Panasonic SA-BX500 AV-receiver

Panasonic has been quietly absent from the A/V receiver wars for 3 or 4 years, so the arrival of its SA-BX500 qualifies as news. The company's first HDMI-era receiver isn't a high-dollar, feature-fl ashing fl agship but rather a simple, workmanlike model that delivers the basics and some important must-haves, including three HDMI 1.3 inputs and Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding. It's also compatible with Panasonic's $130 SHFX67 wireless kit for surround speakers (which you can also use to deliver multiroom stereo audio). Physically, the BX500 is compact and plainly fi nished " refreshingly so, to my eye. And for a receiver rated for 130 watts per channel (stereo), it's almost unbelievably light at just 11 pounds. That featherweight status is very likely due to Panasonic's use of a new generation of its MOSFET-based integrated-circuit poweramplifier modules, a significant spaceand weight-saver.

SETUP

Setting up the BX-500 couldn't be simpler. Its full-size multiway speaker outputs made connections a cinch, while plugging in HDMI sources is so easy a caveman (or cavewoman) could do it. Believe it or not, the Panasonic is so light that the burden of fi ve moderately thick speaker cables and four ordinary HDMI connections almost caused its front feet to lift off the shelf " a fi rst for any receiver in my experience. The BX500 includes an auto-setup routine that sets channel levels and then determines speaker sizes and confi gures the system's single crossover frequency accordingly. My front speakers all deliver response to well below 80 Hz, but the center speaker atypically goes lower than the left/right pair. The Panasonic got this right, setting center to Large but all other speakers to Small, and selecting an 80-Hz crossover. Channel levels were within 1 dB of what I determined as correct using an outboard SPL meter and a test DVD. But with no room- or speaker-correction equalization, or time-domain processing beyond speaker distance, the auto-setup prowess ends there.

MUSIC & MOVIE PERFORMANCE

I always commence listening with some full-range stereo music, and here the BX500 displayed legit sound-quality chops. Clean recordings l ike "Lake Charles" from Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road were appropriately transparent, with clear, weighty bass and excellent delineation of both the very intimate and naturally recorded acoustic instruments and Williams's heavily equalized voice. The Panasonic provided ample power at the substantial levels needed for serious listening, and frankly sounded more authoritative and transparent than I'd expected given its lack of physical mass. Pushing the volume well into the rentparty range yielded a harder, brighter sound that eventually turned harsh, but the BX500's performance was still impressive given its size and weight. The receiver's power proved similarly suitable for movie playback in my generous-size studio. The videogame " er, movie " 300 isn't my cup of entertainment tea, but it makes substantial audio demands on its host, and the BX500 delivered clean clashing, robust roaring, and punchy, well, punching. Rather more revealing were several clips from Dolby's TrueHD Blu-ray demo disc. Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring sounded its usual glorious self (I know no better example of just how good uncompressed multichannel can sound), with the Panasonic producing enough power to do it justice in my setup. The chase clip from Sahara was a higher hurdle to clear, but here again the BX500 demonstrated surprising power, only sounding a shade extra-crunchy on the explosions when played at a master level that approached the high SPL of a fi rst-run cinema.

ERGONOMICS

Panasonic has engineered the BX500 for minimal user intervention " an approach that generally works well. Surround modes are selected automatically, though you can manually switch between Dolby and DTS modes and cycle through Music, Cinema, and Game fl avors. You can also select one of Panasonic's proprietary DSP modes, although I generally found little advantage to these. The SA-BX500's remote control is basic but usable, providing a library of preprogrammed codes for gear from other brands. (But there's no code-learning function, so if your gear isn't listed, you're out of luck.) As a system controller, the BX500 clearly would be at its best in an all- Panasonic system. The remote is of course pre-programmed for the company's components, and the receiver has a thorough implementation of control-over-HDMI (CEC) that Panasonic calls Viera Link. Curiously, there's no way to force the BX-500 to produce stereo playback from a Dolby or DTS bitstream. If you want to hear downmixed 2-channel audio rather than surround (to cite one real-world example, my cable system once mixed the Red Sox announcers to the L/R channels and crowd noise to the center), you need to fi rst return to the manual-setup menu and temporarily change center and surround speakers to None. The absence of any onscreen display is unusual in this price range, but it's not limiting in any important way. Other omissions, including satellite-radio readiness and room- or speaker-equalization facilities, are more important " at least when compared with many competing receivers. More troubling is the BX500's failure to provide any video scaling or processing, including cross-conversion of incoming analog video signals to HDMI " something found on nearly all comparable models these days. Without this facility, any setup that includes a mix of HDMI sources like a Blu-ray Disc player or a high-def cableor satellite-TV receiver and one or more legacy components with analog video outputs will require two parallel connections to the TV. And along with that comes the bother " and potential confusion " of having to switch TV inputs depending on the source. But I should make clear that the Panasonic does switch all signals passing through via HDMI, up to and including 1080p ones, without a hitch.

BOTTOM LINE

The fundamentals of the Panasonic SABX500's power and audio performance are, as a certain Republican presidential candidate once said about the economy, sound. But the receiver's unusual omissions make it tough to recommend with any enthusiasm " the lack of analog-video-to-HDMI processing alone is for me a deal-breaker. The fine inherent audio quality, extensive plug-and-play HDMI control integration, and compatibility with Panasonic's wireless-speaker accessories mean it might be worth a look for anyone assembling an all-Panasonic system. But in nearly every other respect, other alternatives in the $500-plus A/V receiver marketplace offer much more.

Panasonic SA-BX500 AV-receiver photo