February 23, 2024

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Zvox AV120 Review: Instantly Improves TV Dialogue, Not Great at Movies

5 min read
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Pros

  • Crystal clear without harshness
  • Affordable
  • Easy to set up and use
  • Bluetooth capable

Cons

  • Won’t work if you lose the remote
  • Music subject to volume spurts
  • Low frequencies can cause distortion

If TVs sounded any better than they currently do, then I would probably be out of a job. For that matter, so would speaker manufacturer Zvox. For over twenty years, the Massachusetts-based company has produced soundbars designed to make TV audio sound clearer. The Zvox AV120 continues in this tradition, but it comes in at a lower price than ever before.

When it comes to making voices sound better for not much money, the AV120 gets a big star. It has multiple modes designed to improve speech, and it does so without sacrificing treble sound quality for others in the room. The only real downside to the speaker is that it’s not so great with music, but the speaker’s Bluetooth capability does help if you listen to podcasts. Overall, the Zvox AV120 is a solid buy for people who need a sonic boost in their day-to-day television watching. 

The speaker is currently on sale for $60, which is a great price, and representatives tell me that its regular price will be under $100 (rather than the original $150).

Design and features

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The AV120 is tiny at 15 inches across

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Like the AV357 I reviewed a while ago, the AV120 is a teeny, tiny speaker; only 15 inches wide by 2.2 inches high and 2.5 inches deep. It’s made from plastic and this also helps keep the price low compared to its aluminum siblings. The speaker is black and comes with a choice of either a black or a bronze grill.

The AV120 uses hearing aid technology to accentuate speech, with two different strength levels to choose from, as well as a surround mode. The speaker also includes an “output leveling” feature to reduce the distraction of volume spikes from loud commercials.

The physical inputs are as minimalist as its footprint: a combined 3.5mm/optical connection and USB for playing MP3 files from a thumb drive (old school!). Unlike other Zvox speakers, the AV120 also includes Bluetooth 5.0, so it can double as a music speaker.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The speaker comes with a large remote control with easy-to-read buttons. But keep it safe, as there are no controls on the speaker itself, not even power. This is annoying because the speaker has an auto power-off function and needs the remote to turn it back on.

How does it sound?

I compared the Zvox AV120 against a number of speakers at a similar price, including the Creative Stage V2 and the Yamaha SR-C30, as well as the option most people who buy this are currently using, the TV speakers.

In my tests, I watched a number of movies as well as some YouTube and finished off with music over Bluetooth. It goes without saying that the TV speaker was instantly the worst of all the speakers I tried. For instance, in the supernatural movie Crimson Peak, as an apparition confronts our heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), it was hard to make out the ghost’s words; did the woman utter “hands” or “head” in her threats?

In contrast, the ability of the Zvox speaker to tailor the sound, to make it more listenable without being harsh, is what made it stand out here. The ghost’s words “Leave now” and “You have blood on your hands” were the most intelligible of all the models, and this was when using either of the speaker’s speech-enhancing Accuvoice modes. The only drawback is that the Accuvoice mode can make this speaker sound very directional and small, but switching to surround can help this.

Yet, in terms of pure cinematic enjoyment, the Creative Stage or the Yamaha SR-C30 outperformed the Zvox. This is all due to the subwoofers in those models. In the case of the Yamaha, the sub accentuated the thump as Mia hits the floor in the first ghost sequence.

Meanwhile, the Zvox performed reasonably well in Mad Max: Fury Road and was able to bring out the dialog-heavy intro sequence with ease and made Max’s (Tom Hardy) voice sound natural. The AV120 also provided more stereo panning than you’d expect from a small speaker. Yet when the soundtrack got a little “bumpy,” shall I say, then so did the Zvox. In the next scene, as Max is getting tattooed with his blood type, there is a low thrum of either engines or drums that comes out as indistinguishable, distorted blats through the AV120. This is again where the Yamaha’s separate sub paid off as you could better distinguish the noise.

When I switched to the Creative Stage V2, all bets were off. I forgot I was testing, and watched a whole half an hour, enjoying the soundtrack as part of this thrilling action movie. I didn’t want to stop, and that’s not something I often experience with other soundbars — especially $100 ones.

Next, I listened to a bunch of music on the AV120, and found that the Crowded House song I Feel Possessed, for example, didn’t have the directionality that distracted me when watching movies. It sounded respectable, especially at its sale price of $60. The recording had depth and sounded sprightly, with decent amounts of bass for such a small speaker.

Listening to loud music was a bit of a mess on the Zvox; Mitski’s Your Best American Girl lurched during moments, getting suddenly louder. I’ve heard this artifact in other Zvox speakers where the compression algorithm suddenly lets go of the music, and it can be disorientating. The “Yay” repeated post-chorus on Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit did the same thing. I didn’t hear these issues with the Yamaha, and so the Zvox is not the speaker for you if you like your music both dynamic and loud.

Should you buy it?

While I had some noticeable issues with the sound — the occasional low-frequency distortion and inconsistent music levels — for the speaker’s main purpose of making dialogue better, it was the best of the bunch. If you’re watching mostly TV shows, and are not interested in loud movies or music, then the Zvox AV120 works perfectly well. It’s the best way to spend $60 right now to elevate audio clarity above the built-in TV speakers. If you want something that can handle a greater mix of content then the Creative Stage or Stage V2 is a better fit. 


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