VIDEO CAMERA 1995

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FEATURE

 

HEAD

ANNUAL TAPE SURVEY -- PART 2

 

INTRO

We conclude this year’s Survey of blank tapes with a round-up of high-grade and Super VHS formulations, for editing, copying and full-sized camcorders

 

COPY

A typical home video movie-maker will spend the best part of fifteen hundred pounds on a camcorder and top-end VCR, plus another five hundred pounds or so on editing and post production equipment. That’s a considerable investment, why then do so many end up trying to save a couple of pounds using inferior quality tapes, that are often unsuited to editing and copying?

 

The way blank video tapes are marketed has something to do with it, confusion reigns! As we’ve pointed out in previous tape tests, there is no industry-standard grading system for VHS tapes, other then the format specifications laid down by JVC almost twenty five years ago. Providing a tape manufacturer has a licence from JVC and their tape meets those specifications, they can call their products more or less what they like, using any kind of pseudo scientific mumbo jumbo and jargon. There are also plenty of unlicensed products sloshing around the UK market, that don’t even meet the basic performance specs, and in some cases could actually lead to accelerated head wear, clogging, even permanent damage.

 

It’s not as bad as it used to be though, street markets and car boot sales used to be awash with cheap and nasty tapes from all over the place, but the on-going price war in the high-street, amongst the major brands has meant there’s actually little difference in price between a dodgy unlicensed cassette and a good quality tape from a well-known manufacturer, brought from a dealer or high street outlet.

 

So, if there’s no accepted grading system, how can you tell one tape from another? Over the years a structure of sorts has emerged, starting with standard grade or SG products. We classify these as everyday, watch-and-wipe cassettes, durability and low price are the main selling points. High grade or HG tapes generally have more advanced formulations based around finer magnetic particles. This will, in theory at least, give a cleaner picture, particularly on LP and second-generation recordings. The introduction of hi-fi stereo sound on top-end VCRs,  and more recently NICAM, spawned ‘hi-fi’ grade tapes. These tapes also have improved magnetic characteristics but the key feature here is improved ‘runnablility’. This concerns both the friction of tape, as it passes around the guide-rollers and heads, and the tape’s dimensional accuracy, especially along its edges. These, and other measures  are supposed to reduce tracking errors, on the basis that VCRs with hi-fi sound systems are very sensitive to mis-tracking.

 

‘Library grade’ tapes came and (mostly) went a few years ago, they were generally HG tapes in hard library cases. Pro and Master tapes are still with us, though, and they are, or should be, the best you can get. They have the finest, most efficient magnetic formulations in a highly consistent coating which results in less noise and a lower dropout rate.

 

Dropouts are the brief white flashes you see on video recordings; they’re caused by microscopic imperfections in the magnetic coating, or ‘shedding’ where patches of oxide have come away from the tape. Minor faults on the tape coating are usually masked by the VCR (or camcorder) by an electronic circuit called a dropout compensator, nevertheless serious problems still show through. Ideally a tape will have no dropouts at all, though perfection is difficult and expensive so some are tolerated.  However, for critical applications, like master recording, editing and copying it’s important to have as few as possible as they’re impossible to get rid of, and will look progressively worse on subsequent generations.

 

We’re also on the lookout for noise, this tells us how well the tape’s magnetic coating is working, the more information it can absorb the less chance there is for noise, -- which is inherent in any recording system -- to show through. Noise has far reaching effects on picture quality, it affects colour reproduction, and determines how much finely detailed information there is in the picture. We’ve used precisely the same test procedures as in previous years, and the results are compared with previous surveys, to help us identify trends. For a fuller description of how it all works refer back to last month’s issue.

 

Sorry, we’ve given up quoting prices, the figures the manufacturers give us -- if at all -- are virtually meaningless when it comes to the price you end up paying in the shops. To be fair there’s less cut-throat competition with higher grade tapes, but there can still be very wide variations in price, and once again multi-packs and promotional offers distort the picture.

 

And so we come to this year’s selection. It is slightly smaller than last years, and the year before that --  we looked at over thirty high grade and super VHS tapes in 1993! The market isn’t necessarily contracting, in fact some figures suggest there has been a small growth in sales of VHS high-grade tapes recently, up from 1.3% of the total VHS market in 1994, to an estimated 1.5% last year, according to one industry source, Oh well, every little help... At least one manufacturer is in the process of re-organising their range and was unable to get samples of their new products to us in time, we’ve weeded a few tapes out as they were really only dressed up SG formulations. A couple of brands have pulled out of the high-grade tape market altogether, another manufacturer told us they were still working their way through last years stocks, so there was no point in sending us old tapes, so all in all this hasn’t been a classic year for high grade tapes.  

 

VHS HIGH GRADES

 

FUJI SHG

An old favourite but in new clothes. Fuji have finally got around to updating the packaging on Super HG, the famous double-coated tape, though they don’t seem to make so much of it these days. Once you get past the new packaging not a lot else has changed, still a very low dropout count, and better than average noise results, if nothing else it’s consistent. We’ve always been happy to use this tape for just about any application short of critical mastering.

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     8

 

FUJI SUPER XG PRO

One time holder of the lowest dropout record, this has always been an outstanding tape, and one of our first choices for mastering on VHS camcorders. It’s one of the few remaining tapes to be supplied in its own library case. Another outstanding performance. Recommended.   

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     9

 

JVC EHG

It must surely be time to change the packaging on this one. Yes, we know JVC were Official sponsors of the 1994 World Cup... That goes some way towards explaining why performance is so similar to last year. Spooled with JVCs finest, there’s hardly any dropout and low, low noise. A good all-rounder, from editing to mastering.

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     8

 

 

KONICA SUPER HG

This tape seems to have been around forever, and another uncannily similar set of results. Some dropout but nothing too drastic, fine for routine post production jobs such as editing and copying.

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        7

VC rating                     8

 

LLOYTRON SUPER HG

The packaging says it’s made under licence, if so JVC should recheck their procedures.  HG tape it most certainly is not, regular-sized dropouts are relatively few and far between, but our sample had some massive faults close to the beginning, and noise levels were awful. The oddest thing, though, was the state of the shell, it was scratched and scraped, almost as though it had been used before... Add to that the unsealed cardboard sleeve, which gives the cassette a dust injection every time it’s removed and we have to say we’re not impressed!

 

Chroma noise              5

Dropout                        3

VC rating                     1

 

MAXELL GX BLACK

Maxell bill this tape as suitable for LP recordings, and we certainly wouldn’t disagree. Very low noise levels and average to good dropout. No changes from last year, well worth a try for routine applications.

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     8

 

MAXELL HGX-BLACK

There’s been one slight packaging change since we last looked at it, with an ‘ideal for NICAM’ sticker on the outer wrapping. Over the past couple of years we’ve noticed little difference between Maxell’s GX and HGX formulations, however, this year dropout and noise levels on HGX are both well down, turning in a sparkling performance. We’re not aware of any changes to the formulation, so this could be a batch thing, but it puts Maxell and HGX back in the reckoning for all demanding applications. Recommended

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     9

 

PANASONIC HG

Maybe Panasonic are going for some kind of record, or they simply don’t like change? Whatever, this is almost exactly the same tape we first saw in 1991 when the ‘new magnetic particles’ shown on the back of the sleeve, really were new. Since then dropout and noise have wobbled up and down a bit, but never straying far from the acceptable HG norms. As ever worth considering for all routine jobs

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     8

 

PANASONIC Hi-Fi

We’ve never really managed to see (or hear) any significant differences between HG and Hi-Fi, this year is no exception. One or two more dropouts maybe but when it comes to audio performance there’s absolutely nothing to choose between them.

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     8

 

SONY UHG

‘Ideal for important recordings’ it says here, can’t argue with that. A solid performer with negligible dropout and noise levels. Crisp-looking colours and clean, stable sound. Good enough for routine mastering we reckon, well worth a try, if the price is right. Recommended.

 

Chroma noise              9         

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     9

 

TDK E-HG

Outwardly similar to last year’s offering though we have noticed another small reduction in noise levels. This year’s sample is better than ever and it’s another tape we would be happy to use for master recording. Recommended.

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     9

 

SUPER VHS

FUJI SUPER VHS PRO

A new outer wrapping but inside it’s Fuji’s familiar double coated tape which first appeared in 1991. Over the years there has been a steady improvement in both noise and dropout, though they’re becoming harder to spot as they approach the edges of the performance envelope. Recommended.

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     9

 

JVC XG

Last years winner, can they repeat their success? Yes they can, but only just with Fuji and TDK coming very close to matching this tape’s outstanding performance. There’s almost no dropout, and very little noise, giving bright, vivid images with crisp, lifelike colours. Recommended.

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     10

 

KONICA S-VHS

A fairly average set of results last year; this time out both noise and dropout have improved, albeit very slightly. Worth considering.

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     8

 

MAXELL XR-S BLACK

Another repeat performance from last year with very low noise and dropout, all we can do is reiterate our previous recommendation, that it’s worth considering for mastering, and it’s usually good value too.

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     9

 

PANASONIC XD

If you’re looking for consistency, then look no further. Apart from a new outer wrap a couple of years ago, and uncharactstically average noise figures  in ‘92,  Panasonic’s XD has changed little since it first appeared way back in 1990.

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        8

VC rating                     8

 

TDK XP

A very dependable tape, and for the past couple of years one of the top performers, turning in very consistent noise and dropout results. Definitely worth considering for all demanding applications

 

Chroma noise              8

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     8

 

TDK XP PRO

This has always been one of the best PRO grade tapes, this year it’s better than ever. Dropout is approaching zero and noise levels are amongst the best we’ve seen, in fact it’s only a whisker away from JVC’s Super XZ, on a good day it might even be better. Recommended.

 

Chroma noise              9

Dropout                        9

VC rating                     9

 

THE VERDICT

Apart from a slightly smaller choice this year there hasn’t been any significant changes in the price or performance of HG tapes from the leading manufacturers. There has been some jockeying for position in the VHS formulations and this year winner by the narrowest of margins is Fuji’s Super XG Pro, closely followed by the Maxell HG-X Black,  Sony UHG and TDK E-HG.

 

JVC take top honours once again in the Super VHS category with Super XZ, though only just. Small improvements in this years offerings from TDK and Fuji came very close to toppling JVC from their perch.

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1995 2111

 

                       

 


 

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