|Ratings + Specs|
You’ll either love or hate this soundbar’s styling. Either way, photos can’t easily show just how unusual it is. The front is entirely covered by a mirrored black-plastic panel. The mirror finish is absent at the panel’s ends, which are perforated by small openings. This sparingly reveals, at each end, a tweeter, a mid/woofer, and a port. Seriously, it’s worth stopping by a store to look at it; the cosmetic design is truly innovative.
A few control buttons are sprinkled along the soundbar’s top. Its rear panel has an HDMI input and output, an optical input, and an IR control port for connecting an optional IR blaster. The HDMI output features ARC (Audio Return Channel); it allows the soundbar to output TV sound sent via HDMI from a similarly equipped TV, thus obviating the need for an optical connection. The soundbar also supports Viera Link, which integrates functions with Panasonic Viera TVs.
The soundbar omits a display; the only visuals you get are some LEDs that, for example, flash when you change volume and blink when you mute. It’s worth noting that its HDMI connections can pass through a full HD 3D signal. Interestingly, the transmitter for the subwoofer connection is contained in a separately packaged plastic module that plugs into a slot in the soundbar.
The small remote, which has a grand total of seven buttons, is the epitome of simplicity. Most notably, it allows separate volume control of the soundbar and the subwoofer. The bar is supplied with both a table stand and wall-mounting hardware.
The soundbar uses Dolby Virtual Speaker to provide a surround effect, as well as proprietary Panasonic processing to provide a “3D” sound effect. In addition, Clear Mode Dialog processing is onboard to improve voice intelligibility. These signal-processing effects can be used either separately or together; unfortunately, switching them is clumsy, requiring you to press and hold the remote’s Mute or TV button, then press them again. Even worse, the modes are not clearly indicated by the mode LEDs. Preferably, the remote should provide dedicated buttons and the soundbar should have a display, or at least dedicated LEDs.
The subwoofer is housed in black plastic, with its glossy high-tech vibe matching that of the soundbar. A look into its integral pedestal reveals a downward-firing driver and a bass-reflex port beside it. A multicolor LED shows when the subwoofer is powered and when its wireless connection is active.
I liked what I heard from the Panasonic system the moment I turned it on: nothing amazing or hyped, just effortlessly natural sound. On the Eagles’ “Center of the Universe,” the tweeters sounded crisp but not crunchy, conveying wood block and other percussion. The excellent midrange sounded transparent on both instruments and vocals, and had nice lower-end extension.
On “Guilty of the Crime,” the subwoofer was a bit thumpy, and its lumpy frequency response sometimes didn’t blend well with the soundbar. It wasn’t bad; I just wished it could have matched the system’s terrific midrange performance. However, things got a little crazy at very loud playback levels, with both the soundbar and the sub showing obvious stress. Its sound modes, accessed through arcane button-push sequences and confirmed by those mysteriously blinking lights, sounded alternately tasteful (3D mode) and helpful (Clear-dialogue mode).
The airplane scene in Inception’s Chapter 7 begins with both the front channel and surrounds playing a bit of the musical score mixed with typical jetliner sounds; this was well reproduced, with enough ambience in the front soundstage to put you in an aisle seat. When the score gained intensity and the scene switched to a rainy street, the sounds of wet traffic were as immersive as could be expected from a soundbar. Though well reproduced, the impact of the train locomotive, car crashes, and gunfire was not particularly loud in the subwoofer channel. While a bit unmusical, Panasonic’s sub was sufficient for casual movie viewing.
Let’s consider the bad news first. Panasonic’s SC-HTB520 has no USB port or analog audio input for jacking in your iPod. And its seven-button remote had no front-panel alphanumeric display and was a little stripped down for my taste. I guess I’m a geek, but I like to see a number that tells me the subwoofer level; LEDs that flicker when I change levels don’t quite do it for me. And trying to figure out what surround mode I’m in by deciphering blinking lights is just way too much work. The good news: If you’re not a geek and instead just want a soundbar that delivers great sound, then this Panasonic is a good bet. While its subwoofer was just okay, I particularly liked the soundbar, which sounded quite sweet for its reasonable price point.
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