Panasonic TU-DST52 Digital Receiver

Five years ago, Panasonic produced the very first DTV receiver set-top box. All of the company's succeeding generations of these products have been among the best. The latest incarnation, the surprisingly small and inexpensive TU-DST52, is no exception.

The TU-DST52 is just over 11 inches wide and 7 inches deep, and costs $340. No receiver is smaller, and, as far as I know, none is cheaper. Compare this to Panasonic's first receiver, the TU-DST50, which went on sale in fall 1998. It was 17 inches wide, 12 inches deep, cost $1700, and, for its time, was a great product. I still have the "engineering sample" they sent me back then for review. It was the first receiver in a US consumer's home, and I bought it.

Consider Zenith's first entry in the digital-tuner market, back in 1998: the IQADTV1W. It weighed more than 10 times as much as the TU-DST52, and, at $5995, was more than 17 times as expensive. But the new box—half the size and 20 percent of the price of its own great-grandparent—outperforms its forebear and the first Zenith receiver by a considerable margin. You get few bells and whistles for $340, but you get topnotch performance.

The unassuming-looking TU-DST52 is not particularly attractive. Its silver-gray faceplate is plastic, as are the few control buttons. Tuck it out of the way—it doesn't have to be seen to be of use, as long as its IR receiver window is exposed. The buttons on the front duplicate some of those on the remote, and pilot lights let you know whether you're receiving a high- or standard-definition signal. Another light indicates the signal strength it's receiving. This is of debatable utility—just look at the picture and you'll know whether you have a strong signal or a weak one.

The outputs are minimal. The TU-DST52 offers neither of the new digital options, DVI or IEEE1394, nor does it have RGB. Component video is the only HD option, but as far as I know there is not one HDTV on sale that lacks a component input. In fact, the only exception may be some of the earliest RCA products, which used an RGB input. There's only one digital audio output, and it's optical. Again, however, most if not all receivers and processors offer both optical and coaxial digital-audio inputs.

Nor does the TU-DST52 output 720-line progressive signals, which used to be of only academic concern. But with so many fixed-pixel devices—plasmas, LCDs, DLPs—that are capable of displaying 720p but not 1080i, consider this limitation carefully before buying a TU-DST52. What's more, when Fox begins broadcasting in high-definition next year, it will join ABC in the use of 720p.

The TU-DST52 will output a signal in one of three formats: 480i, 480p, or 1080i. A 720p signal is converted to 480p or 1080i, depending on which one you select. If the signal is converted to 1080i, there will be at least some degradation of a 720p signal—something that's true of every digital receiver designed in this way.

Setup was easy, and similar to that of most current-generation boxes. Turn the TU-DST52 on and it pulls you immediately into the setup menu. Like most digital receivers, the first thing it does is perform a channel scan, to identify the digital channels in your area. Though this approach has become almost universal, I'm not a big fan of it. The problem is that not every digital channel is on the air all the time, even if the law generally says it should be. If a channel happens to be off the air when you run your channel search, you'll miss it. Also, with about 950 of the nation's 1650 television stations now broadcasting in digital, the remaining 700 will be turning on their transmitters over the next year or so. But unless you run another channel scan, you won't even know the new stations are there. (To find out if any new stations have begun transmitting in your area, check the lists at or, the respective websites for the National Association of Broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission.)

The TU-DST52 does offer one feature missing from most other current products—a signal meter you can apply to any channel you like, whether or not it's among those identified by the channel scan. The meter is accessed through the setup menu in a not very intuitive way, but the instruction book explains it.

The remote control is straightforward and basic, of the same gray plastic design as the receiver. It's programmable, and the only buttons that are backlit are the four that tell you which device the remote is controlling.

The Panasonic doesn't come with cables or IR blasters that allow it to control a VCR, but an internal timer can turn the TU-DST52 on and off and change the channel. You can record shows if you plug it into your VCR with a composite or S-video cable and set the VCR's timer for the same program. But you'll have to remember to change the output format to 480i—if one of the higher-definition formats is selected, the S-video and composite outputs are disabled. You can record from the component outputs to a D-VHS machine, but you still have to use 480i, because no current-generation D-VHS machine will record a high-definition signal from a component output, due to copy-protection concerns.

The TU-DST52 also offers several aspect-ratio controls for watching 16:9 shows on 4:3 sets, and vice versa. And, like nearly all new receivers, it's perfectly quiet. Although the Panasonic has no fan, my review sample never heated up while I was using it.

I ran a channel scan as soon as the Panasonic TU-DST52's automatic setup procedure called for it. Washington, DC, where I live, has seven broadcast stations, all of them already on the air with digital signals—the station owners want to make sure that members of Congress and FCC officials are able to see that they're living up to the law, at least in the city where these people live.

My measure of a digital receiver's perfor-mance has been the same since I reviewed the first one five years ago in the same house, using the same rooftop antenna with the same rotor. The two questions are: How many channels can the box receive? How much must the rotor be adjusted to receive those channels? The results in other people's houses will most likely differ from mine because of different terrain, different distances to the towers, and different antennas and signal paths to the receiver. What I offer is a common test bed for every receiver reviewed, not a prediction of how a specific receiver will perform in a specific reader's house. Still, a receiver that performs well here is more likely to perform well in your house than one that does not.

The $340 Panasonic was a stellar performer. Not one of the two dozen boxes I've reviewed in the last five years has performed better than this one. Without touching the rotor control of my antenna, which is set at a position midway among the optimal settings for all the local stations, the TU-DST52 was able to pick up all seven channels, including two that were multicasting four channels, without a hiccup, complaint, or disturbance. In every case, reception was perfect. Very few receivers I have reviewed have equaled this perfor-mance. It would not be possible to better it.

To anyone who wants a terrestrial ATSC receiver by itself—without a DirecTV receiver built in, as many boxes have—and is not concerned about its inability to output a 720p signal, I can recommend the Panasonic TU-DST52 without equivocation. It is a great performer at an unbeatable price.