- Excellent sound and picture performance
- A wealth of features
- Easy to setup and use
- Plasticky speaker casing
- Passive sub
- Review Price: £628.99
- 3D Blu-ray playback
- DLNA streaming
- Viera Connect with Skype
- Premium audio components
- 3D Cinema Surround
Despite its range topping status, the BTT590 is a fairly straightforward proposition. For starters, it’s a 5.1-channel system, not 7.1 like Samsung’s HT-E6750W, its most obvious rival, and there are no wireless rear speakers in the box or space-hogging tower speakers (as found on the SC-BTT490). What you get are four tabletop satellites, a horizontal centre speaker and a passive subwoofer. These are driven by the 1000W digital amplifier inside the main unit, which also boasts a 3D-compatible Blu-ray player.
This main unit is shaped and styled just like Panasonic’s standalone players. The slim 40mm height is impressive for an all-in-one system given the extra electronics shoehorned into it – testament to the space-saving benefits of digital amplifiers. The glossy black finish and silver trim makes it effortlessly classy and a sympathetic match for most other TVs and set-top boxes. There’s a pleasing weightiness about its bodywork and the dappled finish on top is another nice touch that sets it apart from Panasonic’s cheaper systems.
The front panel drops down and behind it you’ll find an SD card slot, a USB port and two buttons (play and stop), with volume, power and tray open/close buttons on top. The flap and low button count keep everything nice and minimal. The right hand side of the front is given over to an iPod/iPhone dock, which pops out on a drawer and provides a convenient direct digital connection – one of this system’s many alluring features.
The satellite speakers look stunning in their gloss black finish and brushed silver bases. Although their 403mm height isn’t exactly compact, they’re far from imposing – these are speakers that will get noticed without getting in the way. Pleasingly, their build quality is a cut above Panasonic’s cheaper systems, but a manual inspection reveals a plastic casing that lacks the solidity and heft of a dedicated speaker system. That’s an inevitable consequence of packing so much hardware into a single box while trying to keep the price down. That goes for the subwoofer too – it looks pleasant in its gloss black finish, and its compact dimensions allow you to slot it into tight spaces without much bother, but it’s light and sounds hollow when tapped.
On the rear panel is a superb selection of connections, headlined by a 3D/ARC-compatible HDMI v1.4 output and two inputs, which allows the system to play back sound from other HD devices, as well as acting as a switcher for them. Optical digital audio and analogue stereo inputs accommodate other audio devices, while the Ethernet port enables a wired internet connection. There’s a second USB port dedicated to Panasonic’s Skype communication camera, an optional extra that’ll set you back around £100, while a digital transmitter dock is provided for the optional wireless rear speaker kit (SH-FX71) which costs around £100.
In terms of internet content and networking functionality, the feature list is pretty much identical to that of the DMP-BDT320 standalone player. Using the system’s built-in Wi-Fi you can access Viera Connect and its selection of web applications, including BBC iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube, Picasa, Eurosport, Acetrax, Facebook and Twitter. It’s a decent selection, with iPlayer being the clear headline-grabber, but it could do with a couple more catch-up TV services like it. You do get Skype however, which is a worthwhile venture if you have any budget left for the optional camera.
As for network functionality, you can stream music, videos and photos from Windows 7 PCs and devices with other operating systems (such as NAS drives) through the separate Network Drive Connection menu. File compatibility is good, with FLAC, DivX HD, AVCHD, WMV and MKV among the list of supported formats. If you have Panasonic DIGA HDD recorders elsewhere in the house you can stream recordings to this system.
Smartphone or tablet owners are also in for a treat. Not only can you use your device to access media from a DLNA server using the SC-BTT590 as a renderer, but you can also install Panasonic’s 2012 remote app and control every aspect of the system’s functionality (see ‘Operation’ for more on that).
These features are joined by the usual suspects – 3D compatibility with manual image adjustments and 2D-to-3D conversion, which works with any content including online videos, plus media playback from flash drives and external HDDs via the front USB port. AVCHD, JPEG, MPEG-2 and MPO are supported from SD, SDHC and SDXC cards. There’s also an FM radio on board.
There’s plenty to talk about on the audio side too. Inside the front and rear speakers are a film capacitor, which cuts low frequencies from the tweeter to enhance high frequency reproduction. The 80mm woofer cone is fashioned from Bamboo Charcoal PP (polypropylene), which it says offers a faster, clearer sound than the all-bamboo cones used in past Panasonic systems. They also use an Anti-Distortion Structure with an uneven thickness for the rear surface of the cone, which is said to suppress resonance, while the Double Motion Damper improves the long-stroke performance of the speaker unit.
The crossover between the subwoofer and sats has been lowered to 100Hz and the Anti-Jitter Digital Amplifier aims to improve music performance over the HDMI output (based on the MASH noise shaping technology of Panasonic and Technics products of yesteryear) by correcting inaccuracies in the source and amplifier clocks.
And as ever the system is packed with the usual wide range of sound modes. Chief among these is the 3D Cinema Surround, the updated version of last year’s Cinema Surround Plus, which adds 25 virtual speakers to the real 5.1 channels (up from last year’s 17). It’s joined by Digital Tube Sound – Panasonic’s stab at recreating the warm sound of a vacuum tube amplifier – and High Clarity Sound Plus, which shuts down unnecessary circuitry when playing back music.
Other tweaks include equaliser presets, H.Bass, Whisper Mode Surround and Centre Focus, which makes dialogue it sound like it’s coming from the middle of the screen. Naturally the system decodes Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio, and will expand stereo sources using Dolby Pro Logic II. There are plenty of picture modes to experiment with too, including user adjustments and presets, noise reduction, Chroma Process, Detail Clarity and Super Resolution.
All-in-one systems are all about simplicity and user-friendliness, and the SC-BTT590 excels in both areas. Setup is easy, thanks to the colour-coded cables and terminals, and there’s no need to screw any speaker parts together as it’s all assembled in the box. Obviously things get a little more involved if you want to wall mount the speakers – the stands come off and there are keyhole fixings on the back of each one.
Panasonic SC-BTT590When you delve into the onscreen menus, the layout is highly impressive. Your starting point is the Home menu, which uses a grid of nine square icons. The graphics and fonts are gorgeous, with cute pastel colours keeping everything bright and breezy, and the yellow cursor moves from box to box with alacrity. Sadly it lacks the one-press operation of Panasonic’s Blu-ray players – there are too many options in the grid for that to work – but hitting enter is no great hardship. Like all of Panasonic’s 2012 Blu-ray gear there’s a Multi-User mode that lets you customise the look.
A handy Options menu lets you change a wide range of settings during playback without interrupting your movie. Other displays, like the music/video playback and setup menus, are more utilitarian, dressed in Panasonic’s customary yellow and grey colour scheme, which is starting to look a little tired. But we can’t fault the simplicity of the layout or the speed at which it responds to commands.Setting up the DLNA functionality is a breeze thanks to the Easy Network Setting wizard, and tweaking the speakers from the setup menu is easy, allowing you to alter the level and delay for each channel, but the lack of automatic calibration is surprising and would have simplified the process further.
Panasonic SC-BTT590Controlling the system with the supplied remote poses no problems – the exemplary button layout, its ergonomic shape, the chunky rubber keys and no-nonsense labelling make operation feel intuitive and natural. There’s no touch pad as found on some of Panasonic’s Blu-ray player remotes, but if you want to bring things into the 21st century then there’s an iPhone/iPad/Android app that lets you control the unit with your mobile device. We downloaded the free app on our iPad and it’s brilliant.
There are three screens – Controller, which mimics the real remote; Keypad for entering text; and Dial/Sound, which is dominated by a huge virtual volume dial that can be changed to a search wheel, a media selection dial or a multi-directional pad. It’s surrounded by various surround sound options and an animation showing you how each mode will affect the sound. But the really snazzy part comes when you tip the iPad horizontally – up pops a series of three retro displays, mimicking the look of hi-fi equipment from yesteryear, complete with metal switches and knobs.
From the moment you first fire up Hellboy II’s best action scene, the battle with the Elemental by the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s clear that the SC-BTT590 is a cut above the usual all-in-one system fare. There’s a smoothness and maturity to its sound that helps justify the price tag. We’re not saying it matches the levels of insight and authority you’d get from a separates system, but you can certainly hear the benefits of those higher quality components inside the speakers.
With a claimed 1000W in the tank, the system has plenty of power, which is apparent every time the Elemental stomps on the ground with a satisfyingly hefty thump, or Hellboy blasts the giant plant with his gun. Even with the volume pushed half way, it’s loud and expansive enough to fill the room. The scene is played out with a convincing sense of scale, making the action sound big and exciting, not thin and poky like the SC-BTT182.
Imaging is excellent too – the placement of effects around the stage is precise and plausible, from the voices of the fleeing crowd to cars tumbling past the camera, while whirring helicopter blades are smoothly steered between speakers. Activate 3D Cinema Surround and the soundstage feels fuller and more immersive – vertically as well as horizontally – although you lose some of that precision and it’s impossible to tell if there are in fact 25 virtual speakers at work.
With high frequencies the SC-BTT590 is smooth and easy on the ear, lacking that hard, screechy edge that often besets budget systems. As the Elemental lobs a car at a helicopter in mid-air, the high-pitched squeal doesn’t shatter your ear drums, while crashing and tinkling glass is clean and realistic. As it rips the hotel sign off the wall, the crunching and cracking is crisp without sounding abrasive.
As the chaos dies down and the Elemental slumps back against the building, there’s a gorgeous mixture of thumping bass and crisp, twinkling high-frequencies. The delicate rustle as plants grow up the sides of buildings and the subtle hiss as the wind blows pollen through the air sounds lucid and textured. Dialogue is consistently audible too – you can easily make out Hellboy’s quips over the carnage.
The SC-BTT590 is surprisingly assured with music. It handles Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches with a light and delicate touch, teasing out hi-hats and the wispy edge to saxophones and trumpets, but injecting everything with pleasing warmth in the mid and low frequencies (especially when Digital Tube Sound is activated). Saxophone solos and vocals sound smooth and rich but never harsh. More uptempo dance tracks sound a little boomy, but remain enjoyable.
A cracking performance then, but not a perfect one. The subwoofer blends well with the satellites, but sounds a little too resonant at times. You also need to keep it set to the mid-way ‘2’ setting as it starts sounding muddy when set any higher.
However, there are absolutely no complaints with the SC-BTT590’s picture quality. 2D images are stunning, boasting a depth and clarity that makes it hard to look away, while its 3D pictures are even more spectacular, particularly the detail-rich landscapes of Pandora. Colour reproduction is faultless, from subtle skin tones to full-on blues and greens, while panoramic landscapes are reproduced with beautifully composed and finely detailed layers. It’s as good a 3D picture as you’re likely to see. It also makes a good fist of the Silicon Optix HQV disc, with only a little flicker on Film Resolution Loss test.
We also checked out Viera Connect’s web videos from iPlayer and YouTube and naturally the quality ranges from good to awful. When converting YouTube clips into 3D, the processing adds a subtle but ultimately disappointing sense of depth to the picture. It’s better with 2D Blu-rays and DVDs but still no match for a proper 3D disc.
Finally, the system took 43 seconds to load Terminator Salvation, which is a typical time for this disc.
The SC-BTT590 might just be the best-sounding cinema system Panasonic has ever produced. It boasts a smooth and mature sound that’s a cut above the vast majority of one-box systems. It’s not perfect, with an over-enthusiastic passive sub and a little less detail insight than you’d get from a separate speaker system, but its crisp, evenly balanced sound and powerful amp make it worth the price tag.
On the downside, the speakers feel a touch plasticky for a premium system and Viera Connect isn’t as good as Samsung’s Smart Hub, but its comprehensive feature range, excellent operating system and rock-solid picture performance make this a system that deserves a place on your shopping list.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8
|Number of Speakers||5|
|Dolby Pro Logic II||Yes|
|DTS Master Audio HD||Yes|
|Composite Video In||No|
|Component Video In||No|
|Component Video Out||No|
|S/PDIF Optical In||Yes|
|S/PDIF Coax In||No|
|Stereo Line In||Yes|
|Stereo Line Out||No|