I've been reviewing a fair amount of soundbars as of late
and, with each one, I gain a greater appreciation of what they bring to the table in terms of overall enjoyment for those consumers who are interested in home theater, but lacking financial, technical and/or physical resources for a full sound system. Almost every soundbar is a worthwhile investment and upgrade over stock TV speakers in some way. True, some are better than others, some less expensive, while others cost as much or more than their discrete loudspeaker counterparts. Regardless of which soundbar you purchase, doing so is a step in the right direction. Case in point: Panasonic's new SC-HTB20 (HTB20) soundbar system
, which at $229.99 retail represents a rather phenomenal value, not to mention a clever piece of kit. Additional Resources
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The HTB20 is, at first glance, a two-piece soundbar/satellite subwoofer combo. However, upon closer inspection, you realize that the soundbar is actually comprised of two discrete loudspeakers that are merely joined together via a plastic bracket system. This discrete loudspeaker design allows the HTB20 to act as either a traditional soundbar or as a pair of stereo loudspeakers flanking either side of your chosen HDTV. That's pretty cool. What's even cooler is that Panasonic gives you all the requisite hardware in the box to fully take advantage of the speakers' various configurations. In its soundbar configuration, the horizontally-configured setup measures nearly 30 inches wide by two inches tall by a little over two inches deep, weighing a total of three pounds. In its discrete two-channel configuration, each speaker (with stands) measures roughly five inches wide by 17 inches tall and five inches deep, each weighing one-and-a-half pounds. Remove the stands and mount the speakers individually on your wall, and you can expect depth to decrease to roughly two inches all round, with their individual weight remaining largely the same. As for the subwoofer, it measures seven inches wide by 16 inches tall and 12 inches deep, at a weight of 12 pounds. Both the soundbar and the subwoofer are finished in a mixture of gloss and matte black plastics that look stylish and somewhat upscale for a product that can retail for less than $200 on the street.
The speakers themselves feature a single full-range driver that measures one-and-three-eighths inches wide by four inches tall, which is good for a racetrack-like oval shape. The speakers are not powered, instead relying on drawing their necessary 65 watts from a dedicated amplifier resting in the subwoofer. As for the subwoofer, it features a six-and-a-half-inch downward-firing driver in a bass-reflex cabinet configuration. The subwoofer driver is powered by its own internal 110-watt amplifier. Because the subwoofer acts as the brains of the operation, it houses more than the soundbar's amplifier and binding posts. It also features AV inputs and outputs, which include a single HDMI input and an HDMI out, as well as dual optical audio inputs that bring the HTB20's total input count to three. If you are a user with only one or two sources, the HTB20 may be all the AV receiver
you need to get by. Manual control over the system's power, volume and input selection are located on the top front edge of the subwoofer cabinet, with the remote providing further, more comprehensive control.
Because the HTB20 has an HDMI
input and output, it is capable of accepting and passing through not only a 1080p signal, but also a 3D one, complete with an Audio Return Channel (ARC). It has support for Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Virtual Speaker and DTS audio formats - sorry, no Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio here. It can also accept and downmix up to 7.1 channels of Linear PCM audio via its HDMI input.
In terms of sound quality, once you've found the subwoofer's sweet spot with regard to its levels, the whole system sounds surprisingly good for what it is. Out of the box, the sub is very boomy and rather sluggish on the attack as a result. My recommendation for curbing this effect is to turn the sub all the way down via the system remote, and then bring it back up one click at a time until it doesn't sound like a sub. Instead, it should sound like the left and right speakers, or the soundbar, has become more or less full-range. This will keep it from sounding boomy in most situations, minus the occasional infomercial or non HD/Dolby broadcast, though it won't give you pants-wetting bass, either. For more output, you'll need to pump up the jams, so to speak, but you'll lose coherence in the process. In truth, finding the subwoofer's happy point is the biggest trick in extracting the most out of the HTB20 system. Once dialed in, the overall performance of the HTB20 is rather impressive. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, even without the added dialogue enhancement feature engaged. The system can play to room-filling volumes without a lot of distortion at the extremes. I did prefer the system configured as two discrete loudspeakers over a single soundbar, for I found that the former cast a slightly larger sound field with more natural separation, while still retaining a solid center image. For music listening, this was by far and away the best configuration. Is the HTB20 going to upset a dedicated multi-channel setup, even one of modest budgetary means? No, but I can't think of any multi-channel setup, HTIBs included, that retail for $200. Factor in the cost of associated equipment and you begin to see how the HTB20 becomes a greater value for those wanting to get more out of their favorite programming or Blu-rays without fully committing to or having to accommodate an actual home theater setup.
Read about the high points and low points of the Panasonic HTB20 on Page 2.