My laptop is my home away from home. It serves as everything from office to stereo to audio game centre. Being totally blind, I truly care about how things sound. Sadly, as far as laptop designers are concerned, sound is at best an ill-considered afterthought. That may well be fine for many poor souls afflicted with the curse of lumination dependence who consider anything short of nearby gunshots to be beneath their notice. However, when you depend on sound to get things done, fire accurately at hoards of zombies, or truly enjoy audio drama or described movies, it just won’t do. Sound is my main window on life. It matters to me. Five years ago, I obtained a pair of Logitech V20 speakers which I’ve come to hold in very high esteem. They’re solid, reliable, and have sadly nevertheless been discontinued by the marketing powers that be. I now have a laptop large enough to occupy nearly my entire lap desk and wondered if there were a more practical solution for when one was out and about. Speakers which wouldn’t be quite so likely to fall at inopportune moments. The V20s are certainly tough enough to take a tumble but it’s still a pain to have to pick them up. I’ve never gone for the whole Bluetooth wireless thing when it comes to laptop accessories. After all, how far away do you ever really want them? Also, these wireless devices tend to have batteries which one must maintain and/or eventually replace. More electric mouths to feed? No thanks.
As my talking computer read descriptions and reviews of the latest gear to me, my hopes were raised when I came across those of the Logitech Laptop Speaker Z305 sound bar. Logitech presents us with a truly travel-ready alternative to traditional USB-powered speakers meant for laptops.
Note: Photos for this review are from the Logitech and Amazon.com websites.
Rather than having two separate speakers which need to be balanced or positioned, the Logitech Z305 is designed as a sound bar to be hung from the top behind the screen. The only cord to worry about is the one that leads to the USB port on the left of your machine. That cord is short, at only around half a metre or perhaps eighteen inches long. This could be an issue for those who might not have a handy USB port on or near the left side of their systems. Sound is directed not forward into the back of your screen, but outward to the left and right offering 360-degree audio. All of that sounds wonderful in theory, but how well do these speakers actually deliver? I’ve now had these speakers for a while and offer you my impressions.
A Tactile Glance
The Z305 arrived in packaging which would test the patience of a seasoned safe-cracker. I had to practically destroy it to get my new prized possession out of its clutches. Thankfully, I have a tool designed with such infuriating packing practices in mind. Once the contents were out, I found a small manual, carrying drawstring case, and the actual sound bar. Had I not read thoroughly about the product beforehand, I might well have spent considerable time searching for presumed accessories simply due to the size of the packaging versus the size of the item. There aren’t any.
The only cable is neatly tucked into a guide track running around the back of the sound bar.
The Z305 is shaped rather like those boxes which hold a tube of toothpaste only with the corners and edges nicely rounded. It measures precisely 30 cm or one foot in length. It’s a thick, solid ,durably-constructed plastic bar that could probably serve well in a pinch as a short-range defensive weapon. The unit isn’t heavy but is solid and has enough heft to let you know that you’ve got something of substance.
If your laptop has weak hinges, this may not be the ideal solution for you, as the extra weight might prove sufficient to shut your laptop’s screen onto your fingers should the opened angle not be great enough. As long as there’s some resistance to the movement of your screen, you’ll be fine.
It didn’t take long at all to feel what was where. Two grooved rubber pads cover much of the back of the Z305. They allow it to rest firmly on the back of your laptop without slipping sideways. Between these two rectangular pads is a fork-like, two-pronged, spring-loaded clamp which secures the Z305 to the bezel on the top of your laptop. The ends of the claw extensions are padded so you don’t have any direct plastic-on-plastic pressure or vibrations. The reason the clamp is divided that way is so that the sound bar won’t interfere with the small built-in web cams commonly housed near the top edge of laptops and netbooks. The top of the Z305 is where the clamp extends from. The only other feature is a small patch in the exact centre where a logo is.
The front of the unit faces directly away from you when the Z305 is mounted on your laptop. It has three thankfully tactile, slightly recessed buttons. Going left to right, they are volume down, mute, and volume up. The bottom of the Z305 has the cable storage guide and a small jack for plugging in an external audio source. Keep in mind that you’ll still need to be hooked into a USB port for the speakers to have power.
The left and right ends of the Z305 are where you’ll find the square speakers capping the ends of the bar. This very simple, very tactile layout makes the Z305 a refreshingly accessible addition to one’s laptop kit.
Setting it Right
These speakers are designed to work on Apple and Linux machines as well as on Windows computers. They don’t require drivers to be pre-installed. The first time you plug the Z305 into your system, you may notice a short delay as the best possible drivers are obtained or chosen by your computer. Subsequently, the Z305 will activate very rapidly when plugged in. Because these speakers don’t require special drivers, you need to use the sound equalization and enhancements offered by your operating system to tweak and tune the sound to your liking. For Windows users, there are two ways to get to these. The first is to right-click on the volume icon in your system tray and choose “playback devices” from the menu. Make certain the Z305 speakers are selected. Rather than the “configure” button, what you want is the “properties” button. Proceed to the “enhancements” tab. I’ve been quite pleased with how well the loudness equalization enhancement works with these speakers. Not having to lunge for volume controls when one song is louder than the next is nice. However, the bass boost enhancement is the one of particular interest. Make certain its box is checked and then hit the “settings” button. I’ve found that setting the frequency to 100 HZ and the boost level to 9 DB adds a nice dash of initially missing thump without destroying overall sound balance. After setting these, hit the “OK” button to close the settings dialogue. Remember to look out for the “apply” button and use it when leaving the “enhancements” dialogue. Changes won’t be active unless and until that apply button is pressed. This will result in your music or whatever you’re hearing to have to be restarted. Repeat this process until you find your sweet spot. It’s clunky but very much worth taking the time to find the bass boost settings which suit you best. Once set, they will be remembered by Windows the next time you plug in the speakers. Doubtless, other operating systems offer similar facilities.
You may be tempted to try out the virtual surround enhancement. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to thanks to audio physics. The sonic and timing trickery used to fool your brain into perceiving sound from places unoccupied by speakers is designed on the premise that speakers are in front of and facing the listener. It also helps if there’s a wall or other surface behind to reflect sound off. If those conditions aren’t met, the illusion cannot be created convincingly. Therefore, using that setting with these speakers equals messy sound, directionally speaking.
Let’s Hear It
I have now used this sound bar in numerous different environments and for everything from playing audio games to listening to movies and music. For such small speakers, I’m frankly amazed at the richness of sound that they deliver. Bass isn’t really lacking, especially after you tweak the bass boost as outlined above. Small speakers can only give you so much thump though. The sound produced is quite well-balanced and could be compared to that of a small boom box sans maximum ludicrous volume. Compared to most built-in laptop speakers, that’s quite an improvement.
For music, the speakers work quite well in small environments, filling them nicely. Vocals come through wonderfully clearly. There’s enough bass to make listening to pop, dance, new age, and instrumental music quite enjoyable. In fact, I would go so far as to say they deliver a better balanced sound than my Bose Companion 5 speakers do on my desktop computer. Listening to Sophie B. Hawkins Did We Not Choose Each Other, the lyrics aren’t drowned out as they can easily be on bass-heavy sets. On the other side of the coin, the heavier bass line present in Nickelback’s Gotta Be Somebody comes through well enough to be enjoyed and let you know that larger speakers would bring more oomph out of the woodwork. Even at high volume, the piano playing in Michael Logozar’s Linger and Yiruma’s River Flows in You sounded splendidly full-bodied. For such ease of use during travel, the sound stage created by these speakers is very good when it comes to music.
Sadly, the Z305’s real weakness reveals itself when you listen to movies or play games which make use of directional sound. Dialogue and atmosphere come through wonderfully clearly. However, instead of being enveloped by the sound, it’s like things are presented on a canvas stretched in front of you, extending outward to left and right. The battle at the beginning of the movie Gladiator has arrows, riders, firepots and such whizzing everywhere. You still get a sense of the magnitude of chaos and carnage but you simply aren’t pulled into the ancient world as you would be with even a more traditional pair of stereo speakers. There is a kind of sound bubble created by these speakers. It’s not like the sound is projected in narrow beams directly left and right. Listening to music, you can stand anywhere in a smallish room and feel like you’re within the bubble. However, when directional context matters, these speakers fall short of the mark.
When it comes to gaming, you’re absolutely fine if games only have two-dimensional left/right soundscapes. An audio side-scroller like Q9 or any of the Space Invaders-style audio games like Aliens in the Outback work quite well. A racing game like Top Speed 3, however, does not. I had trouble telling when cars were passing me or when I passed them. Normally, you can tell what’s coming from in front of you since the volume of sound increases as an object gets closer. With the speakers pointed left and right, this trick doesn’t tend to do the job as well. The same problem applies to an audio pinball table where you can normally get a sense of how far forward on the table the ball rolls by how loud or quiet its sound is. For audio gaming where sound direction matters, headphones would be the way to go. Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent audio and visual games which aren’t so dependent on sound location with which one could stay quite amused while employing the Z305.
Overall, the Logitech Z305 has a lot to offer the traveling laptop user in situations where headsets aren’t desirable, such as when alone or enjoying one’s music with others. It’s rugged, extremely compact, and takes no lap desk space. Things don’t get much easier in terms of controls. With just one cable, setup is as easy as plugging in and clamping on. They don’t take an overly big bite out of your battery either. That sort of stunning convenience is well worth the sacrifice in directionality and bass incurred. In fact, despite having speakers offering superior sound ready to hand, I’ve often foregone those and used the Z305 out on my apartment balcony. It’s simply that much more convenient.
When you’re chiefly listening to songs or podcasts, the whole directional sound issue really doesn’t factor in much since they’re recorded for stereo speakers. You still get excellent, well-spaced left-right panning. Considering their size, the bass delivered by the Z305 is surprisingly good given realistic expectations going in. You aren’t going to get the bass and sound imaging that you would from a properly-positioned and tuned desktop speaker set, but you won’t feel too hard done by while on the road.
Those wanting to play games where directional sound information is critical should look for another solution. The same goes for people who prefer the soundscapes of their entertainment to be arranged correctly. While this most definitely includes yours truly, I’m more than prepared to make that sacrifice while on the go in exchange for the ease of use, ruggedness, and quick convenience the Z305 offers.