If you have recently bought a slim-line LED or plasma TV and are less than impressed with its built-in audio but don’t want to go for a full surround sound package, then a 2.1 speaker system or a soundbar is probably your best bet. The Panasonic SC-HTB20 is an entry level option from Panasonic that's priced at around £250. Interestingly, it has a flexible design that allows it to be used either as a soundbar or a more traditional 2.1 set up.
The soundbar arrives as two separate pieces that you connect together using a central bracket. Setting up the speaker in this configuration is actually very easy, as you simply slot the bracket into the grooves on each side of the bar and then tighten four screws.
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If you prefer you can keep the two sections separate and use the SC-HTB20 as a 2.1 system, because Panasonic also provides pedestal stands that the two speakers can be bolted into. This seems like a smart idea to us, as it broadens the appeal of the package.
The two stereo speakers are joined by an active subwoofer and, unlike the Panasonic HTB550 that we reviewed recently, the HTB20 doesn't have an external processing box. Instead the amp and processor are actually built in to the subwoofer unit.
The whole system has a pretty smart design. The case of the soundbar and subwoofer are finished in glossy piano black and on the bar there's a semi transparent grill through which you can just catch a glimpse of the main driver and tweeter pairings. The bar itself is relatively compact. It's 754mm long, stands just 48mm tall and measures 53mm deep. The sub's quite small too, and so doesn’t take up that much room, especially by the standards of most active woofers.
The main soundbar connects back to the subwoofer via two standard speaker cables. Annoyingly these cables are white rather than black, so they tend to stick out like a sore thumb against the black styling of the rest of the system.
Around the back of the subwoofer sit the various inputs and outputs. There are two HDMI ports and two optical digital audio inputs. One of the HDMI ports supports Audio Return Channel (ARC), so if you have a newer TV with an ARC compatible HDMI port the TV can send all the audio from the other HDMI devices connected to it to the soundbar over a single cable cable.
Otherwise you have to connect external devices, such as Blu-ray players, to one of the HDMI ports and then use the second HDMI port to route the video back to your TV. You can then hook up another two devices via the optical digital audio inputs, allowing you to have a total of three devices connected at any one time.