There are games of two halves, and then there’s the Panasonic SC-HTB490, a soundbar system with a wireless subwoofer that mars the overall performance.
- Full-range, (mostly) informative sound
- Useful specification
- It’s a Panasonic
- Low frequencies are strongly at odds with everything else
- Feels at least as inexpensive as it actually is
- Authentically nasty remote control
- SubwooferWireless subwoofer providing 160W of power
- Sound modesStandard, Cinema, Sports, Music, and News mode
- Wall-mountSupports mounting on a wall
Unless you’re in the market for a microwave oven or something, the SC-HTB490 is one of the most affordable ways to get a Panasonic appliance into your home – and there’s no two ways about it, when you want to upgrade the sound of your TV without spend an arm and a leg, why wouldn’t you want to involve a brand as credible as this?
Well, as it turns out there are one or two reasons…
I’ll get to those reasons, but before I do it’s worth noting the Panasonic SC-HTB490 is on sale for no more than £249 in the UK. In Australia it sells for AU$349, maximum. In America, meanwhile, Panasonic likes to take things on a product-by-product basis – and the SC-HBT940 hasn’t made the cut.
This is a nicely entry-level sort of price for a soundbar with wireless subwoofer from a credible brand, but the field is far from clear for Panasonic. Competitors as significant as Bose, Denon and Sonos all have an alternative to sell you for very similar money – it’s not going to be enough for the Panasonic to simply show up and make some noise, not by a long chalk.
- 56 x 800 x 101mm (HxWxD), 1.9kg (soundbar)
- 382 x 171 x 363mm (HxWxD), 5.7kg (subwoofer)
- Soundbar can be shelf- or wall-mounted
With the (obvious) exception of Bang & Olufsen, no manufacturer pushes the design boat out when it comes to soundbars – especially when they’re as affordable as this one. So what Panasonic has delivered with the SC-HTB490 is a reasonably compact (56 x 800 x 101mm, HxWxD), light (1.9kg) product that adheres very closely to the universal soundbar design template.
Its proportions are such that it will sit happily beneath even quite small TVs (which these days tends to mean 48-inches or so) and won’t foul the bottom of the screen of any TV that doesn’t sit very low on its stand. There are a couple of basic mounting points on the rear in case you’d prefer to attach it to the wall.
The subwoofer, meanwhile, is a slightly less discreet 382 x 171 x 363mm (HxWxD) and 5.7kg – but because it’s wireless, of course, it can be positioned pretty much anywhere you like as long as it has access to mains power.
Both are perfectly adequately built and finished, from materials that are as prosaic and unglamorous as the asking price dictates they must be. The soundbar is of fairly hard plastic and quite a quantity of acoustic cloth, while the subwoofer is vinyl-wrapped MDF. But you want them to listen to soundbars, don’t you, not to touch?
- 2.1-channel sound
- HDMI ARC, Bluetooth 4.2
- 320 watts of power
The SC-HTB940 is a 2.1-channel system – none of your fancy-pants spatial audio nonsense here. It intends to do nothing more spectacular than make the unassisted sound of the TV it’s partnering sound thin and vague.
To that end, it’s packing a total of 320 watts of Class D power. Half of that is used by the subwoofer to power its side-facing 160mm bass driver, while the other 160 watts is taken up by the soundbar. It’s fitted with a couple of forward-facing 45 x 120mm racetrack drivers, and they’re responsible for all frequency information above that the subwoofer generates.
The Panasonic is compatible with lossy Dolby Digital and DTS, as well as two-channel LPCM. And getting audio information on board the system in the first place can be achieved using either physical or wireless connections.
On the rear of the soundbar, in a little recess, there is an HDMI ARC socket along with a digital optical input and USB slot. Wireless connectivity, meanwhile, is taken care of by Bluetooth 4.2 with SBC codec compatibility. Here’s where we use the word unglamorous again – but by the same token, this suite of connectivity is entirely fit for purpose.
Getting what you want from the SC-HTB490 can be achieved in a couple of ways. There are a few control buttons on the top of the soundbar – they cover power on/off, volume up/down, Bluetooth pairing and input selection. Or you can use the remote control handset (which, even by the standards of affordable remote controls is remarkably unpleasant – it’s thin, small and feels almost ostentatiously cheap).
As well as the basics, it allows you to cycle through five EQ settings, to balance the output of the subwoofer against the overall system volume, and mute the output altogether. Or you can make an HDMI ARC connection to your TV and then use your screen’s (undoubtedly far nicer) remote handset via HDMI CEC to control volume and what-have-you.
- Organized and informative sound from the soundbar
- Brash yet vague sound from the subwoofer
- Bass aplenty
The performance of pretty much any product I test is made up of a combination of pluses and minuses, of course. But I’m struggling to recall a product with so little by way of in between.
The SC-HTB490’s performance ‘pluses’ all centre around the way the soundbar goes about its business. It serves up a direct, distinct and detailed sound, with a nice sensation of spaciousness to its soundstage and plenty of breathing space for even the densest or most complex soundtracks to operate.
Despite its lack of dedicated tweeters, the soundbar extends far up the frequency range, and creates treble sounds with plenty of bite and substance. And it does impressive work through the midrange too, especially where voices are concerned – Christian Bale’s Brummie accent (with occasional detours into Lancashire) during Le Mans ‘66 projects far ahead of the mechanical uproar, loaded with detail both broad and fine, and completely convincing as a result. The hectic, blaring engine noise that’s a major part of the soundtrack has all the crunch and force it requires, too, with the dynamic variations within it given plenty of expression.
‘Minuses’, meanwhile, are all the property of the subwoofer. In the first instance, it doesn’t have an awful lot in common with the soundbar where tonality and broader personality are concerned. The subwoofer is blunt and vague where the soundbar is adroit and detailed, and there’s not much variation in the sounds the subwoofer delivers – there’s a monotonal aspect to its performance that’s quite strongly at odds with the adaptability of the soundbar it partners.
On top of this, the subwoofer contrives to be altogether too forward and upfront in its performance. The little remote control offers the opportunity to adjust its output, but it doesn’t seem to be sufficient to bring the sub’s volume into line with that of the soundbar – so bass sounds, as well as being rather indistinct and one-note, are constantly on the verge of overwhelming the rest of the frequency range. When a soundtrack insists on plenty of low-frequency activity, the Panasonic subwoofer’s presence is always disproportionate.
Switch to a digital audio file of Odd Future’s Snow White and the story is broadly similar. From the top of the frequency range to the bottom of the midrange, the SC-HTB490 is open, quite articulate and perfectly capable of establishing a well-organised soundstage. From there on down, though, it drones in a rather indistinct manner, intimidating the midrange, and spoiling rhythmic positivity thanks to its lack of attack-and-decay control. It seems safe to say that this Panasonic is especially not the soundbar for you if you want to use it as a music-player too.
Should you buy it?
You enjoy dialogue-heavy movies: The Panasonic’s midrange reproduction is eloquent, positive and direct.
You like a balanced, full-range sound: ‘Full range’ is definitely available here. ‘Balance’ is in rather short supply.
There must have come a moment in the development of the Panasonic SC-HTB490 that someone in a position of influence pointed out its glaringly obvious shortcomings. So it seems likely that someone in a position of greater influence suggested that the company had invested too much time and money in the product to abandon it now, so it should probably just be launched but with Panasonic’s corporate fingers crossed.
How we test
We test every soundbar we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
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Tested for several days
Tested with real world use
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No, as a 2.1 channel soundbar there’s no support for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, just Dolby Digital and DTS Surround audio.
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