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Panasonic Home Theater

Panasonic Home Theater - Bang in a Box?

Convenience Vs Performance?

by Jim Bray

Buying a home theater doesn't have to be difficult or outrageously expensive.

In fact, it doesn't even have to require a lot of thought. An increasing number of manufacturers now offer simple, "all-in-one" solutions for people who want a home theater, but who aren't into it enough to justify a lot of research or a lot of money.

These are the "home theaters in a box," and they can be a reasonable compromise.

I've been playing with Panasonic's SC-HT290D, though for some strange reason its DVD player comes in a separate box from the rest, so I guess it doesn't really qualify as a true "home theater in a box." Selling for about $800, it includes a 5 disc DVD changer, a 100 watt x 6 receiver, five identical speakers for the main channels and a passive subwoofer to up the "oomph" factor.

Being a video snob, I probably wouldn't buy this system, but I know many people who'd be perfectly happy with its combination of performance and convenience. It isn't going to beat a multi-thousand dollar set of separate components, but it will make a decent home theater for those who don't live and breathe this stuff.

The SC-HT290D comes with all of the features the average person is likely to want. Its receiver decodes Dolby Digital and DTS audio, which makes it compatible with just about any DVD you can imagine, as well as offering such common features as an AM/FM tuner, simulated surround sound effects (including Hall, Club, Live, Theater and Simulated Surround) and a universal remote control that operates the DVD player and can operate other components, like a TV or VCR.

Three digital inputs (two optical and one coaxial) accept digital signals from sources such as your DVD player, TV or CD player. This could give added longevity to your purchase because, while there aren't a lot of TV's or CD players with digital outputs, they'll probably come as technology marches onward.

The receiver can accept three separate video and three audio inputs, so it'll take everything you're likely to throw at it except for a turntable (remember them?).

Not much accepts turntables these days…

The five disc carousel DVD player has that "disc exchange" feature that lets you swap the four discs that aren't playing even though one is playing. You probably won't be sitting down for a marathon five movie session very often, but a five disc changer is particularly handy for programming an evening of compact disc enjoyment.

The player uses an optical connector (which is included) to hook into the receiver.

Hookup is pretty straightforward, thanks to good labeling and a short "quick guide" to getting the system up and running. The actual day to day operation isn't quite as straightforward, but that's more because the abundance of features makes a trip or two through the main owner's manual a recommended procedure. As with most things electronic these days, there are a lot of features on tap, many of which you may never use, so there is a bit of a learning curve.

One thing I never did figure out was how to play a DTS soundtrack on a DVD. I followed the instructions carefully, more than once, and I even cussed a few choice phrases, but eventually gave up. This could have been a flaw in my sample (or my gray matter) but despite it being unfortunate it certainly wasn't the end of the world. DTS is gravy at best.

Why? Well, pretty well every DVD with DTS also has Dolby Digital and, while DTS is argued (by some who are into such things) as offering superior audio, I would defy most people to notice the difference - or care about it - on a system such as this.

The remote control isn't the most intuitive on earth, but that's a common failure and this Panasonic is no worse than most. The problem comes from offering so many features on a unit that's about the size of a telephone handset…

The overall sound of the system is clean and clear, though the passive subwoofer doesn't shake the walls as well as a real, powered subwoofer would. Still, it's more than adequate for the price.

And "more than adequate" is undoubtedly just right for the market at which this system is aimed.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.

 

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Updated May 13, 2006