Date: June 6, 2011
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher
At their release, Logitech’s X-540 5.1 speakers were a hit, thanks to their affordable price and feature-set. In fact, our review from five years ago is still regularly read today. So what about their successor, the Z506? Carrying the same $99 price tag, does Logitech once again give us an affordable 5.1 offering worth considering?
Logitech, no introduction needed, has been the go-to company for computer and gaming peripherals for many years. On occasion, the company does a product refresh, covering the same price point but taking advantage of modern advances. The Z506 5.1 speaker set is one such product refresh, replacing the now aging X-540, reviewed by Greg King way back in 2006 when Techgage was in its infancy.
The Z506 is a 5.1 surround sound system on a budget with a more introductory price point of $100 or less; introductory for a surround system anyway. The size of the unit remains minimal and compact without sacrificing too much on style – this is meant for gaming after all. So what’s changed from the X-540?
The remote is no longer of the wired variety, so nothing to take up precious desk space with a hose-pipe for a cable; in-fact, there’s no remote at all! Wait, what? Well, as is quite common, volume and power are now integrated into the front right speaker instead of a dedicated remote. The only other major difference is that of style, gone are the 90’s super-blocky look and it’s back with the more friendly curved edges. Many of the features that made the original set popular remain, such as the Matrix Mode upscaling, ported Sub unit and the center speaker mount for placing it on top of a monitor.
Taking everything out of the pack leaves nothing to the imagination, it’s a simple setup which doesn’t really require a manual. The sub houses the amplifier and all inputs are connected to it on the reverse. Each of the satellite channels are color-coded using RCA cables. An RCA input is provided on the back along with the three jacks for surround.
The RCA input may be stereo, but the Matrix Mode upscales it to utilize all speakers; unlike the original though, this mode can not be turned off and is always enabled. This does have the unfortunate side-effect of obfuscating stereo separation as you are enveloped with sound.
The eagle-eyed will notice the dial on the back and yes, it does what you think it does; sub volume control. I am going to be rather blunt here and call this quite a significant design oversight. Subs tend to be placed either on the floor or hidden away somewhere, so what good is a volume control where it’s inaccessible? When the remote was integrated into the right satellite, why didn’t Logitech integrate the sub control too?
It can be said that most will not fiddle with the sub volume too much, they’ll set it to a certain level then leave it. The problem comes when you need to check results, crawl under the desk, change the sub volume, crawl out, listen, crawl back, change, and so on. To save some the trouble, set it to just a notch below the mid level, any higher and it’s more of a rumble than a kick-drum.
The support legs lift the sub off the surface and provided a suitable perch with which to place your fingers when lifting. Much to my surprise, while taking the sub out of the box, my fingers nearly punctured the speaker. If there was one major complaint brought up about the X-540 by Greg, it would be the lack of a speaker grill on the sub unit’s main speaker.
It is very unfortunate that this has not been remedied with the new model. There isn’t a realistic excuse either as to why one isn’t provided; grill plates are just a few cents and that added protection would easily recoup itself. Speakers are very fragile and all it would take is to either lift the speaker too firmly or to place accidentally atop of something pointy to trash the Sub – not a smart move.
The satellites from the original system made use of a dual speaker arrangement, not just in the center speaker, but in all satellites too. On the face of things with the Z506, each satellite looks like a dual speaker arrangement, a mid-range and a tweeter. The disappointment comes when you find that the ‘tweeter’ is actually just a molded piece of plastic (not even a port), as can be seen from the reverse.
Each speaker does have some minimal protection, much like the Corsair SP2200’s, with a thin fabric mesh over the front.
The center speaker makes use of a fold-out support which can be used to perch it on top of a monitor, or to aim it upwards if placed on a desk. This is definitely one of the more practical setups I’ve come across, despite its simplicity.
Volume control, power on and headphone output are all handled by the front right satellite, doubling up as the remote. It connects to the back of the sub via an old-skool serial cable, often seen on many speaker setups. The headphone output is very quiet, significantly quieter than the speaker output. Master volume needs to be set to half in order to achieve a reasonable output; should headphones be accidentally pulled out, be prepared for a shock as the speakers spring into life – at quite a significant volume.
Testing a surround sound set can be a little more tricky than it first appears. Accurate surround sound is a complicated affair, balancing volume, speaker direction and placement. The audio card and media also play an important role in the final results.
First we will be starting with quality, running through a large library of music, games and movies to pick up any audible weak spots, then moving onto the surround sound for positional tracking.
A $100 setup for a surround sound system, there are certain, mostly unpleasant, expectations; corners have to be cut somewhere to get the price down, and it is usually the audio quality that suffers. Much to my surprise, the audio quality was not that bad, but there are some obvious compromises regarding the mid-range, to which the sub has to then play backup for. This comes down to the size of the satellite speakers, much like with the Corsair set.
Speaking of sizes, there are no official declarations of speaker size by Logitech, either online or in the manual, so it was out with the ‘Measurement Instrument’ (Ruler) and acquiring the information myself. Also, for the sake of convenience, listing the other specifications too:
The sub has to handle a much broader range than it should do normally. Through testing I found that it was exceeding 350Hz, though by that point it was rather quiet and the satellites were producing most of the sound, which was admittedly still quiet. This is to be expected as this range is still largely outside the realms of what a 2" or less speaker can do.
Where things get nasty is with the power management. Poor isolation and grounding means that first, there is a background hiss, buzz and whine… not a good start to an experience. For the most part, it’s inaudible unless you put your head next to the speakers or live in a very quiet environment. For clarity, the speakers are powered through a surge-protected extension, but the speakers themselves are double insulated. There is no earth/ground, so any noise will be from the unit itself.
The second problem, and quite surprising given Logitech’s large speaker selection, is that of crosstalk. If music is playing with a left bias, the right side will still play a small amount of the music. Taking things one step further by using a frequency generator and disabling the right side audio completely, there was still a fair amount of sound coming out of the right side speakers.
The volume control is equally poor. The first quarter rotation is completely silent up until the quarter mark, then the sound begins to pierce through the background hiss. Past this, the volume climbs sharply till the half way point. Going beyond half volume is not recommended as the distortion becomes horrendous; the sub just gives up and turns into a crackling boom box.
When it comes to surround sound, things improve, but only slightly. The rear speaker cables are 5 meters in length, good enough to reach the bookcase or what-have-you, behind you. One of the more useful features of the original X-540 set was the inclusions of stands on the satellites that allowed them to be turned and mounted onto walls. With the Z506, no such luck. Given the awkward shape of the new satellites, you will be limited as to where they can be perched.
After correcting for a certain Windows 7 volume control issue (rear speaker volume was 100% within the Creative drivers, but set to 55% within the Windows 7 speaker controls), the Z506’s provide adequate directional audio, depending on the source. They are a much better solution than what many surround sound headsets can provide, as you have finer control over position. But many of the other audio quality issues mar the situation.
It is most unfortunate to give such a scathing review to a product like this, but the reality of the situation is that the Z506’s predecessor, the X-540, is a superior product in almost every way. The removal of the wall mounted stands, sub volume control on the sub, no remote or any way to disable the Matrix Mode upscale. The poor power isolation and crosstalk can be a major distraction in quiet environments. The fact that a speaker grill wasn’t even added to the sub unit just means Logitech were not listening (or not enough people complained).
When compared to the similar priced ($100) Corsair SP2200’s recently reviewed, you lose a lot of audio quality for the sake of a couple extra speakers. Admittedly, this is not too surprising, but I was honestly expecting better with these Z506’s. There have been wide-spread issues regarding hiss with other reviews too.
If you can, go with the old X-540’s instead, or drop the surround sound and go with the Corsair SP2200’s. It’s one of those, or save up for a better surround sound set.
If you are still interested in the system, you can pick these up (sometimes for $50) from Amazon.
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