- Review Price: £624.00
If you choose not to wall mount, the soundbar can be placed free standing on a tabletop. Either way, it’s an attractive and sturdy unit, boasting sleek lines and a fetching black finish, and along the top you’ll find a row of buttons – hit the Blu-ray open/close key and the central plastic panel slides to the left to reveal the disc mechanism, while the iPod open/close button uncovers an iPod/iPhone dock on the opposite side, definitely one of the system’s most eye-catching features. A small but easy to read display panel shines through from behind the panel.
Unsurprisingly there’s a sparse selection of sockets on the back due to the limited space – there’s an HDMI v1.4 output (which supports the Audio Return Channel feature, as well as 3D), a single optical digital audio input, composite video output, an Ethernet port to take advantage of the unit’s networking features and an aerial input for the FM radio. They’re joined by a second USB port reserved for Panasonic’s optional Wi-Fi dongle (DY-WL10) and a slot for the transmitter card that’s supplied with the subwoofer.
Setup is a cinch thanks mainly to the compact wireless sub, which is styled in a snazzy gloss black finish. Once the card is plugged into the back of the soundbar, the two communicate automatically and form a robust connection, with a small light on top telling you that they’ve hooked up. There are no controls or sockets on the back of the sub – it’s all governed by the soundbar. The sockets on the back of the soundbar are easy to access despite facing sideways, and wall-mounting using the supplied brackets seems like a fairly straightforward process if you have the right tools, although we didn’t try it out for obvious reasons.
As is the norm for Panasonic’s Blu-ray gear, the SC-BFT800 is bursting with features. 3D is of course the headline-grabber, supplying Full HD 1080p images to each eye when viewed on a compatible TV with active shutter glasses (in our case, a Sony KDL-60LX803). But the range of networking features is also a nifty bonus, including the ability to stream music, video and photos from connected PCs running Windows 7, as well as recordings stored on compatible Panasonic recorders.
You can also browse a limited selection of websites through the Viera Cast portal, including YouTube, Picasa, Bloomberg and Dailymotion. As with Panasonic’s standalone players and systems, this web portal looks great and works very well indeed over an Ethernet connection, loading clips quickly and playing them back with minimal hesitation, even with modest broadband speeds. Buying the 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi dongle provides a much more convenient way of getting online, but with a price of around £80 it’s a luxury that some buyers can no doubt do without.
Digital media support is decent if not all-encompassing – it’ll play DivX Plus HD, MP3 and JPEG files from USB devices, DVDs and CDs, as well as AVCHD from DVD and MPEG-2 SD Video from SD, SDHC and SDXC cards. With a card in the slot, the system uses it as local storage for BD Live as the required 1GB of memory isn’t built-in.
Even though you don’t get the full multichannel benefits, the SC-BFT800 happily decodes Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio tracks, and if you like your stereo sound with a little bit of extra flavour then the system’s range of modes might fit the bill.
To compensate for the lack of rear speakers, Dolby Virtual Speaker Reference/Wide and 7.1CH Virtual Surround expand the sound field to create a surround effect. These are backed up by a choice of Equalizer modes – Flat, Heavy, Clear and Soft – plus H.Bass for extra low-end punch. Clear Mode Dialog, meanwhile, aims to make speech sound like it’s coming from the screen and Whisper Mode Surround narrows the dynamic range, which helps when watching movies at night when the kids are in bed. The levels of the front speakers and sub can be adjusted using the dedicated controls on the remote, plus there’s an extra three-level Subwoofer setting in the sound modes menu.
The SC-BFT800 is easy to use thanks largely to the bubbly, responsive onscreen menus, which use cartoony icons and bright shades of blue and yellow. The setup menus are simple lists on a blue background, a far cry from Sony’s slick system but easy to follow nonetheless, and that goes for the MP3 and DivX playback menus too, which list files in a table. The setup menu offers quite a lot to fiddle around with, and functions like Internet connection and speaker optimisation are mercifully easy to find and adjust. 3D settings include a choice of Full HD and side-by-side output, as well an option to play 3D discs in 2D. And as expected the supplied remote is a wonderfully intuitive device, sporting perfectly placed menu and playback controls and emphatically clear lettering.
A couple of extra in-playback menus can also be accessed – the Option key offers an onscreen virtual remote and aspect ratio control, while Display brings up a banner containing other playback modes and picture/sound tweaks.
Disc loading speeds are acceptable – Hellboy II fired up in 29 seconds while the trickier ”Terminator Salvation” took one minute and eight seconds, plus the fast boot-up mode also cuts down the time it takes to start watching a movie. When you get there, the system’s picture quality is fantastic. There really is nothing to dislike – the Panasonic’s P4HD and PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus do a stunning job with those precious pixels, delivering exceptionally crisp and punchy detail, strong colours with plenty of subtle, smoothly blended shading and the sort of depth and contrast that makes movies look instantly cinematic.
Its 3D performance is similarly strong. With ”Monsters Vs Aliens”, you get deep, expansive pictures with remarkable poise and clarity. There’s very little blur when CG characters start zipping around the screen and any crosstalk issues (again visible during the Golden Gate Bridge scene) can most likely be attributed to the way the TV is piecing the images together. The movie’s bright colour palette also manages to burst its way through the tinted glasses, leaving you with a hugely enjoyable 3D viewing experience overall.
And although the system’s sound quality doesn’t quite hit the same lofty heights, it’s certainly impressive. With ”Iron Man 2’s” DTS HD Master Audio track, the sound is crisp and dynamic across the midrange and high frequencies, with a pleasing ability to relay sudden high-pitched sounds at loud volumes, such as metal suits clanking against each other, without making you wince. Activate Dolby Virtual Speaker and the soundstage opens up, spreading the carnage far and wide as Iron Man fights War Machine. No, it’s not surround per se, but a busy and expansive soundstage with plenty of vigour.
The 120W subwoofer also does a decent job at underpinning the action with hearty bass tones, which makes the Monaco Grand Prix scene feel suitably exhilarating. The sounds of roaring engines and crunching, crashing race cars are lent extra body by the surprisingly powerful sub. That said, it could do with a little more punch and control. After listening to ”Iron Man 2’s” action set pieces for a while, you realise that these low-end sounds are just a constant rumble that feels slightly overpowering and boomy – better subs would deliver a drier, tauter and more neutral sound. But considering it’s wireless and not designed with audiophiles in mind, it’s not bad at all. It helps if you have a play with the sub settings too, keeping the level at 1 or 2 and using H.Bass judiciously.
This is particularly crucial when listening to music, as the combination of H.Bass and a high sub setting can really impinge on clarity and detail reproduction. But find the right balance and you can achieve some very pleasing music playback – there’s plenty of subtlety in its reproduction of ”Kind of Blue”, but it also belts out Maroon 5’s ”Hands All Over” with infectious energy.
Overall then, we reckon the SC-BFT800 is a superb proposition if you want a 3D home cinema but space is tight. It’s sleek, stylish and packed with features, including the usual array of network functions and sound modes. Even more pleasing is the built-in iPod dock and the inclusion of a wireless sub, which will be an absolute godsend for cablephobes everywhere. 3D and 2D picture performance is also terrific, and although it’s not the most sonically sophisticated soundbar we’ve tested, it delivers enough home cinema thrills to justify that hefty price tag.
Score in detail
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