Panasonic obviously had plasma TVs in mind when it conceived the SC-ST1's high-tech look. This elegant $999 system consists of four slender towers; an exceedingly diminutive center speaker; a powered subwoofer; and a sleek, pedestal-mounted receiver/DVD player. The attractive appearance comes at the expense of power and sound quality, however. If you want a similarly sexy design with better sound and a much lower price tag, consider Panasonic's SC-HT900 instead.
Each 42-inch-tall tower, dubbed a tall boy, comes in three separate pieces: a plastic speaker cabinet, a stand, and a circular metal base. With so many elements, the physical setup of the ST1 takes time, but everything fit together without a hitch. You could, alternatively, wall-mount any or all of the speakers. We placed them on the stands, ran all the wires, and had the ST1 playing DVDs in just less than an hour. The subwoofer is the bulkiest component; it's 6.5 inches wide, 17.5 inches high, and 16.75 inches deep. Its unrelenting plastic feel seemed out of place in the $1,000 kit.
The disc-loading system is very cool: the player's vertical tray glides open, you drop in a CD or a DVD and hit Play, and the machine swallows the disc. All our MP3 test selections played and displayed file information, and the ST1 wasn't the least bit finicky about spinning DVD-Rs, DVD-RWs, DVD+Rs, DVD+RWs, and DVD-RAMs.
The controls of the stand-mounted, 42-inch-tall receiver are on top, but they're not illuminated, and we were always hitting the wrong button. We lost track of how many times we accidentally turned off the power. The small display is on the front panel. A second one on top would have been helpful; we constantly had to bend over or step back to see what was going on.
Of course, we mostly relied on the snazzy-looking remote, but we never did fully adjust to its less-than-intuitive button layout.
Considering its premium price, this system doesn't dazzle you with its features. The receiver's surround-processing modes are bare-bones: just standard Dolby Digital and Pro Logic (no Pro Logic II), along with 5.1 DTS. The ST1 even lacks the typical basic bass and treble adjustments. The four-step subwoofer-level control is the only way to fine-tune the ST1's sound.
Yes, the ST1 has DVD-Audio capability and component-video outputs, but the HT900 gives you those for half the price. Connectivity options are awfully scarce: just two sets of stereo inputs, alongside composite, progressive-scan component, and S-Video outputs.