Compact soundbars are all the rage, as many of us attempt to kit out our tiny flats with home-cinema setups. And while their dinky size might have you assume that surely – surely – no powerful sound can be released from their aramid fibre chambers, examples such as the Sonos beam have proved otherwise.
Panasonic’s SC-HTB490 is the company’s latest compact model, playing in the same arena as other slender soundbars such as the aforementioned beam, and has been designed to slot in with Panasonic’s 2021 LED TV range without blocking your view.
It’s a pleasant peculiarity for an entry-level compact soundbar to come with a subwoofer, giving you a deeper bass that you might not get with other smaller soundbars. But how good is it really?
How we tested
Since we didn’t have a Panasonic TV of our own to test the soundbar with, our entry-level 65in Samsung Q60R had to do. Which was just as well, because – to be quite honest – the speakers on that TV set kinda suck. So, we connected the 490 up to the TV’s ARC port and set it down on our TV console, positioned the subwoofer to the left, and fired up some content.
To put the soundbar through its paces, we tested it on a range of different media, listening to the audio quality. First we watched 6 Underground – the best worst action flick on Netflix – and then we enjoyed the football and the news. We also tried it out while streaming music over Bluetooth.
Panasonic SC-HTB490 soundbar
Buy now £349, Johnlewis.com
Dimensions: 80cm x 5.6cm x 10cm
Speaker configuration: 2.1
Connections: Bluetooth 4.2, HDMI 2.0, ARC, optical, USB-A
Sound formats: Dolby Digital, DTS
Dolby Atmos? No
Voice assistant? No
Subwoofer? Included, wireless
The SC-HTB490 isn’t flashy in any sense of the word. As with many Panasonic soundbars, it’s pretty utilitarian: all dark colours and sharp edges. And that’s kind of what you want from a soundbar – it shouldn’t really stick out and take away from the action happening on the screen.
Cloaked in fabric, you won’t find any graphical display – just a series of blinking LED lights, which are supposed to stand for different things when specific options are selected or pressed on the control.
On the rear, you’ll find a USB port, an HDMI ARC port and an optical port. It’s all really easy to use, although we did get a little confused by what each corresponding light meant, plus it wasn’t helpful that some functions on the remote control share the same button, meaning it is sometimes tricky to distinguish what sound profile you’ve just toggled on.
In the L-shaped packaging itself, you’ll find a remote control and some wall mount brackets, allowing you to easily secure it to the wall and have it lie flush underneath your telly. As mentioned above, it’s designed with Panasonic’s 2021 LED line of TVs in mind. They have flexible feet which lift up for you to slot the soundbar underneath seamlessly, but we weren’t able to test how well this worked in practice. It does sound like a pretty smart design choice, though.
Sound and features
Now, to the most important part of any soundbar – the audio. The SC-HTB490 totes a 160W power output on the soundbar itself and two forward-facing 4.5 x 12cm directional drive units. There’s also a 160W wireless subwoofer included, which is arguably the best part about the SC-HTB490.
Not only did it pair with the soundbar almost automatically – no fiddling around in the settings to get it all working together – but the volume was ear-splittingly loud and the bass fat, despite being on a relatively tame volume. Altogether, 320W of power is pretty impressive for a soundbar in this price range.
You can control the intensity and the volume of the subwoofer by using the included remote control, which also has a few nifty preset options for different modes, depending on the type of content you’re watching or listening to. Annoyingly, not every button press was registered – you really have to point the remote directly at the soundbar to get it to clock a click.
Watching Six Underground with the subwoofer turned on was simply heart-pounding, and it reminded us why compact soundbars, which don’t come with a subwoofer in the box, often sound a little meek in the bass department. It did, overall, struggle a little bit with some of the lower sub-bass frequencies, with some slight distortion and sharpness to the audio. On the whole, though, we definitely enjoyed the sound that the subwoofer produced.
As for the soundbar itself, well, sometimes it performs incredibly well and at other times, it could be better. The sound doesn’t extend to every corner of the room, creating a fairly narrow soundstage, but it’s certainly loud. There’s also a lack of clarity when it comes to any form of dialogue, with voices either sounding muffled, like someone’s wearing a face mask, or excessively shrill, which you can sometimes feel pinching your ears.
As mentioned above, there are five sound profiles to choose from – standard, cinema, music, sport and news – and in almost every case, standard delivered the best, most consistent listening experience – even when watching a few of the above categories. The only exception was cinema mode.
The bass is already impressive without cinema mode turned on, but once toggled, it frankly booms. The shrillness we were talking about before, however, becomes even more pronounced when watching news on the news sound profile. It boosts voices, but this isn’t always a good thing. We had to reach for the remote to switch it back over to standard for some respite.
The sports sound profile wasn’t too shabby, sometimes boosting the sound of the crowd and the football match itself, making the whole stadium soar. But again, there’s a lack of clarity when it comes to the commentators. Listening to Emma Raducanu bash the ball across the net in the US Open match was pretty crystal clear though.
As for music, you’ll get a pretty neutral sounding experience: it’s well-rounded, and not too heavy on either side. We’d still reserve music for a different set of speakers, but listening to tunes on this soundbar wasn’t awful.
There’s no Dolby Atmos – that three-dimensional sound feature is still reserved for the slightly pricier SC-HTB600 (£369, Johnlewis.com) and the even more expensive SC-HTB900EBK, with built-in Chromecast (£699.99, Panasonic.co.uk). It does mean that the sound is less immersive than others, but the wireless subwoofer does help with that.
The verdict: Panasonic SC-HTB490 soundbar
The Panasonic SC-HTB490 soundbar is a pretty powerful speaker. It often delivers some deep, booming bass and its subwoofer is excellent. It produces an extremely loud listening experience that betters some soundbars in the same price range. Films are a joy to watch with the bar and subwoofer pumped up to electric levels.
Its major downfall, however, is it’s lacking in clarity when it comes to any form of dialogue. Voices sound muted, muffled and even shrill. While the lower frequencies are generally good, you can’t help but want some more crispness.
Buy now £349.00, Johnlewis.com
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