Once you’ve got yourself connected, the built-in auto speaker setup mode can be used to configure the sound quality for your room. There’s a microphone that plugs into the front panel and takes readings from the test tones, setting the correct distance, size, level and frequencies of each speaker and adjusting their polarity if need be.
Making changes in the setup menu using the front panel is easy enough and the remote is up to Panasonic’s usual high standards – it’s intuitive, user-friendly and packs lots of different functions into a small space but gives the buttons enough variety to keep confusion at bay.
It’s a real novelty to play with a receiver that will decode anything you throw at it, but even more exciting is the SA-BX500’s top-drawer sound quality. The disappointing sonics offered up by the SC-BT100 system meant that we fed the Spider-Man 3 Blu-ray disc into our player with a touch of trepidation, but our fears were allayed by the Panasonic’s commanding performance with the Dolby True HD soundtrack. Big, grandstanding scenes like the movie’s climatic four-way smackdown are reproduced with plenty of force and energy, fizzing around the room at breakneck pace but remaining well separated and adeptly controlled.
Whereas previous Panasonic digital amps have been accused of being tonally harsh, this one offers a slicker, smoother listen, stripped of the abrasive edge that marred the SC-BT100’s performance. But it’s not too laid back to get the pulse racing – when needed there’s more than enough aggression to deliver sharp transients like gunfire and loud bangs with neck-snapping ferocity.
Furthermore, the sparkling high frequency presentation gives delicate effects and other sonic subtleties the requisite sharpness, while the surround ambience is intoxicating. In addition, dialogue is forthright and natural, and the sub dishes up bass that can only be described as ‘kick-ass’. You could probably find amps from the likes of Pioneer and Denon that do it better but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Switching to Apocalypto’s DTS soundtrack, we’re treated to more of the same, with the unit offering a thrilling rendition of those frenetic chase scenes. But when pushed too hard some cracks start to appear – the cheering crowds at the Mayan city become a little overbearing at high volumes – but overall there are more pros than cons.
Musically the Panasonic lacks warmth but does a solid enough job with Corinne Bailey Rae’s version of Since I’ve Been Loving You, lending her voice a silky tone and replaying the double bass and piano with pleasing body and detail.
From a features perspective, the Panasonic SA-BX500’s credentials are unquestionable – a wireless-capable receiver that decodes all of the Blu-ray formats for under £400 is a real boon, and overall sound performance is impressive. It might not have enough refinement or musical prowess to send Denon or Onkyo scuttling into the shadows but it’s a definite improvement on what we heard from the SC-BT100 Blu-ray system.