Well, thankfully, along come Panasonic with their jazzily named SC-HTB550, which offers the same soundbar or stereo option as the Samsung HW-E551 but in a glossy black finish. The SC-HTB550 also includes a wireless subwoofer but the connections are on an additional box which allows for greater flexibility in terms of subwoofer placement. Cosmetics and connections aside however, the specifications of the two competing products are very similar, as is the price, so the deciding factor will obviously be the sound quality. So let's set the SC-HTB550 up and find out it performs...
Design and Installation
The HTB550 is a 2.1 system, which means it comes with a subwoofer (SB-HWA550) that follows the speakers in terms of looks, sporting a similar glossy black finish. It is also has a similar level of build quality and is made of a combination of chipboard and plastic. The subwoofer itself is active and measures 18 x 41 x 31cm but weighs only 5.2kg which is rather light considering it includes the amplification. It is a ported downward firing bass reflex speaker with a 16cm cone and it communicates with the main unit wirelessly using a 5.180GHz bandwidth, giving it a claimed range of around 10m. There is a two-pin power cable connector at the rear and an on/off switch on the front, along with Wireless Link indicator LED.
The main difference between the HTB550 and most other soundbars is that it can be configured as either a standard soundbar or as a pair of more traditional stereo speakers. It's a clever idea that certainly gives the user a greater level of flexibility in terms of set up and installation. There are, in fact, four different possible configurations, the first two of which are with the speakers as one soundbar, either mounted on the wall or sitting on a stand. The other two options are with the speakers in the stereo configuration and again they can either be mounted on the wall or on stands. Panasonic provide attachments and stands for all these different configurations so, in terms of setting up the HTB550, the process is very straightforward.
If you decide to go for the soundbar configuration, you combine the two speakers (SB-HYTB550) together using a special joint and then secure them using screws. You have a choice, depending on your preference, of using either the provided stand or small feet or hanging the soundbar on the wall using screws and attachments at the rear. When combined the soundbar is 96cm long, rectangular in shape with a width of 7.5cm, a depth of 3.5cm and it weighs 1.5kg. This makes the soundbar configuration ideal for TVs with a screen size of between 46 and 50 inches. The speakers themselves are both passive and the amplification is provided by an additional unit which is connected to spring clip terminals at the rear of the speakers with provided speaker cables that run 3m in length.
Alternatively, if you want to use the HTB550 in the stereo configuration there are covers for the connectors at the bottom of the two speakers. These covers are locked with screws and are styled like the speakers themselves, giving the impression of a slightly larger speaker. You can then choose between mounting the speakers on the wall using screws and attachments at the rear or by using the provided speaker stands. These stands are quite large and heavy, which give the speakers a solid base. They are attached by screws and there are holes inside to run the speaker cable through for a tidier appearance. When combined with the covers and stands, each speaker is 53cm high. As with the soundbar configuration, you connect the speakers to the main unit via the provided cables and spring clip terminals at their rear.
The HTB550 includes a main unit (SU-HTB550), into which are built all the connections, as well as the amplification for the stereo speakers. The unit is small - measuring only 31 x 4.5 x 20cm - and weighs just 1.1kg. On the front there is an on/off button, volume up and down buttons and an input selection button. Unfortunately there is no actual display, just a number of indicator LEDs showing which source is selected - TV, BD/DVD, AUX1, AUX2, Bluetooth - and which audio format is being received - Dolby Digital, DTS or PCM. Thanks to the lack of a display and the small size of the LEDs, it can be difficult to tell what has been selected and when you adjust the volume, dialogue or subwoofer levels, the LEDs flash to show you which level has been selected.
At the rear of the main unit are the connections, which include two HDMI inputs and two an optical digital inputs. There is also an HDMI output with ARC (Audio Return Channel) for connecting the HTB550 to your TV and passing the audio from the TV back to the unit. However there is no USB port, 3.5mm audio jack or stereo analogue inputs, so you are limited to connecting your MP3 player via Bluetooth. At the rear, there are also dedicated connectors for the stereo speakers and a two-pin power cable connecter, along with a detachable power lead. Whilst the inclusion of main unit does mean you have an additional box, it makes sense as it results in greater freedom when positioning both the stereo speakers and the wireless subwoofer.
The remote control is made of simple black plastic and is very small, although this does mean it fits comfortably into the palm of your hand. It is sensibly laid out and includes all the basic buttons you need for controlling the HTB550, including on/off, volume, mute, subwoofer level and input selector. In addition there is a dedicated button for selecting the TV, as well as one for selecting a Bluetooth device as the source and there is a control for adjusting the level of the Clear-mode dialogue effect. However, due to the limited number of buttons available, controlling some of the features can be a real chore as you are required to hold down one button whilst pressing another - hardly intuitive.
Once all the speakers are setup, you can connect all your devices to the main unit and with two HDMI inputs and two optical audio inputs you should be able to cover most options, including receiving the audio from the TV thanks to ARC. The HTB550 can also connect with devices via both Bluetooth. Pairing is very easy and you can register up to six Bluetooth devices at any one time. The HBT550 has an Auto Standby Function that, when activated, will automatically put the unit in standby if no signal is input or operation performed for two hours.
If you connect a Blu-ray player, DVD player or digital TV receiver to the HTB550 you can take advantage of the built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. This is another useful feature as it allows the user to benefit from the full discrete 2.1-channel audio, rather than being limited to a stereo downmix. Whilst the HTB550 doesn't include Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio this is no great loss because given the limitations of the speakers and the 2.1 channels, it is unlikely you would really be able to take advantage of the higher resolution formats. As with all Dolby Digital compatible devices, the HTB550 includes DRC which is designed to balance the loudest and quietest parts of a soundtrack when watching films a low volume at night.
The HTB550 also includes a range of DSP sound modes which Panasonic call 3D Sound and are designed to create a greater sense of surround from just two speakers. There is Dolby Virtual Speaker which creates a virtual 5.1 effect, 3D Surround Effect which applies Panasonic processing to the existing Dolby Virtual Speaker effect and Clear-Mode Dialogue which is designed to emphasis dialogue in sportscasts or TV dramas.
If you press and hold the Mute button for more than 2 seconds, the indicator light will start flashing and you then press the Mute button to cycle between the default mode which applies the 3D effects only to 5.1 audio sources, the multi-channel mode which applies the effect to all audio sources and the 2ch mode which doesn't apply the effect to any audio source. You have to hold down the TV button on the remote and then press the Vol + button to add the 3D surround and Clear-mode dialogue effects to the Dolby Virtual Speaker setting.
We said using the remote and selecting different features could be a pain and all the other features required equally as obtuse methods of selecting them. In terms of other features, the HTB550 has Dual Audio for choosing between main and secondary, Auto Gain Control to prevent sudden loud noises and Bluetooth Communication Mode to place emphasis on connectivity or audio quality. Finally the HTB550 includes Panasonic's VIERA Link (HDMI-CEC) function, which allows for linked operations with a Panasonic VIERA TV.
In listening tests we found that the HTB550 was capable of delivering a relatively pleasing performance with both TV, movies and music. For normal TV viewing the HTB550 was capable of creating a well-defined soundstage and it was particularly good at keeping the dialogue separated from the rest of the mix. When we moved on to movies, the HTB550 was able to render even the most complex of soundtracks with a reasonable degree of precision, especially when in stereo mode where the sound benefitted from the extra separation. The HTB550 could also handle music quite well and whilst it didn't deliver a particularly tight low end, the effective mid and high end resulted in an enjoyable experience. Overall this was a good performance for a soundbar but we generally preferred to use the HTB550 in its stereo configuration because of the wider sound stage. We experimented with the 3D Sound features and whilst they did a reasonable job of creating a sense of envelopment, especially with 5.1 mixes, they will obviously never replace a real surround setup. However, the default setting worked quite well, allowing you to benefit from the pseudo surround on 5.1 content but still listen to music and other stereo content as normal 2-channel audio.
- Flexible installation
- Soundbar or stereo configuration
- Wireless subwoofer
- Attractive design
- Bluetooth compatible
- Build quality could be better
- Remote is quite basic
- No display on main unit
- Lacks bass presence
Panasonic SC-HTB550 2.1-channel Soundbar Review
The Panasonic SC-HTB550 certainly scores high marks in the looks department and the glossy black finish will go well with both Panasonic’s current line-up and many other TVs with a black bezel. The actual build quality leans more towards plastic but there’s no denying that the HTB550 is attractive and will compliment most TVs. The HTB550’s major selling point is that it can be configured as either a standard soundbar or as a more traditional stereo speaker setup. In this sense the HTB550 was a great success, delivering plenty of flexibility and choice for the customer, whichever configuration they choose.
The flexibility of the HTB550 is improved still further thanks to the inclusion of a wireless subwoofer and an additional unit that contains the amplification for the front speakers and the connections. These connections are reasonable, although we would have liked to see a USB port and an analogue audio input. We appreciate the inclusion of this main unit because it limits the number of cables to the speakers, with just a power cable for the active subwoofer and speaker cables for the front pair. Unfortunately the main unit doesn’t have a display which makes it difficult tell which source is selected, what levels have been chosen or what features are being used. The tiny remote control is also limited in terms of buttons, necessitating some rather convoluted combinations of buttons to select certain features.
The most useful feature on the HTB550 is the inclusion of Bluetooth, which means you can easily pair it with a compatible device such as an iPod or smartphone and listen to music. If you connect a Blu-ray player, DVD player or digital TV receiver to the HTB550 you can also take advantage of the built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. This is another useful feature as it allows the user to benefit from the full discrete 2.1-channel audio, rather than being limited to a stereo downmix. The HTB550 includes a range of DSP sound modes which Panasonic call 3D Sound and are designed to create a greater sense of surround from two just speakers. There is Dolby Virtual Speaker which creates a virtual 5.1 effect, 3D Surround Effect which applies Panasonic processing to the existing Dolby Virtual Speaker effect and Clear-Mode Dialogue which is designed to emphasis dialogue in sportscasts or TV dramas.
In terms of actual audio, the HTB550 is a very competent performer and would certainly be an improvement over the built-in sound on almost any TV. The speakers were capable of delivering an effective sound stage, especially when used in their stereo configuration and were equally as adept at dealing with soundtracks or music. At higher volumes the speakers could distort but, at a reasonable level, the HTB550 had an enjoyable mid and upper range. It was at the low end that it was found wanting, with a subwoofer that lacked the necessary authority, at times, and didn’t always sound as well integrated as we would like. The 3D Sound features did a reasonable job of creating a sense of envelopment, especially with 5.1 mixes and the default setting worked quite well, allowing you to benefit from the pseudo surround on 5.1 content but still listen to music and other stereo content as normal 2-channel audio.
The Panasonic SC-HTB550 has plenty to recommend it, from its attractive looks to its effective audio performance but ultimately there are too many little annoyances that prevent us from awarding a higher ranking badge.
Ease of Use
Value for Money
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