I love my flat panel TV, and chances are that you love yours too. But, I certainly don’t love its speaker system — especially when it comes to dialogue. I find myself constantly raising the volume during dialogue heavy scenes, only to get rattled by a commercial or a loud background sound effect. Sometimes I’m forced to use captions, which I absolutely despise.
Fortunately, more and more soundbars and speaker systems are addressing this issue. Both the Sonos Playbase and Magnifi Mini that we previously tested have dedicated modes for enhancing dialogue, but we’ve yet to find a single soundbar that truly excels at dialogue — until the ZVOX SB380. The speaker actually started as a Kickstarter project that surpassed its goal and finished with $114,500 in funding.
The ZVOX SB380 is relatively compact with a slim aluminum cabinet that measures 35.5″ w x 5.7″ h x 3.3″ d. This is no shabby plastic speaker, but unfortunately it’s also pretty bland and ordinary looking. The good news is that while its design is not very exciting, its rectangular look is clean and minimalist enough that it should blend it with just about every home theater setup. What we really appreciate about its design is that it can be placed in a low profile position flat on its back — that makes it a perfect complement for TVs with low stands. It can also be mounted, so in total the SB380 can be installed three different ways. None of those three ways involve placing a subwoofer — the ZVOX SB380 is just a simple single piece system that doesn’t require any external units.
Instead, the ZVOX SB380 has a built-in 4″ subwoofer alongside three full-range speakers and a 45 Watt digital amplifier. The soundbar can connect to your TV using two optical digital inputs or one analog (RCA jacks) input. The system lacks Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other wireless connections. A remote is included, but the soundbar should also work with most remote controls.
The ZVOX SB380 packs in a few audio features that help enhance dialogue. The SB380 uses “AccuVoice dialogue boosting technology” to make dialogue louder and more distinct. It also has an output leveling system that “tames loud commercials,” while PhaseCue virtual surround “delivers room-filling 3D sound”. So do all of these features work? ABSOLUTELY. Background sound effects are incredibly detailed and powerful, and it really does feel like the sound is filling the room.
Beyond sound effects, dialogue sounds crystal clear. The SB380 offers the best dialogue experience we’ve heard from a home speaker system under $1,000. As a matter of fact, dialogue was even clearer than it was on the much pricier Sonos Playbase system! Heck, even when we tested the SB380’s playback with a noisy air conditioner running in the background, the SB380 still shined. Unfortunately, music on the SB380 lacks body and warmth, and is generally kind of dull.
Retailing for $299, the ZVOX SB380 competes with the likes of Polk Audio’s Magnifi Mini, which also has a dialogue boost mode — but the Mini isn’t a one-piece system like the SB830. Also, the Magnifi Mini packs in a lot more features like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, the ZVOX SB380 offers better audio when it comes to dialogue, while the Magnifi Mini offers better audio when it comes to music playback. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a soundbar with more music playback prowess, then you’ll want to check out ZVOX’s own SB400, or something more expensive like the Sonos Playbase, which handles music beautifully.