With the soundbar market exploding, Panasonic hopes its hybrid 2.1 system can catch your eye
Towards the end of 2012, data analyst GfK released its figures for the consumer electronics soundbar market in the UK. The numbers were extraordinary. Sales had rocketed by 172 per cent in a year, with value up by 120 per cent. Eight out of ten of those sold were supplied with a matching subwoofer, around half offered some form of multimedia hookup (a built-in dock or wireless streaming) and 70 per cent retailed between £100 and £300. The reason is simple - slimline designer TVs have become renowned for their less-than-brilliant sonic prowess.
Panasonic, of course, makes such TVs, but isn't prepared to let sound specialists like Orbitsound or JBL dominate the growing soundbar market. Its SC-HTB570, auditioned here, arrives with a wireless subwoofer and integrated Bluetooth, so hits those popular consumer requirements. Its retail price is around £50 more than the GfK sweetspot, however, making it more expensive than the likes of Samsung's HW-E450.
Buyers do get more than just a soundbar/sub combi, though. Part of the Panasonic's appeal is that the 'bar element can actually be split into two pieces, which can then be stood vertically, either side of your TV, for a more traditional stereo effect and look.
The system arrives in a single box, and setup does require some effort. Once everything is unwrapped, debagged and unfurled, you're left with a living room littered with plastic and polystyrene and a number of components.
The largest, of course, is the subwoofer. An upright design, it incorporates a downward-firing 6.25in driver, sited next to a bass reflex port, and is raised off the floor by a plastic base. Within its guts lurks a 120W amplifier. The woofer feels rather lightweight, but in its silver livery looks quite natty.
Then there is the soundbar itself. Coming in two parts, you'll need to either fasten them together with the supplied bracket for a horizontal installation, or attach them to their stands for a vertical array. They're very slender, and sport a trio of drivers – a midbass, tweeter and super-tweeter. The speaker(s) attach via the supplied wire to the control unit, which looks like a small-scale BD player but, of, course, doesn't have a disc drive.
The control unit offers two optical audio inputs, an HDMI input and an ARC-compatible HDMI out. This, to me, seems like the right way to go about things - I'm still baffled by soundbars, often more expensive, that eschew HDMI altogether.
I began with the SC-HTB570 in its soundbar form, with a BD player plumbed in via HDMI and its output connected to my screen via ARC. Control is handled by a small remote, with buttons for the Bluetooth link mode, input selection, subwoofer level, dialogue level, overall volume and sound mode. In tandem with the Panasonic's head unit, operation isn't the smoothest as you're reliant on some very, very, small green LEDs to keep you informed. When changing sound mode, for instance, I actually had to get off my sofa and waddle over to see which one I was selecting.
Slight control niggles aside, the SC-HTB570 proves to be a solid performer, with an easy-on-the-ear sound that's so much better than my TV's own speakers it hurts.
With TV material, the Panasonic 'bar/sub combi adds obvious body to everything from Homes Under the Hammer to Test Match cricket on Sky Sports. Dialogue comes across clean without being harsh, and there's a great synergy between the bar's driver array and the wireless subwoofer (which paired with the main unit without me even noticing). Low frequencies therefore seem part of a whole package, rather than arriving from a different planet. The sub only has four levels; I found the second and third highest to be preferable.
Taking the woofer out of proceedings illustrates how much work it is doing. The soundbar's speakers are only rated down to 100Hz (-10dB) and it shows. Their high-frequency detailing is the strong point, with the upper-midrange lacking a bit of verve.
Switching to the Blu-ray of Fast Five and its overwrought DTS-HD MA mix finds the Panasonic eager to play ball. The squealing tyres and high-revved engines of the opening breakout sequence ride high on an impressive series of low-frequency thumps. Flicking between the various sound modes yields nothing but very subtle variations - apart from the 'News' setting, which totally robs the soundstage of any real impact - and none magic up any authentic surround action.
There's width here, though, with left-to-right panning effects working well. Splitting the 'bar into two vertical speakers can obviously widen the soundfield further, but aesthetically I prefer the horizontal option, as each speaker only comes up about half as high as my 50in screen, and looks a bit incongruous.
In terms of scale, the SC-HTB570 is obviously no match for a full-size multichannel array, but run amok with the rubbery volume buttons on the handset and it will make you smile. For a living room environment, it offers more than enough grunt.
There is room for improvement - a USB for audio playback might please some, the remote could really do with individual buttons for the various sound modes and I wouldn't mind user-adjustable EQ. Then again, many won't want to tweak its audio, as out of the box this system proves rather delightful.
Price: £350 Approx
Highs: Effective wireless subwoofer; two different setup options; HDMI passthrough; Bluetooth music streaming; pleasing audio
Lows: Tiny LEDs on control unit; design won't suit all tastes; surround modes offer little
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