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With decent quality NICAM video recorders now selling for less than £350 whatís the point in spending any more? Itís simple, you get what you pay for, if you want advanced features, increased flexibility and improved performance, itís going to cost you more. Whilst some budget VCRs give a very good account of themselves, more expensive models often produce a clearer picture, with superior trick-frame facilities, and sharper stereo sound. Mid-range and top-end machines normally come with extra convenience features, and it has to be said, more gadgets and toys as well. Budget NICAM video recorders may be fine for routine applications, such as taping TV programmes or playing rental tapes in stereo but when it come to more demanding roles, such as home cinema and video movie-making, their limitations can quickly become apparent.


So how much do you need to spend? Thatís not so easy,  you might well decide a £350 VCR suits your purposes right now, but what about the future? A video recorder brought today has a useful working life of between five and seven years; if you have to replace it in a couple of years, because youíve decided to upgrade the rest of your AV system, or developed a taste for home movie-making, then a cheaper machine could be a false economy. The ten VCRs weíve chosen to look at should all be reasonably future-proof, they fall into the mid to upper-price brackets, that is between £450 to £550, though we have included one specialist VCR, to illustrate whatís available at the top end of the market.


But what features do you really need,  and which oneís are a waste of time and money? Again, thereís no simple answer to that, but anything that increases a VCRs flexibility is worth having; plenty of input and output sockets for instance, a good range of transport controls and replay options, an easy to use timer, an informative on-screen display plus any widget or gizmo that genuinely improves picture and sound quality, should all be high on your wish-list.


One feature you neednít worry about too much is 16:9 widescreen compatibility, unless of course you have a widescreen TV, a specialised satellite receiver and/or access to the handful of movies released in France and Germany. There are no widescreen movies available in the UK, nor are there likely to be and the Widescreen PAL Plus trial broadcasts conducted by C4 at the moment work on an entirely different principle and cannot be recorded on any current VCRs.  Finally, donít take too much notice of all those teccy-sounding TLAs (three letter acronyms), used to describe more esoteric VCR features. Many of them are little more than meaningless marketing gobbledegook, or allude to facilities that other manufacturers have, but donít bother to shout about. If you want a good laugh ask just the sales assistants to explain them to you, or better still, get them to demonstrate how they work...













AKAI GS-815 £480        

Akai have been one of the leading innovators in VCR technology for as long as we can remember. They pioneered the use of on-screen displays and remote timer programming, and now theyíre about to go down in history as the inventors of the motorised display panel. Thatís right, the tape hatch cover on this machine doubles up as the main clock/mode display, and to stop it being thumped every time a cassette is loaded it flips up out of the way, as soon as itís touched; itís hours of fun for all the family. The 815 has a few other tricks up its sleeves, including Super I-HQ. Itís a development of their I-HQ tape-tuning system which first appeared in 1990; basically, if you want it to, it will make a short test recording on each tape as itís loaded -- lasting around 25 seconds --  from that it determines the characteristics of tape being used and adjusts its recording and replay circuits accordingly. Super I-HQ takes the technology one stage further, tackling the problem of noisy and wobbly LP recordings.


Akai have put a lot of effort into the audio side of things too, and the 815 has a superb range of facilities, including manual recording level control, variable headphone output, audio dub, microphone input (handy for video movie-makers), a full set of input and output sockets, separate line-audio output sockets and a front-mounted AV terminal, thatís another bonus for camcorder owners.


Naturally the 815 has an easy to use Video Plus + timer but itís augmented by program delivery control or PDC, which auto-corrects timer settings for late schedule changes or overruns, though right now only Channel 4 broadcast the necessary data codes. Rounding off the feature list, it also has a menu-driven, multi-lingual on-screen display, intro scan and index search and it is widescreen compatible, though bearing in mind what weíve said about the availability of widescreen software.


Picture performance is excellent, resolution is bang on 250-lines. The picture looks crisp, colours are bright with minimal noise, recordings look even better with higher-grade tapes and the Super I-HQ system switched on. LP picture quality is remarkably good, resolution dips a little to 230 lines, but thereís only a slight increase in noise on recordings made using HG tapes. Trick-play (i.e. still frame and slomo) is very good, though itís not so steady on LP recordings. The stereo soundtracks have lower than average amounts of background noise, but unlike the picture thereís hardly any difference in the LP mode.


Rating ****



Weíve had designer tea spoons and designer lavatory brushes, so it was inevitable that sooner or later we would get a designer VCR. The designer in this case is one Philip Starck and someone called G. Vergneau whoís signature appears on the side of the casing. Theyíve gone for the minimalist grey-box look, and the wackiest remote handset weíve ever seen; itís the sort of design concept youíll either love or hate, either way you canít ignore it.


Thereís not a lot to see from the outside, just a row of tiny, widely-spaced illuminated buttons spread out across the fascia. Behind the hinged front-panel flap however, itís a different story, and Ferguson have really gone to town on this one. It has their handy Video Plus+ satellite control system which makes timeshifting STV programmes as easy as recording BBC or ITV channels.  Just tap the relevant pluscode into the remote handset and the VCR will turn the STV receiver on at the right time, and select the correct channel -- using itís own built-in multi-brand remote controller --  and makes the recording. It also has auto-install, which saves a lot of time and trouble during the initial set-up, in fact all you have to do is plug it in, find the TVs video channel, press a couple of buttons and it tunes itself in, identifies all the stations and sets the clock, which it self-corrects at 7.00am each morning.  


Thereís plenty more where that came from; it has a really helpful, user-friendly  on-screen display, multi-speed replay, index search/intro scan, auto repeat, childproof lock, manual recording level control, syncro edit and NTSC replay. Security-conscious owners can enter a personal 10-character code or number into the machineís microchip memory, so if it is stolen, and then later recovered, it can be positively identified.


Form clearly leads function on this machine. The front panel controls are virtually unusable in room light as the labelling on the identically shaped buttons is almost impossible to read. The remote handset is not much better and the rows of thin buttons are not very easy to use, moreover if itís placed on a flat surface the round conical shape rolls about all over the place.


Resolution on our test sample came in at just over 240-lines, picture noise levels are low, so the image looks quite sharp. Trick-play stability is good and itís possible to eliminate jitter altogether on still frame. Noise on the stereo hi-fi and NICAM soundtracks is a little below average and it gets a few extra brownie points for the manual recording level control and natty level meters in the display panel.


Rating ***


HITACHI VT-F360 £450  

If youíve ever been frustrated by an attempt to timeshift a satellite TV program, then this is another VCR to add to your list. Hitachi have taken a leaf out of Fergusonís book and fitted the VT-F360 with a satellite control system. It also has a built-in multi-brand infra-red remote transmitter thatís controlled by the VCRís Video Plus+ timer. Simply enter the pluscode into the handset. Just before the program begins the VCR sends out an IR control signal, from a small window in the top of the machine, that switches on the nearby satellite tuner and sets it to the right channel. The VCR then starts recording and when the program has finished, switches everything off again. A little extra time and effort is needed during the initial set-up, but once programmed itís as easy to use as a conventional Video Plus+ timer.


Hitachi have been quite restrained when it comes to gadgetry, the F360 has a largely functional set of features which includes an on-screen display, multi-speed replay, AV dubbing, index and goto tape finder functions. The remote handset can also control the main functions of a variety of televisions, around twenty different brands are covered, all the user has to do is enter a two-digit code number to access the handsetís IR command library. Itís quite a plain looking machine with a centre-mounted deck mechanism and just a handful of buttons; pretty well all of the machineís higher functions are driven from the remote handset. Itís reasonably camcorder-friendly, with a front-mounted AV input terminal, and AV dubbing, which allows the mono soundtrack to be replaced, on its own, or along with the video track as well, so entirely new segments can be inserted into the middle of existing recordings. Owners of suitable Hitachi camcorders can also take advantage of a syncro-edit facility that simplifies copying and editing single scenes from the camcorder to the VCR.


The on-screen results are fine, noise levels are about average, colours are sharp and well defined, horizontal resolution on our sample was spot on 250-lines. It sounds good too, thereís some slight background hiss on the stereo hi-fi tracks, but itís not enough to be concerned about; a manual recording level control would have been helpful but the auto system copes well enough with most types of material.


Rating ****


JVC HR-J715 £500

They may have invented the VHS format but until fairly recently JVC video recorders were in danger of becoming a little boring, it was almost as if they had lost their edge. Not any more, theyíre back with a vengeance and their current line-up includes some very impressive machines, headed by the J715. Itís a smooth, refined machine with picture and sound performance to match. Maybe itís missing one or two of the glitzier features, but those it has got are the ones that are going to be used, and itís particularly well-disposed towards video movie-making, worth bearing in mind if youíve got or plan to get a VHS-C camcorder.


The J715 has a responsive mid-mount deck mechanism and itís controlled from a jog/shuttle dial on the front panel. Incidentally the one on our review sample was a little tight. It has a couple of unique features,  like hyper-bass -- for beefing up movie soundtracks -- and RA Edit. RA stands for random assemble, and it means this machine can be used to selectively re-record segments from a VHS or VHS-C video movie, onto another tape, thereby cutting out all the duff bits, shots of the sky, feet or long stretches where nothing much happens. The machine will replay up to 8 designated scenes, in any required order, at the same time controlling the record/pause function on a second VCR, via its remote pause socket.


The timers on this machine (LCD input or Video Plus+ timer with PDC) have an extra bonus feature in the shape of a Ďreview buttoní. This flashes following a time-shifted recording. Itís a bit like the winking indicator on a telephone answering machine that tells you someone has left a message; just press it when you come home and the 715 automatically rewinds the tape to the start of the recording and begins playback. Also worth mentioning is the 715ís multi-brand remote (it controls seven other makes of TV), childproof lock, insert edit and repeat playback, to name just a few. Picture quality is excellent, a fraction over 250-lines, and noise levels were well below average, resulting in a slick, crisply-defined picture. No complaints about sound performance either, thereís minimal noise on the NICAM and hi-fi tracks, the response is almost flat. Even the automatic level control works well, though we prefer a manual recording level control as well, and the redundant bargraph display is a tad irritating...


Rating *****


MITSUBISHI HS-M60 £480        

Mitsubishi keep up the pressure on the mid-market sector with yet another well-specified stereo machine. The HS-M60 reached the shops a couple of months ago and replaces the M68; the feature list is very similar to its popular predecessor, though Mitsubishi have opted for a mid-mount deck mechanism this time, and the price has been pitched quite a bit lower, at around £480, (compared with £600 for the M68).  A few facilities have disappeared in the process, the most regrettable one being a manual recording level control. Itís a shame they didnít remove the bargraph display as well which winks pointlessly in time with the soundtrack.


The M60 makes up for any other omissions with something called Auto Set-Up. As the name implies this saves the user the bother of having to read the instruction booklet; after it has been plugged in and connected to a TV it automatically adjusts the clock and tunes in all locally available TV stations. Another clever feature is a self-correcting clock which adjusts the time against the teletext time signal at 8am every morning.


Thatís just for starters, it also has multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, on-screen display, audio dub, insert edit and a Video Plus+ timer. By the way, the M60, like all current Mitsubishi models has an ingenious one-button timer, where time and date information is fed into the machine by pressing just one button, it works better than you might think... Two other features on the M60 and unique to Mitsubishi, are Rental PB and Intelligent Picture. Rental playback is a nifty idea for movie fans. As soon as a pre-recorded tape is loaded into the machine it rewinds it to the beginning, fast forwards to the start of the soundtrack, starts playback, and optimises replay for a potentially worn or noisy recording . When the recording has finished it rewinds, ejects the tape and switches itself off. Intelligent Play is a tape-tuning system that automatically adjusts the VCRs replay circuitry to suit the grade of tape being used.


The M60 has a fair assortment of movie-making facilities, such as audio dubbing, insert edit, and a syncro edit function, though this only works with other similarly equipped Mitsubishi VCRs. It also has a feature called CM or Ďcommercialí edit, which is basically picture search in the record-pause mode, so users can more easily chop out adverts during a commercial break.


Another fine all-rounder with resolution a whisker over 250-lines. Noise levels are low, colour fidelity is good and both still and slomo are very steady. Audio noise levels on the stereo soundtracks are about average but the NICAM decoder is very clean with barely a trace of background hiss.


Rating ****



The NV-HD100 is a bit of an old-timer, itís been around since mid 1993 and is almost certainly due for replacement this year, so keep an eye out for end of line bargains. Generally speaking a long shelf-life is quite a good sign, it suggests the original design must have been pretty good to start with, and itís still selling in respectable numbers, against some very stiff competition. Part of the reason could be that it was ahead of its time when it was launched; the HD100 was one of the first machines to use Panasonicís fast Super Drive deck mechanism and it has an energy-efficient power supply. Itís also one of the quietest VCRs around, with none of the usual clicks and whirring noises when its being used.


Panasonic were one of the last converts to Video Plus+, and although the timer on this machine is easier to use than previous models, fitted with the ill-fated bar-code programming system, itís not especially user friendly. Panasonic are one of the few companies not to fit on-screen displays to their mid-range or budget VCRs, the larger than usual front-panel display helps a little but it is still not as easy to program as most of its contemporaries.


Itís not found wanting elsewhere, though, and the features list includes a good assortment of movie-making facilities, though surprisingly not an editing terminal, which would have allowed it to be used with the growing number of edit controllers they and a number of accessory companies now produce. What it has got, though, is audio dub, insert edit, a microphone socket, multi-speed replay , NTSC replay and a jog/shuttle dial on the remote handset, to precisely control tape speed and direction.


Panasonic rarely put a foot wrong when it comes to AV performance, and the HD100 is no exception. Samples weíve tested have all been able to resolve over 250-lines, which is about as good as it gets this side of Super VHS. Panasonic are big on picture noise reduction and recordings made on the HD100 do indeed look very clean. Colours too are very sharp and it has one of the steadiest still frame and slomo systems weíve seen.


As usual on Panasonic equipment sound quality is better than average, and the manual recording level control is a welcome bonus for those who tape a lot of musically-oriented material. The NICAM decoder is very clean with negligible background hiss. 


Panasonic ****


PHILIPS VR-747 £460

Hot off the production line, the VR-747 is an upgrade of the 727. The basic specification remains pretty much the same but there have been some changes, the most noticeable one being the redesigned front panel which now sports a jog/shuttle dial. Some of the operating systems have been changed too, to make it a little friendlier. The tuner is a delight, just press the autostore button and it searches through the broadcast bands, storing all locally available stations in its 60 channel memory. Setting the clock only takes a moment, Philips have borrowed an idea from Sony and assigned individual buttons on the remote box for setting time and date information, freeing the user from having to do things in a specified order.


The features list is fairly substantial, though itís clearly designed for a wider European market and includes a number of items that are either not fully supported in the UK, or have limited use. Facilities that should come in handy are full-function trick-play, a front-mounted AV terminal, Video Plus+ timer (with PDC), index search and intro scan, a child lock and NTSC replay. Owners of Sony and some Panasonic camcorders, (and Philips clones) might find the syncro edit feature useful for copying or editing their tapes, and those with Philips or Grundig TVs can control the volume and change channel from the 747ís remote handset. Thereís no on-screen display, which is a bit of a chore when it comes to manual timer programming, the front panel is very busy indeed but most of the messages are spelt out in understandable English.


A label on the front panel proclaims ĎSurround Sound compatibleí, a bit cheeky considering all hi-fi stereo VCRs are surround sound compatible... Operationally it behaves itself, and the deck is very responsive, unfortunately Philips VCR control systems always have a few idiosyncrasies, on this one the standby button only turns the machine off, not on again, pressing any other button does that.


Fortunately the 747 doesnít disgrace itself where it matters most. Picture and sound performance are both up to scratch, resolution on the sample we tested was just over 250-lines, colours looked natural and vibrant, with virtually no noise to speak of. Off-air NICAM sound is pin-sharp, hardly any background noise at all. The stereo soundtracks are crisp with no apparent coloration; noise levels are just a little below average. The automatic recording level system is quite well damped, though as usual we would have liked the option of manual control as well.


Rating ****


SANYO VHR-784 £500

New audio facilities on VCRs are comparatively rare, the last one of any significance  was NICAM, and that was almost six years ago. The new kid on the block comes from Sanyo and itís called DVS or digital View Scan. Itís a development of  their work on anti-shake systems, originally devised for digital audio technologies such as Mini Disc. Itís actually quite a simple idea, DVS allows the user to hear whatís on the soundtrack, irrespective of tape speed or direction, which comes in very handy when trying to locate a specific part of a recording.


This is how it works; sound from the tapeís mono linear soundtrack is temporarily stored in an electronic memory or Ďbufferí chip. Once in this form it can be simply processed, so that it comes out the right way round (if the tape was going backwards), at the right speed, so that it sounds more or less normal. In order for the soundtrack to keep up with the picture -- if itís in the fast picture search mode -- the sound is read out in snatches, six to nine seconds long. DVS sound quality is a bit hissy, but speech is intelligible, and thatís what itís really designed for. To be brutally honest itís a bit of a gimmick, but itís great fun to play with, and a boon for tape-hopping through sports programs and movies.


All very clever, but what else does it do? The 784 is a good-looking mid-mount machine with an unusually friendly on-screen display. It has a front-mounted AV terminal, for the benefit of camcorder owners, some good trick-play facilities and the obligatory Video Plus+ timer. Program delivery control PDC is an option, though the necessary circuit module has to be retrofitted by the dealer.


The 784 turns in a respectable picture performance, resolution is a whisker over 240-lines, itís not going to break any records but noise levels are well below average so overall the picture looks reasonably sharp. LP picture quality is fine too, a shade less than 220 lines, so itís worth thinking about for low-cost archiving.  NICAM and the stereo soundtracks are average to good, no particular problems but there is a noticeable background hiss, especially during quiet passages when the automatic recording level control tend to wind up and down.


Rating ***


SONY SLV-E70 £500

The E70 appears to be something of a niche machine for Sony, itís their representative at the important and increasingly competitive £500 price point. This model is clearly derived from the more elaborate (and more expensive) SLV-E80, with tell-tale blanked-off panels where sockets and buttons used to be. Nevertheless,  most of the E80ís most important features remain intact, and they include an agile centre-mounted deck, multi-speed replay, OPC (optimum picture control)  tape tuning system, on-screen display, clever all-in-one transport control and Sonyís legendary build quality. It also shares the same LCD display panel as the E80, itís mounted on the front of the machine, just below the tape hatch. Yes, it makes a change from all those fluorescent display but, because itís small and only capable of producing one colour itís not always easy to work out whatís going on. In fact the only way to tell if the tape is moving is to see if the counter digits are changing, or look for tiny indicator lights around the tape transport control knob. The E70 looks like quite a lump, the small display and large, empty panels donít help.


Itís reasonably easy to set up using the menu-driven on-screen display, though the remote handset is a nightmare with no less than 56 buttons, all of them small and fiddly. Sadly, another thing to go in the strip-down from the E80 was the jog/shuttle control on the handset, though this machine has few pretensions outside of normal taping and replay duties. There are no movie making facilities to speak of, gadgets are few and far between, in fact the only convenience features worth mentioning are the Video Plus+ timer, index search and intro scan.


Although bereft of fancy features the E70 seems to share the same critical mechanical and electronic assemblies as its more expensive stablemate, consequently on-screen performance is well up to Sonyís normal standards. Resolution is just over 250-lines, thereís plenty of detail in the picture with sharply defined colours and very little noise. Trick frame is rock solid, on recordings made on the machine, though it didnít always work so well on recordings made on other VCRs, with some jitter or noise in the picture. Sound quality is great, the stereo soundtracks have a flat, even response with minimal background noise; off-air sound from the NICAM decoder is very clean.


Rating ***



SONY SLV-E90 £650

The E90 is the odd one out in this roundup as the design is more clearly focused on one particular application, namely video movie-making. This is a thoroughbred edit deck, and whilst it will function perfectly well as a home cinema component, or time-shifting TV programs it would be a bit like using a racing car as a milk float. The features that will be of particular interest to camcorder owners are a front-mounted AV terminal, Control L/LANC editing terminal, insert edit, audio and video dub, record search, multi-speed replay and manual recording level control.  Just in case you want to use it for boring things, like recording TV programs, youíll be pleased to know it also has a Video Plus+ timer, (with PDC) and a tape tuning system, to get the best out of higher-grade tapes. None of this comes cheap, Sony are asking £650 for this machine, but is it worth it?


It certainly looks the part, but itís definitely not the sort of VCR you would give to your old granny. The backlit LCD display is unusually clear and informative, though you have to pay attention as some functions are not very well highlighted. The on-screen display covers most routine operations, and the graphics have a computerish feel to them. The remote handset covers most functions, and it will also control volume, channel and standby functions on Sony TVs.


The optimum picture control (OPC) tape tuning system checks each tape as its loaded, adjusting its recording and replay circuitry to suit. It works well, and resolution on our sample was above 250 lines, on standard grade tape. Noise levels are low to begin with, but using OPC on a higher grade tape reduced them further still, producing a clean, sharp picture with unusually crisp-looking colours. All this bodes well for video movie-makers as copying or editing recordings entails some quality losses, on this machine theyíre as slight as they can be. Trick play is very stable, virtually jitter-free on still and slomo, more good signs for an edit deck. The stereo sound system is also very clean, background hiss is below average on both the stereo soundtracks and NICAM decoder.


Rating ****



There is a clear winner, itís the JVC HR-J715, a super all-rounder. Itís not without its quirks, and it could definitely do with an on-screen display, but AV performance, features and price are all going to take some beating. Mind you, JVC canít afford to be complacent, not with machines like the excellent Akai GS-815 and Mitsubishi M60 snapping at their heels. Both VCRs can hold their own as home cinema components and wonít disappoint camcorder owners either, though weíd urge anyone serious about video movie-making to take a very close look at the Sony E90. Yes, itís expensive but the feature list is specifically targeted at camcorder owners, and in particular enthusiasts, who want to get into some serious editing and post production.  


If, on the other hand your main area of interest is satellite TV then two machines stand out. They are the trendy Ferguson FV88 and the more down to earth Hitachi VT-F360. Both of them have easy to use Video Plus+ timer-programming systems that work in conjunction with a wide range of satellite receivers, though check first to make your particular system is included in their command libraries. By the way, if youíre fazed by complicated set-up procedures then both the Mitsubishi M60 and Ferguson F88ís auto set-up systems take the sting out getting a new VCR up and running; the Philips 747 is only marginally more complicated. Sanyoís 784 is another specialist machine, and we suspect quite a few of them will be sold on the strength of its digital view scan feature. We like it a lot, itís fun and you quickly miss it on other VCRs, though overall its the only thing that stands out on what is otherwise a fairly ordinary machine. The Philips VR-747 looks like a very good deal, AV performance is superb, itís well specified and as weíve already pointed out, very easy to use, so put it on your short-list. The Panasonic HD100 is another fine general purpose machine, itís getting on a bit though and like the JVC J715 the lack of an on-screen display is a pain, but you can learn to live without it unless, youíre a heavy-duty timer-shifter with poor eyesight. Finally we come to the Sony E70. To be fair thereís nothing intrinsically wrong with this machine, but itís not what you would call exciting. Sony are marking time with this one, words like solid and worthy spring to mind, but compared with the others its just a bit dull, and somewhat pricey, for what it is.





Make/model                                          ££s       Timer                AV        LP        AD

AKAI GS-815                             480       VP/P/8/365       2SF      *           *

FERGUSON FV88H                               500       VP/P/8/365       2S        *          

HITACHI VT-F360                                   450       VPS//8/365       2SF      *           *

JVC HR-J715                             500      VP/P/8/365        2SF      *           *

MITSUBISHI HS-M60                 480       VP/8/31            2SF      *           *

PANASONIC NV-HD100             460       VP/8/31            2S        *           *

PHILIPS VR-747                                    460       VP/P/6/31         2SF      *          

SANYO VHR-784                                   500       VP/6/365           2SF      *           *

SONY SLV-E70                         500       VP/8/31            2S        *          

SONY SLV-E90                         650       VP/8/31            2SF      *           *


Key: Timer -- VP = Video Plus+/number of events/days, P = PDC, VPS = Video Plus+ with Satellite control; AV = audio video connections, S = SCART socket, F = front mounted AV terminal; LP = LP or half-speed recording mode; AD = audio dub




R. Maybury 1994 0112






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