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.
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.High Points:
• The HTB20's build quality and versatility out of the box is among its greatest attributes, all for around $200 retail.
The HTB20 ability to be both a soundbar and a discrete pair of stereo
loudspeakers puts it in a class with few competitors. It also makes it
easier to integrate into a wider variety of homes and/or setups.
The subwoofer, while not wireless, does play the role of a basic AV
receiver, meaning those with one or two source systems needn't look
elsewhere in terms of ancillary equipment for maximum enjoyment.
Once the bass is properly dialed in, the HTB20's overall sound is rather
good and a worthwhile improvement and investment over stock TV speakers
or even some budget-oriented home theater loudspeakers.
• Setting up and living with the HTB20 is so easy, even a caveman could do it.
Inexperienced users may not fiddle with the subwoofer's level long
enough to get the most out of its performance and could therefore write
off the HTB20's sound as bass-heavy or boomy.
• One more HDMI input
would make the HTB20 a no-brainer, all-in-one solution for those truly
looking to maximize their home theater efficiency.
Competition and Comparison
soundbar market is hotter than ever and, while I consider the HTB20
superior to many of its rivals, it is not the only soundbar that can
pull of an Optimus Prime-inspired transformation. Samsung's HW-E551
Audio Bar Home Theater System is
essentially the same as the Panasonic HTB20 in their target markets,
though Samsung takes things a bit further by using high-grade materials,
as well as adding Bluetooth connectivity. The Samsung option costs more
at $419.99 retail, or double what the Panasonic will run you. For more
on these soundbars and others, please visit Home Theater Review's
must admit, I didn't have high hopes for Panasonic's new roughly $200
HTB20 soundbar system. That was my mistake. For what it is, the HTB20 is
quite good. As a $200 upgrade to any HDTV purchase, the HTB20 doesn't
disappoint and is worth every penny. I have a dedicated home theater,
and yet I have kept the HTB20 hooked up just for casual viewing or
listening when I don't want to fire up all the equipment or go through
all the pageantry required for big-time movie watching. The HTB20 isn't
going to replace or even approach the performance of a dedicated or
semi-dedicated home theater, but that's not its intent. For that, you'll
have to shop around and look at soundbars costing over a grand. What
the Panasonic HTB20 is best at doing is playing a supporting role to
your favorite television and movie soundtracks without taking a huge
bite out of your budget.