(Pocket-lint) - Panasonic is better known for its TVs and players, with the company's soundbars often falling between the cracks. That's a shame because Panasonic makes very good soundbars, of which the SC-HTB900 represents the flagship entry for 2019.
This 3.1-channel soundbar and subwoofer combination supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, thanks to the application of psychoacoustic processing, along with 4K, HDR and Hi-Res Audio. It's also been tuned by Technics and works with Google Assistant, making it an adept all-rounder.
Design: Simple but effective
- Subwoofer: 180 x 408 x 306mm; 5.4kg
- Soundbar: 1050 x 78 x 129mm; 6.0kg
- Available in matte black
Panasonic has taken a simple approach to the design of the HTB900, using a rectangular cabinet with a curved leading edge and a black brushed metal finish. At the front you'll find a metal grille covering the three speakers, while there's a basic display that can be dimmed or turned off.
The overall build quality its very good, reflecting the price point. This soundbar is designed for screen sizes of 48-inches and larger, but the low form factor means it shouldn't block the image if placed in front of a TV. There's also the option of wall-mounting using provided brackets.
The included wireless subwoofer is based around a 160mm downward-firing cone driver combined with a bass reflex port. This gives the sub extra grunt, while a strengthened chassis reduces unwanted vibrations. The sub has a total of 250W of built-in amplification.
Connections & Controls
- 2x HDMI inputs; HDMI output with ARC
- Wi-Fi; Bluetooth (4.2); Chromecast
- Optical digital input; Ethernet
- Included remote control
- Music Control app
To control the HTB900 you have a choice of touch-sensitive controls or an included remote. The former are found on the top of the soundbar, with controls for volume up/down, input, power, and Bluetooth.
The credit card-sized remote has, despite its size, all the buttons you'll need to setup and control the soundbar: there are buttons for power, volume, mute, inputs, Bluetooth pairing, setup, navigating the menus, and selecting a sound mode.
If you prefer using a smart device, Panasonic offers its Music Control App, which is freely available for both Apple iOS and Google Android. Since the HTB900 works with Google Assistant, there's even the option of limited voice control if you have a suitable smart speaker.
The connections are all located in a recessed area under the soundbar, which is quite cramped, so bear that in mind if you use chunky cables. There are two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output with ARC. All the HDMI ports can handle 4K/60p, wide colour gamut and high dynamic range (HDR).
However there's no support for eARC (enhanced audio return channel) and none of the HDMI ports pass Dolby Vision or HDR10+. That's a bizarre choice by Panasonic, especially given it currently offers TVs and 4K disc players that support both dynamic metadata formats.
Other physical connections include an optical digital input, an Ethernet port, and a connector for the included IR extender. In terms of wireless connections, there's dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Chromecast.
Features: Some surprising omissions
- 2.1-channel configuration from 9 drivers total
- 505W of built-in amplification
- Dolby Atmos and decoding
- Psychoacoustic processing
- 10 sound modes
- Hi-Res Audio
The Panasonic SC-HTB900's main feature is its ability to decode the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based audio formats. In order to create an immersive experience from only 3.1-channels, it uses psychoacoustic processing to trick the brain into thinking sounds are emanating from places where these's no physical speaker.
This kind of processing can be quite effective, but it's worth pointing out that it can never fully replace a multi-channel system based around actual speakers. That's because over millions of years of evolution our brains have got very good at distinguishing where sounds originate, which tends to help prevent being eaten by nasty beasties.
As part of this sonic illusion, the HTB900 uses three well-specified speakers. The front left and right channels are composed of two 65mm mid-range cone drivers and a 16mm dome tweeter, while the centre channel uses two 65mm mid-range cone drivers and no tweeter. The built-in amplification delivers 85W to each speaker.
The HTB900 was developed in conjunction with Technics, and it has installed its so-called 'JENOEngine' digital amplifier to produce the system's combined 505W of power. There's also a jitter reduction circuit, combined with tuning by Technics to ensure accurate integration of the front three channels with the subwoofer.
The Panasonic can decode all the popular audio formats, including Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Atmos. There's also a number of sound modes: Standard, Stadium, Music, Cinema, News, Straight, Clear Dialogue, Berlin Philharmonic Hall, Low Volume, and 3D Surround; as well as a subwoofer level adjustment, dialogue level control, auto gain control, and auto lip synchronisation with Panasonic TV Link.
Sound quality: Sonic sorcery
Overall the Panasonic SC-HTB900 has proved to be a very capable soundbar, sounding well-rounded and dynamic with TV, movies and music. The company has concentrated on getting the fundamentals right, and the influence of Technics has clearly paid dividends.
This attention to the basics means the HTB900 boasts a well-constructed pair of stereo speakers that handle two-channel music effectively. The stereo imaging has width and depth, while the woofer and tweeter combination ensures clarity and excellent detail retrieval. The mid-range is well-defined, and the higher frequencies are handled without sounding harsh or sibilant.
Watching TV shows and movies
All these above strengths come into play but are enhanced by the addition of the centre speaker, which ensures dialogue remains clear and focused on the screen for TV shows. The system has plenty of power, allowing it to go loud without distorting, while the subwoofer has depth but also nicely integrates with the other three speakers.
When watching Preacher on Amazon, the HTB900 handles the 5.1-channel soundtrack with skill, delivering the apocalyptic mayhem across the front of the room. The music is nicely rendered, dialogue retains clarity, effects are placed around the screen, and the sub lays a solid foundation of bass. There's no rear channel presence, but using 3D surround mode gives the audio greater depth at the expense of focus.
A dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtrack like Aquaman on 4K Blu-ray proves a challenge for the Panasonic, but the soundbar rises to the occasion. This is a seriously bass-heavy mix, and the sub handles the low-end surprisingly well, making every super-powered punch feel like a sledgehammer.
Thanks to the centre speaker's excellent mid-range, Aquaman's voice is also suitably deep and gravelly. However, the effects are never fully immersive, with no real sense of sounds coming from behind or above. What you do get is a sense of greater depth and dimensionality, with effects moving away from the screen and out into the room.
Continuing the aquatic theme, the new DTS:X soundtrack for Waterworld provides a similar experience. The music is accurately reproduced, with drum-dominated score sounding suitably epic and the sub giving the percussion added kick. What limited dialogue there is remains clear, and effects such as gunfire and explosions are placed around the screen.
Once again there are limited surround or overhead sonic cues, and as a result the soundstage never feels fully immersive. The psychoacoustic processing can certainly create the illusion of a more three-dimensional audio experience, but the effects are always in front of or to the side of the screen, rather than being overhead or behind.
The numerous sound modes are often gimmicky, but Straight plays back stereo content using 2.1 channels, while News is good for emphasising dialogue, and Stadium gives sports broadcasts more scale. The 3D Surround mode processes non-immersive audio, pushing the audio to the sides and out into the room, creating more scale, but effects sometimes lose their focus.
The Panasonic SC-HTB900 does a lot of things very well: it's solidly built, looks nice and has a reasonable set of features. While it's true that using psychoacoustics to create the illusion of greater immersion is never as effective as simply having more speakers, this 3.1-channel soundbar does a good job of giving audio greater presence, bringing it out into the room.
The use of high-quality woofers and tweeters means two-channel music sounds excellent, while the dedicated centre channel ensures clear and focused dialogue. The system as a whole has plenty of power, allowing it to go loud without distorting, and the subwoofer can deliver deep bass while remaining integrated with the other three speakers.
The involvement of Technics has paid dividends in terms of sound quality, and there are useful features like Hi-Res Audio support, Chromecast and the ability to work with Google Assistant. The lack of HDR10+ and Dolby Vision is a frustrating omission given the company's TVs and UHD Blu-ray players support them, ironically making this soundbar less-than-deal for Panasonic fans.
The obvious alternative is the Sony HT-ZF9 3.1-channel soundbar, which also costs around £599 and applies similar psychoacoustic processing to decode and reproduce Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. It also has two HDMI inputs (although no HDR10+/Dolby Vision passthrough), Wi-Fi, Chromecast and the ability to work with smart assistants, making it a great value option.
If you prefer the idea of actual speakers rather than psychoacoustic processing, the Samsung HW-Q70R is a great choice. It also supports Atmos and DTS:X, but uses a 5.1.2 configuration based around side- and upward-firing drivers. Add in Dolby Vision/HDR10+ passthrough, smart features and multi-room, and the £799 asking price starts to look tempting.