Panasonic's SC-PT865W home-theatre-in-a-box (HTIB) system is designed to look compatible with the company's Viera big screen TVs, but with its classic black components, it should coordinate nicely with most any of the big screens on the market right now. Even with four 1,123x252x235mm tall boy speakers and a large 361x181x315mm subwoofer, the system isn't visually overpowering, and it blended in surprisingly well in the home environment we tested it in. The centre speaker is surprisingly small at 94x270x95mm. More on this later.
Unfortunately, the sophisticated design of the speakers and DVD player is not matched in the remote control. A squat, grey plastic-y number, the remote is jammed with a multitude of buttons — all arguably needed as the HTIB has a fair range of controllable modes and features, but the form factor surely could have been elongated to provide more space between the tiny rows of buttons so you didn't have to squint at the thing to be sure you were pressing the right one. There is no back light, but most annoyingly, the oft-used mute button is buried at the bottom of the remote and is not easy to find and press in a hurry.
Feature wise, the SC-PT865W more than pulls its weight.
If you've got polished floorboards or your TV sits in an open plan room, getting a surround sound system has always been problematic, as running speaker wires across the lounge in that type of situation is both unsightly and dangerous. Many early wireless HTIBs simply weren't very good, and as consumers walked away, so did the companies that offered them.
Thankfully, Panasonic's come up with a workable solution. The kit includes a small box that wirelessly receives Radio Frequency transmissions from the centre speaker. As it needs power, we placed this transmitter behind our sofa near a power point and then connected it (with supplied thin speaker cable) to the rear speakers located roughly on the sides of the lounge. Voila! Surround sound without cables running from the front to the back of the room. It works much better than line-of-sight-systems, where obstructions such as a dog or child standing between the speakers could cause drop outs. Although it uses the potentially crowded 2.4GHz band, we experienced no interference during our testing period.
The SC-PT865W has a nifty integrated iPod dock. While many other systems require you hook-up (and pay extra for) an external dock if you want to play your iPod music and videos through it, in this case the dock is cleverly built-in to the DVD unit. A small cover on the front flips down, and the iPod dock sits nicely on this small ledge. You can use the HTIB's on-screen display and the aforementioned remote to control the iPod's content, plus the terminal will recharge your iPod. (NB: to play iPod video, you'll have to connect the SC-PT865W with composite cable to your TV — it will not work through HDMI.) This compartment also conceals a UBS port, so you can also play MP3, WMA, JPEG and MPEG4 files stored on portable USB devices. While we're talking playback formats, the DVD player itself supports DVD-video, DVD-RAM, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, VCD, CD and CD-R/RW as well. Did we mention is has an AM/FM tuner as well?
On the connections front, it has HDMI out, so the player supports up-conversion of DVDs to 1080p high-definition resolution. There is also a digital audio (optical) input, so if you're connecting to other devices like a gaming console or, you can transmit digital sound through the 5.1 speaker system.
Finally, the HDMI connection enables what Panasonic calls Viera-Link, which means that if you have a Viera TV, you can control both it and the HTIB through its one (cluttered) remote control.