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Panasonic SC-PT650 review: Panasonic SC-PT650

Panasonic SC-PT650

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Steve Guttenberg
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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.

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7 min read

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It seems like we've seen every possible variation in the home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) category--feature-packed little ones, countless models with willowy, tall silver plastic tower speakers, and a sprinkling of entries built around component-grade AV receivers that come with larger, boxy speakers. Panasonic's new budget model, the SC-PT650, belongs in the first group. Like the more expensive models in Panasonic's 2007 line, the entry-level SC-PT650 delivers 1080p upconversion over its HDMI connection as well as a bona fide iPod dock. Overall sound quality on music and movies is surprisingly accomplished for a HTIB, and its microsized subwoofer packs quite a wallop--given the lowered expectations of a $300 system, of course. So what's not to like? There's the mundane styling, limited connectivity options, and so-so DVD upscaling--all of which is pretty much par for the course at this price level. But the bigger issue to keep in mind is that the step-up SC-PT750 model includes larger front speakers and the wireless rear speaker module for just $100 more (or far less, at many online retailers). For many users, it's worth splurging for the upgrade.

7.0

Panasonic SC-PT650

The Good

Feature-packed, budget-priced home theater in a box; HDMI output with 720p/1080i/1080p video upscaling; includes iPod dock, tiny speakers, and a petite but powerful subwoofer; slim-line AV receiver/five-disc DVD changer; XM Satellite radio ready.

The Bad

Generic HTIB styling; spotty connectivity suite--no digital audio inputs, no video inputs; lackluster DVD upscaling quality.

The Bottom Line

Panasonic's budget-priced SC-PT650 home theater system sounds good for the money and delivers a decent roster of features--but the step-up model is an even better deal.

Design
The Panasonic SC-PT650 is as generic-looking as they come--the low-profile silver receiver/five-disc DVD changer stands a little under 3 inches high, and a bit less than 17 inches wide and deep. The front panel's small buttons and controls are fairly easy to see and use, while the DVD changer mechanism performs smoothly. Loading and unloading discs was a reasonably quick and quiet operation. There was one thing we didn't like: the receiver doesn't have a volume control knob; instead, you're stuck with a volume up/down button.

The main front and surround speakers are about 5.5 inches tall; the matching center speaker is about 10.5 inches wide. They can all be wall mounted via their keyhole slots. Their silver plastic cabinets are fitted with nonremovable black cloth grilles. The medium-density fiberboard subwoofer has a molded silver plastic front baffle and bass port. It's one of the smaller subs we've seen, just 7 inches tall by 16.7 inches wide by 10.1 inches deep, and weighs a very manageable 8.8 pounds.


These satellite speakers may be small, but they deliver a surprisingly ample sound.

Even before we explored the SC-PT650's setup and speaker calibration routine, we were perfectly satisfied with the sound, so if you'd rather not bother tweaking the unit, you won't be missing much. We did run the receiver's test tones over the speakers and heard that the center channel speaker was too loud, so we adjusted it down a bit. You can also make adjustments "on the fly" during a movie with the Channel Selector button on the remote. The subwoofer volume has its own button that provides four-step level adjustment. You don't get bass and treble controls, but there's an EQ control with "Flat," "Heavy," "Clear," and "Soft" options. All in all, the smallish black remote's layout was easy to master, but we would have appreciated larger, easier to find volume up/down buttons.

Interested in wireless surround speakers? Technically, you can just invest in the SH-FX65 wireless kit, which is sold separately. Slide the transmitter module on the rear of the receiver, and use the included wireless receiver to connect the two rear surround speakers. Like all "wireless" speaker systems, it needs a power cable and wired connections to the two speakers--but you avoid the annoying front-to-back speaker cables you'd otherwise need for the back speakers. That said, if you want the wireless, you should definitely just upgrade to the aforementioned SC-PT750, which includes the wireless module in the box.

Features
The SC-PT650 receiver's digital amplifier carries two different power ratings--the usual wildly inflated "1,000 watt" number, and a (closer to reality) Federal Trade Commission rating of 428 watts distributed over the five satellite speakers and the subwoofer. The receiver/DVD changer's surround processing includes the standard Dolby and DTS modes.

The SC-PT650 is one of the first HTIBs we've tested that offers upconverted, 1080p video connectivity over its HDMI output. If you haven't yet bought an HDMI-equipped TV, you can use the component and composite video outputs (the SC-PT650 lacks S-Video outputs), but since there are no video inputs, you'll have to hook up your video sources (cable/satellite box, game consoles, and so forth) directly to your TV.

Audio connectivity is also spotty; it's XM Satellite Radio "ready" and comes with an iPod dock, but the Panasonic has just one stereo analog audio input and no digital audio inputs. The latter is especially disappointing, because it means you won't be able to get 5.1 Dolby Surround soundtracks from cable/satellite boxes or game consoles. Up front there's a headphone jack and a "Music Port" input (both are standard 3.5mm minijacks). The Music Port is just a stereo line-in for quick and easy connections to any portable audio device--and unlike the Digital Media Port found on competing Sony products, it's universally compatible with anything that has a headphone jack or a line output.


We would have liked to have seen at least one video input on the SC-PT650, as well as a digital audio in or two.

The satellites are all one-way designs featuring the same 2.5-inch "woofer" and no tweeters; the center speaker doubles up on the woofers. The subwoofer has a 6.5-inch woofer on its right side. The speakers and sub come with permanently attached cables, with stripped, bare wire ends.

DVD, iPod, and CD media playback
The SC-PT650's DVD player can upscale video to 720p, 1080i, and 1080p via its HDMI jack. Unfortunately, when we tested the performance of the player with HQV's benchmarking DVD, we were a bit surprised with the results; the SC-PT650 did not pass a single test. As we've iterated in the past, failing a benchmarking test doesn't necessarily mean terrible real-world performance--many DVD viewers, especially on smaller TVs, likely won't notice problems at all. For instance, the King Kong DVD, a movie that the majority of HTIB players have no problem with, looked about average. However, the opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection was a jaggy mess, indicative of lackluster 2:3 pulldown performance. In other words, if you've got a decent HDTV, you're probably better off using the component output, setting the resolution to 480i, and letting the TV handle the upconversion instead. This result will vary with every HDTV, but we recommend giving it a shot if you're unhappy with the SC-PT650's video playback.

The SC-PT650 also comes with a universal iPod dock that will support iPods with a dock connection (fourth generation and later). Included with the system are plastic dock adapters which will fit most of the varying iPod sizes. The dock connects to the unit via a proprietary connection interface and performs well. The SC-PT650 will even allow you to control the iPod with the receiver's remote; however this is limited to basic controls (skipping tracks, pausing, etc.). If you want to navigate your music in more depth, this must be done manually.

The SC-PT650 also supports MP3, JPEG, and WMA playback off a data CD. These features perform as expected, and menu navigation was completely painless.

Audio Performance
Looking at the pint-size satellite speakers and baby subwoofers, we didn't expect to be all that thrilled with the SC-PT650's sound quality, but once we gave it a shot, we were pleasantly surprised. The sound was rich and full, with good satellite-subwoofer integration. The system could play loud enough to fill a moderately large room with sound.

We started our auditions with a truly great concert DVD, Larry Coryell: A Retrospective. Coryell is known as a jazz guitarist, but on most of the DVD's tunes, he's in a playful mood, sounding more like an evolved Jimi Hendrix than anybody else. Coryell's fleet-fingered Stratocaster soared and roared in all the right places, making the little Panasonic sound not so little. True, the sound was nowhere as vivid as we've heard from the better and larger HTIB speakers (with tweeters), but without the anemic, underpowered screech we've suffered through with so many micro systems. The SC-PT650's big sounding subwoofer gave Coryell's rock-steady rhythm section solid support.

A jazz CD with acoustic piano from Anat Fort entitled A Long Story was also enjoyable in ways budget HTIBs rarely are. The piano was clear and clean, and the acoustic bass' definition was above par. Rock music was also pretty impressive--just don't expect the wee speakers to generate high volume. Taken at a comfortable clip, Arcade Fire's Funeral CD had respectable impact and presence.

We next tried The Ring DVD, a scary movie that depends on creepy atmospheric sound effects to keep you on the edge of your seat. The Panasonic communicated that really well; dialog was natural sounding, and the surround ambiances were enveloping. The SC-PT650's most obvious sonic shortcoming is dynamic range--there isn't much--so all the sounds come out more or less equally loud. The sub can sound overly thick and muddy when played loud, but it still impressed us overall. For something that small, it makes its presence known, big-time.

The SC-PT650 scored well in every area: value, an up-to-the-second feature set, compact speakers and subwoofer, and most surprising of all, it even sounded sweet. We wish the SC-PT650 would have handled video playback better, but if you're on a tight budget and sound is of most importance to you, the SC-PT650 makes for a solid choice. Just be sure to see how much more the SC-PT750 costs before you seal the deal.

Assistant Editor Jeff Bakalar contributed to this review.

7.0

Panasonic SC-PT650

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7