Sadly, speakers aren't invisible, so most people just can't abide the idea of having six or eight of them scattered around their living room in order to get a full surround-sound experience. As such, home-cinema audio systems with just three speakers are a very popular compromise. With a built-in 7.1-channel virtual surround-sound system and Blu-ray player, will Panasonic's £450 SC-BTX70 prove less of a compromise than its rivals?
Once we'd got the SC-BTX70 set up -- a reassuringly straightforward procedure -- it immediately struck us that it's a very curious-looking system. It just doesn't seem to hang together. The left and right speakers don't look like they're particularly close friends with the startlingly slim main section that houses the Blu-ray player, and the subwoofer looks comparatively cheap and nasty. This is really disappointing given how stylish so many other home-cinema systems look these days.
The only genuinely appealing aspect of the SC-BTX70's appearance is that the 85mm-deep Blu-ray component has a vertical disc tray, meaning it can be stood upright, or perhaps mounted on a wall, together with a slim TV.
The SC-BTX70 pulls up its socks with its specification, though. Its virtual surround-sound processing aims to deliver from 2.1-channel speakers the audio impact of the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio codecs now found on a growing number of Blu-rays. There are also additional small speakers on top of the main ones, in an attempt to expand the system's effective sound stage.
The SC-BTX70 also sports a built-in and universal iPod docking station, tucked behind a motorised door. Via this dock you can play any content stored on your iPod on your TV. Multimedia fanatics will be pleased to note that the system can play JPEG photos, MPEG-4 and DivX videos, and MP3 music files via USB, as well as JPEGs and AVCHD and MPEG-2 videos via an SD card.
Using the built-in Ethernet port, provided predominantly for accessing Blu-ray'sonline features, you can also exploit the system's compatibility. The amount of content on Panasonic's ring-fenced portion of the Internet is still too low to make it a particularly thrilling addition to the SC-BTX70's feature list -- it essentially comprises just Eurosport, YouTube and Picasa. But the service could be expanded in the future.
Despite the claimed 7.1-channel virtual audio system, the best part of the SC-BTX70's performance is its picture quality. Blu-rays are handled with scintillating levels of sharpness and detail, colours are explosively dynamic yet also completely natural and subtle when necessary, and there seems to be hardly any unnecessary video noise whatsoever.