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Panasonic SC-RT50 review: Panasonic SC-RT50

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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.

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