Panasonic launched the SC-HTB3GW sound bar on 15-Jan-2016 and issued a rather terse press-note which was promptly copied word-for-word by tech and non-tech news channels. Apparently, either they did not submit review units or they did not generate enough excitement for someone to review it. At Rs. 4190/-, the speaker promises 20W RMS output, thundering bass, Bluetooth connectivity, USB Pen Drive support and Aux-In (Stereo RCA cable) support. Panasonic is not a name associated with world-class sound and the audio-systems they make are best at complementing the miserable audio of ever-thinner LCD televisions. Quite naturally, even at Rs. 4K (which is 50% less than the nearest competing model by Philips), the speakers do not generate enough excitement in the audio-lovers. I nevertheless chose to acquire one and hence here it is, the first review of the sound bar.
My house is now full of speakers of all shapes and sizes. From Rs.99/- crap all the way to Rs.40,000/-. Though the ones that I am using more often than not, are the Bluetooth-enabled speakers. The sheer convenience wows me. I am able to transmit audio from my phone wirelessly and enjoy music untethered while sleeping on the floor with legs on the sofa. Audio quality is sufficiently high and depending on the speaker, indistinguishable from the wired connections. Much of my listening (99%) is music, music videos and TV shows. Movies (1%) are generally enjoyed on the Home Theatre system.
For my 99% listening, I use the Fenda (F&D) E200 Sound bar that is conveniently located below the monitor. At times, when I need the audio to be louder and punchier, I switch to the Creative Bluetooth enabled speakers. The Creative Muvo 10 sound bar that I have is pretty good but audio sounds slightly muffled and isn’t crystal enough. The Creative Woof, though smaller than the Muvo, actually sounds better to my ears but lack of stereo sound is a downer. All these speakers are portable / sound-bar format and the separation is too narrow for any stereo effect. I wanted a Bluetooth-enabled Sound-bar that could possibly replace the F&D E200 and save me the hassle of connecting the wires a few times daily to the laptop.
I saw an advertisement for the Panasonic SC-HTB3GW sound-bar on ShopClues for only Rs.2599/-. The deal seemed to-good-to-be-true (as many ShopClues deals are). The seller stated than an order booked on Feb-27, 2016 would be delivered by Mar-27, 2016; further lowering confidence. Like the other smart Desis who have booked the Freedom 251 phone on Cash on Delivery (CoD), I too booked the speaker on CoD. I would have to pay Rs. 2648/- to the delivery-person if and when they eventually turned up. I also video-graph the entire package opening process of deals like this so that I can prove without a doubt if the material delivered was defective and should be replaced / refunded. ShopClues support has generally been very responsive and customer-oriented (except one time where I lost Rs. 1800/- on fake Samsung Chargers). Seemed like a no-risk deal to me.
To my pleasant surprise, I placed the order on Feb-29, 2016 (late evening) and the Seller “Electronic House, Delhi” shipped it 24 hours later! The shipping company TCIXPS acknowledged picking up the order on Mar-2, 2016 and delivered it to my Mar-8, 2016. Very very pleasant experience so far. The package came hermetically sealed in reams of bubble-wrap and was completely free of damage and tampering. Great job by Seller and Shipping company.
The size of the package dismayed me. It was 29″ x 6″ x 6″. Clearly, the speaker was not the size of the F&D E200 and would not fit under my monitor. The actual speaker turned out to be 29″ x 5″ x 5″. I had to mentally readjust the location of the speaker in the house and decided to place it below the Panasonic 32″ LCD TV, removing a wired JBL 2.1 in the process. The Panasonic sound-bar works off 230V (features an internal transformer) which eliminates a big-thick transformer hanging from the power socket but it also means that unlike the F&D E200, it cannot be powered using a USB Charger or Battery pack. So, not a mobile speaker then.
The speaker came with RCA-Stereo audio-cable which I used to connect it to the TV’s audio-out. Upon applying power, a Red LED behind the front grill starts blinking. I think this could have been made classier. For example, the F&D E200 has a red ring-light around the volume control. The Creative speakers feature White / Blue LEDs that glow softly. The Panasonic sound-bar features chrome-rings on the sides and this area could have been improved with subtle lighting.
I started out by playing the audio from Videocon D2H (SD service) connected to the TV. As expected, the audio was terrible, though not from the speaker’s fault. The quality of audio transmitted by D2H services in India have never been stellar and have now reached the point of being barely tolerable. Disgusted, I decided to continue testing with the Bluetooth features of the sound-bar. Pairing with the device using a Micromax A310 and Lenovo K3 Note was easy. No PIN code was required. First-time pairing was reasonably fast and took about 10 seconds; subsequent pairing took only about 2 seconds.
Right off the bat, you notice that initial audio-levels are low. In comparison, the F&D sounds louder. The situation is improved when the volume is turned up. The speaker features buttons on the top to control volume levels and switch between input sources. You can also use the handy remote-control. The volume levels are actually boosted substantially when the Bass and Treble levels are changed using the buttons on the remote. The audio opens up in crystality. The bass becomes noticeable, not to the point of becoming thumping. Note that the speaker features two mid-high range speakers at the ends and and a slightly larger bass-driver in the center. The size of the drivers means that bass frequencies just can never become similar to what maybe delivered using a sub-woofer.
At maximum volume (on the Phone and Speaker), the audio remains audible and degenerate into mush. However, the audio does split and it is advised that the speakers should not be played at maximum volumes to prevent permanent damage. The drivers angle slightly upwards and hence the speaker is suitable to be placed below the TV unit. The best audio experience (particularly the bass component) is best had when the speakers are placed at ear levels. Also note that, the Panasonic sound-bar does not feature a microphone and cannot be used for telephonic calls.
My verdict is that at Rs.2500/- this speaker delivers amazing value for money. I have heard Bluetooth enabled speakers from Creative, Logitech, JBL among others and none of them deliver this volume of audio at such a low price point. If you are looking for a speaker to improve the sound from your TV, you need substantial improvement on the bass sound and space is not an issue, you are better of buying a 2.1 Channel speaker system instead of this sound-bar. However, if you are looking for a decent bluetooth-enabled speaker for your phone or a relatively compact speaker system for your TV, look no further – the Panasonic sound-bar will be ideal for you.