Frankly, we didn't expect much from this $249 (list price) home theater in a box (HTIB), but the Panasonic SC-HT05 turned out to be something special, a cheap system that offers good-quality sound and respectable build quality. So take our advice: If you're working with a tight budget and a relatively small room and already have a DVD player, put the SC-HT05 at the top of your short list. Its lack of a DVD player notwithstanding, this HTIB's useful features and snazzy 5.1 speaker package add up to an amazing value.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The Panasonic SC-HT05 includes an A/V receiver and a 5.1 speaker system. Measuring just 17 inches wide, 2.75 inches high, and 11.5 inches deep, the receiver lacks the imposing bulk of most separate models. And since all of the system's amplifiers are located in the subwoofer, the receiver weighs next to nothing: a mere 4.4 pounds.
As for the speakers, the 7.5-inch-tall silver plastic satellites and 11.75-inch-wide center speaker rest on integrated stand/bases and feature perforated metal grilles. The matching subwoofer's curved contours and chromed, front-mounted port add a sense of style to the system's overall appearance. The sub measures 8.25 inches wide, 14.25 inches high, and 18.25 inches deep and weighs 25.4 pounds. That's a lot of subwoofer for a budget-priced package.
We'd talk about how user-friendly the setup chores were, but there wasn't much to do. Even before we tweaked the SC-HT05's speaker balances, the system sounded fine. Also, we appreciated that the receiver's nicely organized remote offered on-the-fly control of the subwoofer's volume. As one might expect at this price point, the receiver's surround processing roster includes only the basic three--Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS--but that's all you need to get 5.1-channel surround. Connectivity options are respectable: on top of three stereo inputs and one out, you get one input each for SACD/DVD-Audio and coaxial digital and two optical inputs. On the video side, since the receiver lacks S-Video or component-video options (there are four composite ins and two outs), you'll end up running the cables from the DVD player or the cable box directly to your TV. Again, video switching isn't a feature you'd expect to find in this price class, though SACD/DVD-Audio inputs are a nice bonus.
The Panasonic SC-HT05's satellites and center speaker are two-way designs that use a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2.3-inch, cone-type tweeter. The center speaker uses the same drivers, but in a woofer-tweeter-woofer array. For a $250 package, that's pretty amazing. By comparison, Sony's $600 list DAV-F7C Dream System gets by with just a single 3-inch driver in each of its five satellites.
The subwoofer employs a rear-firing, 6.75-inch woofer and houses all of the system's amplifiers: 35 watts for each of the front and rear left and right speakers; 110 watts for the center speaker; and 140 watts for the sub. These ratings conform to stringent Federal Trade Commission standards, which are rarely quoted by most HTIB manufacturers. The Last Samurai DVD's early "Battle in the Fog" scene humbles most budget HTIBs, but the Panasonic SC-HT05 quickly demonstrated a rare flair for the visceral drama of home-theater sound. The clang of swords, the thunderous rampage of horses, and the blood-and-guts climax were all fearsomely portrayed. Surround effects were spacious and seamlessly integrated with the front speakers. Dialogue was well balanced and fairly natural, and when we checked director Edward Zwick's commentary, his big warm voice belied the dimensions of the tiny speakers. The subwoofer won't rattle your windows--its bass power and definition are only fair--but it's beautifully matched with the satellites.
Moving on to music, Miles Davis's dense fusion workouts on the Bitches Brew CD sounded fine. The master's sleek trumpet dazzled, and the funky rhythm section delivered steadfast grooves. Most HTIBs need the muscle of their 5.1 speaker array to make music palatable, but the Panasonic SC-HT05 sounds fine in stereo--selecting Dolby Pro Logic II surround isn't mandatory. Even hard rock from the Ramones was more than passable. True, once we cranked the volume, we heard the little system straining to kick out the jams, but you'd have to double your budget to outdo the SC-HT05's performance on home theater and music.
Equally adept with DVDs and CDs, the HT05's detailed and lively sound betters Sony's lower-end Dream Systems--and for less money.