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Stereo video recorders now cost only a little more than some mono VCRs, but are the cheaper machines any good? Rick Maybury has been trying out six of the very latest budget NICAM models to hit the shops




AIWA HV-FX1500          £350

Surprisingly this is a first for Aiwa, theyíve had stereo hi-fi VCRs before, but until now none of them have had NICAM sound. The real eye-opener, though, is the price and with most budget VCRs now selling around the £400 mark Aiwa are really sticking their necks out with this unusually well-specified machine. The FX1500 looks very similar to one of their 1994 mono machines, the HV-FX55, and they have a number of features in common.


These include the 380mm wide midi-sized cabinet, that stacks neatly with Aiwaís hi-fi and home cinema systems. It has a Video Plus+ timer, DA4 heads (for improved LP and trick-play picture quality), multi-lingual on-screen display and Ďone-touchí playback facility. This closely resembles the Instant Review feature developed by JVC, itís a bit like the winking Ďmessageí light on some telephone answering machines. In this case the illuminated button on the FX1500ís front panel tells the user that the machine has successfully made a time-shifted recording. Pressing the button switches the VCR back on, rewinds the tape to the beginning and starts replay, very civilised!


The FX1500 has programme delivery control (PDC), which automatically corrects timer settings in case of late schedule changes or overruns. It might even get some use, now that the BBC have said theyíll adopt the system later in the year. Auto set-up is also well worth having, it takes all the drudgery out of tuning, setting the clock and reading the instruction book... Just connect the VCR up to the TV, plug it in, press a button and off it goes. It also checks the time every day, against the teletext clock, and will make the necessary changes when the clocks go back or forwards. A fast deck mechanism is on the feature list as well, though to be honest we didnít find it noticeably quicker than most of the others weíve tested recently.


The design is plain and understated, a few curves here and there but nothing too radical. The front panel controls are on the small side but theyíre well spaced and easy to identify. For some reason Aiwa have not included a pause button in the main control cluster, thereís one the remote handset, though. Talking of which, the layout of the button box could be better, it looks and feels a bit overcrowded, itís not much fun in the dark either. Everything else is more or less where you would expect to find it, the only real gripe lies with the fluorescent display panel. Itís a single colour design, which makes it difficult to distinguish some key functions, particularly record and play. You need good eyesight, or a pair of binoculars to see whatís it up to across a typical living room...


To date the picture quality on super cheap NICAM VCRs has been disappointing but not in this case. Resolution on our test sample just managed to top 240-lines, a whisker away from what we would expect from a mid-range VCR costing at least £100 more. In fact the picture looks very clean, there is some noise but itís by no means excessive. Colours are well defined and again, noise levels are low. Trick play performance is very stable, though only at SP speed. Still and slomo replay of LP recordings results in a marked increase in noise and loss of colour, though to be fair thatís not uncommon on VCRs at the budget end of the market. The hi-fi recording system and NICAM decoder both perform adequately well. Background noise levels are just a tad above average though, and the automatic recording level control is a mite choppy, but the response is generally neutral and uncoloured.


The FX1500 works well, it doesnít set any new performance records but AV quality is nothing to be ashamed of, and it easily qualifies as a competent general-purpose home cinema component. The combination of a low price and the generous assortment of up to the minute features puts this machine well ahead of the pack. Unless youíre committed to specific features not found on this machine, or youíre on a tight budget, and can live without gadgets and gimmicks, then you need look no further!



Pros -- Low price, well-featured

Cons -- single-colour display panel

Features           NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+, PDC, auto set-up, twin-speed deck, multi-speed replay, audio dub, one touch playback, front AV terminal, twin SCARTs, on-screen display, auto head cleaning


Dimensions 380 x 289 x 92mm (WDH)

Telephone:  AIWA UK Ltd, 0181-897 7000


PERFORMANCE                       8                     

BUILD                           8



AKAI VS-G375  £380

Way back in 1988 Akai were the first VCR manufacturer to market a machine with a built-in Dolby Surround decoder. That was just one in a  series of firsts for this highly innovative company; lately however, their VCRs have been, shall we say, fairly ordinary. Sadly Akai havenít chosen this year to make a comeback, their VCR range now includes only one rather routine NICAM machine, the VS-G375, though itís worth pointing out that at only £380 it is the second cheapest machine in this roundup.


Itís also the biggest, Akai have yet to leap aboard on the midi bandwagon. They are holding back on some of the latest convenience features as well, the tuner and clock both have to be set manually.  Itís not a big problem though, Akai are masters of the VCR on-screen display, they should be, they invented the OSD way back in 1982. Timer programming is no more difficult than most other recent machines either as it has both Video Plus+ and PD. The one glaring omission, though, is a second SCART connector. Twin AV sockets have become a virtually standard fitment on NICAM VCRs. Theyíre a vital ingredient in any AV set-up, without the second socket it becomes difficult, if not impossible to incorporate a satellite receiver into the system, without compromising picture and sound quality somewhere down the line. Akai really should know better!


However, itís not all bad news, the G375 has a very useful selection of trick-play functions, and then thereís Super I-HQ. This is yet another Akai development, and one theyíre justifiably proud of, it just keeps on getting better. I-HQ, and now Super I-HQ is an advanced tape-tuning system. Basically it optimises the VCRs recording and replay circuitry to suit the grade of tape being used. This it determines by making a short (30-second) test recording as soon as the system is engaged. Super I-HQ really can make a difference to picture quality, it is most noticeable on recordings made on higher grade tapes, but it really shows its mettle on LP recordings. Under ideal conditions they can look almost as good as SP recordings made on other top-end machines. That should be of interest to anyone into heavy-duty archiving.


The rest of the features are in the useful but humdrum category. It has index search and intro scan, blank search, a 3-step dimmer for the front panel display and something called blank skip play. This is similar to the Rental IP facility on Mitsubishi machines. Itís meant to make watching pre-recorded movies easier. As soon as the tape is inserted the machine switches on,  if it senses the anti-erasure tab on the cassette is missing it automatically rewinds the tape to the beginning -- in case the last borrower forgot -- then it fast-forwards past the blank boring stuff at the beginning until it reaches the beginning of the recording, whereupon it begins replay.


Recordings made on standard grade tape, with Super I-HQ switched on, gave a resolution of over 240-lines, thatís better than average, but the very low levels of noise in the picture made a big difference to picture sharpness. Colours too looked unusually clean, and chroma noise, which shows most clearly in areas of high saturation, was negligible. The hi-fi sound system doesnít quite manage the same level of performance, not to put too fine a point on it the stereo soundtracks are a little bit hissy. Fortunately itís not enough to be a problem, and itís offset to some degree by the crisp treble and generally smooth sounding, almost noise-free, NICAM decoder.


Itís almost as if Akai are treading water with this machine, maybe theyíve got something special up their sleeves for next year? We certainly hope so because the G375 is a bit disappointing.  It has nothing to do with performance, features or price, theyíre all fine; the G75 has one serious failing, and thatís the single SCART socket, which effectively rules it out as serious home cinema component.




Pros -- LP recording quality, price

Cons -- single SCART socket, lumpy remote


Features           NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+, PDC, on-screen display, blank skip, index search, intro scan, multi-speed replay, Super I-HQ tape tuning, display dimmer

Dimensions       425 x 276 x 90 (WDH)

Telephone: AKAI UK, 0181-897 6388



PERFORMANCE                       8

BUILD                           8



FERGUSON FV95         £400

Ferguson video recorders have been through quite a variety of style changes in the recent years, but now it looks as though theyíve settled on a fairly consistent theme, established for them by top designer Philippe Starcke. His first effort was the FV88, launched last year and it broke the mould, as far as VCR cosmetics were concerned. However, the bold, minimalist approach has been moderated, to make it a little more palatable for the mass-market. This strategy is clearly evident on their mono and budget NICAM machines, though their two new top-end stereo VCRs remain closer to the original concept. The FV95 is in the former category, itís their entry-level NICAM model, selling for just under £400. The fascia echoes the sharp, angular styling of the FV88, though this time, instead of a row of tiny transport buttons the main controls are grouped  in two vertical rows, either side of the centre-loading tape hatch and display panel. Unfortunately the keys are all identically shaped, and the labelling (light grey on darker grey) is difficult to distinguish, fortunately the remote control handset is reasonably easy to use.


For a budget NICAM machine it is quite well specified. It has an auto-install system that programs the tuner and sets the clock, a Video Plus+ timer with PDC auto correction, an unusually helpful on-screen display, NTSC replay, variable-speed replay (slomo through to fast-play), index search/intro scan and manual recording level control, which is very unusual on budget hi-fi VCRs.  Variable-speed replay is another comparative rarity at this end of the market. Friendly on-screen displays have become a Ferguson speciality and this one has an option to call up extra help messages, that are written in plain and easy to understand language, in short you would have to be quite determined, and/or stupid to get into a mess with this machine.


Thereís a few other features worth mentioning. It has a child lock which isolates the front panel controls, the machine can then only be operated from the remote handset. Pressing the play, or play and record buttons for longer than six seconds puts the machine into continuous play or record mode, plus it can record and playback 16:9 formatted material. Sadly video recorders are a prime target for thieves, the FV95 is no less nickable than any other machine, but if it is stolen, and subsequently recovered, it can be identified with its electronic tag facility. This allows the user to store a unique identity code in the machineís memory; it can be a name, simple message or postcode, which will only be revealed after inputting a user-selected PIN.


Operationally itís fairly easy to live with. The layout of the remote handset could be better, the transport buttons are a bit samey, and the channel up/down keys are in an awkward place. Full marks for the front panel display though, itís large, easy to read, and functions like Ďplayí, Ďstopí etc. are spelt out, rather than indicated by small or  obscure symbols. The centre-mount deck mechanism is a real screamer. Fast wind scoots along at a rate of knots, with sound-effects to match; it takes just over 90 seconds to wind through an E-180 tape, and thatís almost a record!


The machine featured in this review was an early evaluation sample, Ferguson cautioned us that there may be some late changes to the software, nevertheless it performed well with resolution spot on 240-lines. Some picture noise was evident, not enough to cause concern, but in any case it would be unfair to draw too many conclusions until weíve had an opportunity to check out a full production machine. Much the same applies to the hi-fi sound tracks and NICAM decoder, they both performed well on our review machine, background noise levels were average to good and the option of being able to set the recording level manually gives it an edge over most other stereo VCRs these days, and it will come in useful for making good quality recordings of music-oriented programmes.


Suffice it to say if the production machines work as well as the samples weíve seen then performance will not be an issue. Ferguson have struck a typically measured balance between features, performance and price, and the distinctive cosmetics should help to get it noticed.



Pros -- compact, good-looking design

Cons --  difficult to distinguish front-panel controls


Features:  NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+, PDC, auto-install, index search, intro-scan, multi-speed replay, on-screen display, NTSC replay, manual recording level control

Dimensions       384 x 303 x 90 (WDH)

Telephone:  FERGUSON LTD, 0181-344 4444


PERFORMANCE                       8

BUILD                           8




HITACHI VT-F450           £400

In the past few years Hitachiís NICAM VCRs have begun to figure more prominently in comparative reviews. Theyíre consistent, solid performers with useful, rather than exotic features, and theyíre usually realistically priced. The VT-F450 is not about to damage their reputation, far from it. The price puts it slap-bang in the middle of the highly competitive budget sector, though the list of features could just as easily have come from a more expensive mid-market machine. 


The headline grabber is satellite control, in fact itís the only stereo VCR in the £400 price bracket to have it. Satellite control, in case you were wondering, enables this VCR to make timed recordings from a satellite receiver, as easily as it time-shifts programmes from terrestrial channels. These days most satellite receivers have event timers, but theyíre generally quite crude, and often even more difficult to program than VCR timers. The F450 works by sending out infra-red commands, that switch the satellite receiver on at the nominated time and selects the correct channel, before making a recording.


It works in conjunction with the machineís Video Plus+ timer, so all the user has to do is tap in the appropriate Plus Code, (printed alongside programme details in newspapers and listings magazines). The system on the F450 works with most popular satellite receivers, but there are holes in the command library, so itís a good idea to check before you buy, to make sure yours is included, if you think this could be an important feature.


So what else can it do? Controlling other items of AV equipment is something of a speciality for this machine. The remote handset is programmed with yet another IR command library, this time with the basic functions of 14 different brands of TV. It has variable-speed replay, accessed from a shuttle dial on the handset, and it should be of particular interest to camcorder owners, for not only does it have a front-mounted AV terminal, (to make copying and editing easier), it has both video and audio dub, plus syncro-start as well, to simplify copying from compatible machines.


Ironically itís missing out on a couple of this years hot features. It has a manual set-up routine, it doesnít have PDC and the on-screen display has a slightly old-fashioned feel to it, no slick colour co-ordinated menu options here. Setting the tuner and clock is usually no great hardship, once youíve read the instructions, though it has to be said that the F450 is not the friendliest of machines and the tuner adjustment involves a fair amount of messing around. The lack of PDC is no big deal, though someone forgot to remove the PDC legend from the remoteís display panel, and whilst weíre on the subject, thereís three buttons on the handset that do nothing at all, most annoying... 


Control layout and operation are quite straightforward, though donít be deceived by the apparent simplicity of the remote, a hinged flap covers a forest of little buttons.  The shuttle dial is a delight, moreover the deck is very responsive and scooting backwards and forwards through a recording is a doddle. Tape access is okay, it has index search and goto, but no intro scan, unfortunately.


On screen performance is very good our test machine resolved a full 250-lines on SP recordings. Picture noise levels were a little below average, and colour accuracy was faultless; together this results in a very clean-looking picture, amongst the best weíve seen on a £400 VCR in fact. We would like to say that the hi-fi sound system did equally well, unfortunately we canít. At best itís only average, with a fair amount of background hiss, and slightly crusty treble. Off air sound, coming through the NICAM decoder was very crisp though, and the automatic recording level control coped reasonably well with sudden changes in volume. If it hadnít been for the lacklustre sound this machine would have earned a much higher commendation, even so it still stacks up very well against the opposition and anyone in the market for a well-specified NICAM VCR should have high it on their shortlist, if movie-making or satellite time-shifting are important considerations it should be on the top!



Pros -- video performance, satellite control, price

Cons -- clunky manual installation, no PDC


Features           NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+, satellite control, audio and video dubbing, multi-brand TV remote control, mode lock, on-screen display, rental play, repeat play, syncro edit, front AV terminal, index search

Dimensions       380 x 320 x 95 (WDH)

Telephone: HITACHI SALES (UK) LTD, 0181-849 2000


PERFORMANCE                       9

BUILD                           9




SANYO VHR-795           £429

The VHR-795 is the follow up to the 894, launched last year to considerable critical acclaim. The 894 was actually a fairly ordinary NICAM video recorder with one rather special feature, and that was DVS or digital view scan. DVS is the top feature on the 795, but it costs £70 less than its predecessor, but what does it do, and can you live without it?


DVS is a development of the anti-shake systems devised by Sanyo for their personal stereos and MiniDisc players. Basically itís a memory circuit or Ďbufferí, that temporarily stores a few seconds of sounds as digital data. If the mechanism is jolted, corrupting the original sound, information is read out from the buffer is heard instead. On the VHR-795 the sound buffer has a slightly different role. It still stores sounds as digital data, but this time theyíre used during fast replay and picture search to provide an intelligible real-time soundtrack, irrespective of tape speed or direction. It sounds impossible, but thatís one of the advantages of digital processing; once something is stored as numbers it can be manipulated in a variety of ways, including in this case turning sounds back to front so that they come out the right way round, whilst the tape is moving backwards, or even stationery! The soundtrack keeps up with the action on screen by playing back short snatches of sound, each a few seconds long.


All well and good, but whatís it good for? DVS can be used to skim through a recording at high speed, without loosing the thread, or it can help locate a specific point on a tape. Itís at its best with largely speech-based material, like sports programmes, and movies, in fact itís possible to watch a feature film in about twenty minutes, and not miss a thing...


After that the rest of the VCRs features seem rather restrained. Itís certainly very easy to use, with full auto installation, though this one is slightly different. Instead of the clock being checked against teletext time once a day, itís corrected once a week, at 3am on Sunday mornings, so that takes care of British Summer time adjustments. It has Video Plus+ and PDC, audio dub is a welcome extra, and then thereís auto replay, index search and multi-speed replay. The latter is controlled by a shuttle ring on the remote handset, which does pretty well everything else besides, so donít loose it. Itís also the only way to engage the pause function, which has been left off the front panel. Talking of which, the front panel display is another one of those cheapo single-colour jobbies, that relies on titchy symbols and indicators to show what the machine is up to. You have to look quite hard, for example, to check if itís in the record mode.


No problems in the picture department, the 795 is right down the middle with a resolution figure of 240-lines, thereís some slight picture noise but itís no worse than average, colours look clean and natural. Still frame, slomo and 2x fast replay are all very steady, noise bars on picture search are well suppressed, so the image is viewable at top speed. The stereo hi-fi tracks sound a bit flat, treble is slightly muted, but noise levels are low, off-air sound coming through the NICAM decoder is pin-sharp with virtually no background hiss.


So we come to DVS. The sounds stored in the buffer originate from the VCRís mono linear soundtrack, which isnít up to much at the best of times, so by the time itís been through the digital mangle, and spat out the other side, itís not what you would call hi-fi quality. Nevertheless it is adequate for playing back speech, which remains clear and understandable, even during fast picture search. As the tape moves faster, the snatches get shorter, so, depending on the nature of the soundtrack, itís not always possible to follow whatís going on. Itís most successful at 2x fast play, apart from the speeded up action the picture and sound appear quite normal. In the end itís clear that youíre paying a premium for DVS and without it the 795 would be just another budget NICAM VCR, but itís DVS that will sell this machine, and we suspect that once having tried it, most users will regard it as less of a luxury, and more of a necessity.



Pros -- DVS, AV performance

Cons -- obscure front panel display, no pause button on front panel


Features           NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+, PDC, auto-install, digital view scan (DVS), on-screen display, audio dubbing, multi-speed replay, index search, repeat play,    

Dimensions       360 x 290 x 97 (WDH)

Telephone: SANYO UK LTD (01923) 246363


PERFORMANCE                       9

BUILD                           9



SHARP VC-M60            £400

Right now Sharp are probably better known for their View Cam camcorder range; their VCRs have always been okay, but words like worthy and dull spring to mind. That might be about to change and the new VC-M60 could help to establish their credentials as contenders in the home cinema market. Itís a midi-sized NICAM machine, with a centre-mount deck mechanism. It looks a bit plain but itís reasonably well featured -- for an entry-level model --  with multi-speed replay (including 2x fast play), auto installation, index search (but not intro scan), plus a couple of interesting extras, which weíll get to in a moment.


On the left side of the fascia thereís an AV terminal, to simplify camcorder hook-ups; on the right thereís an unusual circular transport control knob, with play, still/pause and stop/eject buttons in the middle and a shuttle ring on the outside, this  controls fast forward, rewind and multi-speed replay. The auto installation system takes over channel tuning, date and time adjustments as soon as the machine is connected up; once selected from the on-screen prompt the whole process takes just a few minutes. Channels are automatically identified and sorted but itís easy enough to rearrange stored channels or set the tuner manually. The clock is checked daily against teletext time signals and it will automatically make corrections for British Summer time.


Most of the action takes place on the busy remote handset, this can also control the channel change, volume and standby functions of over 20 different brands of TV. The remote gives access to some of the machines more unusual features, like Ďclean pictureí which is billed as a picture enhancer, for reducing picture noise on old or worn tapes. Other items of interest are instant replay, which puts the machine into reverse picture search for pre-set intervals of 20, 40, 60 or 80 seconds, before starting replay again. It also has repeat play, a mode lock, which freezes the last selected function and skip search. Skip search is a sort of instant replay in reverse, it selects fast picture search for 30, 60, 90 or 120 seconds, depending how many times the button is pressed, and then reverts back to play mode.


The main transport buttons on the remote are coloured blue, theyíre large and easy to find and double up as cursor controls for the on-screen display. Other key functions, like variable speed slomo, are not so accessible, and the layout is cluttered. Another ergonomic quibbles concerns the front panel display, itís a single colour type and transport functions are shown by rather small symbols, in fact you have to look quite closely to spot the tiny recording indicator. Access to the Video Plus+ timer could be better too; itís a menu option on the on-screen display, and just getting to it involves a couple of button pushes. It also means the VCR and TV have to be switched on in order to set the timer. The M60 has an instant timer, and delay-start timer, which seem like a good idea, though itís as well to keep the instruction book to hand as it can be difficult to clear the timer mode, if itís selected by accident.


Resolution on our test sample was just below 250 lines, which is very respectable for a £400 VCR. Colour fidelity was good and picture noise levels were a little below average. The clean picture facility softens the image slightly, but it also reduces colour saturation and on some tapes, especially those with weak colour, the picture is almost monochrome. Still and slomo are both very steady, though the deck isnít terribly agile, and without reverse slomo itís a bit of a chore trying to examine recordings in close detail. Background hiss on the stereo soundtracks is low, though at the expense of treble response, which tails off quite quickly. NICAM is very clean, thereís hardly any noise and this time the response is flat. Sharp VCRs tend to lack personality, they work well enough but set against the backdrop of a couple of dozen similarly specified machines they simply didnít stand out. The M60 is still a little bland but its a definite step in the right direction and the combination of features, and better than average performance should help to get it noticed.



Pros -- good sound, simple to use

Cons -- cluttered handset, uninformative front panel display


Features           NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+, PDC, auto-install, picture enhancer, on-screen display, multi-speed replay, front AV terminal, index search, instant replay, skip search, auto repeat

Dimensions       380 x 290 x 92 mm (WDH)

Telephone: SHARP UK LTD 0161-205 2333


PERFORMANCE                       8

BUILD                           8




In the end there were only relatively small variations in the AV capabilities of these six machines, weíre happy to report none of them disgraced themselves, not as far as picture or sound performance were concerned anyway. Itís also fair to say that the VCRs with the best video performance didnít necessarily excel at audio reproduction, and vice-versa, so no one machine stood out, technically at least. This shifts the focus to price and facilities and here, at last, we begin find some significant differences.


The Akai VS-G375 should, by rights have fared much better, AV performance is good, the price is very reasonable and it has a well thought out range of features, but we cannot ignore the fact that it has only one SCART socket. Donít dismiss this machine altogether though, Super I-HQ makes a lot of sense for anyone who does a lot of LP recording. If all youíre after is a competent NICAM VCR and space isnít a problem, keep it in mind. Itís very difficult to choose between the next two models. The Ferguson FV95 is a fine machine, itís easy to use, it works well, and it has plenty of useful convenience features, but apart from the distinctive cosmetics it lacks extra sparkle, nevertheless itís still a good buy. The Sharp M60 has a more familiar feel to it, plus a few extra bells and whistles. Both of them would make good home cinema machines but theyíre up against some stiff competition, from the likes of the Hitachi VT-F450, which also sells for £400, and is the one to go for if youíve got a camcorder, or a satellite receiver in your system and do a lot of time-shifting.


The Sanyo 795 hasnít got the best picture, or the cleanest sound, though both are good, however itís digital view scan that sets this machine apart, that and the slightly higher price, but we reckon itís a feature worth paying a little more for. Finally we come to the Aiwa HV-FX1500, again itís not the top performer, but as weíve said the differences are small. Itís not the best specified either, yet it has a most impressive assortment of up to date and functional facilities, however, itís the extraordinarily low price that finally won us over, and puts this excellent machine at the top of the pile.





Make/Model                  ££s       Timer    AV Skts           AD        VP/PDC            SAT      AI

Aiwa HV-FX1500            350       31/8      2S/L/FAV          *           */*                                 *

Akai VS-G375   380       365/8    1S/L                             */*

Ferguson FV95  400       365/8    2S/L                             *                                   *

Hitachi VT-F450 400       365/6    2S/L//FAV         *           *                       *          

Sanyo VHR-795 429       365/6    2S/L                 *           */*                                 *

Sharp VC-M60   400       365/8    2S/LFAV                       */*                                 *


Key: Timer -- days/events; AV Skts -- S = SCART, L = line audio output, FAV = front AV terminal; AD = audio dubbing; VP/PDC = Video Plus +/Programme Delivery Control; SAT = satellite control timer; AI = auto installation



R. Maybury 1995 0807


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