Much like the SC-BTT190, the Panasonic SC-BTT290’s performance mixes the good and the bad, but it’s certainly not ugly. It uses the same satellites and subwoofer, the same audio processing (Anti-Jitter Digital Amplifier and 3D Cinema Surround) and offers the same total power output (1000W) as the BTT190, so it should come as no surprise that it also shares the cheaper system’s strengths and weaknesses.
The main shortcoming is a lack of composure when pushed to the sort of volumes that most dedicated compact systems can handle in their sleep. With a blockbusting Dolby True HD soundtrack like Super 8 on Blu-ray – in particular the incredible train crash sequence in chapter 3 – the SC-BTT290 gets stuck into the action with enthusiasm, but crank up volume past half way and the more aggressive effects get a little shouty and harsh, such as the train carriages hurtling into each other with a metallic crash. They have that unmistakably roughness in the mid and high frequencies that blights many budget Blu-ray systems. We can’t criticise the Panasonic too harshly for this – after all this system packs in so much for the money elsewhere that some sonic compromises are inevitable – but it’s worth bearing in mind if you come expecting the very finest home cinema sound quality.
The other slight drawback involves the subwoofer, which does a decent job of bulking-out the bottom end but gets a little unruly at times and threatens to overpower the satellites if you don’t tame it adequately. There’s a choice of Subwoofer Level settings (1 – 4) and an overall volume control in the channel level options, but being a passive sub you don’t get the same level of control as an active model over how it works with the acoustics of your room or how it integrates with the satellites. Luckily it fuses pretty well with them anyway, ensuring a unified sound.
Put these drawbacks to the back of your mind and you can start to appreciate the Panasonic SC-BTT290’s positives. It’s certainly enthusiastic, relaying the movie’s effects with decent dynamic thrust and pinging effects around the soundstage like Nadal on the baseline. The soundstage is open and expansive, a quality that’s enhanced greatly when you activate 3D Cinema Surround, a sound mode that’s revolutionary in that it’s actually worth switching on. The soundstage envelops you more, appearing to expand further in the horizontal and vertical planes, and gets a bit of a volume boost.
We’re also impressed by the crispness of the sound during quieter moments, as the system teases out delicate high frequency detail in the back and foreground. Dialogue also comes through loud and clear, allowing you to keep up with essential plot developments even during action scenes. It misses out the tiny licks and nuances of the human voice that more proficient (i.e. more expensive) speakers pick out, but speech never sounds muffled.
The system’s picture performance, like all of Panasonics 2012 Blu-ray players and systems, is exemplary, offering the sort of emphatic detail, sharpness and colour vibrancy that we’ve come to expect from the wizards at Panasonic Hollywood Labs. It’s backed up by superb colour and shading subtlety, a beautifully-judged contrast level, smooth 24Hz motion and precious little noise. 3D images take things to the next level, adding a gorgeous sense of depth and distance that really draws you into the movie. The same can’t quite be said for converted 2D images, which are hit and miss depending on the movie, but the effect is obvious enough to make it worthwhile.
We can’t really fault the rest of the Panasonic SC-BTT290’s performance – web and DLNA streamed videos look clean and smooth, music files sound crisp and well-balanced and the system’s competent 1080p upscaling leaves DVDs looking clean and sharp.
If you can stretch to the extra £49, it really is worth opting for this system over the entry-level SC-BTT190. You get built-in Wi-Fi without having to buy the expensive dongle as well as two HDMI inputs for your external gear and an integrated iPod dock. These additions alone could be worth the extra £50, before you’ve even considered all the other goodies you get, such as Viera Connect, DLNA/non-DLNA streaming, USB media playback, smartphone control, 3D Cinema Surround and more.
Sadly that extra cash won’t get you much of a step up in sound quality, as the Panasonic SC-BTT290 exhibits the same lack of refinement at high volumes as its cheaper stable mate, plus the speaker and subwoofer build quality still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of robustness and rigidity – although the main unit is much more impressively constructed this time round. Overall then, it’s not quite the overwhelming thumbs up we’ve been dishing out to Panasonic’s players, but the SC-BTT290 has enough going for it to make you happy once you get it home.