Panasonic's entry-level all-in-one system has been around for a while now, but it's still great value for money and can be picked up for as little as £170 from some online retailers.
As with most of the systems in this roundup, you wouldn't guess the SC-HT520 was a 'budget' model from its looks. The main unit is pleasingly slim and well-built, and the partnering satellite speakers, while not exactly discrete - being upright models with integral support stands - are certainly stylish. They can also be wall-mounted via keyhole slots at the back - great for use with a flatscreen. All the system's amplification is hidden away inside the subwoofer, but it's still one of the better-looking models here.
Sockets at the back are plentiful at the price, with the highlight being best-quality component video sockets for sending progressive scan images to your flatscreen. An RGB-enabled Scart socket and dedicated S-video and composite video sockets are also available, and analogue audio inputs.
The usual Dolby Digital and DTS sound decoders are present, along with Dolby Pro-Logic II. DVD-Audio discs are also playable, but though this sounds like a bonus at this low price point, don't get too excited - we discovered that it's sadly in their non high-resolution mode only.
The remote control looks glamorous, with its brushed metal casing, and has neatly laid out buttons. It's also one of the most userfriendly handsets we have ever encountered, but there are no backlit controls for helping navigation in the dark. On-screen menus, meanwhile, are up to the brand's usual high standards, and there's a wide range of adjustments and settings to play with to help you tailor the system's performance to your liking. The SC-HT520 can even optimise its picture settings to the type of screen it is connected to.
As we gave our Spider-Man 2 DVD a spin, we found images from the SC-HT520 to be almost flawless. Colours were rich, but well balanced, and the system managed to present both natural skin tones and vibrant reds - particularly commendable. Brightness and contrast levels are also finely balanced, and we could pick out plenty of detail from our test disc - even in the darker scenes as Spidey haunts the streets at night. What's more, motion was smooth, with no sign of jerkiness, even as our titular hero swung from building to building.
Surround sound is similarly impressive, and the Panny produces a large-scale, meaty sound that is very involving - punching above its weight considering its extremely affordable price. Spider-Man 2's dramatic soundtrack filled our test room, while the large subwoofer did a sterling job of underpinning this with well-controlled yet (when required) thunderous bass.
The clarity of voices and effects was particularly good - something that's been the downfall of other systems in this test - both sound detailed, without being forced or unnatural. There's even a centre focus mode, which enhances and clarifies dialogue.
The Panny is one of the strongest musical performers in this test, and Duran Duran's Astronaut album sounded smooth and refined. The system works well with both mellow and more upbeat tracks. And while it sadly plays DVD-A discs in their non-high-res format only, it still does a reasonable job.
With the SC-HT520, Panasonic has proved that a big brand can produce an affordable one-box system without sacrificing its reputation. With good features, a great performance and attractive styling, there's nothing to dislike. Now if only it could play high-resolution DVD-A discs...