Panasonic's 2008 home-theater-in-a-box line has three contenders in the sub-$500 range, and we think the midline SC-PT760 will be the most popular model of the group. It comes with a smooth-running five-disc DVD changer, wireless surround speakers, an integrated, flip-down iPod dock, and upscales video over HDMI up to 1080p. The step-down model, the SC-PT660 ($300), is pretty much the same thing, just missing the wireless speakers and front speaker stands, and the step-up model SC-PT960 ($500) duplicates the SC-PT760's features, but adds tallboy tower speakers up front. The SC-PT760's sound quality on DVDs was clean, powerful, and dynamic (considering the bargain price tag). Stereo sound from CDs and the iPod was less impressive, and the unit offers skimpy connectivity for other sources--just one stereo and one surround audio line-in jack. But if you're looking for an affordable all-in-one home theater solution that offers surround sound, a CD/DVD changer, wireless rear speakers, and built-in iPod compatibility, the Panasonic SC-PT760 should be on your short list.
True to its "home-theater-in-a-box" name, the Panasonic SC-PT760 crams quite a few components into the package: the head unit (which includes the 5-disc changer and amplifier), the rear speaker amplifier (to power and wirelessly transmit audio to the two rear speakers), and the surround speakers (five relatively small speakers and a subwoofer). The head unit's slimline receiver/five-disc DVD changer is less than 3 inches high, a wee bit under 17 inches wide, and 13 inches deep. The front panel has the five-disc tray loader on the left side; a concealed, flip-down iPod dock in the middle; and the readout display and volume control over to the right. Panasonic spreads the controls to access each of the five disc-loading trays, transport controls, input selector, and subwoofer boost button across the top-front ledge. We really liked the convenience of the flip-down iPod dock--much better than the "tethered" iPod docks found on most other such systems--and the head unit is certainly compact enough, considering all that it does. However, the big buttons and brash white labels give the thing a much more utilitarian look than similar products you'll find from the likes of Samsung Electronics, Philips, and Sony.
The no-frills look extends to the remote. It won't win any beauty contests, but it's more straightforward and intuitive than many models. We particularly liked the large buttons, though we kept accidentally hitting the input selector buttons when trying to raise or lower the volume.
The SC-PT760's setup menus and speaker calibration was easy enough to implement. Fresh out of the box and before we did any tweaking, the sound was actually pretty good, so you won't be missing much if you just concentrate on getting the SC-PT760's video to work with your TV's resolution and aspect ratio.
The remote lets you adjust the relative volume level of each speaker, and the subwoofer's volume level in three steps (and there's the sub boost control on the receiver). We would have liked to have bass and treble controls, but Panasonic instead included an EQ control with "Flat," "Heavy," "Clear," and "Soft" options. There was also something called "Whisper-mode Surround" that's supposed to enhance surround effects for late night listening, but we didn't notice much of a difference with it turned on. We did hear some small amount of noise from the rear-mounted cooling fan.
The front left and right speakers can be wall-mounted or attached to the included floor stands. The skinny tube stands come with square bases and are stable enough, but could easily be knocked over by small children or large pets. The speaker on its stand measures 44 inches tall.
The matching center speaker is 10.5 inches wide and the surround speakers are about 5.5 inches tall. All of the speakers are fitted with nonremovable black cloth grilles, and the speakers can be shelf-mounted or wall-mounted with their keyhole slots. The black plastic cabinets look fairly basic, nothing fancy, just plain and simple designs. The satellites all feature one 2.5-inch "woofer" and no tweeters, but at least the center speaker doubles up on the woofers.
The Kelton designed subwoofer has a side-mounted 6.5-inch woofer. The medium-density fiberboard subwoofer has a molded black plastic front baffle. It's just 7.1 inches tall by 14.25 inches wide by 12.5 inches deep and weighs 10.4 pounds. It's also a tad more stylish than the plain-Jane satellite speakers are.
The two "wireless" surround speakers have wires that get connected to the SC-PT760's separate wireless receiver/amplifier (a relatively compact 6.5 inches by 3.5 inches by 6.5 inches cube), which must be plugged into an AC power outlet. (The wireless signal comes from a module that's built into the rear of the main head unit.) The supplied wires for the surround speakers are only 9.5 feet long, which might not be long enough for some installations, but you can substitute hardware store speaker wire of any length. The subwoofer's 13 foot-long cable is permanently attached to the sub, and the wire's other end has a proprietary connector that plugs into the receiver/DVD changer. The front-left speaker and right speaker comes with 13-foot long wires; and the center speaker uses a 10-foot long wire; these wires also have proprietary connectors that plug into the receiver, but they use bare wire to connect to the spring clips built into the speakers. Therefore, if you need longer wires, you can easily splice longer lengths onto Panasonic's wires.
It's also worth noting that the wireless system needs to be enabled--there's no way to connect the rear speakers to the front head unit. Therefore, if the wireless doesn't interest you--in other words, you don't mind the long speaker cables running from the front to the back of the room--save yourself $100 and go for the aforementioned SC-PT660.