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Panasonic SC-HTB900 Soundbar Review

A decent performance is marred by short-sighted features

SRP: £699.00

What is the Panasonic SC-HTB900?

The Panasonic SC-HTB900 is a 3.1-channel soundbar and subwoofer combination that delivers Dolby Atmos and DTS:X thanks to the application of psychoacoustic processing. It also supports 4K, HDR and Hi-Res Audio, and is tuned by Technics. There's also support for Bluetooth and Chromecast, a smart remote app, and the ability to work with Google Assistant.

The HTB900 retails for £699 as at the time of writing (October 2019), which puts it in a crowded segment of the soundbar market. The features certainly look extensive but is there anything important missing, and does the Panasonic do enough to stand out from the soundbar crowd? Let's find out...

Design

Panasonic SC-HTB900EBK
The Panasonic SC-HTB900 uses a simple but elegant design that should match most modern TVs, and fits inconspicuously at the front of the room. It has a well-made matte black rectangular cabinet with a brushed metal finish and curved leading edge. There's a metal mesh grille covering the three front-firing speakers, and a simple display that can be dimmed or turned off.
Panasonic SC-HTB900EBK
At the top centre of the soundbar, you'll find a set of basic touch-sensitive controls for volume up/down, input, power, and Bluetooth. The HTB900 measures 1050 x 78 x 129mm, weighs 6.0kg, and is intended for screen sizes of 48 inches and bigger. It can be stand-mounted and has a reasonably low profile that shouldn't block most screens although, if necessary, it can be wall-mounted with the supplied brackets.
The design is unobtrusive, and the low profile shouldn't block most screens

Connections & Control

Panasonic SC-HTB900EBK
The Panasonic SC-HTB900 has a decent set of connections that are located in a recessed area under the soundbar. Here you'll find two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output with ARC. All the HDMI ports can pass 4K/60p, 3D and high dynamic range (HDR10).

However, the HDMI output does not support eARC (enhanced audio return channel), and none of the HDMI ports pass Dolby Vision or HDR10+. The latter is a strange decision given that Panasonic has carved a niche for itself by making TVs and 4K disc players that support both dynamic metadata formats.

In terms of other physical connections, there's an optical digital input, an Ethernet port, and a connector for the included IR extender. The recess is fairly cramped, so bear that in mind if you use chunky cables. In terms of wireless connections, there's dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (v4.2), and Chromecast.
Panasonic SC-HTB900EBK
The included remote control is a dinky affair – the kind that has a tendency to get lost down the back of the sofa. However, once you get used to its diminutive size, all the buttons you'll need are there. You can power the unit on and off, change the volume, mute the volume, select an input, pair a Bluetooth device, set-up the soundbar, navigate the menus, and select a sound mode. Panasonic also offers its Music Control App, which is freely available for both iOS and Android. In addition, the HTB900 works with Google Assistant, which allows for limited voice control if you have a suitable smart speaker.
There's a decent set of connections, but the HDMI ports can't pass Dolby Vision or HDR10+

Panasonic SC-HTB900 Features & Specs

Panasonic SC-HTB900EBK
The Panasonic SC-HTB900's headline feature is its ability to decode and reproduce the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based audio formats. To achieve this it uses a 3.1-channel configuration and psychoacoustic processing to create an immersive audio experience.

The front left and right channels are each composed of two 6.5cm mid-range cone drivers and a 1.6cm dome tweeter, while the centre channel uses two 6.5cm mid-range cone drivers and no tweeter. The built in amplification delivers 85W to each speaker.

The frequency characteristics of these speakers have been enhanced by increasing the capacity of the cabinet, and the support system for the speaker cones has been completely redesigned. Thanks to these improvements, the soundbar can output a wider low-frequency range, ensuring that low pitched male voices are handled by the main unit, rather than the subwoofer.

The wireless subwoofer uses a 16cm downward-firing cone driver combined with a bass reflex port. This enables it to deliver an improved low-end performance, while a strengthened chassis reduces the influence of vibrations. The sub has a total of 250W of amplification built-in, it measures 180 x 408 x 306mm (WxHxD), and it weighs in at 5.4kg.

The HTB900 uses the Technics full digital amplifier "JENOEngine" to deliver 505W of total power. There is also a jitter reduction circuit to reduce jitter across the entire audible band, while any deviations generated by PWM conversion are also optimally corrected. The sound has also been tuned by Technics to ensure accurate integration of the front three channels with the subwoofer.

The Panasonic can handle most audio formats, including Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Atmos. It can also handle DTS, DTS ES, DTS 96/24, DTS-HD HR, DTS-HD MA, DTS Virtual:X, and DTS:X but the soundbar doesn't support Auro-3D or IMAX Enhanced DTS:X. There is, however, Hi-Res audio support: WAV (up to 192 kHz/16, 24 bit), FLAC (up to 192 kHz/16, 24 bit), AIFF, ALAC, AAC, and MP3.

There's a series of sound modes: Standard, Stadium, Music, Cinema, News, Straight, Clear Dialogue, Berlin Philharmonic Hall, Low Volume, and 3D Surround. Other features include a subwoofer level adjustment, dialogue level control, auto gain control, and auto lip synchronisation with Panasonic TV Link.
There's good selection of features, headlined by support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X

Setup and Operation

Panasonic SC-HTB900EBK
The Panasonic SC-HTB900 is easy to set up, I simply positioned the soundbar on a flat surface in front of the TV. The soundbar is low enough not to block the screen, but if it's an issue you can always wall mount instead. I then placed the subwoofer at the front of the room, and to the right hand side as you face the soundbar. It should pair automatically with the soundbar, but if not you can pair the two manually. You can also adjust the subwoofer level if needed.

Once set-up, I connected the HTB900 to the HDMI-ARC port on the Panasonic TX-65GZ950 that I had at the time, but if your TV doesn’t support ARC you’ll need to use the optical digital connection instead. I then connected a Panasonic DP-UB820 UHD Blu-ray player, and a Humax FVP-5000T Freeview set-top box to the two HDMI inputs on the soundbar.

I primarily used the 4K disc player to test the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X capabilities of the soundbar, while 2.0 and 5.1 content came from the Freeview box and the TV's internal tuner and apps (along with additional Atmos content from Netflix and Amazon). The ARC connection is made automatically and, for other sources, you simply cycle through them using the controls on the soundbar, the remote or the app.

I connected the Panasonic to my home network using the wireless connection and the Google Home app, and to create a Bluetooth connection I simply selected the BT function and then paired the soundbar to my iPhone X. This allowed me to test the soundbar's capabilities with streamed music over both Bluetooth and Chromecast.
The HTB900 is easy to install, simple to set-up, and intuitive to operate

Performance

The Panasonic SC-HTB900 delivered a very good performance overall, proving that the attention the company paid to delivering the fundamentals has paid off.

The soundbar handles two-channel music extremely well, no doubt thanks to the tuning applied by Technics. The woofer/tweeter combination in the front left and right speakers delivers a detailed stereo image, with a well-defined mid-range and high frequencies that are free of sibilance or harshness. The 85W of amplification applied to each speaker ensures some impressive stereo imaging, with precise localisation of instruments and a nice clarity. The subwoofer is well integrated, adding a solid foundation of bass.

Watching TV, the soundbar delivers an equally impressive front soundstage that renders the audio with a bold presentation. The speakers reproduce music with definition and clarity, while any effects are placed across the front of the room. The centre channel ensures clear and focused dialogue, and the subwoofer provides bass where needed. A news broadcast or regular show is easily handled by the HTB900, and it's able to give sports broadcasts a greater sense of scale through the noise of the crowd.

A complex soundtrack such as the 5.1 mix for Stranger Things 3 presents more of a challenge, to which the Panasonic rises admirably. The iconic score is delivered with a driving urgency, and the sub produces some serious bass during the final battle of Starcourt Mall. The soundbar creates a solid front soundstage using its 3.1-channels, giving scale to the visuals but keeping dialogue intelligible within all the effects. There's no sense of surround, but using 3D surround gives the audio greater presence at the expense of focus.

The Amaze trailer on the Dolby Atmos demo disc is a great test of a system's ability to create an immersive sound field. While the HTB900 does a decent job of creating a bigger soundstage than the soundbar itself, the overhead effects don't really sound like they're coming from above, nor do effects emanate from behind. What the psychoacoustic processing does is bring the audio out into the room more, creating the sense that effects are moving around between you and the TV.

The opening of Mad Max: Fury Road is a good example of this, placing the voices in Max's head into the middle of the room. The more frenetic chase sequences retain a sense of excitement, even if they don't completely immerse you. However, the driving score certainly keeps things moving, and the subwoofer handles the low-end admirably. You can drive (no pun intended) this soundbar loud without the audio distorting or sounding brittle, but crucially it remains coherent even when listening at lower volumes.

The DTS:X soundtrack on Atomic Blonde is another great mix that the HTB900 generally handled well. The framing device of Charlize Theron's character recounting her Berlin adventures in an interview room allows the soundbar to add subtle effects to the dialogue, creating a greater sense of environment. The demonstration in Berlin fills the room with a cacophony of crowd noises, while the fight on the staircase has a brutal intensity with the sub giving each punch a visceral impact.

There are a host of sound modes, but I generally preferred Straight for non Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks because it played back stereo content with 2.1 channels, and used the 3.1 channels for multichannel mixes. I never found that the Standard, Music or Cinema modes sounded right to me, but News is good for emphasising dialogue and Stadium can give sports broadcasts more scale, while Berlin Philharmonic Hall seems gimmicky. The 3D Surround mode processes non-immersive audio, pushing the audio to the sides and out into the room. While this feature gives multichannel content a greater sense of scale, the effects do lose some of their focus.

Aside from the News mode, Panasonic has included a plethora of features aimed at improving the intelligibility of dialogue. There's Low Volume which enhances dialogue at low volumes, there's Clear Dialogue which allows you to adjust the level of the dialogue, and the DTS:X Dialogue Control does the same with DTS:X content. There's also Dynamic Range Compression, which also emphasises dialogue at low volumes. Finally, there's Auto Gain Control, which adjusts the overall volume based on the input signal and is useful for commercial TV stations where the adverts are often much louder.
The overall sonic performance is good, but the level of immersion is limited

Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • Solid audio performance
  • Well integrated sub
  • Dolby Atmos & DTS:X
  • Attractive & well made
  • Hi-Res Audio support
  • Chromecast

Cons

  • Sonic immersion limited
  • No Dolby Vision & HDR10+ passthrough
  • No eARC support

Panasonic SC-HTB900 Soundbar Review

Panasonic SC-HTB900 Verdict

The Panasonic SC-HTB900 is a good-sounding 3.1-channel soundbar that's well-made and attractively designed. It can decode Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, using psychoacoustic processing to create a more immersive experience from its three front-firing speakers and subwoofer. While the soundstage feels bigger and more enveloping than a simple 3.1-channel system, the sense of immersion is limited and you don't really believe there are speakers above and behind you. However, for those simply wishing to boost the audio of their TV, the results are often very effective.

The woofers and tweeters used in the soundbar are high quality and the audio has been tuned by Technics, which ensures the HTB900 sounds great with music. There's plenty of amplification in the 'bar and sub, with the latter capable of a solid bass performance that's nicely integrated with the other speakers. There's a decent selection of features including two HDMI inputs, a dinky remote, Hi-Res Audio support, Bluetooth, and Chromecast. There's also a smart remote app, and the soundbar works with Google Assistant.

The SC-HTB900 would be ideal for anyone who owns a new Panasonic TV and 4K Blu-ray player were it not for the inability of the HDMI ports to pass Dolby Vision and HDR10+. Why Panasonic chose to do this is a mystery, but as a result, this otherwise excellent soundbar falls short of the mark.

What are my alternatives?

The Panasonic SC-HTB900 is priced at a very competitive point in the soundbar market, and an obvious alternative is the Sony HT-ZF9, which costs around £599. It also uses a 3.1-channel layout and applies psychoacoustic processing to decode and reproduce Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. It also has two HDMI inputs, Wi-Fi, Chromecast and the ability to work with smart assistants – making it exceptional value for money.

If your budget can reach £799, the Samsung HW-Q70R is another great soundbar and subwoofer combination. This system delivers Atmos and DTS:X using a genuine 3.1.2 set-up, thanks to additional upward-firing drivers. It not only has two HDMI inputs but passes both Dolby Vision and HDR10+. In addition, it has Wi-Fi, works with Amazon Alexa, and supports multi-room capabilities.

MORE: Read All Soundbar Reviews

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
.
.
7

Ease of use

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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