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Unless you happen to be one of the unfortunate 5% of the population who still cannot  receive NICAM digital stereo TV sound, or have only one working ear, then youíve almost no excuse for not getting a stereo VCR, when the time comes to replace your existing machine. The price differential between mono and stereo VCRs is negligible, in fact the cheapest models now sell for less than £350, not much more than budget mono VCRs a couple of years ago.


Of course, a stereo VCR is not much good on its own, it helps to have a stereo TV to plug it in to, but itís certainly not essential. Just connect the VCRís audio output to the Ďauxí input of any handy hi-fi, and place the speakers a couple of feet either side of the TV screen. With this sort of arrangement you can record, replay and even watch programmes with glorious digital stereo, and it is good, especially on movies and musical programmes! Ironically the stereo effect using, a hi-fi system, can be a lot better than a NICAM TV, where small fixed speakers, mounted in narrow enclosures either side of the screen, often produce a disappointingly shallow stereo soundstage.


Thereís now more than 30 NICAM video recorders on the market, weíve put together a representative sample of ten budget and mid-range machines to help you pick your way through the stereo VCR jungle. Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering NICAM stands for Ďnear instantaneously companded audio matrixí; worth remembering only if you habitually seek to bore or try and impress people at parties....



On the face of it the Goldstar R-C705i looks like a remarkably well specified machine, a bit of a Jack-of-all-Trades, but we all know what his problem was. Goldstar have also been a bit crafty with the styling; the front panel flap, which covers the whole of the fascia, and the display panel which is in the middle, conspire to make it look like a mid-mount machine. However, with the cover open all is revealed, a thoroughly conventional layout, with some eighties kitsch thrown in for good measure in the form of pointy transport buttons


Thereís plenty to interest camcorder owners, it has front-mounted AV sockets, audio dub, a syncro-start socket and itís the only machine in this roundup to have a title generator. Thatís especially useful when it comes to copying or editing tapes, and can give a home-made video movie a really professional look. Goldstar get more Brownie points for having not one, but two manual recording level controls, one for each channel, now that is unusual, though weíre still not quite sure what theyíre good for, at least not in the context of a budget hi-fi VCR like this one. Points are deducted for the single SCART socket, which can make life difficult for those planning to use this machine with other AV components.


The 705 only just manages to pass muster in the picture department. Our sample turned in a rather ordinary 230 lines horizontal resolution, noise levels were acceptable, but nothing special. Picture quality is okay for replaying movies and recording TV programmes but it would be pushing it to use it for copying or editing video movies. The biggest problem, though, was the still frame, which was anything but. Itís the noisiest one weíve seen in years, and evidence of some critical cost-cutting in and around the deck mechanism and video processing circuitry. We checked to see if it was a fault but the instructions warn that still frame performance is going to be poor. Sound quality is satisfactory, a little noisy on the hi-fi soundtracks perhaps, but nothing excessive, and the NICAM decoder is fine. The 705 started out with a lot of promise and the specification is very appealing, but as we said earlier Jacks of all trades can do a lot of different things, but theyíre often not very  good at the ones that really matter.



You get the impression that if Grundig could have figured out a way to fit a kitchen sink to the GV-450 they would, itís got just about everything else! The place to start is the front panel, with itís trendy centre-mounted deck. Below that thereís a fancy display panel, with cleverly designed recording level bargraphs. Itís loaded with features, some of them quite useful -- especially if youíve got a camcorder -- like insert edit, audio dubbing, front-mounted AV sockets and a jog/shuttle dial on the remote handset. The rest include more mundane things, like index search, advanced tape search facilities, parental lock, continuous play and record.


In addition to still, variable slomo and fast play it can also handle NTSC and S-VHS coded tapes, though resolution is only slightly up on normal VHS resolution, and NTSC tapes weíve tried have all appeared in black and white, so it probably only works on multi-standard TVs. Itís one of a small number of machines to have a manual recording level facility, though itís not especially easy to use and defaults back to automatic after the machine has been switched off.  Thatís just one example of this machineís relatively unfriendly nature. The instructions are not very helpful, and even if you find what you want, it can be difficult and long-winded doing it. Picture stability and manual tracking controls are a case in point. In both cases itís necessary to slide out a hidden control panel on the remote handset, press a button marked code, enter a highly forgettable sequence of four digits on the numerical keypad,  press the OK button, then use the program up/down buttons to steady the picture. Thatís around eight actions to do something most other manufacturers manage to accomplish using just two buttons.


Picture quality is okay, the 250-line res figure looks fine on paper  but picture noise is a little above average, and colours are not as sharp as they could be. No problems with the audio, though, and the stereo hi-fi tracks sound very crisp. NICAM too comes through cleanly, and in spite of the awkward manual recording level controls, it gives a good account of itself with audio-only recordings. This is not the sort of VCR you would want to give to your old mum for Christmas; itís a bit of a tricky customer, difficult to get to know and not very easy to use, even for everyday operations. On the other hand, if youíre into video movie-making it has a lot to offer, and it wonít disgrace itself as a AV component.



Hitachi have never been great innovators in VCR technology but their machines are invariably solid, dependable designs, and whatís more, they usually work well too. To be honest Hitachi VCRs have tended to be a tad dull, but thatís definitely  not true of the VT-350. Itís small and compact, only 380mm wide, but Hitachi have not skimped on the features list, in addition to NICAM sound and Video Plus+ timer programming it has a menu-driven on-screen display and a shuttle dial on the remote handset, for controlling replay speed and direction. The handset also features volume, channel-change, mute and on/standby controls for around 20 different brands of TV, these are held in a microchip memory, and accessed by entering a simple two-digit code.


Itís a reasonably camcorder-friendly machine, thereís a front-mounted AV terminal, with sockets for audio and video, plus one for external synch. This can be used with camcorders that have syncro-start facilities, for simple editing and copying. It doesnít have separate audio line output sockets, which is a nuisance as, in the absence of a stereo TV,  it means one of the two SCARTs will have to be used for the audio hook-up to a hi-fi system; that leaves only one for connecting the VCR to the TV, or a satellite receiver.


The design is very straightforward;  thereís no hidden controls on the front panel, though there are plenty on the remote handset, but in the main theyíre for seldom-used functions and initial set-up. Everything else is accessed from the on-screen display, and that includes special functions, like endless play, and rental play. This is switchable and only works on pre-recorded tapes, when, a few seconds after the recording has finished, the tape is automatically rewound and ejected.


Picture quality is excellent, samples weíve tried managed to resolve a full 250-lines, which is about as good as it gets on mid-market machines. There was very little noise in the picture, and colours were natural-looking, and sharply defined. Still frame and the variable slomo replay features were both very stable, with barely any picture jitter. The NICAM decoder and stereo hi-fi recording system were both on top form, with negligible background hiss, and a clean, uncoloured response. Aside from the lack of audio line output sockets this is a real gem of a machine, appealing both as a home-cinema component and video movie-making tool. Not the cheapest stereo mid-ranger by a long way, but if performance and flexibility are important, itís money well spent.




If JVC canít get it right who can? The J610 is a real cracker of a VCR, more appealing to movie-watchers than movie-makers perhaps, but still a fine little machine. The headline features include a centre-mounted deck mechanism, jog/shuttle dial on the front panel for varying replay speed and direction, hyper bass, for bumping up low frequencies on the soundtrack, a multi-brand remote handset, for controlling the basic functions on a wide range of non JVC televisions, and a clever new feature called Ďreviewí. JVC probably got the idea from telephone answering machines; after the machine has made a time-shift recording an illuminated button on the front panel starts winking. When you return home press the button and the VCR automatically switches back on, rewinds the tape to the start of the recording and begins playback.


Other items that might be of interest include repeat playback, that will replay a tape 20 times, MEC (master edit control) compatibility with JVC camcorders, and a PDC (program delivery Control) option, which, if fitted, will self-correct timer programmed recordings. JVC have tried hard to simplify the initial set-up but it lacks an on-screen display and can be quite hard going. Nevertheless, they deserve a small pat on the back for the clarity and design of the instruction book.


The J610ís unique pedigree is clearly apparent during playback. Horizontal resolution is a shade over 250-lines, and noise levels are well below average. Colours are vibrant and pin-sharp but itís the remarkable trick-frame facilities that really set this machine apart. Apart from being very steady, at all speeds, the tape transport mechanism is unusually agile, changes of speed and direction take place rapidly, without the usual clicking and clunking. This makes it particularly useful for sports fans, who can use it to analyse detail and movement with ease. Sound quality is very good too, very low levels of hiss on the stereo hi-fi soundtracks and from the NICAM decoder. Weíre still not sure about the hyper bass facility, sure it boosts the bass, but the effect probably suits only a limited range of material -- some music videos and possibly one or two movies -- otherwise it just makes the sound muffled. In any case NICAM TVs and hi-fi systems have tone control facilities of their own, why bother on the VCR? Thatís about the worst thing we can think of to say about the J610, itís a fine machine that should be at or near the top of any NICAM shortlist.



You may notice a number of similarities in the layout and design of this machine with  the Sanyo VHR-774 and the Thorn VR-204, thatís because theyíre all built by Sanyo in their German plant, but the fact that this machine is the most expensive of the three suggests there should be more to it than meets the eye. There is, the 3784 has a number of important extras, including a picture enhancement facility called ASO or active sideband optimum which appears to give a number of small but worthwhile improvements in picture quality, as we shall see in a moment. It may just be a coincidence but this machine also seems to have better LP recording quality than the Sanyo or Thorn models. The 3784 has audio dub and widescreen compatibility, a facility that automatically records and plays back 16:9 formatted pictures, on widescreen TVs. though thereís little you can use it with in the UK at the moment.


The 3784 has an unusually helpful, not to say pushy on-screen display system that is activated from the moment itís switched on. It invites the owner to follow a sequence of commands, starting with one that tests their ability to comprehend English, and just in case they canít, thereís the facility to be patronised in eight other European languages and Urdu. No, thatís not being fair, it is very easy to follow and ideal for first-timers or those frightened off by VCRs that look as though they belong on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle. Itís fully wired for AV use with twin SCARTs and line audio in/out sockets.


ASO is switchable, probably so dealers can demonstrate itís effectiveness, otherwise there seems little justification in keeping it switched off. The effect is quite noticeable with a small increase in detail and a very slight reduction in noise, making the picture look noticeably sharper. It doesnít have a big impact on resolution, that remains at just under 250-lines, and colour accuracy is unaffected, but thatís not a problem as itís good to begin with. Noise levels on the stereo hi-fi and NICAM soundtracks is average to good, though the treble response is a little muted. The 3784 is good, but not outstanding, and to be honest the Sanyo 774 or Thorn 204 are arguably better deals, unless 16:9 compatibility and audio dubbing are absolute necessities.



We have to say right away that the HD90 is not what you might call an exciting machine, in fact downright dull would be a better description but letís be fair, thereís nothing wrong with being dull... This VCR does what its told, when its told to do so. It has no unpleasant or irritating habits, produces a crisp, clean picture, good sound and is very easy to use. Whatís more it costs £430; no, theyíre not exactly giving them away, but thatís a fair price for a very fair machine, the Mr Nice Guy of the VCR world in fact.


What weíve got here is a well designed machine with all of the most useful features readily accessible from the handful of exposed front-panel controls, and the remote handset. Even the nine buttons hidden away behind the front panel flap are large and clearly labelled. Around the back thereís a single SCART connectors and a set of three phono sockets for AV output, thatís not really enough for a full-blown AV set-up , but itís liveable. The set-up routines are reasonably easy to follow, though the lack of an on-screen display means the front panel readout has to work quite hard. Itís difficult to go wrong with the remote, the important buttons are large and well spaced, the not so important ones live out of the way, under a flap. Thereís hardly any gadgets to play around with, unless you  get your kicks from things like a power-save feature which turns the display off, index search or NTSC replay in black and white.


The good news about the HD90 just keeps on coming. Horizontal resolution on our sample easily topped 240-lines, thatís not going to break any records but combined with lower than average noise levels produce a good-looking picture with bright, lifelike colours, still frame and the variable-speed slomo are both rock-solid.  Audio response was flat, with no detectable colouration, manual recording levels controls would have been useful but the ALC system does a pretty good job. Panasonic are also to be congratulated for leaving off the traditional bargraph level display, in this case -- like so many others -- it would have been a pointless cosmetic frippery. The SD90ís only problem is that itís bit boring, especially for a company like Panasonic who have  produced some stonkingly good machines in their time, but if you like your VCRs to be safe, predictable and unthreatening, get down to your nearest Panasonic dealer...



In case you hadnít noticed, the Koreans are coming. Samsung, like their compatriots Goldstar are now making significant inroads into the middle of the VCR market and itís becoming increasingly difficult to tell their machines apart from the top Japanese and European brands. The 395 is closely related to the VI-375, which was launched at the back end of 1993, and is now on its way out. The main, in fact the only significant difference is the addition of a Video Plus+ timer, otherwise the two machines are almost identical. It has a surprisingly good range of facilities, many of them targeted at camcorder owners, like front-mounted AV sockets, audio dub, and a shuttle dial. It has all the usual tape search facilities, including index search and intro scan, plus a full set of trick-play options.


The styling is reasonably up to date, though the Koreans have still to catch up with the fad for mid-mounted deck mechanisms, but give them time. While theyíre at it they might also like to do something about the rather substantial remote handset, it could do with slimming down a bit. The 395 has a single SCART AV connector on the back, which would have been a major drawback but for the fact it also has a set of AV phono sockets carrying composite video and stereo line audio outputs; itís still a socket short of a home cinema system, but it will do. Operationally itís a very straightforward design, the deck is fast and responsive, the only small gripe concerns the shuttle dial, which could do with some kind of centre-stop function as in addition to controlling picture search it also engages fast wind, but thereís no means of stopping the tape from the shuttle dial. It sounds more complicated that it is but if you get the chance try it, youíll see what we mean.


Samsung have clearly little to learn about picture quality, resolution was just under 250-lines, colour accuracy was good and picture noise levels were about average. No problems either with the trick-play modes, the picture remained reasonably steady at all speeds, and still frame was virtually jitter free. There was hardly any background hiss from the NICAM decoder and the hi-fi soundtracks were very clean too, so all in all a pretty good set of results. Samsung VCRs are coming on in leaps and bounds and this one is definitely worth shortlisting.



Sanyo have to be one of the most prolific VCR manufacturers around at the moment and theyíre responsible for two other machines in this roundup (Nokia and Thorn), so they must be doing something right. Like the other two models this is compact but  fairly routine mid-mount design, not especially good looking, though itís obvious Sanyo saved the best front panel for themselves. Feature-wise the 774 slots in between the Nokia and Thorn models, though, to be frank thereís not a lot of difference between the specifications of this one and the 204, at least nothing we could point to from the outside that might justify a £70 price differential.


The initial set-up is identical to the other two with a firm but friendly multi-lingual on-screen display that bids the user to perform a series of tasks. Most actions depend on the using four direction buttons to move a hand-shaped cursor around the screen, when it points at the required option, press the ĎOKí button. Itís all very simple and should take most people only a few minutes to tune the TV into the VCR, set the clock and channels. Overall itís an easy machine to live with, and the provision of two SCARTs plus a set of line audio inputs and outputs means it can fit in easily with almost AV system or home cinema set-up.


Although these three machines share a number of common components there are differences when it comes to AV performance. Once again this one comes out in the middle. Horizontal resolution is a little over 240-lines, noise levels were a little down on the Nokia machine, which almost certainly has something to do with its ASO feature; colour accuracy was about the same though, and trick-frame performance (still and slomo) is very stable. Like the Thorn 204 itís main weakness is a very average LP recording quality, resolution is barely 200-lines, with lots of noise, you would have to be fairly desperate to want to use it for anything other than an emergency. Sound quality is good, almost a repeat performance of the other two with clean NICAM and stereo hi-fi sound. Apart from a few minor cosmetic differences the 774 has little to offer over and above what you can get from the Thorn machine, which costs a good deal less.



The current low price of NICAM VCRs owes a lot to Sharpís pioneering efforts three years ago when they were one of the first companies to break ranks and sell a hi-fi stereo machine costing under £400. It may be that theyíve become complacent but subsequent VCR have failed to generate the same excitement; sadly the H88 doesnít exactly get the juices flowing either. Itís a reasonably good-looking mid mount design and from the outside, with only two buttons on show, it appears fairly approachable. However, drop the front-panel flap next to the display panel and itís another story, thereís a dozen or so buttons, all the same size and poorly labelled (green on grey lettering...?). Our advice, if you buy one of these, is to take very good care of the remote control handset, loose it and you could be big trouble!


The features list is brief and to the point; thereís fast play and variable speed slomo, multi-brand remote handset (controls on/standby, channel change, volume and mute on 20 or so different makes of TV), index search and intro scan, plus random repeat, which endlessly replays a specified segment of tape. It has twin SCART connectors, and, weíre pleased to say, a full set of audio line input and output sockets. The display panel is the same as the one used on the slightly better specified H90 but weíre glad theyíve disabled the bargraph level display. Initial set-up is a mixed bag, the clock/calendar is straightforward enough but the tuning system is somewhat sluggish.


Horizontal resolution is nothing special at just under 240-lines, and itís one of the few machines on the market not to have any LP facilities, which is probably just as well as noise on SP replay is almost at the same level as LP replay on some other machines. This makes the picture look a little ragged around the edges, colour accuracy is satisfactory, though, and trick play stability isnít too bad. The stereo soundtracks have a little background hiss, nothing too serious but itís another debit point.  In the end the H88 fails to excite, the features are not very well targeted at any particular segment of the market and performance is very mediocre. It might have looked a bit more interesting had it been given a lower price but as it stands itís up against some very stiff competition and it looses out on just about every count.



Thorn EMI used own Ferguson back in the days when we had a TV industry, now  Thorn UK own Rumbelows and market their own brand VCRs through their chain of high-street shops; as a matter of interest this particular model is made for them by Sanyo. Itís not going to win any beauty contests but then again itís not going to frighten anyone off. Itís compact, with just a handful of front-panel buttons on show, and no hidey holes, flaps or trapdoors. Considering the price it has a fair assortment of features, they include index search and intro scan, still and slomo replay and a rather bossy on-screen display, which insists you carry out the set-up routine when its switched on for the first time, and no arguments! In common with a lot of machines these days it has an automatic head cleaning system, which gives the recording head drum a quick wipe over every time a cassette is inserted.


Around the back thereís twin SCART connectors and a set of line-audio sockets. The remote handset is another example of clean and simple design, this is the kind of machine dyed in the wool technophobes should look at first, a real throwback to the early days of video, when you didnít need to look at the instruction book...


Performance is good for a machine costing under £350, in fact itís better than some machines selling for £100 more, though it has to be said the LP recording mode is a waste of space, and quite frankly they neednít have bothered. Fortunately SP picture quality is good, resolution was just over 240 lines on the sample we tested, and noise levels were comparatively low. Colour fidelity was about average, so nothing wrong with that. Itís a similar story with the stereo hi-fi recording system and NICAM decoder, a good middle of the road sound, noise levels were well with acceptable limits and no discernible colouration. The automatic level control is reasonably efficient, though it struggles a bit with detailed musical passages, chopping around when there are sudden and deliberate changes in volume. The VR-204 has to be one of the better deals at the budget end of the market, where AV performance is frequently compromised in order top keep the price down. Thatís not the case with the 204, corners have been cut, but theyíve mostly been at the expense of superfluous features and fancy styling. Definitely worth considering if youíre on a very tight budget.



Two machines stand out from the crowd, theyíre the Hitachi VT-F350 and the JVC HT-610. They both cost around £430 and thereís barely a whisker between them when it comes to audio and video performance. In the end such differences as there are cancelled themselves out so weíre taking the cowards way out and recommending them both. The Samsung VI-395 is a very close runner up, performance is good, and weíre very impressed with the level of specification on a VCR costing only £380. However, the value for money winner has to be the Thorn VR-204, itís not particularly well appointed but picture and sound quality are comparable with, and in some cases better than VCRs costing £100 more, itís a shame Sanyo, who make the 204 pitch their own version at a higher price point, and although the Nokia 3784 has a few extra facilities, and slightly better on-screen performance, weíre not sure itís worth an extra £120 over and above the VR-204. The Panasonic and Sharp machines both worked reasonably well but sadly failed to excite. Grundigís GV-450 also performed well but fell down on user-friendliness. That leaves only the Goldstar C705i, which is very well equipped but picture quality is very average.



MAKE/MODEL              ££s       Timer                AV        LP        AD

Goldstar R-C705i                       350       VP/8/365           S,F       *           *

Grundig GV-450             460       VP/8/365           2S,F     *           *

Hitachi VT-F350             430       VP/8/365           2S,F     *           -

JVC HR-J610                 430       VP/8/365           2S        *           -

Nokia VCR-3784                        450       VP/6/365           2S        *           *

Panasonic NV-HD90                  430       VP/8/31            S          *           -          

Samsung VI-395                        380       VP/4/31            S,F       *           *

Sanyo VHR-774             400       VP/6/35            2S        *           -

Sharp VC-H88               380       VP/8/365           2S        -           *                      

Thorn VR-204                330       VP/6/365           2S        *           -


Key: Timer -- VP = Video Plus+/number of events/days; 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 15 07



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