We’ve been around long enough to never say “never.” That’s why we decided to take a look at Logitech’s new Z-Cinema speakers. They tap your PC’s audio through its USB port, and they rely on digital signal processing trickery to deliver a good audio experience—two of our biggest pet peeves with “multimedia” speakers. But we like ‘em anyway.
We first encountered these speakers at a Logitech editors’ day prior to CES. The product manager demonstrating the system pitched them as home-theater speaker and used a movie soundtrack to demo them, but he never had us listen to them with just music. Our next demo was with one of the Squeezebox product managers (Logitech acquired Slim Devices in 2007), and we had to chuckle when he demoed his product using a set of Audioengine A5’s.
To be fair to Logitech, however, we wouldn’t put the Audioengines in our home-theater setting, just as we wouldn’t rely on the Z-Cinema for critical music listening. The A5’s can easily fill a room, but they’re not really designed to augment a movie-watching experience; the Z-Cinema, on the other hand, is tailor made for a Windows Media Center environment—if your PC is in your home theater, that is. You can plug an analog stereo source into the Z-Cinema, but you’ll lose the slick onscreen user interface that the two-way USB connection has to offer (we think its real purpose is to allow you to plug in an MP3 player, but this signal is not processed through TruSurround HD. If you use the headphone jack next to it, you can switch to TruSurround HD Headphone mode.) Many of the features on the included remote control would also go to waste, which is also true if your OS does not include Windows Media Center.
We’ve criticized the noise present in all the systems we’ve tested so far that feature wireless rear channels; and being audio purists, we typically despise DSP “augmentation,” but we found ourselves diggin’ the SRS TruSurround HD that Logitech uses. The algorithm does a remarkable job of presenting a wide sound stage and comes very close to the nirvana of two-channel surround sound: It comes that close to fooling you into believing that sounds are originating from behind your head.
You can defeat TruSurround HD, but you won’t want to; the satellite speakers sound pretty lifeless when deprived of the additional signal processing. We’re big fans of bi-amplified speaker systems that have discrete amps for the woofers and tweeters; Logitech calls the the Z-Cinema a tri-amplified system because it powers its three-inch midranges, one-inch tweeters, and eight-inch subwoofer separately (sending 26-, 9- and 110 watts RMS to each of those channels, respectively).
The Z-Cinema software features a “nine-foot interface” so that you can comfortably navigate its menus from across the room, and it works whether or not you’re using a version of Windows that features Media Center (actually, it doesn’t appear at all when you’re running Media Center). The UI will display track information (artist and song title), TruSurround status (on, off, headphone mode), the type of content you’re listening to (surround sound or stereo), and level information (volume, bass, treble, center, or surround channel). This same information is displayed by LEDs built into the right speaker cabinet.
Logitech’s remote control can operate both the speakers, media player software on your PC (Windows Media Player, iTunes, RealPlayer, Winamp, or Yahoo Music Jukebox, whether or not you’re running Windows Media Center); Google’s Picasa digital-photo software; and Windows Media Center itself (assuming you have it, of course). The multifaceted remote and the extensive command-and-control software help explain why this system costs $300.
There are a couple of things that bug us about the Z-Cinema: First, we’d like to be able to turn off the LEDs in the speaker cabinet: We want as few indicator lights in our home theater as possible. But that’s a minor complaint compared to our annoyance at the hard-wired cables on the satellite speakers. This is a necessary evil because Logitech needs to send both audio and command and control messages over the cables, but that doesn’t make the six-foot cables any more appealing.
Although we wouldn’t swing with anything less than a 5.1-channel speaker system in our own home theater, we realize that such a configuration doesn’t work for everyone for any number of reasons (the need to string speaker wire to the surround channels being the most common). If you’re in that boat and you use Windows Media Center, the Z-Cinema deserves a listen.
Folding at Home
Enough power to fill a moderate-sized media room; terrific remote control; delivers effective surround sound from two speakers.
Folding, Spindling, and Mutilating
Hard-wired speakers; too many LEDs on the satellites; not for audiophiles.