Sound bars have become the new home-theater-in-a-box. As TVs have gotten thinner, the popularity of the sound bar has grown to overtake multi-speaker solutions and, along the way, seen quite a bit of evolution. Most of today’s sound bars now pack all the necessary electronics right inside the speaker cabinet and come with wireless subwoofers too, offering big sound in a pint-sized, easy-to-install package.
Panasonic’s SC-HTB350 (as well as the step-up SC-HTB550) doesn’t really fit the modern sound bar mold. Unlike most sound bars, the HTB350 is a “multi-positional” speaker system. Essentially, it can be assembled as a single-piece sound bar — designed to be mounted horizontally above or below a television — or it can be broken up into two individual speakers which are positioned to the left and the right of the screen, either wall-mounted or on provided stands. It also favors placing the electronics within a small set-top box rather than cramming it into the speaker cabinet, yielding a very slim sound bar.
Unfortunately, while we are enamored with Panasonic’s TV products, we haven’t had the best of luck with its audio-related gear. Still, every few years we’ve got to give folks a shot at redemption and the SC-HTB350 seemed like a great candidate. At anywhere from $225 to $300, the HTB350 offers a pretty rich feature set; but will it offer equally rich sound?
Out of the box
Considering one of the appeals of a sound bar system is its simplicity, you might expect a modicum of parts to handle when uncrating the HTB350 – we certainly did — but since the system offers considerable set-up flexibility, its box is teeming with little, individually wrapped parts. Fortunately, many of these parts will be cast aside, depending on how you decide to set up the speakers.
Panasonic has meticulously packed the HTB350, carefully cloaking each gloss-black piece in a protective plastic sheet. Aside from the wireless subwoofer, speakers, AC power cords and hardware, we found a small card-style remote control, a set-top box and two pair of approximately 12-foot long, white speaker wires. We presume the speaker wires are white so as to attract less attention when routed up a white wall, though we think they still manage to call attention to themselves.
Each of the HTB350’s two speakers measures just under 19 inches in height when wall mounted in a vertical orientation. Adding the provided table-top stands bumps that measurement up to just under 21 inches tall. When assembled together as a sound bar, the speaker measures just under 38 inches wide. From there, the remaining dimensions depend how you configure it. In sound bar mode, the speakers are less than 3 inches high and just shy of 2 inches deep. The weight is negligible. We’re talking about less than two pound for each individual speaker and right at 3.5-pounds as a sound bar. In other words, these are really light, low-profile speakers.
The sub is a little more space consuming, though still plenty compact. It’s a tall, slender thing at 16-1/16 x 7-3/32 x 12-1/16 (H x W x D-in inches) and relatively light at 11.47 pounds.
The HTB350 uses a small set-top box to handle inputs, processing, power for the speakers and wireless signal delivery to the subwoofer. On the back of the box you’ll find two optical digital inputs and one set of stereo RCA (analog) inputs. The box is also capable of receiving Bluetooth wireless audio transmissions. Speaker outputs are via a proprietary, two-pin connector. This is typical of home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIB) and we dislike it. Should the little plastic plugs that terminate the speaker wires get pulled from wires or otherwise destroyed, you’re slap out of luck. Why manufacturers don’t just use standard spring-loaded binding posts is beyond us.
The front face of the set-top box is stamped with Panasonic’s logo and the system’s model number in white print. Toward the right edge of the face is a series of input markings for TV, BD/DVD, AUX etc. These underscore a series of LEDs which serve the double purpose of indicating which input and digital processing mode is selected as well as indicating that actions such as volume adjustment is taking place. A simple LCD screen would have been a much smarter choice. Decrypting the tiny LED lights from a distance any greater than a few feet is a real pain.
This system offers control of the subwoofer’s level and a dialog enhancement feature (which we’ll discuss in the performance section) using the small card-style remote control — there is no subwoofer level control on the subwoofer itself. The remote control also allows volume control, power and a dedicated Bluetooth pairing button. The only controls on the set-top box are for power, volume and input selection.
Panasonic claims the HTB350 uses a “low-jitter” amplifier. This is audiophile-speak for “clean-sounding digital amp” and, to be frank, the jargon seems a little misplaced on an entry-level piece of audio gear (we think the marketing department had fun coming up with that one). Power ratings for the system as disclosed on Panasonic’s website can be a little confusing. Panasonic discloses a power rating in RMS and then another referred to as FTC. The FTC requires that companies disclose output power in terms of RMS in addition to any “peak power” ratings that might be disclosed, so it is odd that we would see RMS and FTC ratings. It would appear that the RMS ratings are likely closer to peak power ratings and the FTC ratings are actually more accurate, since the RMS ratings have some pretty outrageous distortion figures. Bottom line: The system delivers about 25 watts to each speaker and 40 watts to the sub with the ability to peak at 60 watts to each speaker and 120 watts to the sub very briefly and with high distortion levels.
Each speaker section includes a 2 1/2-inch midrange driver and a 1-inch semi-dome tweeter (a type of tweeter commonly used in low-cost speakers). The subwoofer uses a 6 1/2-inch driver.
We connected an LG BD670 Blu-ray disc player and Comcast cable box to the HTB350’s digital inputs via S/PDIF (optical) cable. We also connected the BD670 via analog RCA cables. To test the system’s Bluetooth connectivity, we linked an iPhone 4S to the system. The process was quick and painless, requiring a single press of the HTB350’s Bluetooth linking button to start the process.
During the course of our evaluation, we arranged the speakers on their provided stands in a stereo configuration first, then later as a single sound bar. We also moved the subwoofer into three distinctly different places around our testing room.
Since we always begin any audio system evaluation with music first, we decided to stream music from our iPhone to the HTB350 via Bluetooth. We used a few high-quality music files, but for the most part stuck to the standard 256 kbps iTunes files.
As we began to play one of our test tracks, what we heard was disconcerting. There was an obvious issue with the treble which had us concerned that the tweeters might have been blown or otherwise compromised. It seemed unlikely, though, considering the unit we received for review was clearly factory-fresh. So, we changed tracks – same issue. It sounded as if the very top end of the treble region was distorting occasionally.
As it turns out, the issue was the low-quality Bluetooth transmission. When we then switched over to the system’s BD/DVD input, the treble issue we had experienced was gone. Switching back to the Bluetooth input and listening to the same track from our iPhone confirmed it.
Considering we’ve tested several Bluetooth audio systems in the same room under the same conditions, we’re pretty confident that the issue we experienced is related to the Bluetooth processing of the HTB350. Unfortunately, this is not a persnickety “only audiophiles would ever-notice such minutiae” kind of issue – we think just about anyone will hear the raspy treble response.
Since the hard-wired digital input eliminated the treble issue we heard with Bluetooth, high frequencies cleaned up considerably and we finally heard what the HTB350 could do with music. What we heard was reasonably impressive for a system of its price. This is not a high-end system — and we did remember to temper our expectations – so with that in mind we can say that treble response was clear, though not super detailed or revealing, and bass response was profound — perhaps too profound. Midrange, in terms of music reproduction, would have to be the HTB350’s weakest point in our opinion. Because the subwoofer has to handle the lower part of the midrange and the bass, and because the bass response is so big, the vocals in music take a hit and tend to sound a little recessed. Also, when we really cranked the volume up, the midrange audibly compressed, though we don’t see too many folks needing to bump this system up to ear-bleeding levels.
We found the HTB350 was much better suited to TV and movie watching. The dialog-enhancement feature, which can be adjusted to three different levels, does a fine job of enhancing the midrange frequencies that the human voice resides in. It is fair to wonder if this feature could help the system’s midrange performance with music, but the boost that the dialog enhancement gives is too narrow, and simply served to throw things off even further. With movies and television, however this enhancement was welcome at times, especially with movies where dialog has been mixed at a low level.
We have two complaints to tender regarding HTB350 ‘s performance for movies and TV. First, we felt like the sibilants (s and t sounds) were a little soft. This didn’t make a lot of sense to us since the surrounding treble sounds seemed just fine. Still, we heard what we heard, and while this may not be such a big issue for everyone, it really stuck in our craw. Second – and we think this will be a problem for a broader range of listeners – the subwoofer has this constant thumpiness to it that never goes away, even at low volumes. Also, we felt the sub was generally too loud, even at its lowest possible setting. Another notch or two of volume reduction is probably all it would have taken to tame it to a satisfactory level.
Let’s take a moment to put things in perspective: The SC-HTB350 is a roughly $250 system that is miles ahead of any TV’s built-in speakers, and stronger sounding s than many larger HTIB’s we heard over the years. While it suffers from some sonic weaknesses that won’t pass serious scrutiny, this system is sure to please those who want a simple and flexible speaker system with the convenience of a wireless sub and the capability to produce big sound with muscular bass.
Are there better options available? Yes. The Boston Acoustics TVee Model 25 (the update to the TVee model 20) is not as sleek nor does it offer Bluetooth capability, but it sounds a bit better on the whole and, besides, we didn’t find the Bluetooth performance of the HTB-350 to be all that great anyway.
In closing, the SC-HTB350 is an easily affordable, big-sounding solution with flexibility that is hard to match. For those not too picky about the minutiae of sound, this system will please with pounding bass, the ability to deliver audible dialog and more input options that competing devices.
- Flexible speaker setup options
- Super-slim form factor
- Effective dialog enhancement
- Highly affordable
- Overbearing bass
- Poor Bluetooth sound quality
- Soft sibilants
- Compressed midrange at high volumes