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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.
Each statuesque speaker is home to smallish 2.5-inch woofers and a tweeter. The center uses four 2-inch woofers and a 1-inch tweeter. The sub houses a 6.75-inch woofer as well as all the ST1's power amplifiers. While the sub's amp pumps out 130 watts, the front- and rear-channel amps deliver just 27 watts each; the center's amp is at 62 watts. Those ratings are substantially lower than those of most other kits in the ST1's price class.
The opening battle on the Gangs of New York DVD demonstrated the ST1's best abilities. The fierce hand-to-hand combat, the body thuds, and the clang of metal on metal were all impressively rendered. Later in the movie, Bill the Butcher's knife-throwing scene sounded amazing; we could hear the blades slamming into the wood. The ST1 earned its keep on that disc--the audio was very bright and up-front.
The Ring is a seriously weird DVD, and we love the scene in which a horse breaks out of its stall and frantically gallops around the stable. The primal sounds were so vivid they had us gasping for air. However, as we continued to spend time with the ST1, we noted that dialogue consistently lacked body--it was much too lean for our tastes.
That said, this system is better suited to movies than music. Acoustic-jazz CDs were pleasant, but stand-up basses were rather boomy. Elvis Costello's Cruel Smile CD sounded strained even before we reached party levels, with particularly aggressive and harsh vocals. Too often, those big towers performed like itty-bitty satellites, and the sub's deep-bass extension and power were only fair. A lot of our DVD-Audio discs came across as anemic; even with the sub turned up to maximum, the sound was irritatingly thin. We're guessing, but it seemed like the ST1 wasn't accurately redirecting bass from the main channels to the subwoofer.
The ST1 simply lacks the sonic gravitas of the far less sexy Onkyo kits, such as the HT-S667C. Like Sony's style-centric Dream systems, this lovely Panasonic comes up short if you're looking for naturally balanced sound. The ST1's looks-over-performance limitations are a bigger concern with music than movies, so they'll affect some listeners more than others.