With so many high-quality, big-brand surround sound receivers on the market, you'd be forgiven for wondering why Panasonic has chosen to try to compete with them. After listening to the new SA-BX500, we're asking the same question.
Of course, the SA-BX500 serves a purpose: it gives Panasonic dealers something to sell to complement their outstanding TVs and Blu-ray players. At least in superficial spec terms, the Panasonic seems to be on the money: it's got three HDMI inputs, decoding for Dolby TrueHD and the rest, and offers automatic calibration.
You can plug in a wireless sender module for use with Panasonic's wireless rear speakers (it'll cost you about £100, plus the speakers), and an external iPod dock is available too, also at extra cost.
However, the SA-BX500 won't convert analogue video signals to HDMI (never mind deinterlace or scale them), and it doesn't have an onscreen display, so configuration is tricky. Oh, and the build quality isn't all that great either.
Lack of finesse is clear
But none of that really matters next to the Panasonic's sound. Optimistically rated at 150w per channel (using the most flattering criteria possible), it's a shrill-sounding sonic weed in a class of muscle-bound powerhouses.
Even after its auto-calibration process has done its stuff, the receiver's lack of finesse and composure at modest volumes is obvious – but push it with anything demanding, and its shrieking, uncomfortably edgy balance is distinctly off-putting, as is its flattened, compressed presentation of what should be substantial dynamic shifts.
That's a significant weakness in a product designed to showcase the best in next-generation home cinema technology. Shifting to less-demanding surround content and lower volume levels is slightly more rewarding, but it also tends to defeat the point a little.
Summary? It's not often we encounter a product we just can't recommend, but the SA-BX500 pulls it off. You can do much, much better than this.