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.
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.
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.