ZVOX Blog

TV Speakers in Flat-Panel TVs Sound Really Flat

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, March 29, 2009
My parents have a Sharp TV they bought in the 1980s. It still works. And since they both grew up during the Great Depression, their common sense has guided them to keep it. Good for them...for more reasons than one. The monaural speaker system built into that out-of-date TV sounds pretty decent. It's not "high fidelity," but it reproduces sound with reasonable accuracy. And most important, it delivers acceptable vocal clarity. They can understand what newscasters say.

That is more than can be said about many modern flat-panel TVs. The sound systems built into many of these technological wonders are just plain awful. In some cases, you really can't understand what the announcer is saying, unless you "crank it up." Here's why:

  1. There's no room in there.  As TV panels get thinner and thinner, there's less room of decent-quality speakers, speaker-magnet, and "speaker cabinet space." This is important. Speakers are not digital. Smaller is NOT better. And speakers in most flat-panel TVs are just too small. 





  2. Nobody ever walked into Best Buy and declared, "I want to buy the TV with the best sound system." TV makers aren't dumb -- and they're under tremendous pressure to bring prices down. So if they eliminate an expensive feature like a good sound system, the cost of the TV can come way down -- and nobody complains. 
  3. People presume TVs are like cars. Everybody knows that when you buy a good car from a well-known maker, it comes with a good sound system. Consumers think the same thing happens with TVs. "Hey, it's a S*n*...the speakers are probably pretty good." But TVs are NOT like cars. Good ones do have bad sound systems.
  4. The human mind can learn to love anything.  My office is also a testing ground from new speaker systems. I'm always switching out one and putting in another. So sometimes I end up with NO sound system attached, and I have to watch TV while listening to the built-in speakers. For the first five minutes, I suffer -- thinking, "How can anyone listen to these awful speakers." Then I get used to them and think, "these aren't so bad after all." The fact is that, the more you listen to something, the more you get used to it. So people get their new TVs home and quickly adjust to sound quality on par with a 1963 transistor radio.
So what will happen to change all this? Probably nothing. TVs will keep looking better and better, and sounding worse and worse.

Bad for consumers. Good for ZVOX!

Home Theater: 5 Ways To Pick a Good One (Surround Sound is Number 5)

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, March 22, 2009

If you ask people "what's the most important thing about a home theater system," most of the will say surround sound. But in our opinion, surround sound effects play only a minor role in creating a theater-like experience in your home. In fact, on our list of five key elements, it comes in last place. Here's the list:
  1. Audio accuracy. A home theater system should sound "right." Musically accurate. It should have proper octave-to-octave tonal balance (each musical octave should have the same "weight"). You don't need "a golden ear" to tell the difference between accurate speakers and inaccurate speakers. The best way is to listen to a good vocal recording with non-amplified musical instruments (we used to wear out copies of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" in the 70s in stereo stores). Does the vocalist sound like she's in the room in front of you -- or like she's singing in an alley (or through a megaphone)? Does the guitar sound natural, or tinny? Is the piano strident or clear? This is important. Basic sound quality -- musical accuracy -- is WAY MORE important than anything else when you evaluate a home theater system. The sad reality is that most under-$600 surround sound systems use speakers that we would consider "highly questionable." Manufacturers put a lot of emphasis on watts, exotic features, gazillions of inputs and -- most important -- swoopy plastic cabinets. But they can't seem to muster the fortitude necessary to spend what it takes to put in good speakers.
  2. Vocal clarity. This is a biggy. It shouldn't be that hard to create an audio system that allows people to understand spoken words. But we've heard a number of systems where vocal clarity, well, sucks. You shouldn't have to strain to hear the voices -- or crank the volume way up. A good home theater system will use high-quality speakers that reproduce the human voice with crystal clarity. Odd retro-fact: monaural speakers are great at voices. That's why the middle speaker(s) in ZVOX systems is "all channel" (our fancy way of saying "monaural").
  3. Dynamic impact. If you're watching a "big" action movie or a concert video, you want the audio system to be able to go from "soft" to "very loud" without straining and without compressing the sound. Dynamics are often determined by some pretty predictable factors: speaker driver size, amplifier size and cabinet size. Smaller speaker systems -- including ZVOX models -- have less dynamic impact. Yes, we know everybody wants smaller and smaller speakers...and laptop computers....and iPods...and phones. But with speakers eventually smaller is NOT better. We've compared our ZVOX 425 system (five 3.25" speakers, two 4" long-excursion woofers, 133-watt amp, big cabinet) to our best-known competitor (incredible numbers of 1.5" speakers). On a big movie, with big special effects, we think there's no comparison.
  4. Bass response. A home theater without good bass isn't a home theater. And by "good" we don't mean just loud. Bass needs to be accurate, wide-ranging and musical. It's pretty easy to design a subwoofer that thuds away with 60-90 Hz bass -- reproducing all bass as one sound (also known as a "one note subwoofer"). But bass that sounds right, especially below 60 Hz, is a different story. Try picking up the subwoofer that comes with an inexpensive home-theater-in-a-box. If it's as light as an empty suitcase, it's going to sound like an empty suitcase. Push in on its sidewall. If they flex, they're going to absorb the energy of the woofer instead of transmitting it. Listen to a recording of a stand-up bass -- you should be able to clearly hear the tonal differences between the notes, and to some extent you should actually "feel" the bass.
  5. Surround effects. When home theater systems first came out, we all scrambled trying to find demo material that made the rear speakers seem important. Stuff coming from in back of you was cool, and it was sure different. It's fun to be "immersed" in the sound of a movie. But we believe surround effects are the least important factor on this list. Here's a story. About eight years ago, when I was VP of Marketing at Cambridge SoundWorks, I had a pretty serious surround sound system. But we were having our living room repainted, so everything had to be disconnected an covered with tarps. About a day after the system got put back together, I noticed that there was nothing coming out of the rear speakers. The painters hadn't connected the rear speakers. I decided to not mention this, and wait to see when any of my family members or friends mentioned the lack of rear speaker sound effects. Two months later, when nobody had said a word about it, I quietly removed the rear speakers and put them in the attic.
Bottom line: If you want a home theater system that you'll really love, the most important thing to consider is basic high fidelity. Realistic sound is more important than realistic sound effects.

How ZVOX "In-Sources" Our Call-Center Jobs: Work-At-Home Moms!

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In the past 10 years I don't know how many U.S. call-center jobs have been outsourced to India, the Philippines, and other foreign countries -- but the number must be big. Tens of thousands of jobs for sure. And while it may not be possible, even in this economy, for U.S. workers to compete with the hourly wages paid in Mumbai, it may be possible to shift a large number of those jobs back to this country through a combination of tax credits, on-line education, internet telephone technology, crying babies and PR. Here are my suggestions:
  1. Tax credits. Use stimulus bill funds to offer tax credits to companies who create or shift-back call center jobs in the U.S.
  2. Encourage companies to create on-line self-teach tutorials for their products and services -- with on-line data banks that include searchable FAQ lists -- so that anyone with internet access can learn to be a good call center service representative.
  3. Internet/telephone technology now allows companies, for VERY reasonable prices, to establish "virtual call centers." The VCCs allow an administrator to assign calls in sequential, rotating order (with lots of options...it's amazing technology) to phone lines anywhere in the country. So the "call center" for a company in Austin, Texas (are you listening Michael Dell?) can have service representatives in Cortez Florida, Westminster Massachusetts, Detroit Michigan, Fargo North Dakota, Salt Lake City Utah and Anchorage Alaska. On-line chat services allow these representatives to communicate with each other, or their supervisors, while answering phone calls or emails from customers -- the equivalent of being able to yell to the guy in the next cubicle and ask a question when you're having trouble.
  4. The VOIP technology allows companies to hire work-at-home moms (they don't like the phrase "stay-at-home moms" -- be careful) to handle customer service. This may come as a surprise to many of you men out there, but these women are often remarkably gifted at something called "multi-tasking." ZVOX uses work-at-home moms for customer service and they can control hungry/crazy children, chase diaper-eating dogs (I do not exaggerate) and calm down a frustrated customer who can't figure out a surround sound system -- all at the same time! Really, the most underestimated, undervalued, undiscovered labor resource in this country is work-at-home moms (WAHMs). And because being at home means they don't need to pay the high price of day care and commuting, they can work for less money than they would require under a normal drive-to-work-and-get-back-nine-hours-later scenario. If one were to combine the affordable pay levels acceptable to WAHMs with federal tax credits, this system would provide a reasonable alternative to Bangalore.
  5. PR. Any CEO or Public Relations executive worth his or her salt will immediately recognize the PR benefit of announcing that their company is a) shifting jobs back to the U.S. from overseas and b) hiring apple-pie-baking American moms* to do the job. But really (and you have to trust me on this one), that is just a tiny part of the overall PR boost this scheme will provide. The biggest benefit of this plan is that your customers will love the service they get. WAHMs tend to be happy. They get to spend time with their kids. They don't have to drag their tired bodies home late at night -- and then have to make dinner. There's a lot to be happy about. And happy customer service people are MUCH easier to deal with than well, I don't know how to say this in a nice way, people who are pissed off that they have to be customer service representatives (does this resonate with anybody out there?).
Bottom Line: cool internet/telephone technology and WHAMs can give your company better service for less money and provide a PR bonanza and barrels of "thank you" emails from happy customers. Get the government to subsidize the concept with tax credits out of the stimulus fund, and we could create many, many jobs.
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