In recent years, Panasonic's home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems have delivered a solid combination of technical sophistication, attractive (if somewhat pedestrian) design, and good value. The Panasonic SC-HT940 delivers on each count: a built-in DVD changer with an HDMI output for upscaling DVDs to an HDTV-friendly 720p/1080i resolution, adjustable-height front tower speakers, and an affordable list price of $500, with a street price well below that. You can even eliminate the front-to-back speaker wires with the addition of a companion wireless speaker transceiver accessory. Yes, the system's connectivity suite might be a little too minimalist for some buyers, and the sound quality won't woo discerning audiophiles, but it's certainly competitive with similarly priced HTIBs.
The main housing of the Panasonic SC-HT940 comprises a combination receiver/DVD changer that's highlighted by a distinctive back-illuminated, aqua-ringed volume control. The changer's carousel tray glides open with unusual grace, and the 15 seconds it took to swap a disc was a bit faster than average. We noted that the internal mechanical noises and gyrations were hushed, and the rear-mounted cooling fan was whisper quiet. The head unit is 17 inches wide and deep and just 2.75 inches high; that's a slightly smaller-than-average footprint for a DVD-changer HTIB.
The front left and right tower speakers can be wall mounted or attached to the included stands (they're almost 40 inches tall sans stands). The metal and plastic stands require assembly, but we had both screwed together in about 10 minutes. Once the front speakers are stand mounted, you can vary their height between 45 and 53 inches. The center speaker is a lot smaller--just 12.5 inches wide--and the surrounds stand a mere 10.5 inches tall. All the speakers can be wall mounted with the keyhole slots on their back panels. The all-plastic subwoofer grabs the most floor space: it's 9.25 inches wide, 17.5 tall, and 15.5 deep. The entire ensemble is finished in silver plastic.
System setup is a mostly straightforward process. Even before we adjusted the balances of all the speakers, the sound was pretty good, but toggling the HDMI DVD output to 720p or 1080i required reading--and rereading--the manual to find the obscure submenu needed to make the change. The remote, meanwhile, has the same unusually large and legible labeling found on all of Panasonic's new DVD products, so it's easier to use in a darkened home theater than most HTIB remotes.
The Panasonic SC-HT940's receiver/changer digital amplifier delivers 120 watts per channel to the front left/right speakers, 60 watts per to the surround speakers, and 250 watts each to the center speaker and subwoofer, for 1,200 watts total. If those ratings seem wildly optimistic for an 11-pound receiver/DVD player, that's because they probably are--using the more conservative FTC standards, we pegged the system at 860 watts, which is still plenty loud. Surround processing modes cover the usual Dolby Digital and DTS surround options.
The system's five-disc changer can accept just about every common video and audio disc format; in addition to standard DVDs and audio CDs, you can spin DVD-Audio discs; HDCDs; all home-burned DVD formats, including DVD-RAM; and CD-R/RWs, even those with MP3, JPEG, and WMA files.
The HDMI video connection is the highlight of the SC-HT940's otherwise skimpy connectivity suite. Yes, there's the usual complement of S-Video, as well as composite- and component-video outputs you'd find on every DVD player, but the system has no video inputs. That means--unlike with even a bargain A/V receiver--you won't be able to switch video sources such as a cable box, a video game console, or your old VCR; you'll have to hook them up directly to your TV instead. Rear-panel inputs are limited to just two stereo analog inputs but not even one digital input. On the upside, while the SC-HT940 doesn't have an iPod dock per se, the front-panel-mounted Music Port (a fancy name for a minijack input) lets you can hook up an iPod or MP3 player's headphone jack so that you can hear your portable's music through the HTIB's big speakers.
The system is also HDAVI compatible--that means it can pass control options to and from connected devices (most likely a TV) that are similarly compatible. We didn't have an HDAVI TV on hand to test the capability, but we'd seen it demonstrated previously. When properly configured, it can allow tighter integration between components--automatically switching a TV to the correct input and video presets when you pop in a DVD, for instance.
The towers and center speaker feature double 2.5-inch woofers and a single 2.4-inch tweeter; the surround speakers make do with a single 2.5-inch woofer; and the subwoofer has a 6.75-inch woofer.