(Pocket-lint) - If you want to make a worthwhile difference to the sound of your TV, you're spoilt for choice where soundbars at the lower end of the budget scale are concerned. Equally, if you feel your games console experience requires a sonic rocket, there are numerous LED-happy gaming soundbars ready to do a job for you.
But what if you want both - and you want something small and discreet enough to cause minimal disruption to your viewing and/or gaming environment(s) at the same time? Your shortlist has suddenly become quite a lot shorter.
You can now add the Panasonic SC-HTB01 - or Soundslayer, as it's also rather excitably known - to your shortlist, though. It may be physically small, but it's big on performance.
- Ports: 1x HDMI input, 1x HDMI output, 1x optical input
- Dimensions: 52 x 431 x 132mm / Weight: 1.8kg
- Finish: Matte Black only
Obviously, the big news is how small the Panasonic is. It's perfectly proportioned to sit discreetly underneath your TV or games monitor, and at this weight it's hardly a burden to move it from one position to another. But it's still big enough to be fitted with reasonably sized speaker drivers.
'Design' doesn't really seem to be something that's happened to the SC-HTB01 - rather, its drivers and accompanying electronics have been put into a housing which has then been mostly covered with acoustic cloth. Its plastics feel ordinary. It's basically not much to look at - although it's easy to imagine Panasonic thinking that's entirely the point.
'Bland' isn't the same as 'badly made' though - this, after all, is Panasonic we're talking about. The Soundslayer may not be visually stimulating, but it's properly screwed together and feels made to last.
- Decoding: Dolby Atmos & DTS:X supported
- Modes: Game, Standard, Music, Cinema
- 4K HDR passthrough supported
There is a brief suite of physical connections on the rear of the soundbar. A couple of HDMI sockets - one input, one ARC-enabled output - a digital optical input, and a USB socket (for updates only).
Via HDMI, the Soundslayer can handle 4K HDR content as well as multi-channel audio up to a hefty 24bit/192kHz standard - so Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X soundtracks present no problems. Wirelessly connectivity is handled by Bluetooth 2.1 - hands up who remembers when that was the cutting edge of wireless streaming technology?
The SC-HTB01's equaliser (EQ) presets let you know where it thinks it belongs. Presets for 'music', 'cinema' and 'standard' attest to its flexibility - but within the 'game' preset there are sub-settings for 'RPG', 'FPS' and 'enhanced voices' (which is excellent when listening at very low volume levels).
- Included remote control
It's not a problem, in and of itself, that the Panasonic has no voice assistant or control app. It's not a problem that everything, from subwoofer level and overall volume level to EQ preset and Bluetooth pairing, is taken care of by a full-function remote control handset.
No, the problem is that the remote control seems to have been selected on the basis that there were no more affordable options available. It's small, hard, thin, unpleasant to hold, and very nearly as unpleasant to use.
But at least there is one included, we suppose.
- Drivers: 2x 4cm full-range, 2x 1.4cm tweeters, 1x 8cm woofer, 1x passive radiators
- Configuration: '2.1' channel output
- 80W of Class D power
Behind that mild-mannered exterior, two 40mm full-range drivers and two 14mm tweeters face forwards. On the top of the 'bar there's an upward-firing 80mm bass driver, alongside passive low-frequency radiators. Panasonic is striving for a '2.1' channel effect with this five-driver layout, and has fitted the SC-HTB01 with 80 Watts of power with which to make it happen.
There's also a bass reflex slot at the front of the cabinet, just in case that passive radiator doesn't quite pull its weight. Naturally, this upward-firing configuration means the Panasonic shouldn't be positioned with surfaces directly above it.
So how does all that come across? Well, if you've been using the audio system integrated into your TV or your monitor up until now, the SC-HTB01 will thrill you with the scale and drive of its sound.
The combination of judicious speaker driver placement and careful EQs means the Panasonic sounds bigger - and in every direction - than seems likely from a soundbar this tiny. There's no mistaking its presentation for that of a dedicated Dolby Atmos soundbar, naturally, but the Soundslayer's soundstage is taller, deeper and (especially) wider than it would seem to have any right to be.
At the top of the frequency range it carries plenty of detail, and gives treble sound lots of substance to go along with their considerable bite. Further down, the midrange is nicely shaped and projects forward well - even without the intervention of the EQ presets.
It's down at the bottom of the frequency range, though, that the Panasonic both triumphs and fails. This isn't the first soundbar to have mistaken 'overconfident bass' for 'excitement' - and, to be absolutely fair, the SC-HTB01 controls the low-end stuff pretty well. It certainly doesn't drone and doesn't blossom into the midrange, either. But it definitely overplays its hand where bass is concerned - 'punchy' is one thing, but being repeatedly punched while trying to watch TV or concentrate on a game is quite another.
The big, bassy emphasis doesn't help the Panasonic's overall detail retrieval, which is a pity. It's possible to independently adjust the 'subwoofer' level using the remote control, but the effect is not so much to reduce the soundbar's outright wallop as to rob it of its dynamism.
That's unfortunate, because the Soundslayer ordinarily has more than enough dynamism to maximise any game soundtrack you care to mention. It can put a huge amount of distance between 'stealth' and 'assault', which adds a lot to the gaming experience.
It works well for movies, too - when the soundtrack demands a shift from 'quiet and contemplative' to 'massive attack', the Panasonic relishes the opportunity. It's so much more accomplished than the sound of your average TV, and consequently far more involving.
The temptation, naturally, is to go all-in on the volume - but that would be a mistake. The Soundslayer's tonal balance, which at moderate volume levels is pretty well judged, takes a definite turn for the 'hard and unforgiving' if you decide to press on. Treble sounds get edgy and thin, and the bass stops punching and starts slapping. Stick to reasonable levels, in other words - it's not only your neighbours who will thank you.
Keep its limitations in mind and there's lots to like about the Panasonic SC-HTB01. It may not quite be the 'soundslayer' it purports to be, but it's a convenient and capable way of giving your games and movies a bit more sonic oomph. As long as you don't get carried away with volume, anyhow.
Slightly bigger than the Panasonic, slightly less expensive too, but designed to do much the same job. It is similarly unruly when the volume get big, too, but overall is probably a marginally better bet.