Open Receivers Page 3

Panasonic SA-XR25S Panasonic's entry is one of a new generation of A/V components that use digital amplifier circuitry to achieve a previously impossible combination of high power in a compact, lightweight component. The SA-XR25S weighs less than 9 pounds and stands less than 3 inches tall, yet it produces an honest 80 W x 6 in surround and more in stereo - quite a feat. (Digital amplifiers, increasingly common in home-theater-in-a-box systems and DVD-receiver combos, keep signals in the digital domain right up to the power-amp stages, where ultra-efficient "switching-type" circuits are used to both amplify and, in the process, convert to an analog, speakers-ready signal. This means, of course, that even analog sources like the AM/FM tuner or a tape deck must be converted to digital audio first - no analog purists need apply!) receivers - panasonic back Panasonic makes the most of the SA-XR25S's slimness with a pared-down front panel whose controls include just volume, a single input-selector button, and a few tiny keys for tuner and surround modes. For everything else, you'll need the remote. It's just as well: the panel's tiny lettering and miniature upper keys are all but impossible to read. The receiver's rear panel is sparse, too, with just three A/V inputs and two audio-only ones, plus a pair of component-video inputs and the multichannel analog sextet required for a DVD-Audio or SACD player. The speaker outputs are economical spring-clip terminals for all but the front left/right channels.

receivers - panasonic remote DIMENSIONS 17 inches wide, 2 7/8 inches wide, 14 3/4 inches deep WEIGHT 8 3/4 pounds PRICE $300 MANUFACTURER Panasonic, Dept. S&V, One Panasonic Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094;; 800-211-7262

Although I wouldn't mind more inputs, I have to confess that I admired the Panasonic's svelte form enormously. I was thrilled to get real power out of such a Kate Moss chassis (a response, no doubt, to decades of lugging around heavy receivers and amplifiers of one sort or another).

Setup was relatively painless even though the SA-XR25S, like the others, lacks onscreen menus to guide the process, and its front-panel readout is pretty small. The Panasonic's sole setup item of note is its Filter option, which lets you set its subwoofer crossover point to 100, 150, or 200 Hz. I'd have preferred the de facto standard of 80 Hz in place of the first (a small point), and the last is too high for all but the tiniest of satellite speakers. But the 150-Hz option might prove useful with small but otherwise capable speakers.

I tried hard to "hear" the Panasonic's high-tech digital amps, honest I did. I threw all my usual critical-listening ammo at it, including the best-produced SACD and DVD-Audio discs - but I can't say I had a lot of success. A couple of times I thought I heard a certain glassiness on dynamic peaks, as when Norah Jones's voice on her Come Away with Me SACD goes from a breathy whisper to a tasteful belt in the space of a quarter-note. But I'm afraid this could have been a case of the golden ear yielding to the power of suggestion, or perhaps just simple amplifier clipping - yes, digital amps can run out of juice, too.

In any event, the XR25S sounded surprisingly excellent on all my music challenges, and it held the same firm line on movies. The Good Thief doesn't make a lot of demands on the upper end of the dynamic scale, but there are plenty of mumbled and whispered lines, and the Panasonic delivered the necessary clarity to preserve the nuance and color of each one.

I found the XR25S easy to use, with a few modest reservations. As I mentioned, its small front-panel lettering is often hard to read - and the decorative fluorescent light-strip doesn't help a bit. (This goes out when you select a "dimmer" option, but then the graphics are dimmer, too.) The remote control's white-on-gray lettering no doubt springs from the same ergonomic genius. Still, the remote's layout is sensible and its keys generously spaced, in part because secondary controls are behind a slide-down cover. In all, these factors make learning the controller fairly easy.

Like the other two receivers here, the Panasonic delivers the full range of Dolby Digital and DTS modes, including both 5.1- and 6.1-channel decoding, as well as DPL II and Neo:6 processing for stereo and Dolby Surround sources. Panasonic even throws in a decent selection of user-adjustable parameters for both DPL II and Neo:6, including the less common Panorama control for DPL II. The XR25S's "extras" are limited to an Enhanced Surround option, which adds in the back surround speaker on most modes, and a handful of DSP ones - Hall, Live, Club, and the like - that tend to be too rich in slap-echo or "flanginess" to my ears.

In this, the Panasonic is hardly unique among A/V receivers, even much more expensive ones. And in most other respects, I liked the skinny little SA-XR25S a lot. It sounded every bit as good as I'd expect from a component of its price and utility - regardless of size. And with its mostly straightforward operation, it was easier and more pleasant to use than many other receivers I've encountered, even at twice the price and three times the bulk.