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Looking back over the relatively short history of home video movie-making we can probably count the number of truly memorable camcorders on the fingers of one hand. The Sony TR55, launched in mid 1989, would definitely be one of them. It was the first real ‘palmcorder’, small and equisitely formed. For a short while it even acheived minor cult status, though back then camcorders were still regarded as quite smart and trendy.


To some extent it’s been happening again with the new generation of compact digital machines, that have been gracing the pages of the style magazines recently. However, as if to show there’s still some life left in the old analogue dog, and in homage -- so  we’d like to think -- to the ground-breaking TR55, Sony have just brought out the TR555. This one probably won’t make it into the camcorder hall of fame, but it is a very interesting machine, small, neat and incorporating a number of notable firsts.


The one that will get it noticed is the name Carl Zeiss in fairly discrete lettering on the side and behind the lens. Zeiss needs no introduction, and this is the first time -- that we’re aware of --  that a camcorder manufacturers has teamed up with a lens-maker of such repute, though Canon might argue they’ve been doing it for years... Nevertheless it’s an interesting idea, and it has given Sony an excuse to slap a £1800 price ticket on this machine, though we’re relieved to say that’s not the only justification for what is after all a rather steep price for a compact Hi8 camcorder.


When it comes to picture quality camcorder lenses have a vitally important role to play, however, it has to be said that the lenses on most machines are carefully built precision optics, that do a pretty good job, and in the end it’s the electronics and tape deck that do most of the hard work. Even so, there’s always scope for improvement, and Zeiss have done more than just grind up a set of posh lenses for Sony. The whole optical system has been re-designed from the ground up; instead of the normal horizontal light path, the image is turned through 90 degrees by a prism, as soon as it enters the machine.


The lens groups are stacked vertically, with the CCD image sensor close to the bottom of the machine. This is undoubtedly the main reason why this machine is so small, cute and cuddly, though sideways on it does bear an uncanny resemblance to Panasonic ‘R’ series VHS-C machines of a couple of years ago. The lens has an unusually wide angle of view, equivalent to 35mm in still camera terms, which means you loose less of the impact of a big vista or landscape shot, and you can get more people into group shots. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not even in camcorder lens design, so the cost of all this optical trickery is a rather modest zoom, just 8x magnification, with no digital enlargement or, unusually in this day and age, any form of stabilisation either.


It doesn’t stop with the lens, the TR555 has a proper 6-leaf iris, just like a real camera. This gives much finer control over the amount of light passing through the optical system, and as a bonus soft-focus effects, with blurry backgrounds, look a lot more interesting. The new layout has made it easier for Sony to incorporate a switchable neutral density filter -- handy on very bright scenes -- another first on a machine in this price bracket. There’s several behind the scenes enhancements too, including a new digital noise reduction system, more efficient recording heads and a head drum cleaner, but the actual feature line-up is fairly conventional.


The TR555 has six programme AE modes, (spotlight, portrait, sports, beach & ski, sunset/moon and landscape), that are all familiar territory and should cover most eventualities. Additionally it has a manual exposure control and backlight button, for tricky lighting conditions. The machine automatically records RC-time codes and data, and it can code previously recorded tapes as well. Rounding up the odds and ends, it has a tape optimiser system, colour viewfinder and an easy to read dot-matrix display.


Everything is housed inside a die-cast magnesium body, it’s very strong and very light, (and very expensive ), in fact the all-up weight -- with tape and battery -- is only 820 grams. A rather ominous little notice stuck inside the tape hatch warns the owner that before they dispose of the machine, they should remove the rechargeable vanadium-lithium clock battery. That’s a new one, we’re still trying to find out what dangers lurk within vanadium-lithium batteries.


In keeping with tradition Sony have incorporated a number of neat little touches. You won’t see an accessory shoe, but one is supplied, it’s simply attached to a small blanked-off mounting plate on the top of the machine. The main stop/start standby button cluster is also used to select record or replay mode; in fact the control layout is very good, and it’s possible to change AE mode using the thumb. Our sample came with a very smart velvety material lined Finally, the wrist strap is made of real leather. As far as we can tell this has no performance inplications, it just smells nice...



Live off-chip images from this machine are indeed very crisp, with negligible distortion or blurring at the edges. However, side-by-side comparisons with another Sony Hi8 machine, and much staring at test patterns, revealed hardly any differences, that are apparent to the naked eye. It’s possible that a detailed examination with precision optical instruments would pinpoint some important incongruities but we suspect they’d barely register by the time the image has been processed, committed to tape, and then replayed on a normal domestic TV. Of course every little helps, and the rest of the machine works it’s little heart out. Resolution was a whisker over 380-lines and the DNR system appears to be very effective, with below average levels of picture and colour noise. Mechanical stability is most impressive, more so since we’ve had reason to comment on some recent Sony machines, which did not take too kindly to rapid pans. This one is rock solid, and it can take quite a severe shaking , before there’s any disruption to the picture.


The microphone is very close to the zoom and focus motors but they’re both extremely quiet. The’s hardly a peep from the deck motors either, and handling noises are not a problem. It could be something to do with the magnesium alloy casing, or simply better insulation, whatever the reason this is one of the quietest machines we’ve tested in a very long time. The actual soundtracks are satisfactory with no more than average amounts of background hiss, and a wide, clean dynamic range. The stereo soundstage is fairly shallow, but that’s to be expected from the front-mounted, forward-facing mikes.



The TR555 is an outstanding little machine but we reckon the price could be a bit of a problem. A year, or even six months ago, we probably wouldn’t have batted more than half an eye-lid at an £1800 Hi8 camcorder. The premium the Carl Zeiss name commands is about the going-rate, but things have moved on. The TR55 costs as much as the JVC GR-DV1 digital camcorder, and is within a whisker of Sony’s own PC7. Whilst neither is as pretty or handles as well as the TR555, they both knock the spots off it, when it comes to picture and sound performance. Given the choice between near-broadcast quality DVC and designer-label Hi8, we know which one we’d opt for.



Eighteen hundred pounds is a tidy sum to spend on a camcorder, and there’s not a lot of choice. Number one on our list would be the JVC GR-DV1 digital minicam, the Sony DCR-PC7 is number two, and it’s worth the extra £200 if you want the flexibility of a fold-out viewing screen. ViewCam fans might like to consider the VL-DC1 digital videwcam. The price of the new JVC GR-DVM1, which also has a LCD screen has yet to be announced, but having played with an NTSC version we have to say it’s not as instantly likeable as its stablemate. As far as performance is concerned it’s all downhill from this point on. If you equate price with size then the Panasonic MS5, full-size S-VHS camcorders looks like quite good value. Sony’s TRV-100 is in this price bracket too, but it’s only real claim to fame is a fold-out LCD viewscreen.  



Make/model                               Sony CCD-TR555

Recording format               Hi8/8mm

Guide price                                £1800



Lens                             f/1.6, 3.6-2.9

Zoom                            x8

Filter diameter            52 mm (using converter supplied) 

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                       2 lux    



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        240mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L/LANC)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                  

Manual focus                 yes

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes (6-mode)  

Fader                                        yes (2-mode)              

Manual white balance no        

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       no                    

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         no                                           

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               n/a                                       

Accessory shoe             yes (see text)         




time/date recording, record review, retake, tally lamp, auto head cleaner, timebase corrector, NTSC playback, picture noise reduction, mosaic fader, viewfinder power saver, cinema record mode, ORC tape optimisation, 5-second record mode, ND filter, index search, RC time-code recording



Viewfinder                       1-in colour LCD

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom position



Stereo                                       yes      

Wind noise filter                         yes

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           single point stereo



Sockets                                    AV out, microphone, headphones edit terminal

(minijack). S-Video out (mini DIN), AV/power etc (proprietry multi pin connector)


Dimensions                               mm                      

Weight                          kg (inc tape and battery)



Batteries (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead             yes/no 

video light                      yes/no             

remote control            yes/no 

cassette adaptor yes/no             

RF Converter             yes/no 

Scart adaptor                 yes/no             



Resolution                                 380-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         very good

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   good

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   good

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money         7

Ease of use                  8         

Performance               9

Features                      8



R Maybury 1996 1212





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