The Panasonic SC-BT330 Blu-ray home-cinema kit aims to deliver realistic surround sound and high-definition images in your living room. If your wish list for a home-entertainment hub extends to such delights as Internet video, iPod playback and DLNA networking, then the SC-BT330 will prove even more appealing. The SC-BT330 is available now for around £450.
Most manufacturers strive to create eye-catching home-cinema kits, but Panasonic has opted for a simple, fuss-free design that almost melts into the background. The main unit looks like any bog-standard Blu-ray or DVD player. The tall left and right speakers, and small centre and rear speakers are totally unimposing. The speakers are solidly built and have drivers made from bamboo, which, according to Panasonic, is better suited to delivering dialogue than wood.
Only the glossy passive subwoofer stands out, but it's meant to be placed out of sight anyway. This is a system designed to be heard and not seen. It aims to satisfy those members of the household who enjoy proper surround sound as much as those who loathe the presence of technological hardware and its associated cables and leads.
If you want to avoid unsightly cables running across the floor to the rear speakers, you can buy a £100 SH-FX71 transmitter and make them wireless. You could also keep the rear speakers wired and then invest in another pair of wireless ones so that you end up with a 7.1-channel system. You can also get virtual 7.1-channel surround sound from a 5.1-channel configuration.
There are two types of video output -- HDMI and composite. The latter is used for watching iPod and iPhone videos. The HDMI also offers an audio-return channel, which means it's possible to enjoy your TV's audio output through the speakers so long as it has an HDMI 1.4 port with an audio-return channel. Dual optical audio inputs will suffice for sources such as a games console.
The iPod dock is tidily built into the main unit, located under a flap on the top. A flap on the front of the unit is home to an SD-card slot and USB socket. Other multimedia options include the Viera Cast online platform and DLNA-networking capability.
Although the Blu-ray player supports profile 2.0, Panasonic hasn't provided any built-in flash memory. To take advantage of streamed BD-Live content, therefore, you must provide at least 1GB of memory via an SD card. This is rather cheap of Panasonic.
Setting up the system is child's play. Everything snaps together quickly and easily. A speaker-set-up microphone and a smart set-up wizard take the pain out of making fine adjustments to speaker levels and picture-output settings.
The menu system isn't particularly enjoyable to use, though. The graphics are outdated and the folder structure isn't always logical. At least very little tinkering is required.
Pictures that please
The picture quality is excellent for a system of this type. Images are finely detailed, even in darker areas. Colours are accurate too, including tricky reds and skin tones. Standard-definition material on DVD also scrubs up well, and it's only the abysmal composite video connection for watching iPod movies that disappoints.
The Viera Cast online offering, including Picasa and YouTube, works well enough, but the meagre selection of portals is hard to get excited about. If BBC iPlayer were included, we'd be more enthusiastic.
The sound quality isn't in the same league as the SC-BT330's Blu-ray pictures, but it's by no means bad for a kit of this kind. The best results can be heard when listening to high-resolution audio formats such as DTS-HD MA on Blu-ray. The bamboo works its magic, as dialogue is clear and remains distinct even against noisy backgrounds.
Surround-sound effects are steered accurately across the sound stage and the subwoofer does a decent job of providing plenty of bass without swamping the rest of the audio. Having said that, there's an overriding rasping quality to the sound that gets more pronounced as you increase the volume. It's best to keep the sound levels low, but that's often not what you want when you're watching a movie.
The Panasonic SC-BT330 is more versatile than most home-cinema kits. It's a cinch to set up and use, excels in the critical area of picture quality, and is capable of delivering some pretty decent surround sound. Just don't turn it up too loud.
Edited by Charles Kloet