The SC-HT1500 is Panasonic's new flagship system, and combines sophisticated looks with impressive features. Panasonic was one of the first brands to incorporate recording capabilities into its home cinema systems, with a range of 'packaged' separates combining a DVD recorder, surround amplifier and speakers.

But the SC-HT1500 is the first 'one-box' (rather than separates-based) Panny system to incorporate both DVD playing and recording facilities inside one stylish unit. The main unit boasts a pleasing silver, half-mirrored front panel, and despite its considerable capabilities there are few buttons and controls adorning its sleek fascia.

The accompanying speaker package comprises four floorstanding satellites and a more compact centre speaker that can be placed on top or below a TV. The satellites are perched on top of attractive chrome stands, but their assembly is incredibly fiddly, making installation frustratingly time-consuming.

The subwoofer is nicely finished with a chrome-effect bass port surround, but is portly due to the fact that it contains the system's surround sound amplification. All speaker connections are made at the back of the sub, which is connected to the main unit via an umbilical-type cable.

Features-wise the SC-HT1500 is one of the best-equipped systems around - in particular, its dual DVD-RAM/DVD-R and hard-disk (HDD) recording capabilities make it an extremely flexible model. The 80GB HDD can provide up to 142hrs of storage, and DVD-RAM/DVD-R discs up to 8hrs. Surprisingly however, there's no DVD-RW disc compatibility.

There are four recording options to choose from. XP (the highestquality mode) provides up to 17hrs HDD and 1hr disc storage, while SP gives 34hrs and 2hrs, LP 68hrs and 4 hrs and EP (the poorest quality mode) 142hrs and 6hrs respectively. There's also a flexible recording option that automatically selects the appropriate recording mode to utilise the space available.

Best PALs

Panasonic's TimeSlip feature allows you to watch a TV programme while it's still being recorded, and VideoPlus ensures you don't have to programme individual start and stop times for recording analogue TV programmes: it simply requires you to enter a numeric programme code (usually found in TV listings).

Playback of pre-recorded DVDs should be just as impressive as recordings, as the SC-HT1500 can deliver top-quality PAL progressive scan images to a suitably-equipped TV (via component video outputs). An RGB Scart and dedicated S-video and composite video outs are also available, while the front panel incorporates a set of audio/video connections to enable you to hook up a camcorder or games console.

Unfortunately however, there's no front DV input for transferring digital camcorder material. When it comes to audio, the Panny includes Dolby Digital and DTS decoders to take care of 5.1 DVD soundtracks, while Dolby Pro-Logic II is on-board to convert stereo TV broadcasts and CDs into near-digital surround sound. And multichannel DVD-Audio playback adds to the SC-HT1500's already impressive versatility.

Setup is straightforward, with the built-in analogue TV tuner automatically tuning and storing channels. The Direct Navigator lists and manages the details of all recordings made onto the HDD and DVDs, and there's a set of editing features to manipulate and erase recordings.

Recordings made onto both the hard-disk and discs are generally of a very high standard. The only problem we observed was a slightly exaggerated colour palette, which makes skin-tones look ruddy - TV presenters look like they've spent too much time in the sun! However, bypassing the Panny's internal tuner and connecting a digibox via the RGB Scart delivered more natural results.

Recordings made in both XP and SP modes showed no significant differences from the original broadcasts. Even with the two longest, and therefore lowest-quality, modes (LP and EP), recordings were far superior to those made on a VCR - despite a softness to the image and occasional digital artefacts.

The SC-HT1500's playback of prerecorded DVDs is up to Panasonic's usual high standards. We gave our new Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back DVD a spin and found images to be very enjoyable. Colours were particularly striking, but images also had good depth and detail and an almost cinematic quality that is very easy on the eye. Skin-tones were natural, and even subtle textures and details visible.

Things are almost as pleasing when it comes to surround sound. The upright speakers may be difficult to assemble and larger than most, but they produce an extremely coherent, easy sound that makes them worth the extra effort. Surround sound from our test movie's remastered soundtrack was well-controlled, and the placement of effects behind the listener precise.

The subwoofer meanwhile sounds reassuringly powerful, while also being able to cope with subtleties - but it does need to be set to its maximum output level for the very best results. Our only minor niggle is that, while dialogue through the centre speaker is clear, selecting the centre focus mode (to bring dialogue to the fore) has a tendency to give it a more sibilant edge, which can make Yoda's voice sound even more unnatural than usual!

The good news doesn't stop with movies however, as the Panasonic also puts in a good performance with CDs. It provides an open and detailed CD sound, while DVD-Audio discs are similarly well-handled. With both HDD and DVD-recording capabilities, the Panasonic SC-HT1500 is a flexible all-in-one home cinema system.

Its stunning looks, versatility and strong all-round performance certainly make it an extremely attractive option. The only thing stopping us from telling you to rush out and get one right away is its price. You get a lot of bang for your buck, but £900 is still a lot of money for an all-in-one solution of this calibre.