Panasonic Mini Stereo Breaks Stereotypes
By Jim Bray
Since when did the mini stereo become an honest to goodness high
end home stereo?
Well, I suppose it hasn't really but that doesn't mean a
mini system can't offer surprisingly good sound.
Panasonics SC-AK520 is excellent proof of this. To look at
it one might think its just another one of these brawny plastic portables
used traditionally by kids to annoy neighborhoods by pumping boomy and booming
bass. Kind of like a ghetto blaster, but not portable.
I mean, this is not a classy-looking system though of
course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and when I unpacked it and
saw its big plasticy speaker grilles and the in your face cosmetics, I expected
loud, boomy and muddy.
But boy, was I wrong!
This Panasonics sound quality to price ratio blew me away;
it actually offers really good music for a comparative song.
The SC-AK520, the top line model in of Panasonics
NITRIX series of small stereos, sells for a measly $199US (about
$349 Canadian). It offers bi-amplified power to the main speakers (55 watts per
channel to the mid range driver and another 55 watts per channel to the
tweeter) which is a high end feature I never expected to find on what is for
all intents and purposes an entry level system. The dual 6 inch driver
subwoofer receives 160 watts of power. Needless to say, the system rocks,
whether on rock or even delicate classical selections.
The system comes in four pieces: the head unit, two main speakers
and the subwoofer module. The main speakers hook into the head unit via two
sets of wires (thanks to the bi-amping), though I wish it were set up so you
could use your own speaker wire rather than being forced to use the limited
length of cheap stuff thats included with the system. On the other hand,
many people will undoubtedly appreciate the no brainer convenience.
The SC-AK520 also includes a five disc CD/CD-R+RW/MP3 changer,
which is handy but which is also the systems weakest link from an
ergonomic standpoint: you have to insert discs singly into a single tray and
wait for the unit to place them down inside its guts much like an
in-dash car CD player. This isnt a major annoyance, fortunately, and it
does cut down on the units footprint, allowing it to perch better on a
broader variety of shelf spaces.
It also has the requisite AM/FM tuner with 30 presets and dual
feather touch cassette decks. There are no surround sound settings,
so if you want to use this system as the heart of a home theater audio system
you may be disappointed, though you can hook in a DVD players analog
outputs (or any other stereo analog outputs for that matter) via jacks on the
rear panel if you want. Theres no digital audio input.
Using the system is pretty straightforward. Most of what you want
to do can be accomplished easily from the remote control.
The only real complaint I had about the unit was its lack of
flexibility in the tone controls. You get several presets for different types
of music or listening environments (Heavy, Soft, Clear, Disco, Live, Hall), but
you can't tweak the system on your own to tailor it to your actual listening
room. If you could, the result would have been even more satisfying, but as it
stands I thought the sound (especially the bass) to be either too
little or too much.
This is not unexpected from a low end system, of course.
On the other hand, as mentioned above, this beastie shattered
quite a few of my expectations.
But my audio snob-like prejudice against mini systems
seemed well placed when I first hooked up the Panasonic in my living room.
Since I didnt have any spare shelf space at the time, I set the head unit
on the floor with the subwoofer next to it and the main speakers (which should
be set up with the left and right speakers placed correctly so the super
tweeters are aimed properly) on the floor as well, but spread a good
listening distance apart. And it sounded about as I expected: merely okay.
Then common sense came a-callin and I dug up a couple of
metre-tall speaker stands I had on hand just in case this type of emergency
happened and set the main speakers on them. This brought them up to about ear
height when I sat on the couch.
Holy cow! Not only did the quality of the sound take a leap into
the stratosphere, but the soundstage itself (the perceived locations of the
instruments in the listening room) came to wonderful, vibrant life. It blew me
After as much listening as is possible from short loan period, I
came to the conclusion that I wish Panasonic had been making systems like this
when I bought my first stereo back in the early 1970s. On the other hand,
my neighbors at the time would undoubtedly have been none too happy about it:
the SC-AK520 not only plays well, it plays LOUD! Head bangers will love this
Okay, it wasnt enough to make me throw my reference audio
equipment into the back alley (and comparing a $199 Panasonic with a reference
system worth more than $8000 isnt fair to either of them) but it showed
clearly that appearances and price points can be deceiving.
Would this unit work as a bedroom stereo? Indubitably, though if
you're only looking for soft music to drift off to sleep by you'd be wasting
this systems rockin the room capabilities. It's best
use is as a primary stereo in a living room or family room environment where
you have the space and the inclination to let it howl with abandon. It'd excel
in the garage or workshop, too.
A couple of minor downsides include the fact that the speakers
arent magnetically shielded, so you won't want to place them too close to
a television lest you put purple splotchies over the picture. And while there
are inputs for AM and FM antennae, theres no specific input for cable, so
if you listen to radio stations via your cable provider you'll have to fudge an
adapter. This probably won't bother most urban users, however.
All in all, I can't get over how surprised and impressed I was by
the audio quality of Panasonics SC-AK520 mini system. It offers an
excellent combination of audio quality and value.
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