In the music playback space, there's undoubtedly plenty of consumer choice, but from a vendor's viewpoint it must be annoyingly tough trying to sell anything that isn't iPod related. To draw a parallel, in the Blues Brothers version of "Green Onions", Dan Akroyd sings that "Everybody is doing flips and twists just to get into a genuine pair of American blue jeans". The portable music player market is in a very similar situation. If it's not an iPod, you've got scant chance of getting market share, and the route that plenty of manufacturers have been going down is to mimic the iPod as closely as IP law will allow them. This isn't exactly a windfall for consumers. While the iPod design is nice, there's something of a lack of true innovation in the portable music space. You may be wondering exactly what this has to do with a review of what is supposedly a Micro HiFi system -- they're not exactly the most portable of creatures. Well, the innovative hook for the SC-PM71 is that it's not just a Micro system -- it's also a portable MP3 player.
To be strictly accurate, and to assuage your fears that we've gone slightly mad here at CNET.com.au, we'll explain. When you open up the moderately sized box for the SC-PM71, you'll find the usual accoutrements that you'd expect out of a Micro system, specifically two mid-sized speakers, a central playback centre and some easily-chewable-by-the-kids speaker wires. What you'll also find is a tiny Panasonic SD-card based MP3 player -- the SV-SD100, to be precise. Panasonic sells this particular player as a standalone module for AU$299 with a 512MB SD card, although the bundled SC-PM71 version only comes with 128MB of storage capacity. In the iPod world we all seem to live in, that's not very much, but SD cards are remarkably cheap these days, and the player itself is, if nothing else, a marvel of miniaturisation even compared to the smallest iPods. It measures in at 42 x 42 x 17.5mm and weighs .1g less than 40g, otherwise known as "floating out of your pocket" style weight.
Where the two components fit together is in the adoption of SD card slots. The SV-SD100 is only a SD playback machine, but the SC-PM71 can play from and record to SD cards, either from its five-CD deck, or the tape deck that sits on the top of the unit. CD recording can be done in real time or at up to 4x recording to AAC format; the deck itself can also play back WMA and MP3 files. Tape recording is only done at playback speed, but it's undoubtedly one of the simplest ways we've ever seen of transferring audio tapes into digital format.
The speakers on the SC-PM71 are notable for connecting up via slightly more wires than you may think of as necessary. While many speaker systems use a single pair of twin wires, the SC-PM71 uses two pairs, to separate out the higher and lower frequency notes. The speakers also offer an enhanced Bass output -- Panasonic calls it "Black Box H.Bass", to accentuate bass tones over the admittedly small speakers.
For a Micro system, the Panasonic SC-PM71 performed well enough in our audio tests with little perceptible distortion at reasonable volumes, and plenty of muscle if premature deafness is your thing. From a technology standpoint, however, we were more keen to see how well the SD card recording function worked, and how seamlessly we could move tracks between the Micro system and the portable player. Actually moving files is absolutely basic -- you pop the card out of one device and into another, being careful not to drop it in the meantime.
Copying from CD to SD card is a tad trickier. It can be managed from either the central unit or the remote, but there are steps that could have been better streamlined. To be specific, in order to record from CD to SD card, you hit the record button, followed by either the tape or SD card buttons, and that'll set off a single speed recording session. If you want to use the higher speed recording functions -- and we can't imagine why you wouldn't -- you have to hold down the record button, then hold down the SD button for a few seconds to get it working.
Your only indication that you've pressed for long enough is when it starts. It would have been much simpler -- and much less prone to mishap -- if the recording speed situation had its own button or toggle with an easily discerned visual indicator, as we found ourselves recording at single speed far too often in our testing. The other quibble we had with recording is that there's no way to perform track or title naming while recording, and the upshot of this is that your SD card will quickly fill with a ton of unnamed tracks. Panasonic does provide PC software which could be used to rename the tracks, but that's rather fiddly as a solution, although we may have been spoilt when it comes to track naming by the Philips WACS700.
Obviously the Panasonic SC-PM71 will only sell to those looking for a Micro system to begin with, although the inclusion of a portable MP3 player could tilt it into the favoured basket -- we can see it being a good choice option for parents of teenagers who want both types of audio experience. That's presuming you can successfully overcome the fashionable iPod bias in order to get a teenager's approval in the first place.