both ends by gold-plated mini-jacks, and a third with a mini-jack at one end and RCA plugs at the other. There are also two screws for wall mounting, a remote control that actually feels good in your hand, plus two fresh AAA batteries to operate it.
Given that the AV157 features three drivers, it has a dedicated center channel, which greatly aids in dialogue intelligibility. But the biggest boost in that department comes from ZVOX's proprietary AccuVoice and SuperVoice, technologies designed to improve the intelligibility of the spoken word, relying in part on algorithms designed for hearing aids. In addition, the AV157 features some surround settings to deliver a virtual home theater experience.
Many of us, regardless of age, have had the experience of missing a crucial piece of dialogue because we just could not hear or understand the words our big, beautiful flat-screen TVs were delivering. So, we rewind a bit and turn up the sound, or ask the person we're watching with what was said. In extreme cases, we turn on closed captions. The problem is real and it ain't our fault. Over the years, soundtracks have gotten denser and dialogue has been de-emphasized. TV images have gotten bigger, better, and sharper, while TV speakers have gotten smaller, cheaper, and crappier.
ZVOX's AccuVoice and SuperVoice technologies operate slightly differently to deliver dialogue enhancement. AccuVoice boosts the frequencies at which most speech or dialogue occurs. This brings the voice forward and separates it from the background. SuperVoice diminishes background sounds to further separate the voice from the mix. ZVOX CEO Tom Hannaher puts it this way: "If you imagine a row of actors onstage, AccuVoice brings the actors forward, while SuperVoice pushes the other sounds farther back." AccuVoice and SuperVoice each have six levels of enhancement. Taken together, that gives the user a dozen possible settings.
I auditioned the AV157 as both a home theater speaker and as an enhancement for my desktop computer. While the soundbar acquitted itself with distinction in both applications, the results were different.
My home theater trial included a mix of both recent and older movies. I decided to give the AV157 a tough job right from the start, so I popped in John Wick: Chapter 2, with the always tough-to-hear Keanu Reeves, as well as Christopher Nolan's Inception. I also screened Cabaret (1972) and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) on TCM. And I added one other title, a homemade VHS cassette containing Peter Weir's wonderfully strange and mystical The Last Wave (1977).
I selectively sampled John Wick 2, stopping in dialogue-heavy places and switching back and forth between the AV157 and my TV's speakers. No question about it, Keanu was clear as an elocution teacher on the AV157. I have yet to decide whether that was a plus or minus, given the nature of that film.
Next up, Inception. I had never seen this one, but since it is a Chris Nolan film, I expected to be confused, tantalized, and engrossed. However, his fans (and I am one of them) know that the dialogue in his films is both vital and often hard to make out. Again, the AV157 came to the rescue. Cranking up AccuVoice to a median 3 setting provided strain-free listening.
Onward to Cabaret. For those who have not seen it, the film is set in Berlin just prior to Hitler taking power. The violence, decadence, and ambivalence are amply demonstrated and, again, seemingly offhand dialogue becomes crucial in the context of what is to come. With the right settings, I was able to separate the dialogue from the background, but I noticed that SuperVoice adds high levels of dynamic range compression. In addition to the increased dialogue clarity, I could hear elements of the mix getting louder and softer as the circuitry switched in and out. This is probably not a problem for – and may not even be heard by – those with significant hearing loss, but it's worth noting.
The Wreck of the Mary Deare is the oldest movie in my test set. It's an English/American shipwreck/mystery/courtroom drama starring Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Emlyn Williams, and Michael Redgrave. Cooper is the mysterious captain of a sinking freighter, and Heston is a captain in the salvage business who boards what he believes to be an abandoned vessel. Cooper is reluctant to talk about why he is alone on the boat, and much of the early conflict in the movie takes place in the noisy engine room. The taciturn Cooper's few words are heard clearly above the background engine noise, thanks to ZVOX's technology.
I have a large box that holds VHS tapes I have not replaced (And, yes, I still have a VCR capable of playing them. Also true, by the way, for 78 rpm phonograph records). I pulled out two tapes just to see what – if any – effect the ZVOX technology might have on them. My first test was the 1977 Peter Weir movie, The Last Wave. The movie is literally dark and deals with ancient mystic rites of the Australian aborigines. The dialogue on the soundtrack is frequently as mysterious as the images on the screen, facts not helped by my copy being a dub of a used tape rented from Blockbuster. But to my surprise and complete pleasure, AccuVoice again proved its value. In switching back and forth, the sound from my TV's speakers rendered the film unwatchable (or, I should say, unlistenable) until I used the AV157. The ZVOX soundbar made the film as intelligible and fascinating as the first time I viewed it.
One final experiment for the ZVOX soundbar: How does it work with a computer? Surprisingly, remarkably well. The size makes it a natural for desktops, laptops, and tablets. The AccuVoice feature makes listening to movies on a small screen easier and more enjoyable. My test of that feature was a single scene from Cabaret. Michael York, as the young Brit in Berlin, and Helmut Griem, as his aristocratic friend/guide/sponsor/sometimes lover, stop for lunch at a crowded beer garden.
Their meal is apparently charmingly interrupted by the sound of an idyllic song, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Slowly, we see the singer is in a Hitler Youth uniform, and gradually the entire beer garden is standing and singing. York and Griem finish their meals and go to their car. York turns and says to his friend, "Still think you can control them?" The answer is a shrug. This is perhaps the most frightening scene in the movie. With my computer's on-board speakers, that last exchange is lost. With the AV157, York's question is clear as a loud bell.
One other factor worth noting: the AV157's surround circuitry relies on phase-shifting and other digital signal processing to create a virtual surround effect. In a big-screen setting, the effect is a widening of the soundstage. In a near-field, small-screen, computer-type environment, the surround is more convincing.
Because of its voice enhancement technology, the ZVOX AV157 has no real direct competition. Perhaps the closest to a head-on competitor is ZVOX's own AV155 at $249.99. The AV155 features AccuVoice, but does not provide SuperVoice. The less expensive model delivers six levels of voice enhancement to the AV157's 12.
If you don't need the dialogue enhancement capabilities of the ZVOX, an alternative at the 157's price point might be the TCL Alto 9+. It's a 3.1 system with Dolby Atmos and a wireless remote.
There's also the Vizio V-Series V51-H6 5.1 Home Theater Soundbar ($249.99), which includes two surround-sound speakers and a subwoofer. The Vizio soundbar incorporates DTS Virtual:X, DTS TruVolume, and Dolby Volume technologies.
I can't begin to estimate the number of times I've been watching a movie and turned to those in the room to ask, "What'd he say?" For a variety of reasons, turning up the volume is not the solution for me. At $300, the ZVOX AV157 offers both a novel solution to a real problem and solid value. If you watch a lot of movies but struggle to understand them, and you think a soundbar is in your future, the ZVOX AV157 is one you should seriously consider.
• Visit the ZVOX website for more product information.
• Soundbars: An Easy and Budget-Friendly Way to Upgrade Your TV Audio at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Check our our Soundbar Reviews category page to read similar reviews.