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Panasonic SC-HT940 review: Panasonic SC-HT940

Panasonic SC-HT940

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
In recent years, Panasonic's home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems have delivered a solid combination of technical sophistication, attractive (if somewhat pedestrian) design, and good value. The Panasonic SC-HT940 delivers on each count: a built-in DVD changer with an HDMI output for upscaling DVDs to an HDTV-friendly 720p/1080i resolution, adjustable-height front tower speakers, and an affordable list price of $500, with a street price well below that. You can even eliminate the front-to-back speaker wires with the addition of a companion wireless speaker transceiver accessory. Yes, the system's connectivity suite might be a little too minimalist for some buyers, and the sound quality won't woo discerning audiophiles, but it's certainly competitive with similarly priced HTIBs.

The main housing of the Panasonic SC-HT940 comprises a combination receiver/DVD changer that's highlighted by a distinctive back-illuminated, aqua-ringed volume control. The changer's carousel tray glides open with unusual grace, and the 15 seconds it took to swap a disc was a bit faster than average. We noted that the internal mechanical noises and gyrations were hushed, and the rear-mounted cooling fan was whisper quiet. The head unit is 17 inches wide and deep and just 2.75 inches high; that's a slightly smaller-than-average footprint for a DVD-changer HTIB.


Panasonic SC-HT940

The Good

The Panasonic SC-HT940 is a stylish all-in-one home-theater-in-a-box system that includes a single head unit with a combined A/V receiver and five-disc CD/DVD changer, as well as an HDMI output for upscaling DVDs to 720p and 1080i resolution. The system offers wall-mountable speakers, including a pair of tallboy front towers, and it works with Panasonic's optional wireless surround speaker accessories.

The Bad

Other than HDMI, the connectivity options are minimalist at best--don't expect to connect more than a couple of audio devices to this system.

The Bottom Line

The keenly balanced Panasonic SC-HT940 home-theater system boasts an affordable price tag, a generous and truly useful feature set, and decent all-around performance.

The front left and right tower speakers can be wall mounted or attached to the included stands (they're almost 40 inches tall sans stands). The metal and plastic stands require assembly, but we had both screwed together in about 10 minutes. Once the front speakers are stand mounted, you can vary their height between 45 and 53 inches. The center speaker is a lot smaller--just 12.5 inches wide--and the surrounds stand a mere 10.5 inches tall. All the speakers can be wall mounted with the keyhole slots on their back panels. The all-plastic subwoofer grabs the most floor space: it's 9.25 inches wide, 17.5 tall, and 15.5 deep. The entire ensemble is finished in silver plastic.

System setup is a mostly straightforward process. Even before we adjusted the balances of all the speakers, the sound was pretty good, but toggling the HDMI DVD output to 720p or 1080i required reading--and rereading--the manual to find the obscure submenu needed to make the change. The remote, meanwhile, has the same unusually large and legible labeling found on all of Panasonic's new DVD products, so it's easier to use in a darkened home theater than most HTIB remotes.

The Panasonic SC-HT940's receiver/changer digital amplifier delivers 120 watts per channel to the front left/right speakers, 60 watts per to the surround speakers, and 250 watts each to the center speaker and subwoofer, for 1,200 watts total. If those ratings seem wildly optimistic for an 11-pound receiver/DVD player, that's because they probably are--using the more conservative FTC standards, we pegged the system at 860 watts, which is still plenty loud. Surround processing modes cover the usual Dolby Digital and DTS surround options.

The system's five-disc changer can accept just about every common video and audio disc format; in addition to standard DVDs and audio CDs, you can spin DVD-Audio discs; HDCDs; all home-burned DVD formats, including DVD-RAM; and CD-R/RWs, even those with MP3, JPEG, and WMA files.

The HDMI video connection is the highlight of the SC-HT940's otherwise skimpy connectivity suite. Yes, there's the usual complement of S-Video, as well as composite- and component-video outputs you'd find on every DVD player, but the system has no video inputs. That means--unlike with even a bargain A/V receiver--you won't be able to switch video sources such as a cable box, a video game console, or your old VCR; you'll have to hook them up directly to your TV instead. Rear-panel inputs are limited to just two stereo analog inputs but not even one digital input. On the upside, while the SC-HT940 doesn't have an iPod dock per se, the front-panel-mounted Music Port (a fancy name for a minijack input) lets you can hook up an iPod or MP3 player's headphone jack so that you can hear your portable's music through the HTIB's big speakers.

The system is also HDAVI compatible--that means it can pass control options to and from connected devices (most likely a TV) that are similarly compatible. We didn't have an HDAVI TV on hand to test the capability, but we'd seen it demonstrated previously. When properly configured, it can allow tighter integration between components--automatically switching a TV to the correct input and video presets when you pop in a DVD, for instance.

The towers and center speaker feature double 2.5-inch woofers and a single 2.4-inch tweeter; the surround speakers make do with a single 2.5-inch woofer; and the subwoofer has a 6.75-inch woofer.

Like all the HTIB systems in Panasonic's 2006 lineup, the SC-HT940 offers two possible wireless accessory options. The first is the SH-FX60 Rear Wireless Receiver Kit ($150 list but around $100 online). Of course, as with virtually all "wireless" systems, the SH-FX60 involves quite a few wires. It sits at the back of your home theater, connects to the SC-HT940's two rear speakers, and, of course, plugs into an AC outlet. But it does obviate the need to run those speaker wires from the rear of the room all the way to the front--the audio signals are instead transmitted via radio waves. We tested the SC-HT940 with the SH-FX60 and found it easy to hook up--just pop the supplied transmitter card into the slot on the back of the SC-HT940; plug the small, 3.5-by-7.5-by-7.1-inch SH-FX60 wireless receiver unit into an AC outlet; and run wires to the satellite speakers. The Music Port on the wireless receiver unit can be used to play an iPod or any portable music player through the SC-HT940. If you don't go for the SH-FX60, you're still in luck; as mentioned above, the SC-HT940 receiver/DVD player also has a Music Port.

The second wireless accessory that's compatible with the SC-HT940 is the Panasonic SH-FX80 ($150 list). The FX80 is billed as a second-room kit because the wedge-shaped 6.9-by-16.9-by-7.8-inch box wirelessly streams audio from the SC-HT940 or any other Panasonic HTIB to a nearby room. Like the SH-FX60, the SH-FX80 has a Music Port 3.5mm jack, so you can also use it as an impromptu speaker system for your portable music player. It's also an all-in-one unit with built-in speakers, so--with the exception of the power cord--it's truly wireless.

If you like the features and design of the SC-HT940 but would prefer to spend less, Panasonic offers five other models in its 2006 line; only the SC-RT50, which includes a built-in DVD recorder, costs more.

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.

We used the A Sound of Thunder DVD to assess the home-theater talents of the Panasonic SC-HT940. The back-to-the-future adventure flick's visual effects are pretty awful, but the dinosaur hunting scenes thumped in all the right places. The subwoofer boomed mightily but was no match for the subs in any of the Onkyo home-theater systems we've tested. That said, the movie's jungle ambience convincingly filled our home theater, and dialog from the center speaker was weighty and rich. The skinny speakers can belt out surprisingly fat sound, but they have their limits. Whenever the onscreen action heated up, the sound turned hard and mildly distorted. In smaller rooms of less than 300 square feet and at more moderate volume levels, the SC-HT940 is a fairly accomplished performer.

To check out the SC-HT940's sound on DVD-Audio, we listened to the Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues disc. The surround mixes on this disc are pretty good, but the sound quality was about the same as we heard from CD. Which is to say, it's good enough by HTIB standards, but the slender speakers sound thin, and the subwoofer's bass is loose and lacking in definition.

CD sound on Bruce Springsteen's new one, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was enjoyable--the acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, and other assorted instruments were all admirably detailed. That said, the soundstage lacked the full-bodied dimensionality, refinement, and natural warmth we hear from the better receiver-based systems teamed with our favorite Polk or Infinity speakers. To be fair, we have to admit the SC-HT940 retails for a fraction of those systems' collective price tags, and the Panasonic's sound is certainly comparable with that of any similarly priced, sleekly styled HTIB we've heard.


Panasonic SC-HT940

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7