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Panasonic SC-HT40 review: Panasonic SC-HT40

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Panasonic has chosen to go with a simple, uncluttered look for the system, which is generally a good thing. The receiver's face is peppered with just a few buttons and controls, and the big remote's color-coded buttons and handy layout make for above-average ease of use. However, we can't say the same for the setup logistics. Most buyers will stick with the defaults and won't find it necessary to wade through the cryptic information on the receiver's front-panel display--there are no onscreen menus. But if you do want to make some tweaks, expect a bit of a challenge; for example, we gave up trying to reassign the receiver's digital inputs.

6.0

Panasonic SC-HT40

The Good

The Panasonic SC-HT40 is a name-brand home-theater-in-a-box system that you can get for a rock-bottom price of $200 or less. It offers sweet-sounding satellite speakers, a powerful compact subwoofer, and easy connections for portable music players and optional wireless speaker attachments.

The Bad

As expected at this price, the features list is bare-bones: You'll need to supply the DVD player (it's not included), its connectivity options are sparse, and there's no onscreen display during setup.

The Bottom Line

Considering its bargain-basement price, Panasonic's SC-HT40 home theater in a box is an outstanding value.
Intro
We've said it before and we'll say it again: It's pretty impressive what you can get these days for $200 in a home theater in a box (HTIB). While Panasonic's most affordable HTIB, the SC-HT40, may lack a built-in the DVD player--which is a good thing for those who already own one--it does come with a full-size A/V receiver and a six-piece satellite-subwoofer system, as well as offering a build-quality standard that's higher than you'd expect in so inexpensive a system. No, it didn't rock our world, but when you consider that it costs less than an iPod, the Panasonic SC-HT40 offers more than acceptable performance on DVD and CD. At 17 inches wide and 13.75 deep, the satin-silver receiver of the Panasonic SC-HT40 is almost the same size as an average $300 receiver, but it weighs a nimble 8.4 pounds--about 12 to 15 pounds lighter than most entry level A/V receivers. As for the small, silver plastic satellite speakers, they're attractive enough, and the medium-density-fiberboard subwoofer is actually a step up from the subs we normally see packed with most entry-level HTIBs.

A couple of other things also worth pointing out: While the SC-HT40's receiver doesn't look much different than a bona fide A/V receiver, this Panasonic can be used only with the speakers that come with the system, so don't even think of buying it with plans of upgrading to better speakers down the road. (Opt for one of the several worthwhile sub-$300 receivers on the market instead, even if it happens to be last year's model.) And finally, since the receiver puts out a fair amount of heat, it shouldn't be placed within a cabinet without some way to breathe. The Panasonic SC-HT40 is the entry-level home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) product in the company's 2006 line, and the only one that doesn't include a built-in DVD player (see the chart below to see how the Panasonic HTIBs compare to one another). We'd like to supply the receiver's power ratings for its 5.1 channels, but the SC-HT40 owner's manual lists several conflicting ratings between 400 and 800 watts of total power. Judging by the receiver's 8.4-pound bulk and how loud the system could be played, we'd guess its actual power is a whole lot lower. The receiver decodes all of the standard Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround modes.

The satellite speakers are tweeterless designs that utilize a single 2.5-inch woofer, except for the center speaker, which has two. The subwoofer has a front-mounted 6.5 inch-woofer.

As to be expected at this price point, the SC-HT40's connectivity options are fairly skimpy. There are no video inputs or outputs--you'll need to run all your video connections from the source devices straight to your TV. The HT40 is designed to deal with audio only: It has two analog stereo inputs (red and white RCA connectors) and one output, as well as three digital inputs, two optical and one coaxial. Unfortunately, you can toggle between only two of the digital inputs at any given time. So unless you want to be constantly diving into the setup menu and reassigning the inputs, you're effectively limited to connecting a total of four devices to the rear panel--two analog and two digital. In addition to the requisite DVD player/recorder, you'd also have room for, say, a cable/satellite box, a game console, and a VCR.

That said, there is a front-panel Music Port connector (1/8-inch jack) for quick and easy connections to portable music players. We were able to hook up our iPod and play tunes through the system's speakers using a $5 patch cable from RadioShack.

While this model doesn't come with wireless speakers, you do have the option to upgrade to them down the road. The SC-HT40 is compatible with Panasonic's two wireless surround speaker systems, the SH-FX60 ($150) and the SH-FX80 ($200). The former is a wireless transceiver that attaches to the rear speakers, eliminating the need for front-to-back speaker wires; the latter model can be either used as a wireless surround speaker, replacing the HT40's wired surrounds, or as a wireless secondary speaker in a nearby room of your house.

If you're looking for a name-brand alternative to the SC-HT40, note that a trio of Philips models--the Philips HTS3410D, the Philips HTS3440, and the Philips HTS3450--retail for around the same $200 price tag but include a built-in CD/DVD player. If you can spend up to $300, there are two other HTIBs in Panasonic's line worthy of your attention. The Panasonic SC-HT440 offers similar speakers to the HT40, but the extra $100 gets you a built-in 5-disc CD/DVD player. Alternately, the Panasonic SC-HT640W includes a disc changer and a wireless rear-speaker unit, a near clone of the FX80 module described above. (See the Performance section for a direct comparison of the sound quality between the SC-HT40 and the SC-HT640W.)

Panasonic 2006 HTIBs compared:

Model Quick take Included disc player? Wireless rear speaker? Price
Panasonic SC-HT40 Panasonic's entry-level HTIB.
Best for: bargain hunters who are happy with their existing DVD player.
None Optional
Panasonic SC-HT440 Basically identical to the SC-HT40 but includes a built-in five-disc CD/DVD changer.
Best for: bargain hunters who want a complete home-theater system, including a built-in DVD changer.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Optional
Panasonic SC-HT640W This includes the same receiver/five-disc changer as the SC-HT440, as well as the SH-FX80 wireless rear speaker unit.
Best for: style-conscious buyers who want surround sound with as few wires as possible.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Included
Panasonic SC-HT740 This step-up from the SC-HT440 adds HDMI output and front tower speakers.
Best for: HDTV owners who like tallboy speakers.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Optional
Panasonic SC-HT940 In addition to the HDMI output and the front tower speakers of the SC-HT740, the SC-HT940 adds larger surround (rear) speakers, more power, and HDAVI Control compatibility.
Best for: anyone interested in the SC-HT740 who wants a bit more power and features.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Optional
Panasonic SC-RT50 The SC-RT50 offers the same speakers and power as the SC-HT940, but it includes a built-in single-disc DVD recorder rather than a five-disc DVD player-only changer.
Best for: video pack rats who enjoy archiving their favorite TV shows--and watching them in surround sound.
Integrated single-disc DVD recorder Optional

Wireless accessories:
Model Quick take Price
Panasonic SH-FX60 Compatible with all of the above home-theater systems (except the SC-HT640W), the SH-FX60 is a wireless module that connects to the two surround speakers in the back of the room, obviating the need to run cables from the system's main head unit to the speakers in the rear of the room.
Panasonic SH-FX80 The SH-FX80 is a relatively compact wireless speaker module that can act as the two surround speakers when paired with a Panasonic home-theater system. It can also be used as a wireless B-speaker system to broadcast audio to a second room. The SH-FX80 is included with the SC-HT640W, but it's compatible with all of Panasonic's 2006 HTIB systems.
The Panasonic SC-HT40 mostly avoids the classic pitfall of small satellite/subwoofer systems: anemic sound. We cruised through a stack of our favorite DVDs including The Flight of the Phoenix,King Kong, and House of Flying Daggers and came away reasonably happy with the system's home-theater prowess. On some heavy-duty home-theater scenes such as Phoenix's desert plane crash, we heard the subwoofer distorting, so we eased up on the volume control, and the distortion went away. That means if you're going watch a steady diet of action DVDs, you'll either listen at moderate volume levels or confine the SC-HT40 to a small room (less than 200 square feet). On quieter discs, such as Woody Allen's engrossing drama, Match Point, the SC-HT40 was as enjoyable to listen to as HTIBs costing double its modest price.

Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome CD sounded fine--the Boss' vocals and the various acoustic guitars, banjos, and horns were all detailed and present, more than we'd expect from a system with tweeterless satellite speakers. The subwoofer poise and definition were above average for such a compact design. Springsteen's more aggressive rock CDs such as Born To Run didn't fare as well; the little speakers' strain at anything higher than moderate volumes was too irritating to be enjoyable.

We did compare the SC-HT40 with Panasonic's SC-HT640W ($300) HTIB. Right away, the biggest sonic difference between the two was the rear soundstage. When properly placed off to the sides of the room, the SC-HT40's surround speakers created a far more spacious sound than the SC-HT640's single wireless speaker, which we positioned directly behind our couch. We also felt the SC-HT40's slightly larger front speakers sounded a little better than the SC-HT640's speakers. But don't get your hopes up too much--$200 and $300 HTIBs have their limits as high-fidelity devices.

6.0

Panasonic SC-HT40

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 6