The Panasonic SC-HT640W boasts a singular "gotta have" feature unequalled by most home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs) selling for a lot more than the Panasonic's $300 list price: wireless surround speakers. Or to be more precise, its wireless surround speaker--the two rear surround channels emanate from a single wedge-shaped box that you place behind your sofa. The rear-channel box includes just a single wire--the one that plugs into the AC outlet. By comparison, most "wireless" HTIB speaker systems have a central wireless receiver (which plugs into the wall) connected to left and right surround speakers; that's three components and three wires. In addition to the allure of considerably less clutter, the Panasonic also offers a built-in five-disc changer and decent sound quality, especially when you consider that it costs less than an Xbox 360 or a top-of-the-line iPod.
The Panasonic SC-HT640W comprises a single receiver/DVD player head unit, three small front speakers (left, right, and center), and the wireless rear speaker unit. The entire ensemble is finished in silver. The receiver/DVD changer conforms to the plastic look common to just about every bargain-priced HTIB we can think of. That said, considering all the features packed into the unit, it's a reasonably compact design measuring a trim 2.75 inches high, 17 wide and deep.
The left- and right-front satellite speakers are just 5.2 inches tall, and the center speaker is 10.5 inches wide; the three speakers can be wall-mounted or placed on shelves or stands. The medium-density fiberboard subwoofer grabs the most floor space; it's 7.25 inches wide, 15.5 tall, and 10.5 deep. The satellites each use a single 2.5-inch woofer, while the center speaker has two; they're all tweeterless designs. The subwoofer has a front-mounted 6.5-inch woofer.
The big distinguishing feature of the SC-HT640W is the wireless surround speaker. It contains a wireless transceiver, so it's somewhat bulkier than its siblings, measuring 17 inches wide, 4.5 high, and 6.3 deep. It's virtually identical to Panasonic's $200 SH-FX80 wireless speaker. It needs to be plugged into an AC outlet for power, but--unlike every other so-called wireless rear-speaker system we've seen to date--the rear speaker's single-box housing precludes the need for cables strung along the back of the room. That's a big advantage for anyone that's particularly sensitive to the aesthetic challenges presented by your average surround system.
The Panasonic SC-HT640W's receiver/changer is one the rare HTIBs that quote rigorous FTC power ratings on its specifications page in the user manual. The digital amplifiers deliver 40 watts per channel to the left- and right-front speakers, 75 watts to the center speaker, and 65 watts to the subwoofer. The wireless surround speaker's built-in amplifiers dish out 40 watts to each of its two speakers. The system covers the usual gamut of Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro-Logic II, and DTS surround-processing modes. Moreover, the five-disc changer can play a better-than-average variety of audio and video discs; in addition to the standard DVDs and CDs (including the panoply of home-burned recordables), the SC-HT640W plays MP3, WMA, and JPEG discs, as well as DVD-Audio and DVD-RAM discs. The changer is one smooth operator, capable of swapping discs in 15 seconds, and the rear-mounted cooling fan keeps things from overheating.
The Panasonic SC-HT640W includes the same complement of composite-video, S-Video, and progressive component-video outputs that you'd find on a DVD player--and not much else. A single set of analog (red and white) RCA audio inputs means you can make just one audio-only connection--from a VCR, a cable or satellite box, or a game system, for instance. But don't look for any video inputs, digital audio connectors, or HDMI options. On the upside, users can take advantage of the HT640W's two Music Ports--just a fancy name for a 1/8-inch minijack inputs on the front of the receiver and the wireless speaker. You can use whichever one is more convenient for easy hookup from an iPod or an MP3 player's headphone jack. (We had better luck with the one on the receiver's front panel.)
System setup is mostly a straightforward process. Even before we adjusted the balance of all the speakers, the sound was pretty good, which is a good thing, because the onscreen menu isn't the most logically designed system we've used. Automatic speaker configuration would be even better, but we don't expect that at this bargain price point. We liked the remote; its efficient button layout is easy to use and offers direct access to a four-position subwoofer volume-level adjustment, as well as finer gradations of volume control for the other speakers. It can also control the basic functions of Panasonic TVs, but not those of other brands.
After firing up a few DVDs and CDs, the pros and cons of the SC-HT640W quickly came into focus. The weakness of HTIBs with microsatellite speakers is that they sound undernourished. Sure, virtually all surround systems have subwoofers, but the matchup between satellite speakers and subwoofer can be an on-again, off-again thing, depending on the sound balance of the source material. Some small HTIBs are better than others in this regard, but the SC-HT640W's sat/sub blend was truly excellent. The sound was consistently full and rich; the subwoofer is an overachiever for its size and class and can definitely fill moderately large rooms with deep, well-defined bass.