Nevertheless, when it comes to connection options the breakout box on the Panasonic SC-HTB550 scores highly. Around the back you’ll find three HDMI ports – two inputs and one output port – so you can connect up two external devices, such as a set-top box and Blu-ray player, to the system and have the video routed back to your TV.
However, if you have a newer TV with a HDMI port that supports Audio Return Channel you only actually have to run a single HDMI cable between this port on your TV and the output port on the breakout box. After that, all HDMI devices connected to your TV can have their audio routed to the breakout box via this single cable.
The rear of the decoder box is also home to two digital audio optical inputs, so you can also run audio from non-HDMI devices into it. What’s more, Panasonic has added Bluetooth support, so if you have a phone or MP3 player that supports Bluetooth A2DP audio streaming, you can pair it with the system and play tracks through the Panasonic HTB550's speakers. This is a cinch to setup and worked really well during our testing.
So how does the whole system sound once it's up and running? Pretty impressive is the short answer. The subwoofer does a good job of recreating low end effects in movie soundtracks, adding significant bass punch without sounding lazy or flabby like some weaker subs do. As a result explosions and car crashes have much more sonic impact than what you’ll get from even the best sounding flat screen TVs. The sub also blends well with the sound from the main speaker bar, so the two really do sound like they’re working in harmony rather than competing with each other.
The main speakerbar has good stereo separation, so soundtracks do have plenty of stereo width. It also does an excellent job of delivering punchy and clear dialogue and you're given good control over just how prominently the dialogue channel sits in the system's overall sound mix.
On the downside, although the system's pseudo 3D surround effect is pleasing, it's no match for a real surround sound set-up or even Yamaha's hugely impressive YSP-2200, when it comes to recreating rear channel sound. To be fair, though, the latter is double the price of the HTB550, so that comparison is a bit unfair, and the HTB550 is on-par with other similarly priced systems from the likes of JVC, Samsung and Pioneer.
The SC-HTB550 is a major step up from last year's SC-HTB520, not just in the flexibility of its design, but also in the array of connections on offer. Changing some of the more in-depth settings can be a bit obtuse, but most of the main features are still easy to use. And when it comes to delivering good bass effects and clean, clear dialogue, it’s up with the best soundbars we’ve tested. As a result, if you're looking for a modestly priced soundbar or 2.1 system, we think it's a good option.