Panasonic SC-HTB880 Soundbar Review
Low profile but high specc'd
What is the SC-HTB880?It’s a soundbar, that’s what, and it comes with a separate wireless subwoofer unit for meatier bass performance. The HTB880 sits atop Panasonic’s current crop of soundbar and sound base products and boasts six channels of audio, for a more authentic surround experience, 4K Ultra HD and 3D video pass-through, as well as NFC and Bluetooth amongst its headlining features.
Who is it aimed at?
Clearly it’s for those people dissatisfied with the performance of their TVs speakers and have an interest in surround sound but don’t want to go the full Monty with a true 5.1/7.1 channel system, for whatever reason. With a manufacturer's recommended price (October 2014) touching £600, this product is toward the top of the mainstream soundbar tree, in terms of cost, so obviously you’ll need to be reasonably serious about your home AV to consider it.
Panasonic SC-HTB880: DesignIf there’s one thing that gets this reviewers’ goat when it comes to assessing a soundbar used in conjunction with the latest low-slung flat panel TVs, it’s the fact that the speaker bar can often obscure the bottom edge of the screen. We lay the blame more at the feet of the TV manufacturers here – ironically, many of whom are in the soundbar market too – for not considering the issue but at least Panasonic has given it some thought with the HTB880’s ‘Delta Form’ design. It all sounds a bit Chuck Norris but it works and with a height of just 51mm, it’s pretty safe to pair with any TV out there. It also has a reasonably small footprint, with a depth of 121mm so most won’t have any issues table-mounting on an AV unit.
The design should mean it won't hide your screen
Panasonic SC-HTB880: ConnectionsJust in case the speaker does obscure your TV's infra-red receiver, thus blocking out the commands from the remote, Panasonic thoughtfully includes an IR repeater in the box which you affix to the back of the soundbar somewhere in the region of your TV's sensor. The simplest way to hook up is if your TV supports ARC (Audio Return Channel) through any of its HDMI outputs. You can then run one HDMI cable to the TV's appropriate input and everything connected to the TV will then send audio to the soundbar. This will also mean you can use the TV's remote to control volume on the HTB880 too.
The downside of this approach with this particular product is that multi-channel sources, e.g. Blu-ray players or games consoles, are likely to have their audio down-mixed to 2.0 stereo, so you won’t fully be taking advantage of the 5.1 driver configuration.
In those instances we’d advise connecting them directly to one of the two HDMI inputs on the soundbar, although this can look a bit messy, cables-wise. For TVs lacking HDMI and/or ARC, your next best bet is to use the S/PDIF (Toslink) Digital audio output from your TV into the corresponding input on the 880. Failing that, you’re pretty much goosed, as far as this product goes, as it has no stereo inputs – not even a 3.5mm jack, which is unusual.
Panasonic SC-HTB880: Setup and UseBy now, at least, you know how to get the HTB880 connected, so now all that remains is placement and control. The system is almost equally at home in a table-top configuration as it is a wall-mounted one. There are wall-mounting brackets and screws inside the box and the SC-HTB880 has a setting to dictate which orientation it is in and will adjust its sound projection accordingly. There is an advantage in the upright, wall-mounted position in that you can actually read the display panel when in use; trying to see it from a typical seated position, in its table-top format, you’ll probably have to get off your backside, which is not what you want. Samsung has overcome this issue in a number of their soundbars by equipping a dual display and we think Panasonic should consider following that lead.
The supplied remote control is quite small but it’s better than the typical credit card style jobs we typically see bundled with a soundbar. In form, it looks something like an inverted gravestone but it contains enough convenient dedicated buttons to be useful. It probably could have used buttons for some for the various sound modes on offer - and another for fixing lip-sync issues - as using the menu system, which reports only via the (often difficult to read) display isn’t the most intuitive experience. It’s an old fashioned scroll and toggle affair and we wonder if Panasonic might also consider providing a video user interface option, for those connecting via HDMI.
The remote app is good, even allowing for an ad-hoc multi-room set up.
Panasonic SC-HTB880: FeaturesThe SC-HTB880 is compatible with Panasonic’s Music Stream app which is quite a convenient tool. It can be used with any DLNA server on your home network and can also communicate via Bluetooth too. The app also supports Qualcomm’s AllPlay technology, which is capable of creating a multi-room wireless audio system from any assembled compatible products, so you can mix and match brands, with up to as many as 10 devices able to be added and control them from your Android or Apple smartphone or tablet. Additionally, the SC-HTB880 can establish a Bluetooth connection instantaneously using NFC (Near Field Communication) by simply tapping the equipped smartphone or tablet against the tag mounted on the extreme left edge of the speaker bar.
Panasonic HTB880 Video Review
Panasonic SC-HTB880: Sound QualityThe low-slung nature of the HTB880’s design meant we were paying particular attention to its vertical sound projection. In other words, we had some concerns that audio may sound as if it was coming from the bottom of the screen, rather than the centre. Thankfully that’s not the case, with the SC-HTB880 presenting well anchored dialogue and generally quite a spacious sound.
Unusually, the various sound processing modes are all very distinct but we couldn’t really recommend anything other than using ‘Stereo’ for two channel sources. The 3D sound modes, in particular, we didn’t find very successful but the system's handling of multichannel Dolby Digital and DTS sources was more impressive. We couldn’t say that it was like having a real 5.1/7.1 system in the room but each channel was distinct and Panasonic’s engineers have made a good job of projecting the ‘surrounds’ to at least give some impression of depth.
The sub provides good authority
We did sometimes find the system slightly unforgiving of lesser sources, which on the plus side translates to good transparency but in day to day use, that would also mean we’d pick up on some microphone hiss or certain TV programmes sounded a bit flat and lacking any real dynamism. That’s not really the fault of the HTB880, per se, but we’ve heard some competing systems that are more accommodating.
Aside from with multichannel movie and TV soundtracks, where this Panasonic really shone was in its delivery of music – at least relative to other soundbars in this class. Sonics were rich and deep, thanks in no small part to a well-measured performance of the subwoofer which underpinned just about everything with authority, without overly dominating the mix. You are likely to need to experiment with placement of the sub as it does tend to be a bit boomy when in close proximity to a wall but the effort will be worth it once you’ve found the sweet spot.
- Low profile design is good
- Sounds great with multichannel sources
- Music reproduction is nice
- Plenty of connectivity options
- Unforgiving with lower quality sources
- Display is hard to read when table-mounted
Panasonic SC-HTB880 Soundbar Review
Should I buy one?
This system certainly makes a pretty strong case for itself, in many respects. For multichannel movies and stereo music, it sounds really good. The low profile design is also winning and overcomes the thorny issue of the speaker bar obscuring the screen; the inclusion of an IR repeater is also a sound idea and the HTB880 is immensely well connected with two HDMI inputs, one HDMI out for ARC plus Bluetooth streaming for your smartphone, tablet or PC. It can be a bit harsh on lower quality sources, however, and it’s not the easiest to operate, in its table-top formation, where the display panel location makes it hard to see. It’s a good system, certainly, but when compared to other similarly priced solutions, it maybe doesn’t quite justify the entry fee.
What else is there?
There are dozens of alternatives in this market. If a six hundred(ish) pound soundbar is something you’re willing to shell out for, the Samsung HW750 /751 offers a very similar experience but is easier to use and arguably looks that bit more swish. As an alternative, but price comparably, we recommend you take a look at the Philips Fidelio E5 system, which provides many of the same conveniences but with the option of a real surround sound experience, courtesy of detachable wireless rear speakers.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £480.00
Ease of Use7
Value for Money7
Our Review Ethos
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