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Panasonic SC-RT50 review: Panasonic SC-RT50

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Operationally, the DVD recorder works similarly to a VCR. You schedule record times--date, start, stop, and channel--much the same as a VCR. We found the onscreen programming logical and easy to set up and use. That said, anyone who's familiar with a cable, satellite, or TiVo-style DVR will miss gotta-have features such as an onscreen electronic programming guide and dual-tuner recording--the ability to record one channel while watching another.

6.7

Panasonic SC-RT50

The Good

The Panasonic SC-RT50 is a stylish all-in-one home-theater-in-a-box system that includes a single head unit with a combined A/V receiver and single-disc DVD recorder, as well as an HDMI output for upscaling DVDs and incoming video sources to 720p and 1080i resolution. The system offers wall-mountable speakers, including a pair of tallboy front towers, and it works with Panasonic's optional wireless surround speaker accessories.

The Bad

A minimalist jack pack severely limits the gear that you can connect to the RT50. And you'll have to look elsewhere for the recording conveniences of a TiVo-style DVR--the lack of a hard drive and cable/satellite box control means the SC-RT50's DVD recorder functions more like a glorified VCR.

The Bottom Line

Panasonic's midprice SC-RT50 theater system combines a DVD recorder with HDMI output and sleek looks, but it sounds no better than the company's cheaper models, and it's no replacement for a TiVo-style DVR.
intro
Panasonic knows that every year buyers demand more features for less money, so it upped the ante with the SC-RT50. Like the SC-HT1000 that debuted in 2003, the Panasonic SC-RT50 is a home-theater-in-a-box system that includes a built-in DVD recorder. But unlike that older model, the SC-RT50 offers HDMI 720p/1080i video output, a wireless rear speaker option, and a front-panel hookup for portable music players--and its $600 list price is fully $400 less than what the older model sold for in its heyday. But while it's a far better deal, it's still not quite the TiVo-style recorder that we'd like to see; the SC-RT50 functions more like a VCR that happens to record onto a disc instead of a tape. If you're looking for amenities such as an electronic programming guide, a built-in hard drive, or dual-tuner support, you'll be better off matching your DVR of choice to one of the other very similar home-theater systems in Panasonic's line. The main head unit of the Panasonic SC-RT50 houses the receiver/DVD player/recorder in one fairly trim frame that's 3 inches high, 17 wide, and 15 deep. It carries over the silver look of the receiver/DVD-changer units found on sibling products, but with more pizzazz, thanks to the extra chrome trim accents. We like the remote--its large and easy to read labeling and button layout offers direct access to a four-position subwoofer volume-level adjustment.

Mounted on their stands the front-left and -right towers are 53.25 inches tall, or if you don't have the room, they can be wall-mounted sans stands, which shaves 14 inches off their height. The center speaker is 12.5 inches wide; the surround speakers--which are also wall-mountable--are 10.6 inches high. The SC-RT50's molded-plastic subwoofer feels a little cheesy; it's 9.25 inches wide, 17.5 tall, and 15.5 deep, and it weighs 14.8 pounds; we expected something with a bit more meat from a $600 system. The digital amplifiers of the Panasonic SC-RT50 deliver 105 watts per channel to the front-left and -right speakers, 220 watts to the center speaker, 90 watts to the two surround speakers, and 190 watts to the subwoofer. Those power ratings seem completely outrageous to us but are certainly in line with other brands' far-fetched HTIB power specs. The A/V receiver's surround processing covers the usual Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS options.

The system can play back a wide variety of discs, including DVD video, DVD-Audio, audio CDs, and MP3 and JPEG discs. On the recording front, the RT50 can burn to all types of discs: DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-RAM. The SC-RT50 also features flexible recording length. This option allows you to specify exactly how long your recording is, so you can completely fill the DVD, maximizing video quality.

On the connectivity front, the SC-RT50 is pretty underequipped, especially considering the fact that it's a DVD recorder. The highlight is an HDMI output, which offers the ability to scale your DVDs to 720p and 1080i resolution. In addition to the usual assortment of DVD video outputs--composite, S-Video, and component--the system offers two sets of A/V inputs with S-video: one on the rear and one on the front panel. There's also an additional analog stereo (red and white RCA) input, but no digital audio inputs or outputs. In addition to the RF input and output (for direct connections from analog cable or antennas), the only other notable features are the 1/8-inch Music Port on the front panel, for easy connection from the headphone jack or 1/8-inch line output of portable music players; a FireWire port, for dubbing from DV camcorders; and an SD slot. One thing we did like: in addition to displaying your DVDs to HD-friendly 720p/1080i resolution, the scaling also works for whatever video source you have plugged in.

The center and tower speakers are bona-fide two-way designs employing two 2.5-inch woofers and a 2.3-inch tweeter; the surround speakers get by with just a single 2.5-inch woofer but no tweeter. The subwoofer has a down-firing 6.75-inch woofer.

Panasonic 2006 HTIBs compared:

Model Quick take Included disc player? Wireless rear speaker? Price
Panasonic SC-HT40 Panasonic's entry-level HTIB.
Best for: bargain hunters who are happy with their existing DVD player.
None Optional
Panasonic SC-HT440 Basically identical to the SC-HT40 but includes a built-in five-disc CD/DVD changer.
Best for: bargain hunters who want a complete home-theater system, including a built-in DVD changer.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Optional
Panasonic SC-HT640W This includes the same receiver/five-disc changer as the SC-HT440, as well as the SH-FX80 wireless rear speaker unit.
Best for: style-conscious buyers who want surround sound with as few wires as possible.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Included
Panasonic SC-HT740 This step-up from the SC-HT440 adds HDMI output and front tower speakers.
Best for: HDTV owners who like tallboy speakers.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Optional
Panasonic SC-HT940 In addition to the HDMI output and the front tower speakers of the SC-HT740, the SC-HT940 adds larger surround (rear) speakers, more power, and HDAVI Control compatibility.
Best for: anyone interested in the SC-HT740 who wants a bit more power and features.
Integrated five-disc CD/DVD changer Optional
Panasonic SC-RT50 The SC-RT50 offers the same speakers and power as the SC-HT940, but it includes a built-in single-disc DVD recorder rather than a five-disc DVD player-only changer.
Best for: video pack rats who enjoy archiving their favorite TV shows--and watching them in surround sound.
Integrated single-disc DVD recorder Optional

Wireless accessories:
Model Quick take Price
Panasonic SH-FX60 Compatible with all of the above home-theater systems (except the SC-HT640W), the SH-FX60 is a wireless module that connects to the two surround speakers in the back of the room, obviating the need to run cables from the system's main head unit to the speakers in the rear of the room.
Panasonic SH-FX80 The SH-FX80 is a relatively compact wireless speaker module that can act as the two surround speakers when paired with a Panasonic home-theater system. It can also be used as a wireless B-speaker system to broadcast audio to a second room. The SH-FX80 is included with the SC-HT640W, but it's compatible with all of Panasonic's 2006 HTIB systems.
Our performance trials started with The Libertine DVD, with Johnny Depp starring as John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. The Panasonic SC-RT-50 placed us in the sweaty theatricality of the DVD; the sound was vivid and loaded with detail. More taxing fare, such as the tried and true Flight of the Phoenix DVD revealed the limitations of the SC-RT50's home-theater talents. The desert plane crash scene lacked the gut-wrenching power we heard from Onkyo's better home-theater systems, such as the HT-S790 ($600). The Onkyo's superiority on the less-demanding scenes weren't as clear cut, but we'd still give the nod to the Onkyo for its greater refinement and power. The sound is simply a lot closer to what we get from a good A/V receiver and a decent speaker system. Of course, the Onkyo doesn't have a DVD recorder, so the comparison isn't totally apples-to-apples.

Moving onto music, the guitars and drums on Yo La Tengo's "Sugarcube" sounded hashy and a little crude. Lacking bass and treble controls, we experimented with the SC-RT50's various EQ settings and turned the subwoofer volume to max, but the thinness of the sound was hard to ignore.

Rock music clearly wasn't cutting it, so we next tried a late-1950s Billie Holiday CD, Songs for Distingué Lovers, and we a little happier with the results. We could hear every note on the stand-up bass, and the piano accompaniment sounded decent. Holiday's vocals were clear and true. Summing up: we imagine most SC-RT50 buyers will be swayed by the DVD recorder because Panasonic's sonics aren't all that exceptional. But unless you really value the space-saving of an all-in-one design, you'd probably be much better served by one of the more affordable sibling models--such as the Panasonic SC-HT940--paired with a nice DVR of your choice.

6.7

Panasonic SC-RT50

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 5