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GROUP TEST

 

STRAP

NICAM VCRs

 

HEAD

SOUND DECISIONS

 

INTRO

If you find PDC perplexing and NICAM gives you nightmares then allow Rick Maybury to guide you gently by the hand through the stereo VCR jungle

 

COPY

Twelve years ago, in January 1984 to be precise, Panasonic launched the very first hi-fi stereo video recorder. Todayís stereo VCRs are vastly more sophisticated, not to mention smaller, lighter and easier to use. Theyíve got stacks of additional features -- including NICAM digital stereo -- picture and sound performance has improved, and you can pick one up for less than £350. Back in 1984 the NV-850  cost a whopping £777, thatís more than £1000 at todayís prices! Just think how much money youíve saved waiting all that time...

 

In another twelve years theyíll probably be given away with packets of cornflakes, but if youíre in the market for a NICAM VCR right now why wait any longer? It a great time to buy, thereís a stereo VCR out there to suit every pocket and purpose, whether you want to time-shift TV programmes, watch movies, or even make your own; the trick is to decide what you want from a NICAM VCR, before you set foot inside the showroom.

 

Broadly speaking the stereo VCR market breaks down into four fairly clearly defined segments: entry-level or budget machines come first, followed in ascending order of price and complexity by mid-range, top-end and Super VHS models. Entry level and mid-range hi-fi VCRs sell for between  £350 and £450, they account for more than 60% of NICAM VCR sales and are the most suitable for the majority of time-shifting and home cinema applications. Top end VCRs costing, from £450 to £700, generally have extra performance enhancing gadgets, and additional movie-making features. Super VHS video recorders start at around £700; theyíve developed into a niche product, mainly due to a complete lack of pre-recorded software. Nevertheless, theyíre still quite popular with owners of high-performance camcorders and demanding home cinema enthusiasts.

 

In this brief roundup weíve concentrated on the first three categories, and confined ourselves to VCRs costing no more than £530. You can spend more, but itís often a case of diminishing returns. 

 

So what are the features to look out for? You can take it as read that all current NICAM VCRs have Video Plus+ timers and most of them have PDC (programme delivery control) as well, so setting the timer is no longer a major issue. Even so, some machines still manage to make it easier than others, and one of the most helpful facilities in this respect is a good on-screen display system.

 

Auto installation has become very popular; if youíve ever had trouble with instruction books -- i.e. reading them -- or adjusting the time and date on a VCR, put it high on your list of priorities.  Steady multi-speed replay is a useful way of checking how good (or bad) a VCRís deck mechanism is. But armfuls of fancy-sounding features, that purport to improve picture performance are far less important. Some companies trumpet every minor tweak, that might only put their product on an equal footing with machines from other, less noisy manufacturers. Hereís six machines that illustrate some of the finer points of VCR shopping.

 

ON TEST...

 

Grundig  GV-540 £400

Brand loyalty is clearly very important to Grundig, and something they have sought to capitalise on with the GV-540. This tidy-looking mid-mount machine is reasonably well-appointed, it replaces the GV-450, bringing them up to date with Video Plus+,  PDC and a rudimentary auto tuning system. This stores all locally available TV stations though unlike many recent VCRs with full-blown auto-install, it doesnít set the time or date. Installation is very easy if youíve got a recent Grundig TV, equipped with ĎMegalogicí;  this simplifies a number of set-up and control functions. If not you have to battle with the deeper and darker sections of the instruction book,  itís not at all user friendly.

 

The control systems takes some getting used to; for example, the record button has to be pressed for several seconds before anything happens, and AV inputs are mysteriously designated ĎCVí and ĎHIí. Itís somewhat unforgiving nature extends to the on-screen display and the remote handset. Not only are  the Video Plus+ keys difficult to locate, several buttons have no discernible function at all.

 

Nevertheless itís quite well disposed towards home cinema applications, and itís one of the few machines weíve seen recently that has a manual recording level control. NTSC replay is definitely worth having if youíve got contacts or relatives in the US, and thereís a few movie making facilities, including front AV sockets and three insert functions. These allow the picture, or the sound or both to be replaced. Thereís multi-speed replay, controlled by a jog/shuttle dial on the handset, and Quasi S-VHS replay. This comes in very handy if youíve got an S-VHS-C camcorder.

 

On-screen performance is mostly satisfactory. Definition is good, our sample was able to resolve around 250-lines on VHS test recordings, and just under 320-lines on S-VHS tapes. However, picture noise levels were just a little higher than average and some recordings made on other machines had a tendency to look a little ragged around the edges. Still and slow-motion replay are both very steady, though the deck is not especially agile, and the picture looses lock for a second or two when changing direction. Audio quality is fine, it has a clean, open response and thereís very little background noise on the stereo soundtracks. The GV-540 isnít as instantly likeable as it predecessor but itís still worth thinking about, particularly if youíve got a suitable Grundig TV.

 

DATA STREAM

Grundig  GV-540 £400

Features:            Video Plus+ timer with PDC, 6-event/31-day timer, auto tuning, S-VHS and NTSC replay, multi-speed replay, jog/shuttle control, insert edit, video dub, index search, continuous replay, parental lock, Megalogic control functions with Grundig TVs

Sockets              2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio in/output (phono), satellite control (minijack), aerial bypass (coaxial),  front AV (phono), headphone (minijack),   

 

Pros: Great for Grundig loyalists, fair performance plus some handy features, reasonably good value

 

Cons: some of the more eye-catching features only work with Grundig TVs. The instructions and controls are quite heavy-going

 

OVERALL TOTAL 80%

Telephone Grundig UK on (01788) 577155

 

 

JVC HR-J825 £530

One of JVCís finest. This machine is squarely aimed at home movie-makers, and in particular those with VHS-C camcorders. This machine has a built-in edit controller that can be programmed to automatically plays back up to 8 scenes -- in any order --whilst at the same time controlling the record-pause mode on a Ďslaveí VCR. A special cable links the 825 to other suitable JVC decks; on other makes of VCR itís necessary to buy an optional multi-brand remote controller, costing around £45. It also has insert edit and audio dub, so itís possible to put together quite slick-looking productions.

 

Itís a handsome-looking machine -- it could easily pass for a more expensive top-end model --  though the mockwood side panels are a bit tacky. Installation is reasonably straightforward, auto-tuning seeks out, stores and identifies TV channels, sets the time and date, and checks the clock every hour. 

 

Amongst the other more useful convenience features thereís NTSC replay, hyper bass, repeat play and a multi-brand TV remote that can control the key functions (on/standby, volume and channel-change) on eight other popular makes of TV.

 

The fly in the ointment is the lack of an on-screen display, which makes life a little more difficult that needs be. Itís not always easy to see what the machine is up to, across the wide-open expanse of a typical living-room. Fortunately the remote handset has an LCD panel, which helps with Video Plus+ code entries and manual timer programming. At the risk of sounding picky it could do with a manual recording level control as well. 

 

Picture quality is superb. It manages to resolve a crisp 250-lines, picture noise levels are very low. Colours are sharp and natural-looking, multi-speed replay is rock-solid. The deck is incredibly nimble and switches speed or direction quickly with hardly any picture disturbance or the usual clinking and whirring noises. The lack of a manual recording level control is made more acute by the very clean hi-fi sound system, which has a broad, uncoloured response and minimal background hiss. This machine is extremely well built, it has plenty of useful features, AV performance is outstanding. Itís a bit pricey but well worth short-listing, particularly if youíre a VHS-C camcorder owner whoís interested in home cinema.

 

DATA STREAM

JVC HR-825 £530

Features:          Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto install, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, multi-brand TV remote, hyper bass sound, audio dub, insert edit, on-board edit controller

Sockets:           2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), front AV (phono), edit control (minijack)

 

Pros: purposeful looking machine, outstanding picture performance and a real boon to owners of VHS-C camcorders looking for a quick and simple way to tidy up their holiday movies

 

Cons: the lack of an on-screen display is a disadvantage, and we would have liked to have seen a manual recording level control on such a capable machine

 

OVERALL TOTAL          83%

Telephone JVC UK on 0181-450 3282

 

Mitsubishi HS-561 £480

Following a succession of fairly uninspiring machines over the past couple of years Mitsubishi are back on top form again with this highly-specified all-rounder. The headline feature has to be satellite control. Itís linked in to the Video Plus+ timer and it makes time-shifting satellite channels as easy as taping BBC or ITV programmes. Just tap in the Plus Code for the show you want to record -- nowadays theyíre printed in most newspaper and TV listings magazines  -- and the HS-561 does the rest. Just before the programme begins the 561 sends out a stream of infra-red control pulses, to switch the nearby satellite receiver on, and set it to the right channel for the duration of the recording. When it has finished, it switches the satellite box off.

 

Thatís the icing on a very attractive-looking cake, that also includes a full auto-install, colour co-ordinated remote control and on-screen display systems,  multi-speed replay, super-fast deck mechanism, rental play, tape optimisation, a parental lock, audio-dub, insert edit, NTSC replay... The list goes on, suffice it to say this compact midi-sized machine is extremely well-equipped.

 

A couple of those features deserve a special mention: auto install is virtually foolproof and also takes care of satellite set-up. The very well thought out on-screen display system is unusually helpful and never leaves the user feeling lost or confused. Moreover, the displays are closely tied in with colour-coded buttons on the remote handset; you would have to be really stupid, and/or determined to make a hash of this one.

 

The only minor omissions on this otherwise very complete package, are a manual recording level control, and a jog/shuttle dial on the handset. Ironically Mitsubishi used to have them on all of their mid-range machines. Itís a shame really, the trick play facilities on this machine are outstanding. Still and slomo are both very steady, and the fast-acting deck changes speed and direction with minimum fuss; itís simply not possible to get the best out of it using buttons to control picture speed and direction.

 

Overall picture quality is very good, samples weíve tried can resolve 250-lines without difficulty, and noise levels are just a little below average. Colours are accurately defined, with no spillage or smearing. It sounds good too, the response is very flat with hardly any background noise on the hi-fi stereo or NICAM tracks. The price is realistic, performance is good, and thereís plenty to play with, what more could you want?

 

DATA STREAM

Mitsubishi HS-561 £480

 

Features:          Video Plus+ timer with PDC, satellite control, auto set-up, tape optimiser, multi-brand remote control, rental tape playback, NTSC replay, insert edit, audio dub, CM edit, index write/erase multi-speed replay, child-lock

Sockets:           2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), front AV (phono) edit terminal (minijack)

 

Pros:    A superbly well-equipped machine, bristling with useful features covering a wide range of applications, from satellite time-shifting to video movie-making.

 

Cons:    It could do with a proper jog/shuttle control for the remote and a manual recording level control

 

OVERALL TOTAL 90%

Telephone Mitsubishi Electric UK on 017072) 76100

 

Panasonic NV-HD650, £500

The higher than average price tag indicates this is no ordinary VCR. Panasonic have closely targeted the NV-HD650 at camcorder enthusiasts, with a range of features designed to appeal to owners of both VHS-C and 8mm camcorders. Thatís unusual, normally the editing facilities on camcorder-friendly VCRs are tied in with a manufacturers own product range. However, the edit sockets on the HD650 are compatible with control protocols used by a number of other manufacturers, including arch rivals Sony, Sanyo and Canon. It also has a set of front-mounted AV sockets, audio-dub, insert edit, quasi S-VHS replay (owners of S-VHS-C camcorders take note), plus a good range of trick play options, controlled by a jog/shuttle dial on the front panel.

 

The HD650 was launched last year and was one of the first Panasonic VCRs to have auto-install and on-screen displays. They obviously did their homework, itís very easy to set up and use. Other handy features include NTSC replay, a multi-brand remote that will operate the main functions on 33 different makes of TV, and Panasonicís very quick Super Drive deck mechanism.

 

Panasonic are still lagging behind in some areas though; the cosmetics are on the dowdy side, and this must be one of the few remaining VCRs not to have a centre-mount deck mechanism. It doesnít have a manual recording level control either, and theyíve added insult to injury with a pointless flickering bar-graph display.

 

One very welcome spin-off of this machineís movie-making facilities is better than average picture and sound quality, which obviously benefits home cinema users. Resolution on samples weíve tested topped 250-lines, close to the theoretical limit of the VHS recording system. Noise levels are well below average, thanks presumably to the CVC (crystal view control) tape tuning and video processing circuitry. Colours are clean and accurately defined. In spite of loosing a couple of Brownie points with the daft bar-graph display and lack of manual recording level control, audio performance is excellent. The stereo soundtracks are open and uncluttered with plenty of impact. The HD650 is a specialist product but donít let that put you off, even if you havenít got a camcorder yet, you might one day, but if you really canít make use of the editing facilities check out its cheaper stablemate, the NV-HD600.

 

DATA STREAM

Panasonic NV-HD650, £530

Features           Video Plus+ timer with PDC,  auto set-up, multi-speed replay, on-screen display, audio dub, jog/shuttle dial, NTSC and quasi S-VHS  replay, insert edit, RMC editing terminal with LANC control, multi-brand remote handset, index search

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, line audio out (phono), edit control (mini DIN), front AV in (phono), sync edit & headphone (minijack)

 

Pros:    an extremely well-equipped edit deck, and no mean home cinema performer either

 

Cons:    itís strengths are also its weakness, and unless youíve got a camcorder and a hankering to make polished video movies you could end up paying for features you may never use

 

OVERALL SCORE 85%

Telephone Panasonic UK on (01344) 862444

 

Philips VR-757 £430

You never quite know where you are with Philips video recorders.  Some models behave so strangely you wonder if theyíre taking the Mickey, others are perfectly normally and stand alongside the best the industry has to offer. Unfortunately the VR-757 falls into the former category.

 

Howís this for weird? The front AV sockets are actually mounted on the side, and the main transport keys are on the top, making it unnecessarily difficult to fit the machine in small enclosures, consoles or stacks. The stop button is also the pause control, though doesnít initiate still-frame, you have to press the Ďjogí button for

that. Thereís no Ďoní button as such, any button (except eject) switches it from standby; the standby button only switches the machine off. The jog/shuttle dials on the front panel and remote handset have to be switched on before they can be used for trick play, otherwise they engage fast wind. It doesnít have automatic power-on-and-play -- thatís been a standard feature on just about every VCR for the past seven or eight years -- nor does it have any sort of on-screen display. Okay, so thatís not unusual, but why on Earth have they saddled it with a barely-legible single-colour front-panel display thatís all but impossible to read across the living room carpet?

 

Tuning is semi-automatic but thereís an option to download the contents of the TVís tuner, providing itís compatible with Philipsís Easy Link system. So far only a couple of widescreen sets have this facility. Unless you have one of them then itís all down to some DIY button pressing. Thereís some good news though. By matching the VCR tuner to the TV channels itís possible to use a direct-record facility, that needs just one button press to switch the VCR on and record whateverís on the TV at the time.

 

It has a good assortment of camcorder-related features. They include a multi-format syncro-edit system -- a sort of single-scene edit controller that works with a wide range of machines -- plus  audio-dub and insert edit. Picture quality is quite good too; recorded images contain plenty of detail with resolution hovering around the 250-line mark. Colour accuracy is spot-on, though noise levels are only average.  Thereís a trace of background hiss on the stereo audio tracks but the response is pretty smooth. In spite of 757ís very odd design and behaviour AV performance is fine, and in view of itís movie-making talents the price seems reasonable.

 

DATA STREAM

Philips VR-757 £430

 

Features           Video Plus+ with PDC, semi-auto tuning, multi-speed replay, NTSC and quasi S-VHS replay, jog/shuttle dial, index search, audio dub, insert edit, syncro edit control, direct record, Easy Link control

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, stereo audio in/out (phonos), front/side AV (phono), syncro edit (minijack)

 

Pros: Several worthwhile camcorder-related features and performance is satisfactory, fair value

 

Cons: a very strange machine with some quite peculiar habits, that may take some getting used to...

 

OVERALL TOTAL 79%

Telephone Philips Consumer Electronics on 0181-689 4444

 

Samsung SV-140i, £340

In the past five or six years Korean consumer electronics manufacturers Samsung have almost caught up with their Japanese and European counterparts. In some areas, notably styling and presentation, theyíve made quite remarkable progress, to the point where  itís almost impossible to tell their VCRs apart from other makes and models. Samsung are clearly determined not to be left behind and the cosmetics of some of their most recent VCRs -- including the one weíre about to look at  -- have been designed here in the UK, to appeal to European tastes. However, their most notable achievement continues to be producing well-specified, value for money machines. The SLV-140i is a good example; when it was launched late last year it was selling for £360, making it one of the cheapest NICAM VCRs on the market, now we understand theyíve dropped the price even further, to just £340!

 

The features list is understandably brief and devoid of any real luxury facilities.  Nevertheless it has most of the basics -- like Video Plus+ and PDC -- plus one or two useful extras, quite unexpected on a machine as cheap as this one. The informative menu-driven on-screen display is a surprise, as are multi-speed replay and audio dub. Thereís a better than average selection of AV socketry as well, with twin SCART sockets, a front AV input terminal plus a third set of AV output sockets on the back. 

 

There are omissions though, and the most noticeable one is auto install. Fortunately manual tuner programming is fairly straightforward. Weíre a little alarmed to see a tuner set-up button on the remote, thatís just asking for trouble, especially if thereís any small-fingered fiddlers or incurable button-pushers in the house.

 

It all looks quite promising but there has to be a reckoning somewhere down the line. There is, and it concerns AV quality. Off-tape resolution is about what you would expect from a budget VCR.  It manages a little under 240-lines, which in itself is not too bad, but combined with above average levels of picture noise, slightly whiskery colour and at times wobbly trick-play, the gloss begins to disappear from an otherwise agreeable machine. The best thing you can say about picture performance is that itís adequate. Much the same applies to the stereo hi-fi soundtracks; thereís a touch too much background hiss for comfort, and treble response is quite thin.  A little less noise and a slightly sharper picture and it would have certainly made it onto our shortlist, as it stands itís suitable for routine jobs, like time-shifting, but not really up to the demands of home cinema.

 

DATA STREAM

Samsung SV-140i, £340

Features           Video Plus+ with PDC,  multi-speed replay, index search/intro scan, child lock, audio dub,

Sockets            2 x SCART AV stereo line in/out (phono), front AV (phono)

 

Pros: Cheap and well specified with up to the minute styling

 

Cons:    indifferent AV performance, very basic

 

OVERALL SCORE 78%

Telephone Samsung UK Ltd on 0181-391 0168

 

CONCLUSION

On these occasions itís traditional to pick out the winners and looser but these six machines span such a wide price range, and cover so much ground in terms of features and facilities, that it would be unfair to make too many direct comparisons. The Mitsubishi HS-561 is the one to go for if youíre looking for a flexible and accomplished time-shifter, a high-performance home cinema deck, and a machine do the odd bit of editing or copying. Owners of Grundig TVs equipped with Megalogic need look no further than the GV-540; owners of just about every other TV should keep on looking, maybe to the JVC HR-J825, especially if theyíve got hankerings for a fine home cinema machine, and a VHS-C camcorder. Home cinema enthusiasts with an 8mm or VHS-C camcorder (equipped with a RMC or Control L edit terminal) should give the Panasonic NV-HD650 their very serious consideration.  The Philips VR-757 is a bit of an odd-bod, maybe itís worth thinking about for the editing functions. Samsungís SV-140i is very cheap, and quite cheerful, but it simply doesnít make the grade as a home cinema deck, but it will pass muster as a basic TV time-shifter.

 

BOX COPY 1

COMPARISON TABLE

 

Make/Model                              ££s       Timer    AV                   AD        SAT      A/V/P   HE%

Grundig GV-540                         £400     31/6      2S,L,F,H           *           -           A/*/*     80%     

JVC HR-J825                 £530     365/8    2S,L,F              *           -           */*/*      83%

Mitsubishi HS-561                      £480     365/8    2S,L,F              *           *           */*/*      90%

Panasonic NV-HD650     £500     31/8      2S,L,F,H           *           -           */*/*      85%

Philips VR-757               £450     31/8      2S,L,F              *           -           A/*/*     79%

Samsung SV-140i                      £340     31/4      2S,L,F              *           -           -/*/*       78%

 

Key: Timer -- days/events; AV sockets -- S = SCART, L = line audio output, F = front AV terminal, H = headphone, M = microphone; AD = audio dubbing; SAT = satellite control timer; A/V/P = auto installation/Video Plus +/Programme Delivery Control (A = auto tuning only)

 

                                   

BOX COPY 2

JARGON BUSTER

 

AUTO INSTALLATION/SET-UP

Auto install normally kicks in when a VCR is plugged in and switched on for the first time. Most systems program the VCRs tuner, set the time and date, and periodically check the clock against highly accurate teletext time signals, automatically adjusting for Summer/Winter time changes.

 

FRONT AV TERMINAL

A set of audio and video input sockets on the front of a video recorder, to simplify temporary hook-ups  for camcorders and video games consoles

 

HEADS

The number of recording heads a VCR has determines picture quality and replay facilities. Basic mono machines have 2 heads, 3-head machines have improved trick-frame stability, 4-head machines have the best LP performance and multi-speed replay facilities. Almost all NICAM VCRs have 4 video heads, plus an extra pair of heads for the stereo hi-fi soundtracks

 

HI-FI STEREO

NICAM VCRs have stereo recording systems where high quality audio signals are effectively Ďburiedí beneath the video tracks by an extra pair of recording heads on the spinning tape head drum. This technique is known as DFM stereo or Ďdepth frequency multiplexingí. Hi-Fi stereo is in addition to the low-quality mono linear soundtrack, which is part and parcel of the VHS specification

 

JOG/SHUTTLE

Tape speed/direction control consisting of an outer shuttle ring, for coarse control, and an inner jog dial, for stepping the recording one frame at a time, in either direction

 

NICAM

Near instantaneously companded audio multiplexing: digital stereo TV sound system, capable of near CD quality, used by BBC and ITV companies

 

NTSC

National Television Standards Committee: 525-line/60Hz colour TV system used in North America, Japan and parts of the far East

 

PAL

Phase Alternate Line: 625-line/50Hz colour TV system used in the UK and throughout most of Europe, with the exception of France and some former Eastern bloc countries, who use the SECAM (Sequential Coleur a'Memoire) system

 

PDC

Programme delivery control. Automatic timer connection system, designed to compensate for late schedule changes or programme overruns, now in use by the BBC and ITV companies. PDC signals sent by broadcasters, (alongside teletext data), ensures time-shifted recordings start at the correct time, and if necessary, on the right channel.

 

RESOLUTION

A measure of the amount of fine detail in an image that a VCR is able to record, and playback. Resolution is usually specified in Ďlinesí,  not to be confused with the scanning lines that go to make up a TV picture. Tests are carried out using  calibrated graticules, on electronically generated test cards, with lines that get progressively closer together. The resolution figure is determined by noting the point at which the lines merge, i.e. the VCR (or TV) can no longer resolve the detail. 

 

SUPER VHS

High-performance VHS sub-format, capable of near broadcast quality picture performance. Machines with Ďquasi-S-VHS replay can replay S-VHS recordings (made on camcorders etc.) , though with markedly reduced definition.

 

TAPE TUNING/OPTIMISATION

A feature on several mid-range machines where the VCR makes a short test recording -- normally lasting no more than a few seconds -- to assess the grade or quality of the tape being used, and adjust its recording and playback circuitry accordingly

 

VIDEO PLUS+

Timer programming system that uses a string of digits (the Plus Code) to programme a VCR timer; Plus Codes are printed alongside programme information in TV listings magazines and newspapers. The codes are the key to unlocking an algorithm (computer programme) that contains the time and date information needed to make a time-shifted recording. 

 

 

BOX COPY 3

TOP TIPS

* Decide what you want from a NICAM VCR, before you start shopping around; focus on the features that you actually need and will find most useful

 

* Watch out for the fancy-sound TLAs (three-letter acronyms), often meaningless features, or enhancements that have little or no real bearing on performance

 

* Front AV terminals are a good idea, even if you donít have a camcorder right now, you might soon

 

* If you canít face the prospect of setting a VCR up, or youíre buying a machine for you old granny, make sure it comes with full auto installation. Not all of them are, or theyíre more complicated to use than manual set-up controls. If the salesperson canít demonstrate it properly -- preferably without referring to the instructions -- give the shop, and the machine a wide berth...

 

---end---

R. Maybury 1996 1103

 

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