There are some basic controls mounted on the top edge of the Panasonic SC-HTB20's subwoofer to turn the system on and off, adjust the main volume level and change inputs. It also comes with a small, credit card sized remote that has three dedicated buttons for switching inputs, along with volume controls for not just the main volume, but also for controlling the subwoofer and dialogue level. The remote is a little bit on the small side -- we could see it frequently getting lost down the side of a sofa -- but the button are at least responsive and the remote isn’t overly directional, so you don’t always have to point it directly at the unit to get your commands to register.
By default the Panasonic SC-HTB20 applies its 3D surround effect to all multi-channel sources – ie. Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks. This 3D mode is a combination of Dolby's virtual speaker technology and Panasonic's own 3D surround effect along with its Clear-Mode Dialog system. You can also change the settings so that the 3D effects are applied to stereo sources too, or just turn them off all together. Once the 3D mode is on, the only control you're given over it is the level of the Clear-Mode Dialog level. Essentially, this allow you to boost or drop the audio level of the pseudo centre channel to make dialogue or commentary stand out in the mix.
The soundbar doesn't have any kind of display. Instead there's a row of small LEDs across the top of the subwoofer that are used to indicate which input is active and the volume level. There are six of these LEDs in total. The first three are for the TV, BD/DVD and Aux inputs, while the last three are for Dolby Digital, DTS and PCM modes.
The lack of a proper display becomes a little bit annoying when you need to adjust stuff like the main volume control, subwoofer level or the centre channel dialogue level. This is because the lights at the front have to flash to try to give you an indication of what volume level you're currently at, which is less than ideal.
Worse still, the lack of a screen means that controlling some of the more advanced features is like trying to unlock a safe in the dark. For example, to apply the pseudo surround sound modes to two channel sources (they're automatically applied to all multichannel sources) you have to press and hold the Mute button for two seconds and then cycle through three options.
These options are shown via blinking lights on the Dolby Digital, DTS and PCM indicators, even though the modes don’t refer to these actual sound formats. For example, when Dolby Digital is lit up, it means the system is applying 3D effects to all sources, when the DTS indicator is lit up it's applying it only to multichannel sources, while when the PCM effect is lit up it's not applying 3D effects to any source. This seems to us like a clear case of Panasonic's enthusiasm for cost reduction getting in the way of the system's usability.
That said, the HTB20's sound is a big improvement over what you get from the vast majority of today's slim line TVs. The bass end reach is, as you would expect, much deeper, with the result that low–end rumbles and booms in action movies have a lot more impact.
It also delivers good, clean dialogue, and the Clear-Dialog Mode gives you pretty precise control over just how loud the centre channel sits in the mix. It's especially handy for pumping up the dialogue a bit when you're watching TV with the sound turned down low at night so as not to disturb other members of the household. However, although this system produces mid-range with plenty of presence, it's not quite as rounded or as accomplished in this regard as Panasonic's HTB-550, which has an extra mid range speaker driver. Highs are pleasingly energetic, though.
The Panasonic SC-HTB20 is a neat package and the flexibility of its design - it can be used either as a soundbar or traditional 2.1 system - helps broaden its appeal. It's also a good sonic performer for the price, but we can’t help feeling it would have been easier to use if Panasonic had kited it out with a proper screen.
Read more: Best soundbars to buy