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Logitech Z Cinema Speaker System

Date: March 12, 2008
Author(s): Rory Buszka

Logitech unveiled their Z Cinéma speaker system at this year’s CES, to plenty of fanfare. The system blends a refined two-way satellite design with a robust, powerful subwoofer. We take the latest high performance Z-series PC speaker system for a spin, and find lots of cause for excitement.



Introduction


Among the major manufacturers of PC speakers, one particular market segment has been eerily silent for about the last year – large high-end multichannel speaker systems. Klipsch has already headed for the door, and new high-end systems from the big-name manufacturers at the last two CES events have been of the 2.1 variety.

That trend led me to comment in our forum in September 2007 that “customers are more interested in having a pair of very high-quality speakers instead of five speakers of middling quality for the same price”, and attributed this shift in focus to the failure of the “Media Center PC” model, which caused enthusiasts to take the PC into the home theater (giving birth to the HTPC phenomenon), instead of building the home theater around the PC.

The first example of this trend came at the 2007 CES, when Razer and THX unveiled their otherworldly Mako 2.1-channel speaker system, a $349 2.1-channel system that was actually designed in partnership with THX Ltd. The second, however, came at this year’s CES, when Logitech unveiled their newest high-performance Z-series PC speaker system, the Z Cinéma.

The Z Cinéma puts a twist on the typical 2.1-channel system, one which I suggested in late 2006 with my first review – that the addition of a virtual-surround algorithm like Dolby Virtual Speaker or SRS TruSurround could add a new dimension to the performance of traditional 2.1-channel speaker systems, eliminating the need for rear speakers completely.

In the case of the Z Cinéma system SRS Labs’ TruSurround HD algorithm is used to synthesize an encircling surround sound experience by relying on psychoacoustics – that is, taking advantage of the way our ears and brain perceive the directionality of sound to create the impression of speakers where there are none.

The Z Cinéma system pairs this technology with two improved two-way satellite speakers similar to the design of the Z Cinéma system, and a monstrous subwoofer. Finally, the system also includes a remote with complete Windows Media Center functionality – the infrared receiver in the speakers can double as the PC’s own infrared receiver. All this is controlled and fed – digitally – through a single USB link to the host machine.

Logitech graciously provided a sample of their newest high-performance speaker system, and in this article, I’ll put it to the test. Does this pairing of virtual-surround technology with a 2.1-channel speaker system make for a compelling surround sound experience?



Packaging; First Impressions

The Z Cinéma box is two things – large, and heavy. It’s covered with high-quality photography, and clearly describes the Z Cinéma system’s unusual approach to surround sound. Its weight is reassuring – welterweight speakers tend to, as a general rule, deliver welterweight performance – but it’s not unmanageably heavy.

In the box, the subwoofer is packed between two styrene plastic shells, with the upper shell encasing the satellite speakers and included accessories. In the Z Cinéma’s package, you get the subwoofer and satellite speakers themselves, a quick-start guide, a more in-depth instruction manual, a software installation disc, the included Media Center remote, and a USB cable for connecting the speakers themselves to the host PC. They’re even kind enough to provide a set of batteries for the remote, so everything you need to get started is in the box.

My Z Cinéma system’s travel wasn’t without incident, however. The heaviest component, the subwoofer, suffered some superficial cosmetic damage to its faceplate either in packing or in transit. However, the subwoofer’s enclosure itself was not compromised, so the damage isn’t enough to affect performance.

Next, we’ll take a look at the features of the Z Cinéma system in more depth, to see how each contributes to the system’s performance.



Features Overview

We’re taking a look at Logitech’s latest high-performance speaker system, the Z Cinéma. The Z Cinéma system relies on a combination of potent high-fidelity loudspeakers and intelligent DSP processing to produce a convincing surround sound experience. Here’s a look at the Z Cinéma system from a technical standpoint.

The Z Cinéma System is a 2.1-channel system, yet with just a pair of satellites and a substantial subwoofer, it promises a complete surround sound experience. It accomplishes this by using a DSP algorithm to produce a virtual sound field that extends past the speakers themselves.

There are a number of such algorithms that have been developed by a variety of companies, such as SRS and Dolby. By applying phase shift, crossfading, and frequency-response transfer functions, these algorithms effectively trick your ear and brain into hearing sounds that seem to come from thin air. In the case of Logitech’s Z Cinéma, they’ve chosen SRS Labs’ TruSurround HD processing.

Because the number of speakers required is reduced by three, Logitech is able to splurge on the satellite speakers themselves, and has stepped up to a two-way configuration that’s similar to that used in their Z-10 two-piece speaker system, combining a separate midwoofer and tweeter driver in a svelte enclosure that’s trimmed with glossy black plastic and brushed aluminum accents.

The two-way configuration provides greatly enhanced high-frequency extension, but it also allows the satellite speakers to deliver high frequencies with less distortion, and greater clarity and definition than a single “full-range” driver, thanks to the low-mass “dome” diaphragm geometry. Each satellite is vented at the rear, which adds warmth and richness to their lower midrange and upper bass performance.

The subwoofer is similar to others in the Z series – it uses a massive front-firing bass driver, and is vented to the side with a gaping reflex port. It’s a configuration that has worked well for Logitech in the past, and is capable of quite high output. The driver itself has a thick, stiff paper cone and a beefy large-roll foam surround, allowing it to accommodate large ‘excursions’ of the cone and generate tons of air movement both from the cone itself and from the enormous port.

The back panel of the subwoofer contains connections for the satellite speakers and the USB input connection for the host PC, as well as a heatsink to dissipate waste heat from the Z Cinéma’s hybrid amplifier. The right satellite speaker also contains a 3.5mm headphone output jack, as well as a 3.5mm stereo line input, for connecting a portable music player. Source switching is accomplished through the infrared remote control.

Open up the Z Cinéma subwoofer, and this is what you’ll find. The Z Cinéma’s subwoofer is devoid of any large transformers – the power supply is the small sandy-colored circuit board mounted to the base of the sub’s enclosure. The switching-type power supply eliminates any need for massive transformers – it simply steps down the line voltage.

The amplifier circuitry itself is mounted to the back panel, and the Class-AB section (which provides power to the satellite speakers) dissipates its heat through the rear panel heatsink. The brawnier 110-watt Class D amplifier that powers the subwoofer requires no heatsinking, thanks to its special all-digital “switching” design. The enormous bass port is curved in the shape of a ‘U’ to allow the compact enclosure to accommodate its length.

The Z Cinéma system also includes a wireless infrared remote, which integrates full Windows Media Center functionality, as well as controls for the system’s volume, channel levels, tone settings, and the SRS TruSurround mode. The system also provides visual feedback via a LED display on the right satellite speaker, which also houses the system’s IR receiver.

Next, we’ll take a look at the control software provided with the Z Cinéma system, and what my listening testing revealed.



Software; Testing

From the impressive hardware and technology we’ve seen so far, it’s clear that Logitech isn’t messing around with the Z Cinéma system. The Z Cinéma speakers integrate their own audio codec processing, which eliminates the need for a sound card altogether – preserving a pure digital path from the PC to the loudspeaker drivers themselves.

The Z Cinéma speaker system requires you to install a control program from the supplied CD-ROM in order to use the SRS TruSurround HD functionality, whose DSP processing is done in software. The control program allows software-based control of the system volume, channel levels, and tone controls, and provides on-screen display of the current system settings whenever a change is made.

This display can be fairly cumbersome and blocky at times, but thankfully it can be disabled altogether, with only the illuminated display on the right satellite speaker providing visual feedback. The on-screen display worked fine with Windows Media Player, but wouldn’t reflect changes made in foobar2000, which I use to play FLAC files.

Testing

To perform listening testing, I used my reference PC, which is outfitted with a high-quality ASUS Xonar sound card, as well as a silent cooling system. All source material used in critical listening testing was taken either directly from compact disc, or from lossless FLAC-encoded files.

Test material covered a variety of musical types and genres, as well as a DVD source for testing the effectiveness of the Z Cinéma’s virtual-surround processing. Music listening was performed with the SRS TruSurround HD virtual-surround processing disabled, and movie testing was performed with the TruSurround processing enabled. The speakers were set up three feet apart, with listening performed at a distance of three feet away, and the subwoofer was placed on the floor directly between the main speakers.

Music

To kick off critical music listening, I picked Keane’s 2004 release, Hopes and Fears. This album is midrange-rich, yet also possesses a dynamic low-end and a variety of percussion textures throughout its length. My favorite track on this album is #3, “Bend and Break”, and on it, the Z Cinéma demonstrated its extremely smooth midrange and non-fatiguing treble performance. I also noticed some amount of midbass bleed-through into the subwoofer’s output, which is a disconcerting observation because it suggests a crossover frequency between the subwoofer and main speakers that slightly too high.

The satellites of the Z Cinéma system really showed their stuff with the next track, “We Might As Well Be Strangers”, perfectly centering the vocal between the speakers amidst the hard-panned instrumental and percussive effects. The final track of the album, “Bedshaped,” demonstrated these speakers’ ability to communicate emotion – in this case, deep melancholy – through their ability to render such subtle detail as the vocalist’s breath and the woodiness of a drumstick thwacking the rim of the snare drum. Yet in the chorus, the closed-in feel of the mix expands dramatically and reverberantly, and the Z Cinéma’s satellites adeptly communicate this as well.

Coheed and Cambria’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow provided a change of pace, with its impactful rock style that’s been described as vaguely Rush-esque. Perhaps the best example of the style similarity is track #3, “The Hound (Of Blood And Rank)”. I took this opportunity to crank the system to its maximum. Though the level at maximum volume nearly drove me out of the room, and kick drum hits pounded me mercilessly in the chest, the system’s output remained clean and clear, and the all-important kick hits continued to waffle my pant legs, even at a distance. One thing is clear from this – these babies crank, and hang together nicely even at uncomfortable levels that had me worried I’d be visited by the police on a noise complaint.

Movies

To test the Z Cinéma’s ability to simulate the subtleties of a rich surround sound field, I used Twentieth Century Fox’s Little Miss Sunshine. In the opening scene of the DVD, “Hoovers Plus One,” the bustle of a busy household was rendered with startling precision, even as activity seemed to take place all around me.

The surround sound field generated by the TruSurround HD processing didn’t completely envelop me. Instead, like a good set of dipole surround speakers placed to either side of my head, the sound field grew more diffuse behind my head. Indeed, without the need to place and wire rear surround speakers, I was experiencing real surround sound.

The subwoofer also got plenty of action as well, pounding out the energetic tracks in the final beauty-pageant scene without getting in the way of dialogue. I noticed that with stereo music, TruSurround created an unnatural effect of spaciousness, but with multichannel DVD soundtracks, the effect of TruSurround is highly believable.



Final Thoughts

To be honest, my time with the Z Cinéma speaker system left me feeling fairly vindicated in my earlier view that virtual-surround algorithms would be the next major advancement in high-performance surround sound on the desktop. The Z Cinéma system truly delivers a spacious, enveloping surround sound experience, and an enthralling performance with two-channel music as well.

The Z Cinéma’s performance in my listening testing proved that in addition to its great looks and advanced technology, this system has it where it counts – impressive audio performance with enough punch and power for rock, and enough finesse to handle the subtleties of even the best recordings. In addition to having the grunt to deliver bass lines and explosions with sickening impact and pants-waffling volume, the Z Cinéma system is eminently listenable – at all volumes.

There were some things I’d change, however. The on-screen display of the Z Cinema software is intrusive, and its opaque background obscures a sizeable portion of the screen. In addition, I found that the tone controls didn’t offer quite the range of adjustment I’d expect.

I was able to dial in ‘enough’ bass for my listening tastes (usually 10dB of boost) with the “Bass” control set to its maximum setting, but I’d like to have enough adjustment range to overdo things if I want to, and I don’t feel that +20dB of adjustment range is too much to ask for in a high-end product. Lastly, I felt there was a bit too much midbass leakage into the subwoofer for my tastes, which could impart a false sense of ‘boominess’ to the bass of this system.

For $299 MSRP, Logitech has introduced quite a contender for the 2.1-channel category crown, giving Razer’s new Mako 2.1-channel system a real run for its money. The Z Cinéma system blends svelte styling with some serious audio hardware for a system that has what it takes to please both the hard-rockers and PC audiophiles of the world.

I’m pleased to award this system a Techgage score of 8 – yet despite its few faults, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a super-high-performance 2.1-channel speaker system to bring their music and movies to life.

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