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Bang & Olufsen has a lot to answer for in the world of mini hi-fi. The company's famous vertical-loading CD systems and elaborate opening mechanism designs have been co-opted by the mainstream consumer market -- but rarely with great results. Many of these systems may look similar to the expensive Bang & Olufsen equipment, but with lower prices comes a lower investment of time and energy into the research and design required to make these mechanisms durable.
Though the £130 Panasonic SC-EN9 looks like it may be guilty of imitating a superior system, the elaborate CD-loading system is in fact surprisingly resilient. The CD player and integrated DAB are unlikely to appeal to passionate music fans, yet for casual listening it's a compact and relatively stylish unit. If you have a vast collection of MP3s, the SC-EN9 can play these files straight from a CD, meaning you can pack a few days' worth of music onto a single disc. Sound quality is good for this end of the market, but the plastic-shelled speakers and thrifty component choices make the SC-EN9 hard to recommend for focused listening.
The SC-EN9's DAB tuner is a strong selling point, but the system's most arresting feature is its garage-door-style CD loading bay. This opens up like a gaping mouth and accepts CDs in a vertical position. Once you've pressed the CD onto its spindle, you press the close button on the lower bay door and the mechanism gently closes around the CD like a loving parent. The spindle and reader mechanism is lightly sprung to minimise the effects of vibration on the unit.
Along the top of the main unit there is a series of buttons that control basic transport functions on the CD player, as well as changing the volume of the internal amplifier. There's also a
Band button to switch between AM/FM bands on the tuner and a DAB button to switch the system in DAB radio mode. When the unit is playing a CD with MP3s on it, an LED sign reading 'MP3' lights up to indicate that the SC-EN9 is successfully accessing music from the recordable disc you've inserted.
All of the indicator lights on the top of the system use small LEDs embedded in the top of the unit. These refract on angled cut-outs in the fascia, making the lights appear to be magically suspended in the translucent plastic. It's difficult to do justice to the effect in writing, but it looks intriguing.
The rear of the SC-EN9 reveals its lower-grade status. The back panels are a relatively thin plastic, with basic clip-style speaker bindings for the thin-gauge wire that is soldered permanently into the back of the bundled speakers. There are also sockets for the DAB and AM radio aerials and headphones, an aux port and a line-out connection.
The speakers in particular suffer from the SC-EN9's inexpensive design. They use bass and tweeter drivers with a simple crossover inside the shells, and a crude bass-reflex port in the rear. The sonic characteristics of plastic-shelled speakers are generally poor, lacking good tone and definition, and these speakers are no exception -- but more on that later.