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.
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.
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.