It seems like we've seen every possible variation in the home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) category--feature-packed little ones, countless models with willowy, tall silver plastic tower speakers, and a sprinkling of entries built around component-grade AV receivers that come with larger, boxy speakers. Panasonic's new budget model, the SC-PT650, belongs in the first group. Like the more expensive models in Panasonic's 2007 line, the entry-level SC-PT650 delivers 1080p upconversion over its HDMI connection as well as a bona fide iPod dock. Overall sound quality on music and movies is surprisingly accomplished for a HTIB, and its microsized subwoofer packs quite a wallop--given the lowered expectations of a $300 system, of course. So what's not to like? There's the mundane styling, limited connectivity options, and so-so DVD upscaling--all of which is pretty much par for the course at this price level. But the bigger issue to keep in mind is that the step-up SC-PT750 model includes larger front speakers and the wireless rear speaker module for just $100 more (or far less, at many online retailers). For many users, it's worth splurging for the upgrade.
The Panasonic SC-PT650 is as generic-looking as they come--the low-profile silver receiver/five-disc DVD changer stands a little under 3 inches high, and a bit less than 17 inches wide and deep. The front panel's small buttons and controls are fairly easy to see and use, while the DVD changer mechanism performs smoothly. Loading and unloading discs was a reasonably quick and quiet operation. There was one thing we didn't like: the receiver doesn't have a volume control knob; instead, you're stuck with a volume up/down button.
The main front and surround speakers are about 5.5 inches tall; the matching center speaker is about 10.5 inches wide. They can all be wall mounted via their keyhole slots. Their silver plastic cabinets are fitted with nonremovable black cloth grilles. The medium-density fiberboard subwoofer has a molded silver plastic front baffle and bass port. It's one of the smaller subs we've seen, just 7 inches tall by 16.7 inches wide by 10.1 inches deep, and weighs a very manageable 8.8 pounds.
Even before we explored the SC-PT650's setup and speaker calibration routine, we were perfectly satisfied with the sound, so if you'd rather not bother tweaking the unit, you won't be missing much. We did run the receiver's test tones over the speakers and heard that the center channel speaker was too loud, so we adjusted it down a bit. You can also make adjustments "on the fly" during a movie with the Channel Selector button on the remote. The subwoofer volume has its own button that provides four-step level adjustment. You don't get bass and treble controls, but there's an EQ control with "Flat," "Heavy," "Clear," and "Soft" options. All in all, the smallish black remote's layout was easy to master, but we would have appreciated larger, easier to find volume up/down buttons.
Interested in wireless surround speakers? Technically, you can just invest in the SH-FX65 wireless kit, which is sold separately. Slide the transmitter module on the rear of the receiver, and use the included wireless receiver to connect the two rear surround speakers. Like all "wireless" speaker systems, it needs a power cable and wired connections to the two speakers--but you avoid the annoying front-to-back speaker cables you'd otherwise need for the back speakers. That said, if you want the wireless, you should definitely just upgrade to the aforementioned SC-PT750, which includes the wireless module in the box.
The SC-PT650 receiver's digital amplifier carries two different power ratings--the usual wildly inflated "1,000 watt" number, and a (closer to reality) Federal Trade Commission rating of 428 watts distributed over the five satellite speakers and the subwoofer. The receiver/DVD changer's surround processing includes the standard Dolby and DTS modes.
The SC-PT650 is one of the first HTIBs we've tested that offers upconverted, 1080p video connectivity over its HDMI output. If you haven't yet bought an HDMI-equipped TV, you can use the component and composite video outputs (the SC-PT650 lacks S-Video outputs), but since there are no video inputs, you'll have to hook up your video sources (cable/satellite box, game consoles, and so forth) directly to your TV.
Audio connectivity is also spotty; it's XM Satellite Radio "ready" and comes with an iPod dock, but the Panasonic has just one stereo analog audio input and no digital audio inputs. The latter is especially disappointing, because it means you won't be able to get 5.1 Dolby Surround soundtracks from cable/satellite boxes or game consoles. Up front there's a headphone jack and a "Music Port" input (both are standard 3.5mm minijacks). The Music Port is just a stereo line-in for quick and easy connections to any portable audio device--and unlike the Digital Media Port found on competing Sony products, it's universally compatible with anything that has a headphone jack or a line output.