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Panasonic offers at least half a dozen home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs) for 2007, and telling the difference between them can sometimes be a challenge. The entry-level SC-PT650 model, for instance, includes a five-disc CD/DVD changer, HDMI output with 1080p upscaling, XM satellite compatibility, and an included iPod dock--all of which were once high-end, upscale features--for an amazing $300 list price (and even less online). But for less than $100 more--in some cases, a lot less--the step-up SC-PT750 model adds a stately black color and an included wireless rear-speaker system. Its microsized subwoofer packs quite a wallop, and its overall sound quality is surprisingly accomplished considering its price tag. All in all, the SC-PT750 gives a better return on your money--assuming you're going to take advantage of that wireless rear-speaker feature.
The brains of the Panasonic SC-PT750 is a low-profile black "head unit" that houses the receiver and five-disc CD/DVD changer. It stands a hair under 3 inches high, and a little 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 went about its business smoothly. Loading and unloading discs was a reasonably quick and quiet operation. One little thing we didn't like: the receiver doesn't have a volume control knob; instead, you're stuck with a volume up/down button.
Even before we explored the SC-PT750's setup and speaker calibration routine we were perfectly satisfied with the sound, so if you'd rather not bother, 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. In addition, 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. The black remote's layout was easy to master and more comfortable than the smallish remote that comes with the step-down SC-PT650.
The front left and right speakers are both about 10.5 inches long and about 5.5 inches tall; the center speaker is essentially the same one, but oriented horizontally instead. Their black plastic cabinets are fitted with nonremovable black cloth grilles, and the speakers can be wall-mounted with their keyhole slots.
The two "wireless" surround speakers are smaller and have wires that need to be connected to the SC-PT750's wireless receiver/amplifier (6.5 inches high by 3.5 inches wide by 6.5 inches deep), which must be plugged into an AC power outlet. While that's still quite a few wires, the advantage is that you lose the long cable that runs from the front of the room to the back. The AV receiver/DVD changer's back side has a slot that accepts Panasonic's included wireless transmitter card. Unlike the infrared transmission on the Sony Bravia DAV-HDX267W, Panasonic's RF wireless system doesn't require direct line of sight positioning between the wireless transmitter and receiver. Panasonic's system has fewer parts, so it's easier to set up, and we had it playing movies in just a few minutes. Note that, unlike some systems, the wireless module is the only way to get sound from the rear speakers. Then again, if you don't need the wireless feature, it's probably worth saving a few bucks and going with the SC-PT650 instead.
The medium-density fiberboard subwoofer has a molded black plastic front baffle and bass port. It's nice and compact, measuring just 16.7 inches high by 7 inches wide by 10.1 inches deep and weighing 8.8 pounds. The speakers and sub have permanently attached speaker wires, which is fine, but the surround speakers' wires are relatively short (13 feet), so they weren't long enough to run along the floor and up to the shelf that supports the speakers in our room. SC-PT750 buyers who face the same problem can splice additional wire to the speakers' wires to make up for the shortfall.
The SC-PT750 receiver's digital amplifier carries two different power ratings; the ever-popular, though wildly inflated "1,000 watt" number we see emblazoned on so many HTIB shipping boxes--and a (closer to reality) Federal Trade Commission rating of 428 watts. The power is distributed over the three front satellite speakers and the subwoofer, and it includes the 34 watts per channel generated by the flyweight (1.5 pounds) surround amplifier. The receiver/DVD changer's surround processing covers the usual Dolby and DTS modes.
The SC-PT750 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-PT750 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.
The satellites all feature the same 2.5-inch "woofer" and no tweeters, and the center speaker doubles up on the woofers. The subwoofer has a 6.5-inch woofer on its right side as well. They all come with permanently attached cables, with stripped, bare wire ends. That includes the so-called "wireless" surround speakers, which need to be attached to the wireless receiver, as indicated above.
If you're looking to spend a bit more, the step-up Panasonic SC-PT950 offers front "tall boy" speakers and automated speaker calibration for an additional $100.
DVD, iPod, and CD media playback
Following a disappointing result from the step-down model SC-PT650, we were hoping to uncover contrasting results with the SC-PT750's video performance. Unfortunately, our testing only proved that the video processors found in the SC-PT650 are no different from the SC-PT750's. Like the SC-PT650, we will once again need to recommend using an interlaced signal from the SC-PT750 so that your HDTV can do the upscaling. It was this setup that allowed us to get the most pleasing picture from the receiver. Your results may vary depending on the HDTV you use.
Like the SC-PT650, the SC-PT750 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-PT750 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-PT750 also supports MP3, JPEG, and WMA playback off a data CD. These features perform as expected, and menu navigation was completely painless.
From the get-go, Bruce Springsteen's new Live in Dublin concert DVD sounded spectacular. The little speakers and subwoofer defied our expectations; the big band with horns, strings, background vocalists, and a thumping rhythm section were all presented with reasonable detail and a big, room-filling sound. The strings didn't suffer from the usual screech we've experienced with most small HTIB speakers, and the lack of tweeters didn't result in a soft treble detail. The Boss' voice sounded plenty big over the trim center speaker. No, the little system didn't perform completely perfectly; the drummer's cymbals sounded coarse when the band was going full tilt, and the sub's bass turned thick and boomy when played loud. At a more moderate volume, the sub was actually quite refined-sounding and bass definition was, by HTIB standards, excellent.
Rock CDs were well treated by the SC-PT750, a feat rarely duplicated by small HTIBs, regardless of cost. Acoustic music was clear and clean with good detail. The subwoofer/satellite blend was way above average, and that was one of the prime reasons the Panasonic scored with music of all types.
The World Trade Center DVD had its share of exciting moments. The low rumbling sounds of the soundtrack came through loud and clear; the little center speaker handled dialog like a larger speaker. Even the wireless surround speakers kept up their part of the bargain as no noticeable deterioration in sound quality was present. The wireless speakers operation was glitch-free, and closely matched the sound of the front speakers. Our main gripe was the SC-PT750's lack of dynamic impact; the soft-to-loud assaults you get from larger systems were scaled back by the Panasonic. The little system can't generate the oomph of a larger system, but even so, the sounds of little explosions and sounds of falling debris were plenty scary.
The SC-PT750 is an exceptionally well-balanced system. First, it's an incredible value, fully loaded with useful features, truly compact speakers and subwoofer, and above average sound quality on music and movies. When you consider that it's widely available for under $370, it's an easy recommendation for anyone on a budget who's in the market for a home theater system with wireless rear speakers.
Assistant Editor Jeff Bakalar contributed to this review.