Sadly, speakers aren't invisible, so most people just can't abide the idea of having six or eight of them scattered around their living room in order to get a full surround-sound experience. As such, home-cinema audio systems with just three speakers are a very popular compromise. With a built-in 7.1-channel virtual surround-sound system and Blu-ray player, will Panasonic's £450 SC-BTX70 prove less of a compromise than its rivals?
Once we'd got the SC-BTX70 set up -- a reassuringly straightforward procedure -- it immediately struck us that it's a very curious-looking system. It just doesn't seem to hang together. The left and right speakers don't look like they're particularly close friends with the startlingly slim main section that houses the Blu-ray player, and the subwoofer looks comparatively cheap and nasty. This is really disappointing given how stylish so many other home-cinema systems look these days.
The only genuinely appealing aspect of the SC-BTX70's appearance is that the 85mm-deep Blu-ray component has a vertical disc tray, meaning it can be stood upright, or perhaps mounted on a wall, together with a slim TV.
The SC-BTX70 pulls up its socks with its specification, though. Its virtual surround-sound processing aims to deliver from 2.1-channel speakers the audio impact of the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio codecs now found on a growing number of Blu-rays. There are also additional small speakers on top of the main ones, in an attempt to expand the system's effective sound stage.
The SC-BTX70 also sports a built-in and universal iPod docking station, tucked behind a motorised door. Via this dock you can play any content stored on your iPod on your TV. Multimedia fanatics will be pleased to note that the system can play JPEG photos, MPEG-4 and DivX videos, and MP3 music files via USB, as well as JPEGs and AVCHD and MPEG-2 videos via an SD card.
Using the built-in Ethernet port, provided predominantly for accessing Blu-ray's BD-Live online features, you can also exploit the system's Viera Cast compatibility. The amount of content on Panasonic's ring-fenced portion of the Internet is still too low to make it a particularly thrilling addition to the SC-BTX70's feature list -- it essentially comprises just Eurosport, YouTube and Picasa. But the service could be expanded in the future.
Despite the claimed 7.1-channel virtual audio system, the best part of the SC-BTX70's performance is its picture quality. Blu-rays are handled with scintillating levels of sharpness and detail, colours are explosively dynamic yet also completely natural and subtle when necessary, and there seems to be hardly any unnecessary video noise whatsoever.
The SC-BTX70's pictures are so good that it comes as little surprise to discover that it features pretty much all the key technology of Panasonic's extremely well-received stand-alone Blu-ray players, including PHL Reference Chroma Processor, and the P4HD chipset for advanced processing of HD sources right down to the individual pixel level.
The SC-BTX70's video-processing capability also means it does a superior job of upscaling DVDs to HD, should you wish to watch anything that's not HD once you've fallen in love with what Blu-ray can do.
When it comes to the SC-BTX70's audio, we have to say that, no matter how clever a processing system you have, 2.1-channel speakers just cannot deliver the same surround-sound experience as a full set of 7.1-channel speakers. In our opinion, the SC-BTX70's audio processing doesn't deliver any more convincing a surround-sound performance than the much more common 5.1-channel virtual surround-sound engines employed by numerous other 2.1-channel systems. In fact, we preferred the SC-BTX70's sound with the 7.1-channel processing turned off. The sound stage appears more precise, less sibilant and generally more convincing that way.
With this in mind, if you buy the SC-BTX70 on account of its non-audio charms, you'll probably also have to factor in the cost of adding rear speakers. Panasonic suggests using the SB-HSX70 rear speakers and SH-FX70 wireless-transmission kit, but that will add about £150 to what's already a fairly expensive piece of kit.
The SC-BTX70 at least sounds good when playing back CDs, and it does a decent job of making iPod tracks sound like music, rather than compressed digital mush. We're also pleased to say that the flimsy-looking subwoofer holds its own in a movie mix, co-ordinating with the other two speakers very well.
The space-saving Panasonic SC-BTX70 is capable of performing pretty well as a stereo home-cinema and music system. But its virtual surround-sound processing isn't convincing enough to justify its price tag when you can get other solid 2.1-channel systems for considerably less, or LG's superb 5.1-channel surround-sound HB954PB system for only about £50 more.
Edited by Charles Kloet