While movie viewing is the main use for home cinema systems, most people use them just as often to play CDs. Panasonic has taken this idea to the next logical step by building a system that rips CDs onto an 80GB hard disk, enabling you to create your own music library.
The system can also play DVDs, of course, but the focus on music explains why this is a 3.1 system, as opposed to full surround. The centre speaker is cleverly integrated into the front pair, reducing the amount of clutter, while the presence of Dolby Virtual Speaker technology means you can still enjoy a 5.1-channel effect.
First up on a long list is 1080p upscaling via the HDMI, making this a perfect partner for plasma and LCD. Media compatibility is also comprehensive - the Panasonic will play back DVD-Audio and every recordable DVD format, as well as DiVX, MP3, WMA and JPEG files.
The rear panel sports a very impressive range of connections. As well as HDMI, you'll find an RGB Scart, component, composite and S-video outputs for video playback, as well as analogue and digital audio inputs to hook up external sources and record them onto the hard disk.
They're joined by an Ethernet port that can be used to access the internet and download song and album names from the Gracenote CD database. But automatic track naming isn't limited to CD ripping. When recording songs from external sources, the system can retrieve track information using Gracenote's MusicID system, which recognises songs from their waveform pattern.
The LAN port also enables you to transfer MP3 and WMA files from your PC onto the built-in hard disk (which can hold up to 39,000 songs in AAC LP mode) or stream the content live. What's more, invest an additional £100 in the SH-FX570KE-K Bluetooth USB receiver and you'll be able to stream music wirelessly from your PC.
The front panel offers even more connectivity. There's a USB port for hooking up flash drives and devices, alongside a 3.5mm 'Music Port' for portable audio players.
Another nifty feature is Music Shuffle, which categorises your songs into different moods by analysing the tempo and beat.
Ease of use
With so many features on board, the system takes a while to master, but the excellent interface makes it easy to quickly get your head around it.And while the remote seems cluttered at first, a few minutes in its company reveals it to be very intuitive - plus the buttons are separated into different sections and clearly labelled.
Accessing hard disk content couldn't be easier. You can select songs by artist, album, track or playlist using a very clear menu. And thanks to the Track Manager menu it's easy to edit tracks after ripping. You can divide, combine, rename and convert songs from space-greedy LPCM to more efficient AAC.
If you've already installed a home network, integration is simple. We plugged the system into our internet router via LAN and it was ready to download track details without any complex setup.
The inclusion of the HDMI output with its 1080p upscaling pays dividends here. When viewed on a full HD plasma, the Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith DVD looks so crisp you might be fooled into thinking it is hi-def. Textures and fine detail are presented with absolute precision.
Colour reproduction is also out of this world. George Lucas' psychedelic landscapes are wonderfully warm and strong and there's no colour bleed, only sharp edge definition.
Black level is also impressive, while MPEG2 decoding artefacts are nowhere to be seen.
Head straight for the opening space battle and you'll be pleasantly surprised by the sheer power that's on offer. Explosions and the thumping drums of John Williams' score are given real clout by the surprisingly muscular subwoofer, while the rest of the soundstage is clear and unobstructed.
Using the Twin Centre technology dialogue successfully appears to emerge somewhere in between the two front speakers. The only let down is the Dolby Virtual Speaker, which spreads out the soundstage well, but doesn't project surround effects very effectively and proves an inadequate alternative to surround speakers.
Music playback is superb. The competent front speakers breathe life into the sweeping strings, driving rhythm section and heavenly vocals of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, while the subwoofer's solid bass propels it along nicely - provided you keep the H.Bass and sub levels to a respectable level.
Songs ripped to the hard disk in LPCM sound every bit as good as CDs, so there's no compromise in quality. DVD-Audio playback is also crisp and dynamic but the lack of rear speakers means you miss out on the full multichannel experience.
The £800 price tag is heavy for a DVD system - particularly one that's not even full 5.1 - but with so many features on board and exceptional performance there can be few complaints. Panasonic should be applauded for creating a system that does so much more than just play DVDs.