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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.
You'll feel completely at home with the SC-EN9 if you've set up a mini system before -- there are very few connections to make on the unit. The speaker cable is hardwired into the speaker shells, so you only need to attach the cables into the small red and black bindings on the rear of the main system.
Confusingly, the speaker wires are not colour-coded to match the colours of the binding on the rear, so you may well end up accidentally reversing the phase on your speakers -- this will change the sound they produce. The consequence of mis-wiring speakers is not drastically noticeable on lower-end systems, but it is good practice to code the wires to match the bindings. Consulting the manual reveals that the negative bindings connect to silver wire, and the positive bindings connect to the copper wire.
The DAB tuner on the SC-EN9 works like most others we've tested. Stations are scanned and stored in memory, and can then be quickly recalled using the bundled remote or the controls on the top of the system.
The integrated DAB on the SC-EN9 covers all digital broadcasts in the UK, and the unit lists them alphabetically as they are autotuned. Though it covers Band III broadcasts, it doesn't cover L-Band, but these are not currently available in the UK anyway. As with most DABs, the SC-EN9 can display extra station information on its scrolling text display. Legibility on this LCD is not great from a distance, but it is backlit for night-time or early morning.
The chassis on the SC-EN9 boasts a 'Live Virtualiser' and an 'Extra D. Bass Circuit'. These weight equalisation in favour of lower frequencies, but do little to improve the sound quality. It's entirely a matter of taste, but most music has been mixed by professional engineers who labour for days over the tone of the end result. A good stereo will reproduce this sound, changing as little as it can. Bass enhancement on systems like this may compensate a little for the shortcomings of cheaper speakers, but you're certainly not hearing what the band intended, and in most cases you're simply not getting a good sound.
The CD player on the SC-EN9 is easy to operate with normal CDs, but if you want to play back MP3 CDs on your stereo you will need to follow a special file structure as outlined in the manual. You will also need to make sure you're burning CDs that use the ISO9660 format.
Listening to Do It Again by Nada Surf revealed the problems inherent in plastic-shelled speakers. Although the sound output was fine for general listening, the CD format is capable of so much more than the SC-EN9 can deliver. The speakers give a noticeably hollow performance that can't hope to compete with even a low-end wooden-speaker enclosure. Speakers often perform better as the density of the material they're constructed from increases. The more dense the material, the more neutral the colouration of the sound. The thin plastic used in the SC-EN9's speakers does no justice to CDs, a situation which, though disappointing, is to be expected at this price.
DAB radio is less encumbered by the SC-EN9's speakers. DAB broadcasts don't have the same fidelity as a CD and place fewer demands on the amp and speakers. Often their shortcomings are concealed by the lower quality of radio, which is compressed and broadcast at a fairly low bit rate. For DAB listening, the SC-EN9 is far more capable -- as an occasional radio for the kitchen it performs excellently. For teenagers on a budget looking for a decent all-rounder to provide background music for homework, the SC-EN9 fits the bill. For more quality-conscious listeners, the money may be better spent saving up for a more capable system, or opting for a less extensively featured but better-sounding DAB-only radio.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide