Review: Panasonic SC-BT730 Blu-ray Home Theater System

Ask any audiophile to recommend a decent home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB), and you'll probably get the same kind of vacant stare as from a wine snob who's been asked to name his favorite brand of boxed wine. Although a ready-to-roll system like Panasonic's SC-BT730 may not get an enthusiast's heart racing, it can be a great solution for an average person who wants good performance with a minimum of fuss. Simply add an HDTV to the mix and you'll be ready to go.

At first glance, the SC-BT730's central component looks like any other Blu-ray player, until you notice that a lot of extra features have been squeezed in. In addition to the disc spinner, there's an iPod dock, FM tuner, SD Card reader, and an amplifier that's used to drive most of the speakers. I say most because this system includes wireless surround speakers driven by a small separate amp, a solution that eliminates the hassle of having to run wires the length of your room.

The SC-BT730 is one of the first systems to take advantage of the Audio Return Channel (ARC) feature included in the HDMI 1.4 specification. A single HDMI link between the SC-BT730 and the TV carries video signals from the HTiB to the TV, and audio from the TV back to the SC-BT730. This allows sources connected directly to the display to be heard through the home theater system, although your set's HDMI 1.4 connection needs to support the ARC feature for it to work.

Of course, the SC-BT730 itself is quite comprehensively equipped; in most setups the only additional source will be a cable box or satellite receiver. You get Panasonic's Viera Cast streaming service, which includes Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Amazon Video On Demand, and a few others. A LAN port connects the SC-BT730 to your home network, with a plug-in Wi-Fi adapter available as a $90 option if you want to connect wirelessly.

Unlike many other HTiB systems, the SC-BT730 uses actual two-way speakers for its front- and center-channels. The tallboy-style main speakers are incredibly slender pillars just over 2 inches wide and 40 inches high that, along with the center channel speaker, use twin oval woofers flanking a dome tweeter. The surround speakers use Panasonic's familiar 2.5-in full-range driver, while the "Kelton" subwoofer has an internally mounted 6.5-inch active driver and a 10-inch passive radiator. The SC-BT730's 1,000-watt total power rating is a bit of a marketing gimmick, seeing that the figure comes from a 1-kHz tone with 10% distortion. Its FTC rating is somewhat more realistic at a little less than half of that power.