Take a gander at the DVD changer/receiver's mirror finish and illuminated volume control haloed in aqua green, and you can't help but notice the distinctive style of the Panasonic SC-HT930. Loading discs into the carousel-style changer is a straightforward operation, especially compared with the process on Sony or Sharp's slowpoke "elevator" changers. Panasonic's setup menus may be a little confusing for home-theater newbies, but once you get into the swing of things, they're not bad. The small remote crams in a lot of buttons, including a four-step subwoofer volume control.
The front left and right speakers are tallboy towers that stand 48 inches high. Assembling the stands is a no-brainer, but they won't win any awards for stability, especially when placed on carpeting or rugs. We are concerned that small children or pets could easily knock over these top-heavy towers. The owner's manual recommends securing them with a string attached to the wall. That would certainly help prevent accidents, but it's not exactly an elegant solution. Alternately, any or all of the speakers can be wall mounted. The center speaker is 12.5 inches wide, and the surround speakers are 12.75 inches tall. They're all finished in gray plastic and feature perforated metal grilles. The burly subwoofer occupies a 11.25-by-20.5-inch patch of floor space.
If you'd like to avoid some of the hassles associated with running wires from the front of your room to the left and right surround speakers, pick up Panasonic's optional SH-FX50 rear-speaker transmitter and receiver module ($199). The transmitter portion of the FX50 attaches to the back of the SC-HT930's main DVD section and wirelessly transmits the surround-channel audio signals to the 70-watt FX50 receiver, which is in turn connected to the rear speakers. The wireless system was remarkably easy to set up, but it uses the crowded 2.4GHz spectrum, which is prone to interference from some cordless phones, Wi-Fi networking equipment, and microwave ovens. That said, we found that its signals never dropped out or got noisy. Yes, you still have to plug its 4-by-8.5-by-6.75-inch (HWD), 70-watts-per-channel receiver into an AC wall outlet and run wires to the surround speakers--but at least you don't have to string wires from the front to the back of the room. In terms of sound quality, it's the best wireless system we've tested so far.
All of the Panasonic SC-HT930's speakers are two-way designs: the front and surround speakers use 3.1-inch woofers and 2.3-inch ring-type tweeters; the center speaker uses two 2.5-inch woofers and a single 2.3-inch ring tweeter.
The subwoofer features two 5.8-inch woofers and houses all of the HT930's power amplifiers: 100 watts for the front left and right speakers, 140 watts for the center speaker, 45 watts for each surround speaker, and 150 watts for the subwoofer itself. Surround processing covers the basics of Dolby Digital, Pro Logic II, and DTS. The five-disc carousel changer plays DVDs (encompassing all flavors of home-burned DVDs, including DVD-RAM); DVD-Audio; and a wide variety of CD formats, including discs encoded with WMA, MP3, and JPEG files. HighMAT discs and HDCDs are also supported.
The receiver/changer's scant connectivity offerings include composite, S-Video, and progressive-scan component-video outputs but no video inputs of any kind. We were surprised to note that Panasonic doesn't include any digital inputs or outputs--the audio side includes just three analog stereo inputs and one output.
Darkness is one of those scary things-that-go-bump-in-the-night thriller DVDs jam-packed with just about every haunted house clichÃ© you can think of. Fortunately, the sound design is markedly better than the plot, and the HT930's prowess kept us on the edge of our seats. A lot of the action takes place on a stormy night. Coincidentally, we were watching the DVD on a stormy night, and we had a hard time distinguishing between the movie's sound effects and the real storm raising hell outside our windows! This HTIB was that convincing, and when we played it loud enough to cover the sound of the real storm, the surround effects were naturally balanced between the front and rear speakers.
What made the demo all the more impressive was that we were listening to the Panasonic SC-HT930 with the wireless SH-FX50 receiver hooked up to the surround speakers. Where most wireless systems are riddled with sonic compromises such as limited bass and intermittent sound, Panasonic's nifty new system is glitch-free. We switched over to hardwired surround speakers and heard no difference.
The DVD The Assassination of Richard Nixon stars Sean Penn in the true story of a man who planned to kill the President. It's a quiet but intense drama, and the HT930's refinement kept us focused on the unfolding story in this natural-sounding film.
Stereo listening is the toughest test of an HTIB's musicality, and the HT930 came through like a champ. Holly Cole's sultry vocals on her Temptation CD swept us away, and her bass player's deft touch was capably rendered by the subwoofer. If this were a $2,500 system with a dedicated receiver, a surround-speaker system, and a DVD player, we'd point out that its pitch definition was a tad tubby, but it's well above par for HTIBs, and the bass went nice and low. We switched over to Mark Knopfler's new DVD-A, Shangri-La, which unfurled a room-filling soundstage, confirming that the HT930 is equally adept with music and movies.