Panasonic released one of the first Blu-ray home-theater-in-a-box systems in 2008, the SC-BT100, but we didn't bother to review it. The reason: it was still a Profile 1.1 disc player and its high price tag made it easier to put together a great system of separate components for about the same price. That's why we were pleasantly surprised by the two Blu-ray HTIBs that Panasonic offered this year: the SC-BT200 offers a quality Blu-ray experience for the price and the SC-BT300 (reviewed here) offers better performance (from tall-boy speakers) for an extra hundred bucks. It's not the best Blu-ray HTIB we've seen this year and the lack of Netflix streaming may be a deal-breaker for subscribers, but it's a well-thought-out system that combines the same excellent video quality of the standalone DMP-BD60K Blu-ray with a solid 7.1 surround-sound speaker package.
Editors' note: The Panasonic SC-BT300 is nearly identical to the step-down SC-BT200, therefore the two reviews are very similar. The main difference between the two models is the SC-B300 offers tall-boy front speakers and has a slightly more powerful amplifier.
Most Blu-ray HTIBs stick to traditional 5.1 configurations, but the SC-BT300 is a full 7.1 system. The system is made up of two tall-boy speakers, four small speakers for the surround/surround-back channels, a center channel and the subwoofer. The tall-boy speakers stand 40.2-inches high, and the circular stands are 10-inches in diameter. They're big enough to dominate a room, so if space is limited you may be better off with Panasonic's step-down SC-BT200. The surround/surround-back speakers are a little bigger than a soup can, coming in at 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).
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 a little more wire clutter.
The included remote on the SC-BT300 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-BT300's autosetup system that we found wanting. First, 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-BT300'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. So we used a small piece of tape to hold it in place while running the autosetup's test tones.
You can initiate SC-BT300'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-BT300 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-BT300 requires we perform calculations on our own. We doubt too many SC-BT300 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-BT300'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-BT300 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's proprietary Internet content portal, which currently offers Amazon Video On Demand, YouTube, Picasa, Bloomberg stock quotes, and weather. The SC-BT300 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-BT300'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-BT300 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-BT300 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-BT300. As we mentioned before, the SC-BT300 has a slide-out tray with an iPod dock. You can browse your music using the onscreen graphical user interface, which is basic-looking and doesn't include extras like displaying album art. It is possible to watch videos with the SC-BT300, 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-BT300 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.
Panasonic's SC-BT300 is the step-up model from the SC-BT200, and frankly we didn't expect to hear much of a difference between the two HTIBs. They share identical center and surround speakers, and both HTIBs have the same subwoofer. The SC-BT300 comes with a slightly more powerful receiver and slender tower speakers (the SC-BT200 uses tiny, 5-inch tall speakers). The two systems are similar, but the SC-BT300 sounds bigger and warmer.
The SC-BT300's skinny tower speakers sounded fatter than they look, so there wasn't the usual strained quality that limits the high-impact ringside body slams of "The Wrestler" Blu-ray. When the wrestlers pummel each other, you feel it! The SC-BT300's subwoofer was in large part responsible for that, but the speakers held up their part of the deal. The speaker/subwoofer match up was definitely above par.
Ed Harris's take on the old western formula film, "Appaloosa," has a very natural sounding soundtrack. The SC-BT300's seven speakers revealed the full scope of the film's wide-open sound mix. Shootouts in the saloon packed an explosive intensity beyond what we expect from a HTIB with skinny speakers.
Still, the SC-BT300 isn't quite a contender for best HTIB on the planet. If you already have a Blu-ray player or are willing to spend a little more, Yamaha's YHT-791BL is more detailed sounding, can play louder, and its subwoofer is significantly more powerful. If your room is larger than average, say 15 by 20 feet, the YHT-791BL's larger speakers and subwoofer will have an easier time filling that space than the SC-BT300 would.
The SC-BT300's musical skills came to the fore when we played Joel Fan's "West of the Sun" solo piano CD. In stereo or Dolby Pro Logic II surround the grand piano sounded mighty grand. It had a full-bodied presence and clarity we rarely hear from tweeterless speakers like the SC-BT300's. This HTIB can play all sorts of music well--and again, that's a rare feat for a HTIB with lifestyle friendly speakers.
Editors' note: Our testing confirmed that the SC-BT300'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-BT300 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-BT300 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-BT300 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-BT300 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-BT300 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-BT300 seemed sluggish comparatively. The SC-BT300 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-BT300 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. "Spiderman 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-BT300 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 hurky-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-BT300 handled this well, showing only minor video artifacts where lesser players often have movie-ruining jaggies. Overall, the SC-BT300 is perfectly fine for DVD playback; only the staunchest videophiles will feel the need to upgrade.