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MAKING THE GRADE

 

INTRO

 

BOX COPY 1

Contrary to what you will see printed on blank tape sleeves there is only one officially sanctioned grade of VHS tape, and that’s the one defined by the VHS format specifications drawn up by JVC in the early 1970’s. Manufacturers are free to improve on the basic formulation and over the years a grading structure of sorts has emerged, though it’s important to point out that there are no precisely defined standards, and manufacturers are free to create their own -- often meaningless -- grading systems.

 

In ascending order or quality and price they are: Standard grade or SG tape, this is the type most of us use for everyday watch-and-wipe recording. Most leading manufacturers reckon their SG tapes can withstand 1,000 record/replay cycles without any significant deterioration in picture quality. High grade (HG) tape usually has improved magnetic characteristics, for better picture quality on LP speed recordings, though the difference between the better SG tapes and many HG tapes can sometimes be difficult to spot.

 

Hi-Fi grade tape often has additional coatings or lubricants, to reduce friction, and more precisely cut edges, to improve runnability; that’s important because any variation in speed, no matter how slight, will impair the sound quality on stereo machines. Lastly there are Super/Ultra High Grade (SHG) , ‘Master’ and ‘Pro’ quality tapes, which combine the most advanced magnetic formulations with highly consistent coatings that resist flaking or shedding, that causes ‘dropout’, or momentary flashes on the picture. These tapes are used where performance is critical, in movie-making, editing or mastering. (There are also specialist Super-VHS tapes, but we needn’t worry about those...)

 

The bottom line on tape is that whilst every little helps, if your VCR is an old dog you’re not going to see much of an improvement in picture quality with HG tapes from the brand leaders. The best tape in the world isn’t going to do a thing for picture or sound quality. On the other hand if you’ve got a half-decent machine -- mid-range LP and stereo models upwards -- it’s well worth spending that little extra, and you should see a difference.

 

BOX COPY 2

PERFORMANCE AND PRICE

Blank tape is produced in batches and there can be considerable variations, which makes it difficult to assess performance, based on a single sample. Fortunately we have test data going back several years to draw upon, so we can make meaningful comparisons, and comment on factors such as consistency. There are other points to bear in mind, blank tape is a commodity item and there’s no guarantee that the tape inside a particular cassette will have been made by the company who’s name appears on the sleeve, or even that successive batches will have originated from the same factory, or indeed the same country.

 

Manufacturers buy and sell enormous quantities of raw tape -- sometimes with each other -- on an international spot market. The tape takes the form of ‘jumbos’ (huge uncut rolls) or ‘pancakes’ (reels of cut tape). It’s a surprisingly incestuous business as well, BASF own the Agfa and Memorex brands, Matsushita own JVC and Panasonic, Scotch buy in some of their camcorder tapes from Japan, and so it goes on. The safest thing to do is stick with the major household brands and avoid buying tape from street markets and car-boot sales, which may have been stored in damp or dusty conditions.

 

You will notice that we’ve not given any recommended or suggested retail prices for the tapes we’ve looked at. That’s because the blank video tape market is awash with deals and discounts, special offers and promos, especially in the run-up to Christmas, and major sporting events, so it is almost impossible to quote the price of a single tape.  The best advice we can give is shop around, and in general you’re usually better off buying multi-packs. 

 

 

VHS HIGH GRADE AND HI-FI TAPES

 

BASF VISION PREMIUM HIGH GRADE

Last year BASF introduced their Vision range of tapes, though the changes are largely cosmetic as the tape inside is a tried and tested  chrome formulation. They’ve stuck a ‘NICAM Digital Stereo’ label on the sleeve, which is a bit of a crafty marketing ploy as the hi-fi stereo signals recorded on the tape are essentially the same, whether they originate from the VCRs NICAM decoder, or an external source. No matter, it’s still a high quality tape, samples we’ve tried show very little dropout or noise and we’d be happy to use it in any hi-fi VCR, or LP machine for that matter.

HC Rating                     8

 

DEFINITION SEG

We brought this one from a South London electrical shop for the princely sum of £1.25. It claims to be an SEG or  Super Extra Grade tape, whatever that might be. The alarm bells started ringing when we looked at the cardboard sleeve; on the back there’s two impressive-looking graphs marked playback demagnetisation and head-wear, the only trouble is they haven’t been filled in. The blurb goes on to say ‘ developed in UK for the system VHS, is produced of selected materials and carefully manufactured.’ Needless to say the tape is about as good as the sleeve-writer’s rather dubious command of the English language. Tapes such as these should be avoided, not just because they’re poor quality but they may also contribute to head-wear.

HC Rating 2

 

FUJI SUPER HG

Although the packaging has had a recent facelift Fuji’s Super HG has been around for a quite a while now, with good reason, it’s a damn fine tape. Fuji invented the double-layer process; this works on the principle that the lower-frequency signals used for stereo hi-fi information is buried deep in the tape’s magnetic coating, whilst higher-frequency video signals end up on top, closer to the tape’s top surface. The two layers are optimised for the different types of signals, so in theory it works better than single layer tape. Make of that what you will, the fact is this is, and has always been an excellent tape, and over the years we have noticed hardly any variation in quality, it is always sensibly priced and you can buy with confidence.

HC Rating                     9

 

JVC EHG

If JVC can’t make a decent quality VHS tape, who can? EHG has been around for a couple of years and it has always been a very reliable performer. Plenty of teccy stuff on the sleeve, with the inevitable diagrams, this time showing their high-energy magnetite particle and multi-liner orientation, handy if you’ve got a degree in chemistry. The power index is up by 15%, compared with conventional JVC tape, so it must be good... Although our sample was fresh from stock it had  an official 1994 World Cup sponsor logo on the sleeve. As expected there are no problems with the tape, it has near-zero dropout and very low noise levels, it’s an excellent tape that we have found works well on any machine but it definitely gives its best on LP recordings and older, and sometimes fussy hi-fi decks.   

HC Rating 9

 

JVC PRO AV MASTER

This is the same tape as they use in their top grade camcorder cassettes. It’s branded as a ‘master’ tape, and the zero dropout and exceptionally low noise levels bear this out. It even comes in its own hard  library case, for added protection. This tape is quite expensive, so it’s not the sort of thing you’d use for time-shifting Coronation Street, but if you’re in the video biz, serious about quality or use a VHS camcorder then its well worth the extra, for the peace of mind, that an original recording made on this tape will be as good as it can possibly be.

HC Rating                     10

 

MAXELL GX BLACK

In 1992 Maxell were the first company to market video tapes using a highly efficient ‘magnetite’ particle formulation, GX Black appeared in 1993. The theory goes something like this. Magnetite particles are smaller and more uniform in shape than conventional magnetic particles, so you get more of them to the square centimetre. That means more information ends up on the tape, which results in a better signal to noise ratio, i.e. more signal and less noise. In practice GX Black is a good solid performer, it doesn’t break any performance records but noise levels and dropout are both below average, which makes it good choice for LP recordings and hi-fi machines.

HC Rating                     8

 

 

PANASONIC HI-FI

You can’t go far wrong with Panasonic tape. Their Hi-Fi formulation uses a ‘newly developed high-power magnetic particle’; well, it probably was new when this tape first appeared back in 1992, it’s about time they changed their packaging. There’s a ‘conceptual’ drawing of the particle on the back of the sleeve, it looks a bit like a hairy caterpillar, but that’s technology for you... Joking aside this is a consistently good tape, with negligible dropout and minimal noise, the only trouble is their regular HG tape is pretty good as well, and quite frankly we can see little point in paying any extra for the Hi-Fi formulation.

HC Rating 8

 

SCOTCH EXG+

Another very safe bet. EXG+ has been on the market for at least five years, though Scotch occasionally change the packaging. Maybe not the top performer -- in fact there’s not a lot of difference between this and their excellent SG tape -- but it is very dependable, noise levels are always low, and dropout has never been a problem, even after protracted use. Scotch dreamt up the lifetime guarantee, and we’ve certainly never had cause to complain. It’s usually very reasonably priced, and widely distributed why look any further?

HC Rating                     8

 

SONY V

Sony were comparative latecomers to the VHS tape market but their considerable experience with other cassette formats and professional magnetic media have stood them in very good stead. Sony V is their HG/Hi-Fi grade cassette, this particular sample was assembled in Thailand, using Japanese made tape. Sony are not above a  bit of technical bamboozlement and the sleeve says this ‘new V tape achieves a 33% and 12% improvement in picture and sound quality, compared to the conventional V tape’ What on earth does that mean, and what are we supposed to make of the fact that the magnetic energy of this tape is Br. 160mT? Ignore the guff, this is a good tape, very little dropout and lower than average noise levels.

HC Rating 8

 

TDK E-HG Hi-Fi

TDK used to have a separate hi-fi grade tape but now they’ve consolidated their range with the EHG Hi-Fi. TDK have been quite busy in the past year or so, refining their video tape products, with uprated magnetic formulations and coatings, improving on what was already one of the best tape ranges on the market. Their current hi-fi grade offering is about as good as it gets, with negligible noise levels, bright, natural-looking colours and near zero dropout. Another top rated tape that’s well worth seeking out, if you’ve got a VCR that can make use of it.

HC Rating                     9

 

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1995 2002

 

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