When Apple released the iPod Hi-Fi, it got lots (and lots) of press. Yet it wasn’t the first “transportable” audio system capable of putting out big sound. In fact, it may not even be the best in its niche. We’ve been testing ZVOX Audio’s $200 to $300 (depending on options) ZVOX Mini for a few months now, and we’ve been quite impressed.
Smaller is better
Back in 2004, we reviewed the ZVOX 315, a speaker system designed to provide big sound from a single enclosure. We found it to be a well-made, good-sounding, easy-to-use system; however, its size and AC-only design limited its use to a single location, and its rear-mounted controls made it inconvenient to adjust the system’s settings.
With the Mini, ZVOX took much of what was good about the 315, improved on it, and then put it into a smaller, transportable enclosure. The 13" (wide) x 10" (deep) x 3.3" (high), gloss-creme-finish Mini is less than half the size of the 315 and weighs approximately 7 pounds less (10 pounds, including the power supply). Behind the gray metal grill on the front of the Mini you’ll find three 2.5-inch drivers (instead of the 315’s 3.5-inch versions) and a 4" by 6" woofer (vs. the 315’s 5.25-inch version). A 40-Watt amplifier—the same as that found in the 315—powers the system. To the right of the grill are an infrared receiver (for the Mini’s remote control), a volume knob, and a Phase Cue knob; the latter controls how much of ZVOX’s Phase Cue virtual-surround/soundstage technology is applied to your music (see below). Having these controls on the front of the unit—as opposed to the back, where they were located on the 315—is much more convenient.
The back of the Mini includes a large, horizontal port for the system’s woofer; the main power switch; the power connector; the bass control (used to adjust the Mini’s relative bass level); and two 1/8-inch (minijack) stereo connectors. The first connector is input-only, whereas the second automatically switches between a second (mixed) input and a subwoofer output for connecting to an external, powered subwoofer.
Unlike Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, the ZVOX Mini’s power supply/AC adapter is an external model. Although this adds cable clutter and a bit of bulk to the system, it has one welcome advantage: When taking the Mini with you and using battery power—covered below—you can leave the power supply at home and shave 3 pounds off the system’s weight. (That may not seem like much, but 3 pounds can feel like 15 when you’re carrying gear around.)
Although you can use the Mini’s main power switch to turn it on and off, it’s more convenient to place the switch in the Standby position, which takes advantage of the system’s power-saving feature: After 3 minutes without detecting audio input, the Mini’s amplifier is shut down, reducing power usage to a minimum; after detecting a couple seconds of audio input, the amplifier automatically turns on again.
Mini manual, too
The ZVOX Mini’s design isn’t the only thing that’s uncomplicated: The system’s “manual” is basically an 8.5" by 11" card with clear instructions and a few images. You connect your audio source(s) using minijack-to-RCA or minijack-to-minijack cables (both included). If your source—an iPod or other portable player, a TV, a CD or DVD player—has a line-level output, you can use the ZVOX Mini’s volume control to adjust volume levels. If the source supplies only a variable-level output, such as a headphone jack, ZVOX recommends turning the source’s volume to approximately 75% of maximum and then adjusting the Mini to your maximum comfortable listening level; after this one-time adjustment, you can use the source’s own volume controls, leaving the Mini alone.
(The latter approach, combined with the Mini’s wide, flat design, make the Mini perfect for placing on top of a TV or DVD player; a smaller TV can sit directly on top of the Mini, thanks to the Mini’s sturdy construction. Either way, the Mini is perfect for a dorm room or bedroom—you can hook up your TV and iPod.)
For connecting the Mini to an iPod, ZVOX recommend’s Kensington’s Stereo Dock, although any Apple-branded or third-party dock cradle that provides a stereo output (including Apple’s Universal Dock and Remote ) will work fine. You can even hook your iPod up via its headphone jack in a pinch. Unfortunately, the Mini doesn’t include an iPod dock cradle.
The Mini’s remote continues the minimalist trend, featuring only two buttons: Volume Up and Down. Even then, as noted above, ZVOX recommends using the remote only if your audio source doesn’t include its own remote or provides only a line-level audio output.
Given the Mini’s limited feature set, iPod owners may be wondering why I’m so impressed by the system. The answer becomes obvious as soon as you press Play: The Mini sounds great. I assumed it would sound good, given my experience with the ZVOX 315, but I was stunned by the sound put out by this little box (which looks even smaller head-on, the way you’re likely to see it—like the iPod Hi-Fi, the Mini is designed for “across the room” listening, not for use directly in front of you on a desk).
The Mini’s treble detail and midrange are both excellent, revealing the most delicate details without sounding tinny or harsh, and reproducing female voices as well as any portable system we’ve seen. Its bass response is also surprisingly good—not quite as extended as the (much larger) iPod Hi-Fi, but tighter and more balanced with the rest of the frequency range. (The larger ZVOX 315 is more comparable to the iPod Hi-Fi in terms of bass output thanks to the 315’s larger enclosure.)
In fact, “balanced” is perhaps the best way to describe the ZVOX Mini: Unlike the iPod Hi-Fi, which, as we mentioned in our review, has a distinct lack of upper treble detail, the Mini provides a relatively flat frequency response and sounds excellent with pretty much any type of music. When compared directly to the iPod Hi-Fi, the Mini doesn’t sound quite as full and warm—few speaker systems do, thanks to the Hi-Fi’s midrange emphasis—but is much clearer and sounds much more natural to my ears. In fact, I haven’t heard a speaker system for the iPod that sounds this good for this price. (Monitor’s $249 i-deck is likely the closest competitor in terms of sound quality, but isn’t portable/transportable.)
The Mini also outclasses every other one-piece system we’ve heard in terms of soundstage and imaging. ZVOX’s PhaseCue technology is designed to simulate the ambience and sense of space you’d get by listening to a live performance (or at least a system with separate left/right speakers), and it works exceptionally well. As I tested the Mini, I was regularly surprised by the expansive soundstage I heard; on many tracks, audio appears to come from well outside the Mini. In fact, when I had the Mini set up in my listening room—in between my home stereo speakers, which are placed on stands approximately 8 feet apart—a number of people mistakenly thought the Mini’s music was being produced by the left and right speakers. And when connected to a TV, on several occasions I thought someone in the next room had said something to me; it was actually someone “offscreen” in the movie or TV show I was watching. At the same time, individual instruments—for example, a saxophone in a jazz ensemble—remain distinctly placed in space, so you don’t get the sort of fake “surround sound” produced by less effective processing.
You control how much of the PhaseCue effect is applied to your audio via the PhaseCue knob on the front of the Mini: Too little and the Mini sounds much like any other one-piece system; too much and audio sounds artificially processed. But once you find the right spot—in my listening room, somewhere close to the middle—it’s a welcome feature that truly enhances the listening experience. (For whatever reason, I like the implementation of PhaseCue in the Mini much better than that of the earlier 315; it sounds more natural to me on the Mini. And as I noted earlier, I like that the PhaseCue knob is on the front of the Mini; on the 315 it was located inconveniently on the back.)
On the other hand, one area in which the Mini can’t truly compete with the iPod Hi-Fi is output: As noted in our Hi-Fi review, the latter system blows away most competing systems in terms of bass response and maximum volume. Because of this, the Mini doesn’t fill larger rooms as well as the Hi-Fi, and can’t saturate the back yard as thoroughly. That’s not to say it won’t play loud; it had more than enough presence to saturate my living room to uncomfortable levels. Just don’t expect to host a house party using the Mini as your sound system. But if these aren’t environments in which you’ll be using the Mini, its better overall sound quality more than makes up for its lower output.
Although the $200 Mini isn’t truly portable out of the box, for an additional $100 you can add a battery and custom-fit bag (sold separately for $50 each). The main compartment of the padded, nylon PortaParty carrying bag holds the Mini itself and either the AC adapter or the battery. It also includes a number of additional pockets for carrying an iPod, portable CD or DVD player, or other portable audio source along with cables and earbuds. A document pocket on the back can hold magazines or files, and a thick strap on the back accommodates the retractable handle on most rolling luggage, making the PortaParty bag easy to take with you on a trip.
Although the bag isn’t the most attractive I’ve seen—black and gray with aqua-colored ZVOX logos—it compensates by letting you use the Mini without removing it from the bag: The compartment for the Mini has a zippered mesh cover; just flip the bag’s top flap open, fold it under the case, and start playback. The mesh cover keeps the Mini from falling out of the bag, but lets the audio through. The bottom of the bag has a padded, zippered flap—with an additional mesh layer behind it for protection—that you can open to expose the Mini’s rear vents during playback. Several openings in the bag accommodate cables for connecting your audio source and the battery to the Mini. (You can use the AC adapter with the bag, but unfortunately there’s no opening in the bottom of the bag for the cable, which means you have to snake the cable out the front of the bag.)
The Mini’s battery is the weak link in its portability: It’s a large, 12-Volt, sealed lead-acid model, weighing approximately 3.5 pounds. (It’s the same sort of battery used by Cambridge SoundWork’s Model Twelve.) After an 8-hour charging cycle, the battery provides 4 to 6 hours of playback time. I say “weak link” because of the short playback time—by comparison, the iPod Hi-Fi plays over 10 hours on 6 D batteries—the battery’s size and weight, and the battery’s maintenance needs: Unlike lithium-ion batteries, lead acid batteries provide fewer charge cycles, prefer to be stored at full charge, and can be damaged by under- or over-charging.
(One nice bonus you get with the battery is an adapter that lets you plug the Mini into an automobile accessory [“cigarette lighter”] jack. However, given the low cost of such an adapter, it would be nice to see it included with the Mini itself.)
If you think you’ll ever want to move the Mini from place to place, the PortaParty bag is well worth the $50 price. However, you’ll only need the $50 battery if you plan on using the system where there’s no access to AC power. (Kudos to ZVOX for making both an option to keep the cost of the Mini itself down.)
ZVOX Audio’s ZVOX Mini doesn’t provide an iPod dock or any other iPod-specific features. However, if your primary goal in shopping for a speaker system is sound quality, the Mini’s performance will more than make up for these omissions: I haven’t heard another system, portable or stationary, that sounds as good for $200.
As a transportable system for $100 more, the Mini may not be as convenient as iPod-specific solutions, some of which, again, have dedicated iPod cradles that keep your player safe during transit. However, it’s only slightly less convenient than Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, which also requires you to carry your iPod and cables separately. And—in case it isn’t obvious by now—it’s really the iPod Hi-Fi against which the Mini should be compared: Both are one-piece speaker systems designed to work with multiple audio sources and replace a traditional bookshelf stereo. But the Mini is much smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the iPod Hi-Fi (especially if you factor in the cost of a carrying case ), while actually sounding better. If its design fits your lifestyle, the ZVOX Mini is highly recommended.