Pros: Variety of digital input formats and Dolby formats, remote, non-fatiguing sound
Cons: Typical crossover resonance, sub-bass resonance
When I decided to replace my crappy Creative Inspire P7800 7.1 Surround Speakers System with something a lot better, 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 K+H'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 in my studio:
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 correction, 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.