Ethereality News & Weblog

August 26, 2010

Logitech Z-5500 Digital 5.1 Speaker System review

I finally replaced my crappy Creative Inspire P7800 7.1 Surround Speakers System with something a lot better–the Logitech Z-5500 Digital 5.1 Speaker System. When I got the Inspire P7800 a few years ago, it wasn’t really a serious purchase since I wasn’t being picky and simply wanted the cheapest 7.1 system I could find so I could play games in surround sound–something I never got to do before that. I knew the P7800 wouldn’t couldn’t hold up to any kind of serious scrutiny in pro audio or audiophile contexts, but it did the job of letting me know I was getting attacked from behind by enemies by sound alone, which was all I really wanted. The P7800’s sound was fine for gaming, but falls apart for music since the satellites were too shrill in the upper mids and the subwoofer was boomy and muddy as hell with a huge spike from 60Hz to 150Hz–and this is with the sub’s amount set to very low. The subwoofer also rolls off after 60Hz, which isn’t very low at all so there isn’t a lot of meaningful sub-bass frequency being reproduced. And since my studio’s acoustically fully treated, it means that this subwoofer is already performing better than it would in any typical consumer’s living room or bedroom.

The P7800’s surround audio while worked, it was rarely used because I’ve pretty much converted over to console gaming and since the P7800 doesn’t have surround decoder built-in, and I’m not willing to buy additional audio gear just to use those crappy speakers, I got the JVC/Victor SU-DH1 Dolby Headphone Surround Adaptor instead, and it has served me very well since the surround effect is convincing enough to be satisfactory. I could be happy using just the SU-DH1 for all surround sound needs, but there are times I don’t want to be wearing headphones and thus I still need a decent surround speaker system.

For normal everyday audio needs, I have a pair of very old Altec Lancing ACS-90 computer speakers I got from a scrap pile way back in 1998 when I worked at Red Orb/Broderbund/Mindscape, and they are actually quite remarkable for being so small yet very pleasant and natural sounding, (other than a spike at 200Hz, which is typical for small speakers trying to give off the impression that it’s got some bass). Here’s the IK Multimedia ARC System room correction curve of the ACS-90:

I’ve actually been using the Altec Lansing with the sub from the P7800 as my everyday computer speaker system, and I only turn on the Klein + Hummel O 300D’s when I’m doing critical listening. Here’s the ARC System’s measurement of the ACS-90 with the P7800′ sub:
As you can see, the previously mentioned huge spike in the P7800’s subwoofer’s bass region is very obvious here, and combine that with the spike in the ACS-90’s bass region, it’s a very boomy bottom without much clarity.

After doing some research and reading lots of reviews, I decided on the Logitech Z-5500 Digital 5.1 Speaker System:

The Z-5500 seemed to be the best choice within my budget, and I was not after high-end surround sound for audio production or crazy audiophile home theater–I only wanted something that sounded fairly good and has a good sub-bass extension, so I can feel all the visceral power of video game action and movies. Even though I’m quite happy with my JVC/Victor SU-DH1 hardware Dolby Headphone virtual surround, no matter how good Dolby Headphone is for creating the illusion of surround sound, it’s still not quite as real as real surround sound (even though the hardware version of Dolby Headphone already sounds far superior to the software version). In general, I think the Z-5500 met those needs very well. Also, since I have a pair of the amazing Klein + Hummel O 300D professional reference studio monitor speakers for doing critical audio work, I didn’t need the Z-5500 to be amazing, and I’d only use it for playing games and watching movies, or non-critical listening. For any serious audio work, I’d use the O 300D’s..

The small satellites + subwoofer systems all tend to have recessed mid range frequencies due to the inherent physical design and crossover, and the Z-5500 is no exception, but at the same time, the recess in the mid range isn’t nearly as bad as some I have heard in the past, and it’s not something that bothers me too much. There’s also less treble energy than a neutral frequency response, which I don’t mind that much either–I’ll gladly sacrifice some clarity if that means no shrillness–it’s a fair trade-off in my book. I guess that’s what I like about the Z-5500–at the very basic level, it does no harm, as in it does not have excessive shrillness like many audio products do, and in this aspect, it’s even better than some so-called entry-level “pro audio” reference monitors I have heard in the past (they tend to sound way too bright and fatiguing).

In the bass region, the Z-5500’s subwoofer does have that boomy overhanging resonance from being a ported design that’s always present. Some people might actually like it since they’re used to hearing it in entry to mid-level audio gear and they might think it’s more visceral, but it’s really not a good thing in general because it colors all musical material that way, even ones that shouldn’t have such bass emphasis. This is where the big difference between the O 300D and the Z-5500 becomes apparent–the O 300D is just much better designed since it’s aimed at the high-end professional audio market, and it is a sealed cabinet design that doesn’t suffer from bass port resonance, resulting in much tighter and cleaner bass response.

Another problem with the Z-5500 is that at 100Hz, the typical problem with crossovers occurs, where it’s in the netherworld between the satellite and the subwoofer and neither is reproducing that frequency range authoritatively. Once going up to 125Hz, the Satellites starts to take over, and going down to 90Hz the subwoofer takes over. This results in a bass frequency response curve that’s not linear and has weird resonance issues right at the crossover frequency.

Overall, I’m reasonably pleased with how the Z-5500 sounds, since I tend to have low opinion of most consumer electronics–they usually have a very artificial and fatiguing sound with a built-in “disco smiley face” EQ setting that makes the typical uninformed consumers think it sounds good. The Z-5500 doesn’t do that and sounds quite natural. Overall, it’s a lot better than the Altec Lancing ACS-90 and the Creative P7800 subwoofer combo it replaced (I moved that combo to my workout room now). Here’s how the Z-5500 tested with the ARC System:

As you can see, it looks surprisingly neutral for a consumer speaker system. In my studio, I found that additional two bars of subwoofer volume tested slightly more neutral in the sub-bass region, as you can see:
for such a modestly priced system, it performs quite well all the way down to 30hz, which matches the sub-bass capabilities of my O 300D’s (though it doesn’t sound as tight or clean).

With ARC System correction turned on for both the Z-5500 and the O 300D, they sounded much closer in sonic signature, but the O 300D is more refined and spacious, dimensional, higher resolution, and the bass is tighter and better controlled. Here’s the O 300D’s ARC correction curves:
Kind of ironic that the O 300D’s pre-correction frequency response in my studio is actually less neutral than the Z-5500, and the Z-5500′s price tag is less than one-tenth of the O 300D’s. But of course this has much to do with the actual speaker placement and the acoustic treatment. Maybe the Z-5500 simply are placed in a more ideal spot in relation to the listening position. I’ve used the O 300’s in other rooms where they sounded pretty damn good even without acoustic treatment or “proper” placement, so I know the room dimensions, speaker placement, and listening position all have a dramatic effect on the same pair of speakers.

For casual listening, I would be totally fine with the Z-5500 with the ARC correction turned on, I feel like I don’t even need to turn on the O 300D’s anymore unless it’s for critical audio work or focused music appreciation listening sessions. The O 300D’s really is a totally different tier of the market though, so it’s not even fair to compare, but since that’s my reference point for quality, it’s what I have to use to test all my other audio gear. With the O 300D’s, I’m getting the best performances in transient response, stereo imaging, soundstage, distortion, control, and resolution. But It’s amazing how much of a difference the ARC System makes with the Z-550 though–it really is one of the best purchases anyone can make for their computer-based sound system.

The control console for the Z-5500 is easy to use and the remote is handy, but I wish they had separate buttons for effects as well as the inputs on both the remote and the control console, since switching through them tend to be a bit annoying as there’s a delay with each switch you make. But in general I’m happy with this purchase and I think I’ll be content with it for years to come.

Elena and I will be going to Japan for vacation soon. it’ll be the first time for her, and second time for me. I was there once when I was about 10-yrs old, and I loved Japan because it was so advanced and modern, and also, what child doesn’t love Japanese animation and comics and all the giant robot toys? When I was younger, I used to really want to move to Japan and establish a career there as an animation director or manga creator, but now that I’m much older and knows a lot more about Japanese culture and their entertainment industries, it doesn’t appeal to me as much anymore. The animation, comic book, video game, movie, television industries there all have their own problems, and many of which aren’t particularly favorable to foreigners. The internet also allowed a much closer look at life in Japan from afar through the numerous gaijin blogs, discussion forums, youtube videos, and Japanese pop culture has become very popular in the west in the last ten years, so the result is that there’s no longer any mystique left.

Upon objective observation, there are just as many things about Japanese culture I don’t like as there are ones I do like, such as the desire for conformity and homogenization, the veil of politeness and never saying what’s really on their mind (unless they know you well), the blind obsession with western culture, the superficial and shallow side of their entertainment industries, the ridiculous obsession with Lolita Complex, rape, disgusting perversions with bodily functions like puking on each other, urination, defecation, and other nasty stuff that exists in abundance in their shady subculture. Even anime, manga, and the Japanese music scene had changed so much that all the things I loved about them from the 80’s are gone. As far as video games go, I think western developed games have become much stronger than Japanese developed games in general. To date, I have never finished a single Japanese game in my life thus far, but I have finished plenty of western developed games–that says a lot about my taste in games. In a way, this vacation is taking place about twenty years too late, as my fascination with Japan in general has already passed. But it’s still a great place to visit since it’s fun and different from anywhere else on the planet. The food is going to be amazing, and shopping will be a lot of fun. The architecture, interior design, city planning, quality of service…etc will all be fabulous. I’m going to enjoy it no matter what, even if for the sake of satisfying the ghost of my younger self.

I finally finished Dragon Age: Origins. I set it on easy since I didn’t want to waste time dying over and over, but incredibly, even on the easy setting, there are certain parts of the game where I’d have to try many times to win the really hard battles. Overall, I enjoyed the game, and it was longer than I thought it would be. I was sure that the game would end once the Landsmeet takes place, and the rest would happen in the sequel, but then the game kept going–that’s when I realized Dragon Age: Origins will finish what it started–the entire blight storyline.

One thing I hated about the game was the terrible codex navigation (I played the X360 version), since the scrolling to the newly added codex immediately takes away the highlighting of the new one, but navigation window is not large enough to allow you to see where the new ones are, so you must scroll to find them. As soon as you scroll to the new one, it takes away the highlight, and you have no idea if you even have landed on the new one yet. This is not a problem early in the game since you remember which codex you have read, but later on with dozens of them, there’s is no way to remember and it becomes a huge pain in the ass. As the result, I stopped reading the codex because I just couldn’t be bothered, and they didn’t really make any difference in the actual gameplay anyway.

I loved Leliana’s accent–it was basically a French person doing an English accent, and it was one of the nicest accents I’ve ever heard. I even looked up the name of the voice actress (Corinne Kempa) and found her voice acting demo reel on her website and elsewhere. Her other voice acting gigs didn’t sound as appealing to me, and I think what made her Leliana accent unique is the mixture of French and English accent. When she simply spoke a French accent in American English in her other voice gigs, it didn’t sound nearly as interesting. I’m not the only one who’s been smitten by her accent though–a quick Google search shows that there are countless others who have fallen in love with her voice.

On a related note, I always try to romance at least one NPC in any RPG game (if that option is available), and this time, even though I had maximum approval rating from both Leliana and Morrigan, I couldn’t find a way to initiate a romantic relationship. Searching on Youtube I found how others did it, but it was really convoluted–you have to repeat the same conversations multiple times and that’s just bullshit in my book. In RPG’s, as soon as a dialogue tree starts to repeat itself, I stop, because it seems pointless to purposely repeat them unless you simply find it so entertaining that you want to hear the same dialogues again.

One pet peeve of mine is in movies, TV shows, or even in games, when they show someone starts singing, all of a sudden the singing voice sounds nothing like the same person, and there’s reverb processing and accompanying instruments that just appeared out of thin air! I fucking can’t stand that. It’s lazy and it’s clumsy. At least make it sound like it’s actually that character singing, in that same space with the same acoustics, and for God’s sake, no accompanying instruments unless there actually are those instruments right there in the scene. This happened when Leliana sang and it just totally took me out of the narrative and slapped me in the face. This kind of thing is about as bad as putting heavy metal guitars and drum machines into a period piece–there’s just no reason why it should be done, not even if your name is Sophia Coppola.

Another problem I had with the game is how the NPC’s all neatly just disagree on everything and if you pick one action, you’ll always piss off one side. This lead me to only take companions that have the same moral stance so that they won’t disagree. I pretty much always play as a good guy in every game, so I usually pick Leliana, Allistar, and Wyenn (sometimes Zevran). Before Wyenn joined up, I had to put up with Morrigan’s cold-blooded bitchiness because I needed her magic, but as soon as Wyenn joined up, I just left her at the camp, along with Sten, who really pisses me off with his stubbornness.

This is actually the first fantasy RPG I ever finished, since I usually find them a bit repetitive and boring after a while, whereas the sci-fi RPG’s tend to intrigue me a lot more. I now have to finish up Mass Effect 2 since I put that one on hold to play Dragon Age.

Quickie movie reviews:

Au Revoir Les Enfants – I have wanted to see this film for a long time, and I finally did. It’s a very honest portrayal of the friendship that develops between two boys at a boarding school during the time when the Germans occupied France. One of the boys is using an assumed name to hide the fact he’s Jewish, and he’s one of the three Jewish students the school has hidden among the students. I especially liked how organic and natural their friendship developed, going from disliking each other to caring about one another, but not in any contrived manner. The little bumps and lulls along the way are very much like how many friendships form–it’s not always BFF at first sight. I won’t give the ending away, but you can probably guess. The final shot of the film that lingers on one of the boy’s faces is haunting, and expresses so much that was never said in words between the boy. I think for those that attended a boarding school, this film will resonate with them even more, because it portrays life in such a place very vividly.

Hachiko: A Dog’s Story – What a tearjerker. I’ve always been a dog person and I’ve known the story of the real Hachiko for many years now. The movie was surprisingly restrained–obviously, the director knew the dangers of being overly sentimental and steered clear of it. The only slight problem with the movie is that the story of Hachiko, as moving as it is, really doesn’t fill up the length of a feature film, and they did their best to stretch it out without adding too many unrelated elements that dilutes the main focus of the story, which is Hachiko’s loyalty and love for his owner.

Solomon Kane – I wasn’t familiar with this character, but it’s supposed to be one of Robert E. Howard’s creation. I actually like this character better than Conan since he has a lot more depth to him, and the paradox of his blood-thirst and desire to be a better man is far more interesting than any of Conan’s stories I’ve ever come across. I liked that the film takes itself seriously instead of trying to be campy in that wink/nudge smug manner that it could’ve easily been with another director. Rachel Hurd-Wood is such a lovely classic beauty. Angelic and pure girls like that just drive me wild, especially if they have a melancholic aura about them–sort of like injured angels that needs to be rescued.

Deliverance – I have heard about this film for so many years and I finally got around to watching it. I always have a problem with most older films, because the art of cinema has moved on so far ahead in the modern age that the older films tend to feel very slow, meandering, and lack visceral impact. In general I always believe that all art forms, technology, philosophy, politics…etc marches forward and greatly improves upon what we have learned from the previous generations, and with each improvement, making the previous generations’ work appear less refined, overly simplistic, and sometimes even crude or naive. Deliverance by today’s standards is actually very tame and simplistic, without the intense psychological drama or visceral excitement of today’s thrillers. I’m sure the premise was quite thrilling back then and it influenced many of the films that came after with similar premises or stereotypes of scary hillbillies in the woods. I have often even heard characters in movies referring to Deliverance when they are out there in the middle of nowhere, so I know it was a very influential film. But unfortunately for me, I didn’t get to watch it when it first came out (the year I was born), and it just feels too dated at this point for me.

Street Kings – A familiar premise of police corruption, with a ham-fisted score composed by Graeme Revell. During some scenes, the music was just so misplaced and inappropriate. There’s not much to say about Keanu Reeves, since we already know he’s not a great actor. Even Forest Whitaker, whom I like a lot, is a little hammy in the film. Not really recommended but there are far worse films out there.

Funny People – I found this film to be schizophrenic but sincere and honest. The more introspective moments are what are special about this film, when the jokes are put aside and we get a glimpse of the inner worlds of these characters, but when mixed with the more aggressive and corny comedy, it feels inconsistent and awkward. I do think the mixture can work, but it takes a master’s ability to carefully balance the two sides, and unfortunately, the mixture is off in this film and the result is a little messy.

Clash of the Titans – Pretty standard Hollywood action/adventure/special effects flick. It’s entertaining enough with hot women and fun action scenes, and it’s not totally idiotic like some of the worse ones we get from Hollywood. I keep thinking I’d rather see Kratos in a movie tearing shit up though.

The Ghost Writer – Kind of a slow movie and the payoff is a bit disappointing. It’s well-made but I think for today’s audience, it wasn’t edgy enough.

Brooklyn’s Finest – All cop shows and movies are so overdone to death, but we keep watching them, don’t we? Why is that? This one’s not bad–it’s entertaining enough and not particularly cringe-inducing. The performances are good and you care enough for the characters to want to know what happens to them in the end, although you already can guess as soon as each character’s main conflicts in the story was introduced.

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