Panasonic SC-BT200 - home theater system - 7.1 channel review: Panasonic SC-BT200 - home theater system - 7.1 channel
Although the technology debuted in 2006, for many consumers Blu-ray still feels like brand-new tech. That's why a home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) system like the Panasonic SC-BT200 feels like such an incredible deal--with a street price as low as $450, you get a 7.1 speaker system plus a slimline AV receiver with an integrated Blu-ray player. The biggest knock against the SC-BT200 is that competing systems offer better streaming media options; both the Samsung HT-BD1250T and LG LHB953 have both Netflix and Pandora streaming, which we prefer to the SC-BT200's Amazon Video On Demand and YouTube streaming. On the other hand, the SC-BT200's sound quality is darn good for the price, and its 7.1 configuration offers two more speakers than the competition, for a slightly more immersive effect. Although we haven't done hands-on testing with its competitors yet (coming soon), the Panasonic SC-BT200 looks to be the early favorite for quality sound for a rock-bottom price.
Most Blu-ray HTIBs stick to traditional 5.1 configurations, but the SC-BT200 is a full 7.1 system, even more surprising given its low price. There are six identical speakers that are used for the front, surround, and surround back speakers. These speakers are a little bigger than a soup can, measuring 3.63 inches wide by 5 inches high and 3.2 inches deep, and each features a 2.5-inch bamboo cone driver.
The center channel is a little bigger (9.8 inches wide, 3.75 inches high, and 3.2 inches deep) and features two of the 2.5-inch drivers. The sub has a 10-inch passive radiator and 6.5-inch woofer, and its footprint is also relatively small (7.1 inches wide, 14.2 inches high, and 13.4 inches high). In all, the speakers are puny enough that they should hide nicely in most decors.
The combination receiver/Blu-ray player has a relatively nondescript look, with the faceplate featuring a reflective black finish. Toward the bottom is a flip-down panel revealing an SD card slot, the autosetup mic input, additional playback controls, and a headphone jack. One nice design touch is the pull-out iPod dock; just give a tug where the Panasonic logo is, and a tray for the iPod is revealed. We prefer this integrated design (also found on some LG models) to the break-out docks on the Sony BDV-E500W and Samsung HT-BD1250T, which cause slightly more wire clutter.
The included remote on the SC-BT200 is similar to the one included with the company's Blu-ray players and we're generally fans of the design. Frequently used playback controls are given big blue buttons and the directional pad is surrounded by important buttons like pop-up menu and top menu. There is one inexplicable omission, though: an open/close button for the integrated Blu-ray player. Sure, you have to get off the couch to change discs anyway, but we prefer to hit the button before we get up so there's an open tray waiting when we get there.
There were more than a few aspects of the SC-BT200's autosetup system that we found wanting. First thing: Plugging in the supplied microphone was complicated by the mic cable's unusually short length; it's just 9.5 feet long (15- to 20-foot cables are more typical). With the cable stretched in midair between the SC-BT200's receiver/Blu-ray player and the CNET listening room's couch, the microphone wouldn't stay in position resting on the backrest of the couch. We used a small piece of tape to hold it in place while running the autosetup's test tones.
You can initiate SC-BT200's autosetup by pressing the "Smart Setup" button on the top of the receiver/Blu-ray player's front panel. The onscreen display prompts take you through the autosetup routine. The entire process takes just a few minutes. Afterward we noted the subwoofer volume was much too loud, and the four surround speakers' volume was too low.
To correct the level mismatches of the speakers and sub we used the manual setup, which was easy enough to do. But while we were there we noted that the SC-BT200 didn't automatically set the delay settings for any of the speakers (most autosetup/calibration systems do that).
As a result, we had to set the delay times manually. However, instead of just entering the distance of each speaker to the listening position, the SC-BT200 requires the user to perform calculations on their own. We doubt too many SC-BT200 owners would actually take the time to do that, but in all honesty we don't think using the factory default delay settings would significantly impact perceived sound quality. Still, it's an annoying oversight in the Panasonic's design.
You can easily adjust the subwoofer's volume in four steps with the remote. We mostly used the two lowest settings. Bass and treble controls are missing in action, but there are four EQ (equalization) modes: "Flat," "Heavy," "Clear," and "Soft." We used Flat and Soft. We didn't hear much difference when we switched the "Whisper Surround" late-night mode on and off.
The SC-BT200's main receiver has a Blu-ray player built-in and it offers all the functionality of Panasonic's entry-level standalone player, the DMP-BD60K. The DMP-BD60K's full review has the most detailed information, but the short story is the SC-BT200 has full Profile 2.0 compatibility, onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio and VieraCast functionality.
VieraCast is the name of Panasonic proprietary Internet content portal, which currently offers Amazon Video On Demand, YouTube, Picasa, Bloomberg stock quotes, and weather. The SC-BT200 doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi, so you'll need to make an Ethernet connection to enjoy this content. The additional content is certainly welcome--particularly Amazon Video On Demand--but in our opinion, we prefer the Netflix/Pandora combination offered on HTIBs from Samsung and LG.
Like most Blu-ray HTIBs, the SC-BT200's connectivity is limited to audio inputs; there are no video inputs. That means with additional components, like a cable box or game console, you'll need to make separate connections to the SC-BT200 and your TV, plus you'll have to fumble with several remotes to get it all working. (Alternatively, you can avoid some of the hassle with a quality universal remote.) While most Blu-ray HTIBs don't have video inputs, it's worth mentioning that the LG LHB977 (street price of less than $600) and Samsung HT-BD3252 ($800 list price) each have two HDMI inputs, so they might be a better choice if you have other HDMI gear, such as game consoles and DVRs.
The SC-BT200 has two optical digital audio inputs and one analog stereo input, which is about average compared with other systems. Panasonic allows you to select each of these inputs by continually pressing the "EXT-IN" button, which means you can connect a total of three separate components to the SC-BT200.
As we mentioned before, the SC-BT200 has a slide-out tray with an iPod dock. You can browse your music using the onscreen GUI, which is basic-looking and doesn't include extras such as displaying album art. It is possible to watch videos with the SC-BT200, but not via the player's HDMI output; you're required you to make a separate composite video connection to your TV.
While Panasonic has historically included wireless rear speaker functionality with its HTIBs, the SC-BT200 does not include this functionality in the box; it's only "wireless rear ready." The SH-FX70 wireless transceiver can be purchased separately for $130, but note that it only powers a pair of speakers; if you want both your surround and surround back speakers to be wireless, you'll need to purchase two SH-FX70 units.
Considering the SC-BT200's satellite speakers' wee sizes, the sound was extremely impressive. So much so that the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray, our favorite stress test for HTIBs didn't faze the SC-BT200 one bit. Naval battle cannon blasts had solid impact, and their dynamic range wasn't overtly compressed or reduced in scale. The Samsung HT-AS730S and Sony DAV-HDX589W didn't score as well with this disc as the SC-BT200. The Panasonic's subwoofer may have made the biggest difference; it's just as powerful as the other two's subs, but the Panasonic's bass didn't turn to mush when the going got tough.
The live concert sequences running through "The Doors" Blu-ray were likewise impressive. Jim Morrison's (Val Kilmer) full-throated screams and onstage antics weren't inhibited by the satellite speakers' limited dimensions. The entire band rocked pretty hard, and the SC-BT200 sounded like a larger system.
CD sound was just as assured. Listening in stereo or Dolby Pro Logic II surround, the sound had the sort of "open" unboxy quality we associate with larger speakers. "One Headlight" from the Wallflowers' "Bringing Down the Horse" CD came on strong. The drums in particular sounded powerful, thanks to the SC-BT200's potent subwoofer. Bass definition was decent enough, but not great.
As much as we liked the SC-BT200, we preferred the sound of the Panasonic SC-BT300. Its larger tower speakers jelled a little better with the subwoofer, which produced more midbass fullness, improving the sound of movies and music to a fair degree.
Editors' note: Our testing confirmed that the SC-BT200's integrated Blu-ray player offers identical performance to Panasonic's standalone DMP-BD60K; therefore, this section of the review is nearly identical.
We started off our Blu-ray image quality tests by looking at test patterns, and Silicon Optix's HQV test suite was up first. The SC-BT200 aced the Video Resolution Loss Test, depicting the full resolution of the test pattern and no jaggies on the rotating white line. Next up were a pair of jaggies tests, and the Panasonic was solid again, with few jaggies to be seen on these video-based tests. Last up was the difficult--and most important--Film Resolution Loss Test, and again the SC-BT200 looked great, crisply displaying the test pattern and showing only slight moire on a panning shot of Raymond James Stadium. We had the Samsung BD-P3600 on hand as well, and it performed nearly identically on these test patterns.
Next up was program material, and we put the SC-BT200 through our standard barrage of test scenes. First up was the end of Chapter 6 in "Ghost Rider" and the Panasonic performed well, with no moire present in the grille of the RV as the camera pans away. Next up were a couple scenes in "Mission: Impossible III." The beginning of Chapter 8 is a great scene for exposing bad 1080i deinterlacing, but the SC-BT200 was solid again as the stairs in the background look crisp and free of moire. Later in Chapter 11, the Panasonic handled the trimming on the limo perfectly, free of jaggies often seen on lesser players. Last up was the video-based "Tony Bennett: American Classic," and again the SC-BT200 performed well, with only some minor jaggies present in the shirts of the performers. It's worth mentioning, however, that we had the Samsung BD-P3600 on hand for comparison and it fared just as well in these scenes.
We also tested operational speed, which was comparable to last year's DMP-BD35. However, we had it set up with the BD-P3600, and the SC-BT200 seemed sluggish comparatively. The SC-BT200 isn't necessarily slow--and if you don't mind waiting a minute or two before your movie starts, you won't care--but apparently Panasonic didn't make the same speed improvements that Samsung did with its new players. The SC-BT200 loaded "Mission: Impossible III" in 20 seconds with the unit powered on and 24 seconds with it powered off (with quick start mode active). "Pirates of the Caribbean" took 1 minute and 53 seconds, while the same movie loaded about 35 seconds faster on the BD-P3600. "Spider-Man 3" loaded in a minute and 27 seconds, while the BD-P3600 loaded it in about a minute flat.
Standard DVD performance
We started off with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. The initial resolution test looked excellent, clearly resolving all the detail that DVD can offer. It stumbled somewhat on the following video-based jaggies tests, as a test pattern with three pivoting lines had plenty of jaggies on it. On the upside, it passed the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, and also had no problem with scrolling CNN-style text.
We switched over to program material, starting with "Star Trek: Insurrection." The SC-BT200 rendered the opening scene smoothly, showing no jaggies in the curved railings of the bridge or boat hull. The opening also features a long panning shot, which can look pretty herky-jerky, so we used it as a test case to see if Panasonic 24p mode made a difference. We flipped between 24p mode and standard mode several times, and it was difficult to see any difference at all. We moved onto the difficult introduction to "Seabiscuit," and the SC-BT200 handled this well, showing only minor video artifacts where lesser players often have movie-ruining jaggies. Overall, the SC-BT200 is perfectly fine for DVD playback; only the staunchest videophiles will feel the need to upgrade.