VIDEO CAMERA 1996

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1996 BLANK TAPE SURVEY

 

INTRO

To you they may be boring little black boxes that you shove inside bigger black boxes, but to the VC Tape Test Team blank video cassettes are tiny miracles of engineering, crammed full of technological wonders. Social life, who needs one? We’ve just spent the past month testing dozens of tapes to bring you the one and only, the exclusive, the ultimate 1996 blank video tape survey...

 

COPY

Even when you know a thing or two about how magnetic video recording works -- spinning tape drums, that sort of thing -- it’s still amazing to think how much information can be packed into such a small space. Dig out that old anorak and consider this. When you make a recording on a VHS VCR, during every revolution of the head drum -- lasting a mere one twenty-fifth of a second -- the recording heads lay down two microscopically thin magnetic tracks on the surface of the tape, each of them just 49 millionth’s of a metre wide. Those two tracks contain everything needed to create a single frame of a television picture, all 625 lines of it, with all the necessary colour, brightness and the synchronisation signals. Stereo machines also manage to squeeze in a snatch of high-quality stereo sound, lasting one 1/25th of a second. It’s mind blowingly incredible!

 

It’s all right, you can come out now. This isn’t going to be a techno-nerds guide to the wonderful world of video tape, but it helps to know what you’re dealing with, next time you buy blank cassettes for your VCR or camcorder. Inside a typical VHS E-180 there’s 258 metres of the stuff, all black and shiny, but do you really know what you’re getting, and how do you tell the good from the bad? Hopefully we can help, and in keeping with tradition we’ve been working our way diligently through the current offerings on the UK blank tape market, to see what’s available, and what, if any changes there have been in the past 12 months.

 

This is a mature technology and we can’t expect many more technical advances, at least as far as VHS and 8mm tapes are concerned, though the arrival of the DVC format has livened things up a little, and we’ll be taking a quick look at that later on. The big news though, was the decision by Scotch to pull out of domestic blank tape. The brand will officially disappear at the end of 1996, though you’ll be pleased to know they’ve pledged to honour their famous ‘Lifetime Guarantees’. For the short term they’ve built up a sizeable stock of replacements, and have entered into a deal with another top-name manufacturer (BASF), to take care of returns well into the foreseeable future. Ironically Scotch’s market share has increased over the past year, so their disappearance will leave a sizeable hole, that the other manufacturers are very keen to fill.

 

There have been a few interesting new arrivals, including some  top-end Hi8 and Super VHS formulations from Sony, and a superb one-hour VHS-C cassette from JVC. We’ve been waiting for this one for quite a while. It’s a welcome fillip for the format, which has been somewhat overshadowed by developments, and the sheer weight of numbers of 8mm and Hi8 equipment. The other big VHS-C news story is that Sony are planning to market tapes later this year, unfortunately samples arrived just a little to late to make it into this year’s survey. For obvious reasons Sony have not been involved in this market, so what changed their minds? The answer, surprisingly enough, is that VHS-C blank tape market is worth as much as 8mm, and the Sony brand is bound to do well. What next? JVC making 8mm tapes, stranger things have happened.  

 

As one brand departs, so a new one arrives. Guess who? Here’s a clue, they’re big in air-travel and holidays, the music biz, vodka, cola, condoms, hot-air balloons and financial services. That’s right, the ever versatile Richard Branson is hoping to grab a sizeable slice of the magnetic media market through his newly established Virgin Euromagnetics group; Virgin brand tapes and disks will be hitting the shops shortly. Unfortunately they have only one standard grade VHS tape (in three lengths), but no camcorder tapes as yet; we’ve included it in the roundup anyway, as there’s been precious few new products to look at. Meanwhile the other leading brands are ramping up their pre-Christmas promotional campaigns and this could be a very good time to stock up with blanks.

 

Some late new just in. We don’t have the full details at the time of going to press, but it appears that BASF are in the process of selling or licensing part or all of their magnetic tape manufacturing resources to the Turkish company Raks, who they have been supplying with products for some time. Thus far we know that the two companies have signed a letter of intent, and that if the deal goes ahead, it will take effect from January the 1st next year. This has come at rather a bad time for us, though we’re reasonably sure that the products currently in the shops will not have changed by the time you read this. They’re also taking positive steps to fill in the gap left by Scotch, and have just launched their ‘EQ’ range of products in the UK. This is their international brand, and in common with all BASF cassettes, comes with a lifetime guarantee.

 

BASF, you may recall, took over the Memorex brand of audio and video tapes a while back, and it’s also unclear what effect the new arrangements will have on those products. Look out for more information on the news pages, as and when we have it.

 

Elsewhere there’s been quite a few changes to packaging and cosmetics, plus some tinkering with grades and classifications. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990’s tape companies were constantly developing new trick additives, and grading structures. Things have settled down, now that the VHS format is so close to the limits of its performance envelope. On a more general note prices and sales have been fairly stable, and profit margins are still wafer-thin -- one of the reason’s for Scotch’s decision to depart.

 

Blank tape has really become a victim of its own success. There used to be a perceptible difference between cheaper standard grade, ‘watch-and-wipe’ products and high-grade tapes, but improvements in VCR design, and standard grade tape have wiped most of them out. Standard grade tape is now perfectly adequate for 90% of VCR recording jobs. There are still a few exceptions. It still pays to buy HG tape if you do a lot of LP recording, the marginally lower noise levels can help improve picture quality on some machines, and more importantly for us, it’s usually worth paying a little extra for good quality camcorder tape. It’s also a good idea to use HG tapes for dubbing and editing as these will help minimise the inevitable quality losses that occur when analogue recordings are copied.

 

THE TESTS

The big question is, how do you judge ‘quality’? There are plenty of technical measurements, that quantify the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the coatings on magnetic tape and its physical properties. Briefly the finer the particles, the more efficient their magnetic characteristics, so more information can be stored on the tape. Lower quality tapes with larger particles and less consistent magnetic coatings produce ‘noisy’ pictures, and the eye is very sensitive to noise. Cheaper tapes can also have rough edges and poor ‘runnability’ leading to excess friction and speed changes. The uniformity of the coating is critically important, more so on camcorder tape. This is the major cause of ‘dropout’ brief flashes in the picture, caused by imperfections in the magnetic later. Most VCRs and camcorders can hide or disguise small flaws using a circuit called a dropout compensator, but larger faults will still show through.

 

Noise is a measure of the relationship between the amount of wanted information on a tape, and unwanted signals; it has a direct bearing on the amount of detail in the picture and the purity of colours. Dropout tells us much about the care taken during manufacture, quality control, storage and handling. 

 

Together noise and dropout produce the most noticeable picture defects, and they’re the factors we concentrate on, when assessing tapes. However, looking at a single tape, or tapes in isolation doesn’t give the complete picture. Magnetic tape is produced in batches, and there are minor variations in performance from products made by the same manufacturer. The VC team have been testing tapes for more than ten years, and we have built up a large database of results, that enables us to make comparisons, and track how a particular brand has changed over the years.

 

Our tests only go so far, though, and this is where we would like to enlist your help. One of the parameters we can’t easily test is longevity -- we simply don’t have the resources to run the hundreds of hours of long-term endurance tests, needed to get build up a meaningful picture. The tests, as they stand represent only a brief snapshot of the small sample of products under review. Tape performance can deteriorate over time and with repeated use. On some brands it’s negligible, on others there is a marked increase in noise and dropout after just a few sessions. We would like you to write in and tell us of your experiences -- good and bad -- with the tapes you’re using. Hopefully, if we get a large enough response, we can identify the brands that stay the course, and the one’s that don’t.

 

Our standard tests are basically very simple and designed to simulate real-world conditions. We use a range of equipment to determine picture quality, including test instruments and pattern generators plus a selection of off the shelf VCRs and camcorders. The routines vary little from year to year so we have the benefit of consistency, and we can spot any unusual results quickly by checking our records from previous years. We distil our findings into what we hope is a simple to follow rating system.

 

This year had hoped to include a new section on DVC cassettes, though the market is still too small to make any meaningful comparisons. Moreover digital camcorders and VCRs are far less sensitive to tape quality. Error correction systems are very effective at combating mechanical problems, like dropout. Noise is also far less of a concern on digital recordings; thus far -- on the equipment we’ve tested -- noise appears to have more to do with the camcorder, than the tape. However, we’re compiling data as new tapes and machines come on to the market and hopefully by this time next year we will have something a little more concrete to say on the matter.

 

And so we come to this year’s batch of analogue tapes. The survey is divided into two sections: camcorder tapes (8mm/Hi8 and VHS-C/S-VHS-C), and higher grade VHS and S-VHS cassettes, suitable for copying and editing.  Here’s what we found, along with brief details of any promotions or special deals we’re aware of.

 

VHS-C

 

BASF HG -- to come

 

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

BASF HI-FI PRO -- to come

 

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

BASF PHG -- to come

 

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

Fuji HQ+

Very reliable, very consistent, a good everyday tape that withstands repeated use

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

Fuji SHG

Highly dependable, a favourite for mastering and editing

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

JVC EHG

Improved dropout, a good all-rounder

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

JVC EHG 1-HOUR

Thinner tape and shell but no noticeable change in performance. Brilliant, just what VHS-C fans have been waiting for

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

JVC PRO

Excellent performer, recommended for critical applications

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

Maxell GX-Black

New case and packaging but no change inside,  fine for almost all routine recording  jobs (recommended for LP recording)

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

Maxell HGX-Black

A new outer wrapper and case. Some excellent results, good enough for master recording

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

Panasonic HG

Same as last year. Reliable high performance formulation, no change

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

Scotch EG+

Good general purpose tape, get it while you can

Noise                7

Dropout 8

 

TDK HS

No change, good general purpose formulation

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

TDK E-HG

Back on form with lower noise figure, recommended

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

SUPER VHS-C

 

BASF   S-VHS-C PROFI MASTER -- to come

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

Fuji S-VHS-C PRO

Very dependable, suitable for all applications

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

JVC S-VHS-C XG

A tiny increase in dropout but still one of the best

Noise                9

Dropout 8

 

Maxell XR-S Black

New case and outer wrapper. Very low noise, usually good value

Noise                9

Dropout 8

 

Panasonic XD

Still going strong, no significant change

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

Scotch S-VHS-C

A JVC sourced tape, one of their best, worth considering, but hurry...

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

TDK XP PRO

No change, excellent performance, recommended

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

 

8mm

 

BASF HG STANDARD MASTER -- to come

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

BASF PHG Hi-Fi -- to come

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

Fuji F8 MP

New low-cost standard grade tape, virtually indistinguishable from their standard double-coated formulation

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

Fuji 8mm MP

Excellent everyday tape, no change since last year

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

Fuji SHG

Still on top form, very low dropout and noise

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

Maxell GX Metal

New wrapping. A little more dropout than last year

Noise                8

Dropout 7

 

Maxell HGX Metal

New wrapping. Good results, a fine all-rounder

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

Scotch EG+

Average to good, okay for routine work

Noise                8

Dropout 7

 

Sony SR

Sony’s new standard ‘super reliability’ tape, fine for everyday recording. Look out for special value trial packs

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

Sony Video 8 MP

Very low dropout, no change from last year. This Autumn promo multipacks will feature free storage cases

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

Sony Video 8 HG      

Very clean, noise is down on previous tests, well worth considering

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

TDK HS

Revised packaging but the same high performance tape inside

Noise                8         

Dropout 8

 

TDK E-HG

A new outer wrapper but otherwise unchanged, recommended

Noise                9                     

Dropout 9

 

Hi8

 

BASF Hi8 MP EDIT MASTER -- to come

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

BASF Hi8 ME PROFI MASTER -- to come

Noise                X         

Dropout X

 

Fuji Hi8 MP

Sparkling performance, a good everyday tape for high band machines

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

Fuji Hi8 Metal Position

Well worth a try, as good as dearer ME tapes on some machines

Noise                8         

Dropout 9

 

Maxell XR Metal

Apart from a new wrapper no change from last year, another fine all-rounder

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

Maxell XD ME

New outer wrapper. Lower noise but the dropout count is up on last year

Noise                9         

Dropout 8

 

Scotch Hi8 MP

Average to good results shop around for a good price

Noise                8         

Dropout 8

 

Sony Super MP

Very clean, a consistent high scorer

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

Sony Super ME

Last year’s winner, bettered only by their new top-ender

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

SONY HMEM

Outstanding, the year’s joint top Hi8 performer

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

TDK Hi8 MP

New packaging and noise is down this year, one of the best for routine recording

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

TDK Hi8 ME

A new outer wrapper, very consistent, recommended for all applications

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

TDK Hi8 ME PRO

Excellent, near zero dropout, our joint first choice for mastering.

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

VHS HIGH GRADES

 

BASF EQ -- to come

Noise                X

Dropout X

 

FUJI SHG

An old favourite, still one of the best general purpose tapes around

Noise                9

Dropout 8

 

FUJI SUPER XG PRO

Consistent as ever, a top choice for editing and mastering

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

JVC EHG

Very low noise, good for LP recordings

Noise                9

Dropout 8

 

JVC PRO HF

Worth the extra for editing and copying

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

JVC PRO

A top choice for VHS camcorder owners and editing

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

MAXELL GX-GREEN

The same tape as GX-Black (see below) but the shell and packaging are made from 100% recycled material (vending cups apparently...)

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

MAXELL GX BLACK

New packaging. Average to good results, suitable for copying

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

MAXELL HGX-BLACK

Low noise and dropout, worth considering for editing and copying

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

PANASONIC HG

Improved dropout, a good, thoroughly reliable  everyday tape

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

PANASONIC Hi-Fi

No change, average to good performance

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

SCOTCH EG

The UK’s most popular HG tape, still one of the best. Look out for extra value 3 for the price of 2 multipacks this Autumn

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

SONY VHG

Low dropout, worth considering for mastering and copying

Noise                8         

Dropout 9

 

SONY PRO X

One of Sony’s best, suitable for critical applications

Noise                9         

Dropout 9

 

 

TDK E-HG

A top performer for three years running, recommended

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

VIRGIN SUPER HIGH QUALITY

The tape’s okay, average to good results, but we’re not impressed by the cheapie unsealed cardboard sleeve, which had already begun to shed dust

Noise                8

Dropout             7

 

 

SUPER VHS

FUJI SUPER VHS PRO

Very clean, a top tape for important jobs

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

JVC XG

No change, a consistent top performer

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

MAXELL XR-S BLACK

New packaging. Satisfactory for routine recordings

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

PANASONIC XD

No change, okay for most non critical jobs

Noise                8

Dropout 8

 

SONY VXFE

Commendably low noise and dropout, good for important recordings

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

TDK XP

Very clean, ideal for demanding editing jobs, always reliable

Noise                8

Dropout 9

 

TDK XP PRO

Outstanding, still one of the best, joint best S-VHS performer. Recommended.

Noise                9

Dropout 9

 

BUYING TIPS

Blank video tape is incredibly cheap, a little too cheap in fact, which is one of the reasons why Scotch have had enough. Intense competition has forced prices down and with it, profit margins. That’s great news for consumers, but following the current shake-up in the market, things could change. Nevertheless, low prices have had a beneficial side effect, and this year, for the fourth one in a row, we have noticed a steady decline in the number of unlicensed products, iffy tapes and unfamiliar names. They simply can’t compete with good quality branded tapes from well-known companies. Even so, there’s still a few about, if you care to look, mostly sold through street markets and car-boot sales. The simple advice is don’t bother, you can get the real thing in your local high-street for very little extra.

 

Scotch will still be around for a few months to come, and they, like the other companies, are gearing up for the peak Christmas buying period, so watch out for some great promotions in the run up to the festive season. The months between October and November account for almost three quarters of VHS tape sales. In addition to all the extra programmes and movies to record, they’re popular stocking fillers, especially the extra-value multipacks, many of which will feature gifts, vouchers and competitions. This should be a very good time to stock up, and it could be the last time prices are this low!

 

THE VERDICT

Overall there has been comparatively little change since last year, however the general trend has been for small but worthwhile reductions in noise levels and dropout. We haven’t seen one duff tape this year. Clearly some are better than others, though apart from a little shuffling around within the various categories, this year’s top performers are more or less the same as last year. However, with so many good tapes all within a whisker of one another, we’re going to take the easy way out and make two recommendations in each category.

 

This year’s VHS-C hero has to be the new 1-hour EHG tape. It’s clearly been a struggle to cram in the extra tape, but it has been worth the effort, and this new tape is every bit as good as their existing EHG formulation, which always rates highly. Close runners-up are the old favourites, JVC PRO and TDK E-HG. The S-VHS-C winners were Fuji S-VHS-C PRO and JVC S-VHS-C XG. The leading 8mm tapes are Maxell HGX Metal and Sony Video 8 HG. Top Hi8 honours go to Sony Super MP and TDK Hi8 ME. This year’s leading high grade VHS formulations are Fuji SUPER XG PRO and JVC PRO, and finally, the leading Super VHS tape this year were JVC XG and the outstanding new Sony VXFE.

 

ADD COPY -- DVC CASSETTES

 

DVC could make tapes tests like this a thing of the past. We’ve been trying four mini DV cassettes from Maxell, Panasonic, Sony and TDK and quite frankly we couldn’t spot any differences. Dropout -- other than gross manufacturing defects -- are not a problem. Brief interruptions and errors in the digital data stream, caused by problems with the tape’s magnetic coating, are corrected by the camcorder. Similarly, noise on the tape is ignored by the equipment as the recorded signal -- digital data -- is always more significant. To test the point we deliberately damaged a section of a mini DV tape by scratching the coating, (don’t try this yourself!). The only visible effect on a static scene was a few tiny digital artefacts, lasting for no more than a single frame. Of the four tapes reviewed three (Maxell, Panasonic & TDK) appeared to be sourced from the same factory. Based on the results we’ve obtained so far it would seem there’s little or no difference between the brands, other than price.

 

Maxell DVM 30SE  

No defects noted

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

Sony DVM60ME

No defects noted

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

Panasonic AY-DVM30EC

No defects noted

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

TDK DVM-30MEEB

No defects noted

Noise                9

Dropout 10

 

 

 

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 0309

 

 


 

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