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Panasonic SC-AK520

Panasonic Mini Stereo Breaks Stereotypes

By Jim Bray

Since when did the mini stereo become an honest to goodness high end home stereo?

Well, I suppose it hasn't really – but that doesn't mean a mini system can't offer surprisingly good sound.

Panasonic’s SC-AK520 is excellent proof of this. To look at it one might think it’s just another one of these brawny plastic portables used traditionally by kids to annoy neighborhoods by pumping boomy and booming bass. Kind of like a ghetto blaster, but not portable.

I mean, this is not a classy-looking system – though of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and when I unpacked it and saw its big plasticy speaker grilles and the in your face cosmetics, I expected loud, boomy and muddy.

But boy, was I wrong!

This Panasonic’s sound quality to price ratio blew me away; it actually offers really good music for a comparative song.

The SC-AK520, the top line model in of Panasonic’s “NITRIX” series of small stereos, sells for a measly $199US (about $349 Canadian). It offers bi-amplified power to the main speakers (55 watts per channel to the mid range driver and another 55 watts per channel to the tweeter) which is a high end feature I never expected to find on what is for all intents and purposes an entry level system. The dual 6 inch driver subwoofer receives 160 watts of power. Needless to say, the system rocks, whether on rock or even delicate classical selections.

The system comes in four pieces: the head unit, two main speakers and the subwoofer module. The main speakers hook into the head unit via two sets of wires (thanks to the bi-amping), though I wish it were set up so you could use your own speaker wire rather than being forced to use the limited length of cheap stuff that’s included with the system. On the other hand, many people will undoubtedly appreciate the no brainer convenience.

The SC-AK520 also includes a five disc CD/CD-R+RW/MP3 changer, which is handy but which is also the system’s weakest link from an ergonomic standpoint: you have to insert discs singly into a single tray and wait for the unit to place them down inside its guts – much like an in-dash car CD player. This isn’t a major annoyance, fortunately, and it does cut down on the unit’s footprint, allowing it to perch better on a broader variety of shelf spaces.

It also has the requisite AM/FM tuner with 30 presets and dual “feather touch” cassette decks. There are no surround sound settings, so if you want to use this system as the heart of a home theater audio system you may be disappointed, though you can hook in a DVD player’s analog outputs (or any other stereo analog outputs for that matter) via jacks on the rear panel if you want. There’s no digital audio input.

Using the system is pretty straightforward. Most of what you want to do can be accomplished easily from the remote control.

The only real complaint I had about the unit was its lack of flexibility in the tone controls. You get several presets for different types of music or listening environments (Heavy, Soft, Clear, Disco, Live, Hall), but you can't tweak the system on your own to tailor it to your actual listening room. If you could, the result would have been even more satisfying, but as it stands I thought the sound (especially the bass) to be either “too little” or “too much”.

This is not unexpected from a low end system, of course.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, this beastie shattered quite a few of my expectations.

But my “audio snob-like” prejudice against mini systems seemed well placed when I first hooked up the Panasonic in my living room. Since I didn’t have any spare shelf space at the time, I set the head unit on the floor with the subwoofer next to it and the main speakers (which should be set up with the left and right speakers placed correctly so the “super tweeters” are aimed properly) on the floor as well, but spread a good listening distance apart. And it sounded about as I expected: merely okay.

Then common sense came a-callin’ and I dug up a couple of metre-tall speaker stands I had on hand just in case this type of emergency happened and set the main speakers on them. This brought them up to about ear height when I sat on the couch.

Holy cow! Not only did the quality of the sound take a leap into the stratosphere, but the soundstage itself (the perceived locations of the instruments in the listening room) came to wonderful, vibrant life. It blew me away!

After as much listening as is possible from short loan period, I came to the conclusion that I wish Panasonic had been making systems like this when I bought my first stereo back in the early 1970’s. On the other hand, my neighbors at the time would undoubtedly have been none too happy about it: the SC-AK520 not only plays well, it plays LOUD! Head bangers will love this system!

Okay, it wasn’t enough to make me throw my reference audio equipment into the back alley (and comparing a $199 Panasonic with a reference system worth more than $8000 isn’t fair to either of them) but it showed clearly that appearances and price points can be deceiving.

Would this unit work as a bedroom stereo? Indubitably, though if you're only looking for soft music to drift off to sleep by you'd be wasting this system’s “rockin’ the room capabilities”. It's best use is as a primary stereo in a living room or family room environment where you have the space and the inclination to let it howl with abandon. It'd excel in the garage or workshop, too.

A couple of minor downsides include the fact that the speakers aren’t magnetically shielded, so you won't want to place them too close to a television lest you put purple splotchies over the picture. And while there are inputs for AM and FM antennae, there’s no specific input for cable, so if you listen to radio stations via your cable provider you'll have to fudge an adapter. This probably won't bother most urban users, however.

All in all, I can't get over how surprised and impressed I was by the audio quality of Panasonic’s SC-AK520 mini system. It offers an excellent combination of audio quality and value.


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