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Panasonic SC-HT640W review: Panasonic SC-HT640W

Panasonic SC-HT640W

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
7 min read
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.


Panasonic SC-HT640W

The Good

The Panasonic SC-HT640W is an affordable home-theater-in-a-box system highlighted by a wireless rear surround speaker. It offers a fairly compact receiver/five-disc DVD changer, wall-mountable front minispeakers, and two Music Port jacks for quick and easy hookup to your portable music player.

The Bad

While the single-box design of the rear speakers eliminates all the wires except a power cord, the resulting sound isn't as spacious as that of conventionally placed surround speakers--and the wireless signal may blink out on occasion. And like most bargain, all-in-one, home-theater systems, the Panasonic SC-HT640W offers only meager connections for external A/V devices.

The Bottom Line

A unique wireless rear speaker makes the Panasonic SC-HT640W an impressive value for anyone in the market for a sub-$300 home-theater system.

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.

Big, special-effects DVDs such as Spielberg's War of the Worlds sounded very good over the SC-HT640W--on the front end, anyway. Around back, the surround effect was confined to the single wireless speaker, which we had placed on a table three feet behind the back our couch. While the single speaker does have two separate left and right drivers, they're placed so close together in the unit's housing that the surround effects just aren't as spacious as they would be from the usual pair of surround speakers placed to the sides of the couch. Moreover, the wireless system shares the 2.4GHz radio spectrum utilized by Wi-Fi networks, microwave ovens, some cordless phones, and myriad other consumer devices. Because of that, the wireless speaker's sound would cut out for a second or two several an hour. It also made a pop sound whenever we turned the A/V receiver on or off. Neither was a deal breaker for us, but your wireless fidelity may be better--or worse--depending on the wireless vagaries of your listening space.

Turning to music, we switched over to Neil Young's Heart of Gold concert DVD. The show, shot at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium--the original home of the Grand Ole Opry--sounded, well, golden. The acoustic guitars and vocals had the sort of natural warmth that make the SC-HT640W sound a lot more expensive than it is. But the Panasonic wasn't quite as forgiving with stereo source material. Steve Earle's tasty El Corazon CD revealed the limitations of the small wired satellites. The hard-rocking tunes sounded harsh, and the cymbals in particular were grating when we played the CD at anything over a moderate volume level. Still, by $300 HTIB standards, the SC-HT640W is no slouch and betters the sound quality of most affordable competitors.

One feature to avoid on the SC-HT640W is the Surround Music option. It's supposed to deliver music with equal intensity from all five of the speakers, but it does so by essentially converting everything to mono. The trade-off wasn't worth it for us, especially when Dolby's Pro Logic II stereo-to-surround option is readily available instead.

Finishing up, we compared the SC-HT640W with its entry-level sibling, the $200 Panasonic SC-HT40. The bare-bones HTIB omits a DVD player--you supply your own--but it includes an A/V receiver and wired surround speakers. Right away, the biggest difference between the two was that the SC-HT40's wired surround speakers, placed off to the sides of the room, created a far more spacious surround field than the SC-HT640's single wireless speaker positioned directly behind our couch. We also felt the SC-HT40's slightly larger front speakers sounded just a little better than those of the SC-HT640W.

Of course, the SC-HT40 also required us to criss-cross our room with two front-to-back speaker cables that the wireless SC-HT640W lacked. And for quite a few people in the market for a sub-$300 all-in-one home-theater system, the allure of fewer wires will easily trump any sound-quality issues. If that's your priority, the Panasonic SC-HT640W is hard to beat.

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.


Panasonic SC-HT640W

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6