Panasonic's 2008 home-theater-in-a-box line has three contenders in the sub-$500 range. At the top of the line is the SC-PT960, which includes wireless speakers in the rear, tallboy speakers up front, and is XM-ready. In the middle is the $400 SC-PT760; it loses the satellite radio compatibility but retains the wireless rear speakers and includes smaller speakers up front (albeit with stands). The entry-level SC-PT660 is almost identical to the 760, but it loses the speaker stands up front and has wired--rather than wireless--speakers in the rear. That said, it's still loaded with features that, in years past, would have cost hundreds of dollars more including: a smooth-running five-disc DVD changer that upscales video to 1080p, a surround speaker system, and even an integrated, flip-down iPod dock. The SC-PT660's sound quality on DVDs was clean, powerful, and dynamic (considering the bargain price tag). Stereo sound from CDs and the iPod was less impressive, and the unit offers skimpy connectivity for other sources--just one stereo and one surround audio line-in jack. We think the SC-PT760 is the best combination of features and price in the line. However, if you're on a tight budget--and can live without the wireless rear speakers and the front speaker stands--the Panasonic SC-PT660 delivers a great bang for your home theater buck.
True to its "home-theater-in-a-box" name, the Panasonic SC-PT660 crams quite a few components into the package: the head unit (which includes the five-disc changer and amplifier) and the surround speakers (five relatively small speakers and a subwoofer). The head unit's slimline receiver/five-disc DVD changer is less than 3 inches high, a wee bit under 17 inches wide, and 13 inches deep. The front panel has the five-disc tray loader on the left side; a concealed, flip-down iPod dock in the middle; and the readout display and volume control over to the right. Panasonic spreads the controls to access each of the disc-loading trays, transport controls, input selector, and subwoofer boost button across the top-front ledge. We really liked the convenience of the flip-down iPod dock--much better than the "tethered" iPod docks found on most other systems--and the head unit is certainly compact enough, considering all that it does. However, the big buttons and brash, white labels give the thing a much more utilitarian look than similar products you'll find from the likes of Samsung Electronics, Philips, and Sony.
The no-frills look extends to the remote control. It won't win any beauty contests, but it's more straightforward and intuitive than many models. The remote is programmable to control basic TV functions (power, input, volume) as well.
The SC-PT660's setup menus and speaker calibration was easy enough to use. Fresh out of the box and before we did any tweaking, the sound was pretty good, so you won't be missing much if you just concentrate on getting the SC-PT660's video to work with your TV's resolution and aspect ratio.
The remote lets you adjust the relative volume level of each speaker, and the subwoofer's volume level in three steps (and there's the sub boost control on the receiver). We would have liked to have bass and treble controls, but Panasonic instead included an EQ control with Flat, Heavy, Clear, and Soft options. There was also something called Whisper-mode Surround that's supposed to enhance surround effects for late night listening, but we didn't notice much of a difference with it turned on. We did hear some small amount of noise from the rear-mounted cooling fan.
The front left speaker and front right speaker can be wall-mounted or placed in a cabinet or stand that you provide. The matching center speaker is 10.5 inches wide and the surround speakers are about 5.5 inches tall. All of the speakers are fitted with nonremovable black cloth grilles, and the speakers can be shelf-mounted or wall-mounted with their keyhole slots. The black plastic cabinets look fairly basic, nothing fancy, just plain and simple designs. The satellite speakers all feature one 2.5-inch "woofer" but no tweeters, however, at least the center speaker doubles up on the woofers.
The Kelton designed subwoofer has a side-mounted 6.5-inch woofer. The medium-density fiberboard subwoofer has a molded black plastic front baffle. It's 7.1 inches tall by 14.25 inches wide by 12.5 inches deep and weighs 10.4 pounds. It's also a tad more stylish than the plain-Jane satellite speakers are.
Actual assembly of the system should be a breeze, even for the technically challenged. Panasonic hardwires all of the speakers to the speaker cables, which terminate with color-coded plugs (for jacking into the main unit), so there's nearly impossible to mismatch anything. Of course, that means that you're stuck with the provided length of speaker wire, and unable to extend it except with a warranty-voiding cut and splice job. Thankfully, the wire length--10 feet for the front speakers, 25 feet for the rear speakers--should be sufficient for most rooms.
Two wireless accessories are available for the SC-PT660. The SH-FX85 transmits the system's audio to a second room, so you can (for instance) listen to your iPod or a CD elsewhere in the house. The SH-FX67 ($150), meanwhile, converts the rear speakers of the PT660 to "wireless" operation. However, if the latter option interests you, you'll just want to go with the step-up SC-PT760 model, which includes a similar module by default.
The SC-PT660 built-in five-disc changer can play DVD movies, audio CDs, video CDs, and most home-burned varieties thereof, including DVD-RAM discs. It can also play back MP3 music and display JPEG images from DVD-R/RWs, DVD-RAMs, and CD-Rs. As we'd expect at this bargain price point, Blu-ray playback is absent, as is compatibility with increasingly obscure DVD-Audio and SACD discs. In addition to the iPod dock, the SC-PT660 also includes the requisite AM/FM radio.
The HDMI output delivers the requisite DVD upscaling to 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolutions, which may be useful, depending on how well your HDTV handles video processing. You can connect older TVs via component (480i or 480p) or composite; there's no S-Video out. Note that the HDMI output is "Viera Link" compatible--that means it can talk to similarly equipped Panasonic TVs, allowing them to automatically (for instance) power up and toggle to the correct input when the PT660 is turned on.
Video inputs are absent, and there are only two audio inputs: one pair of stereo RCA jacks and an optical digital input for surround sources. That means any other video sources--a game console, Apple TV, or a cable/satellite box, for instance--will need to be plugged directly into the TV. Likewise, just one analog and one digital audio input are excessively stingy--there should be two or three of each.
The SC-PT660's digital amplifier carries two power ratings: the optimistic "1,000-watt" specification--and the much more realistic Federal Trade Commission rating of 428 watts. Surround processing covers the usual Dolby and DTS modes, including Dolby Pro Logic II, which can create a faux surround effect from any two-channel stereo source.
The flip-down iPod dock is superconvenient, but you need to support the dock with one hand when inserting or removing an iPod with the other hand. While compatibility is limited to later model iPods (fourth generation or later, including current iPod Touch, Nano, and Classic models), the SC-PT660 does offer full capability to browse the iPod's menu on your TV screen. Using the remote, it's dead simple to navigate to favorite artists, playlists, or songs. By comparison, most home-audio products limit remote iPod control to volume and track up/down control, and instead force you to navigate the iPod manually via the click wheel. Panasonic's use of the onscreen interface is a big step up for those of us who prefer not to leave the sofa. However, here's the rub: iPod-based videos will only play back via the composite output, not HDMI or component.
The DVD changer mechanism was one smooth operator, so loading and unloading discs was a reasonably quick and quiet operation. We started our evaluations with a remake of a classic western, 3:10 to Yuma. The new one pumped up the explosions, and the SC-PT660 obliged and pummeled our eardrums. The stagecoach robbery was action packed, and the onscreen firepower from the Gatling gun packed a wallop. Dialog remained clear with the volume cranked fairly loud. Surround effects, such as the sound of gunshots ricocheting off the distant mountains, were subtle, but highly effective. The subwoofer's plentiful low frequency support was in large part responsible for the SC-PT660's home theater gravitas.
The wireless surround speakers worked so well we never thought about them; there were no noises, pops, or interruptions we've experienced from some wireless systems.
CD sound was less impressive, mostly because we were much more aware of the satellites' limitations. The Cuban jazz on the Buena Vista Social Club sounded passable, but we could tell that all the bass was coming from the subwoofer, way over on the left side of the room.
Rock music was irritatingly harsh. Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones sounded strained played at even moderately loud volume. We pumped up the subwoofer, which helped matters because it sounded punchy and moderately well defined. Music from the iPod Nano sounded no better than CD.
As with most budget home-theaters-in-a-box, the SC-PT660 will do its best work when playing DVDs, and sound less accomplished with music. However, it's still going to sound perfectly fine to most listeners--especially those who don't want to invest upward of a grand or two in their audio system. That, paired with its generally impressive feature set, makes the SC-PT660 a good choice for those on a budget who need an all-in-one home theater system--so long as they don't need many extra inputs.