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GROUP TEST

 

BUDGET NICAM VCRS

 

COPY/INTRO

 

If VCR price erosion continues at the current rate within five years retailers will be paying us to take them away! It's absolutely crazy, a national chain is selling a no-frills mono machine for less than £70; you could easily spend more in a couple of nights down the pub or on a decent meal. The question is, how long can it continue and how can anyone be making money at those sorts of prices?

 

The fact is they're not and some manufacturers have simply given up trying or grin and bear the losses on entry-level models in an effort to maintain market share and brand awareness. Others are simply marking time in the hope that DVD and digital television will revive their fortunes. Give-away prices on mono VCRs also reflect the fact that they are a dying breed, in many markets they have disappeared altogether. Indeed, no one in their right minds (or with two working ears) would buy a mono VCR any more. The VHS format is also on it's last knockings and within five years there's a good chance we'll all be doing it digitally.

 

All doom and gloom…? It's not meant to be, for the moment at least VHS is the only affordable option if you want to timeshift TV programmes (though that could start to change by this time next year when and if recordable DVD makes it onto the market). It's a win-win situation for consumers, mono VCR pricing is having a big knock-on effect on the cost of NICAM stereo VCRs, which is where we come in. A couple of years ago we were advising you to steer well clear of budget VCRs, some of the really cheap ones were rubbish, one or two still are, but there has been a noticeable change in the market with more of the big name manufacturers producing low-cost models. This has forced lesser brands to improve the design and performance of their machines so now there's no need to compromise on picture or sound quality in an effort to save money.

 

There's no official definition of a budget VCR so we've settled on a simple upper price limit of £200 for the VCRs in this group test. In the past cheapo machines tended to be devoid of the most up to date convenience features and you could usually spot them a mile off because the styling and cosmetics were two or three years out of date. Not any more, and all of the machines we've looked at have all of the standard convenience features like on-screen displays, Video Plus+ timers and with only one exception, they all have almost foolproof auto-installation systems. It's the number of extras that you get on these machines that we found surprising. Features that a year or two ago would only be available on mid-range and top-end models are now routinely fitted to budget machines, and that includes comparatively recent developments, like satellite timeshifting and tape library systems. 

 

Nevertheless, it's still a jungle out there with plenty of pitfalls for the unwary bargain hunter. The most obvious one is second rate AV quality and that is one area where comparatively large variations still exist. None of the machines we've tested were so bad that they could be dismissed out of hand -- but one or two came quite close... In very general terms we have found that a manufacturer which makes high-end VCRs for home cinema and editing applications has a better track record for picture and sound performance on its budget models. That's because there's a high probability that the company uses the same higher-spec components across the whole range. In contrast manufacturers that specialise in low cost decks often start out with parts that were originally designed down to a price.

 

Never judge a VCR on looks alone. Manufacturers that concentrate on budget or mid range equipment have become very good at dressing up their machines to look like classy up-market products. Equally, some of the most respected brands in the business are quite capable of churning out machines that work brilliantly well, but look plug ugly.

 

So how do you sort the wheat from the chaff? Pedigree is always a good place to start and budget or entry-level VCRs made by the A-brand manufacturers are usually worth shortlisting. Check the specs carefully, lots of gadgets might look enticing but always ask yourself if you really want or need them. Apparently mundane things like a second SCART socket is much more useful than a fancy graphical on-screen display, say.

 

Price is another fairly reliable indicator, but once again there are provisos. It's a false economy to go for the absolute cheapest machine you can lay your hands on but don't ignore a suspiciously low price, especially on a VCR from a well-known manufacturer. If you keep your eyes peeled and shop around you'll come across some amazing bargains in magazines, the local and national press, and on the Internet for last year's models, or end-of-range sell-offs. You are unlikely to be missing out on much buying an older machine. In fact some apparently new models are little more than cosmetic revamps, with the same or nearly identical innards to its predecessor.  

 

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

Testing picture performance on budget VCRs is a lot easier than mid-range and high-end models because there tends to be a wider and much more obvious variation in AV quality. Resolution, or the machines ability to record and reproduce fine detail, dynamic range, colour fidelity and picture noise are measured using a series of electronically generated test patterns and specially made recordings. We use similar techniques to assess the VCR's audio capabilities, with special emphasis on noise levels and frequency response. These checks give us some useful benchmarks but in the real world very few people actually watch static test patterns or listen to test tones, so we put an equal emphasis on how well a VCR handles moving images, with big and fast changing variations in brightness and colour.

 

Over the years we have tended to stick with a collection of challenging clips from a small selection of movies, and this also gives us the opportunity to see if the results from our audio bench-tests are born out. For good measure we check how easy (or otherwise) it is to set up, and how long it takes, and whilst we've got the stopwatch out, time the fastwind on the deck mechanism, which amongst other things tells us something about the standard of design and mechanical build quality.   

 

JARGON BUSTER 300

 

NICAM -- Near Instantaneously Companded Audio Matrix, digital TV sound system used by UK terrestrial broadcasters, comparable in quality to audio CD

 

Noise –  random signals generated by analogue video and audio processing and magnetic tape. Noise reduces the amount of wanted video and audio information in a signal or recording. It makes a picture look fuzzy, colours become indistinct, and it generates an annoying background hiss on audio soundtracks

 

NTSC -- National Television Standards Committee, 525-line colour TV system used in the US and Japan. VCRs with NTSC playback can replay tapes on most recent PAL (UK standard) televisions

 

PAL – Phase Alternate Line, 625-line colour TV system used in the UYK and throughout most of Europe, the Middle East and Australia

 

PDC – Programme Delivery Control, corrects VCR timer programming for delays or late schedule changes. The VCR waits for a 'go' code – a data signal embedded in the video signal -- before making a timeshift recording. PDC information is also used by some machines with auto installation systems to assign station idents and set the time and date during the initial set-up

 

Resolution -- a video system's ability to record and reproduce fine detail

 

SCART -- Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio Recepteurs et

Televiseurs. 21-pin plug and socket system used on pretty well all AV products (VCRs, TVs, LD/DVD players and satellite receivers etc.,), used to convey video, audio and control signals between AV devices.

 

Video Plus+  – almost foolproof VCR timer programming system, the user taps in a sequence of numbers -- or PlusCode -- that appear alongside programmes in TV listings magazines and newspapers.

 

 

THE TESTS

 

AIWA HV-FX5100, £160

VERDICT ****

Despite the fact that this VCR clearly originated on the same production lines as another machine in this roundup, it has a quite distinct personality of its own, sharing only a handful of components with its distant Bush-branded cousin. Whilst some basic elements are the same (chassis, on-screen displays etc.), it is the additional features and deck mechanism that separate the two machines.  The two-tone cabinet and front panel cosmetics are quite bold and what looks like some sort of jog-shuttle control is actually a cunningly designed cluster of transport buttons. The styling is aggressive but it definitely wouldn't look out of place alongside Aiwa's current range of AV mini hi-fi systems.

 

As far as the main features are concerned the FX5100 is unusually well endowed. It has a full auto installation system that programs the tuner and sets the clock as soon as the machine is plugged in for the first time. The Video Plus+ timer has PDC, it can replay NTSC tapes on most PAL TVs, there's repeat play, a power save mode, twin SCART sockets, One Touch Playback, 'Ad-Skip' and a PIN coded Anti Theft system. The last three deserve a brief explanation. One Touch Playback is a nifty idea borrowed -- if memory serves -- from JVC. After a time-shifted recording has been completed a button on the front panel lights up. When you want to watch it just press the button once, the tape rewinds and starts replay from the beginning of the recording. Ad-Skip sounds like it could be quite interesting -- like the automatic commercial zapper on some top-end Hitachi VCRs -- but this one turns out to be rather more mundane. Pressing the Ad-Skip button on the handset engages fast forward picture search in 30-second bursts. The Anti Theft security system locks up the machine's controls if it is unplugged from the mains for longer than 3 minutes – long enough to do the hoovering. A user-set PIN code is required to get it working again and it stores the owner's name and post code so that it can be identified if it is stolen and later recovered.

 

If you're not using an SCART cable to connect the VCR to the TV the RF output channel can be set from the front panel. Auto installation took a little over two minutes to do its business and tune in five terrestrial channels (stations are automatically sorted into the logical order), after which the machine is ready to go. The only other optional preliminary is to enter your name and postcode and key in a PIN number. The menu-driven on-screen displays are unsophisticated but perfectly legible and reasonably easy to follow. Button layout on the handset is adequate though there are rather a lot of them, they're mostly small and bunched close together, but it's liveable. The deck mechanism is different to the one used in the Bush machine but it is fairly relaxed and fast wind on an E-180 takes two and a quarter minutes.

 

Picture quality is pretty good and our test machine was able to resolve a thoroughly respectable 240 or so lines. Colour fidelity and registration are points to watch out for on budget machines but the FX5100 passes muster on both counts with well-defined colours and no smearing to speak of, even in areas of high saturation. Picture noise levels are on the right side of average and overall picture stability is fine with minimal jitter. Still and slomo are both steady, and fairly unobtrusive noise bars break the two-speed picture search. The only minor concern was the deck mechanism's sensitivity to mechanical shock and tapping the cabinet resulted in some slight picture flutter. The stereo hi-fi soundtracks have a clean open response and no more than average amounts of background hiss.

 

Aiwa has a happy knack of producing well-specified and distinctive-looking VCRs at very attractive prices; it's a fine long-standing tradition that continues with the FX5100. This VCR would be a very good starting point if you're in the market for a home cinema-capable machine at a sensible price and if you've already got some Aiwa hi-fi gear it'll be right at home.

 

Aiwa (0990) 902902

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, PIN coded anti-theft, 'Ad Skip' (see text), repeat play, power save mode

           

Sockets           

Rear: AV in/out (2 x SCART), stereo audio line out (phono), RF bypass (coax)

 

BOX OUT 50

Unlike some VCR anti theft systems the one on the FX5100 provides double protection. The owner's name and postcode are stored inside the machine's operating system so you stand a better chance of getting it back if it's stolen and recovered and the controls are automatically locked if it's disconnected from the mains for longer than three minutes.

 

Picture  ****      

Sound               ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·          The 'teccy' looking front panel looks a lot more complicated that it is

 

·          Twin SCART sockets are a welcome sight and will make installation a lot easier

 

·          Lots of small buttons but the layout and labelling are both okay

 

 

BUSH VCR-870, £130

VERDICT **

 

This is an extraordinarily cheap VCR though it has to be said that unlike some other budget VCRs it doesn't look it, the silvery cosmetics and front panel styling is quite snazzy, in a brash in-your-face sort of way. It actually feels a bit tinny – the top panel feels very thin -- but the front panel controls are large and sensibly positioned moreover it has a big informative display, (a little too bright though, it could do with a dimmer).

 

There are one or two surprises on the feature list, not all of them good, it has to be said. On the plus side there's 2-speed picture search, slomo and steady still frame, it has index search and repeat play and the first of those surprises, NTSC replay on a normal PAL TV, with stereo hi-fi sound! The slender remote control handset is quite busy with rather a lot of buttons for such a basic machine, but they're clearly labelled and easy to find.

 

Rear panel connections are confined to a single SCART, a pair of phonos carrying the line-level audio output and the coaxial aerial sockets. When connecting the VCR to a TV the RF output channel can be changed from the front panel, which, we're pleased to say is becoming more common, even on cheapie decks.

 

The 870's on-screen display and operating system are both rather crude, compared with a lot of current entry-level and mid-range VCRs. Installation is a reminder of the bad old days when you had to read the instructions… It has manual channel set-up and the clock/date setting. Tuning is a particularly tedious business, especially now that we've become used to plug-and-play auto installation. You have to tell it to search out stations one at a time and each one has to be assigned a channel number. Unless you're familiar with the channel locations in your area it could several minutes to sort out. It has a Video Plus+ timer but not PDC -- not that we'd expected it -- but it means that channels have to be assigned in the proscribed order, otherwise it won't work properly. The timer can be set manually (8 events/1-month) but again it's quite hard work, involving a fair amount of button prodding.    

 

From start to finish set-up and installation takes around 10 minutes, mainly because of all the manual adjustments. The deck mechanism is quiet when it is running but it grunts and grinds a bit whilst loading and unloading tapes. It proceeds at a fairly leisurely pace taking an average of two and a half minutes to wind an E180 tape from end to end. Resolution on our sample was not that brilliant, despite trying a variety of makes and grade of tape the best we managed to squeeze out of it was just over 220-lines, but picture noise levels were not too bad so the image just ends up looks a bit soft. Colours are accurately located but they are a little flat. Still and slomo were quite steady with well-suppressed noise bars. Deck stability is rather average and a light tap on the cabinet results in some disruption to the picture.

 

The stereo hi-fi soundtracks are clean, bass winds down a little early but the response is generally very flat and there are modest amounts of background hiss

 

For such an inexpensive VCR the 870 does quite well but it is quite clear where the corners have been cut. For a start there are no little luxuries, so don't expect any mollycoddling from electronic minions, with this machine you have to get your hands dirty and press the buttons yourself. That we can live with, it's quite nostalgic really, but we would have preferred a bit more effort in the picture department. Resolution is quite low; the picture doesn't fare well on larger TV screens, where the lack of detail and slightly fuzzy edges are apparent. It's a shame because the picture is otherwise quite good with lower than average noise and unusually steady trick play. Don't dismiss the 870 altogether, it's cheap enough to be considered for the bedroom or the kids room where, hopefully, it will be connected to a smaller screen TV – on models up to 21-inches, say, the picture is just passable.

 

Bush, 0181-594 5533

 

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Features

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer, NTSC playback, repeat playback

 

Sockets           

AV in/out (SCART), stereo audio line out (phono), RF bypass (coax)

 

BOX OUT

NTSC replay is an unexpected bonus on such a cheap VCR and what's more it replays the stereo soundtracks. Until fairly recently most VCRs with NTSC replay could only reproduce the format standard mono soundtrack, stereo sound was only to be found on high-end NICAM VCRs costing more than £500

 

Picture  ***

Sound               ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

 

Captions

·          Cheap it may be, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the smart-looking front panel

 

·          Rear panel connections are confined to the standard SCART, line-level stereo and aerial sockets

 

·          The slim remote handset is smothered in buttons, unusual for such a basic machine

 

 

HITACHI VT-FX860, £200

VERDICT *****

Last year Hitachi didn't appear to be bothering with the budget end of the VCR market but it's back, and with a vengeance! The VT-FX860 really is a rather special machine and by rights should be selling for quite a bit more than the £200 street price. It's similar to last year's entry-level machine, which sold for around £290, but with a few more bells and whistles.

 

The two-tone grey/silver styling is crisp and the layout is uncluttered, the only thing we're not too keen on is the backlit LCD panel on the front. It's a question of legibility; when the machine is off it's not easy to see the time, which might irritate owners who depend on their VCR as a living-room clock. The other problem is the LCD panel is a single colour – black on green – the VCR doesn't have a separate record mode indicator, and the little logo on the LCD can be difficult to see from some angles, so it's not always clear what the machine is up to. Relax, that's about as bad as it gets, the rest is mostly good news!

 

Without doubt the most interesting feature on the FX860 is Tape Navigation. This is an advanced library system that stores details of up to 200 programmes. Every recording made on the machine is automatically logged in the VCR's memory (and as hidden data on the tape), with information about the time and date of the recording, the channel it was shown on and whether or not you've watched it. Additionally it can also be set to show the programme genre (movie, sport music etc.), and how much blank space is left on the tape. If like us you have a growing collection of tapes that you have no idea what's on them you need this machine to bring some order to your life. It's just a pity that it can't archive tapes retrospectively. If you're deaf or hard of hearing then the FX860 should be of considerable interest as it has a built-in Movietext/Closed Caption reader that displays subtitles, invisibly recorded on a lot of recent movies on tape, and embedded in the video signals of some TV programmes.  

 

Unlike its predecessor the FX860 can play NTSC tapes on a PAL TV, there's also multi-speed replay (though only via the shuttle ring on the front panel), full auto installation, and something called Prepare-Rec. This is similar to JVC's Rec-Link system for making time-shift recordings from a satellite receiver. However, unlike a conventional satellite control system, where the VCR switches the sat box on and off using infra-red commands, Prepare-Rec relies on the satellite receiver's built-in timer to trigger the VCR into making a recording. The VCR senses a video signal on the SCART lead connecting the two devices together. Last but not least there's twin SCART sockets, front AV inputs and a set of TV control functions on the remote handset but these only work with Hitachi tellies.

 

It took exactly 2 minutes for the auto installation system to tune in and sort out the stations, then set the clock and date. When it has finished it displays a tuning pattern, for the benefit of owners using the aerial cable to connect the VCR to TV. Most secondary functions are controlled from a simple graphical on-screen display. The tape deck was the second fastest in this group with an unspectacular E-180 wind-time of 2 minutes 10 seconds.

 

Picture performance has improved since the FX750; resolution is up slightly, to just under 250-lines but the most noticeable difference is the reduction in picture noise and sharper looking colours. Mind you, some old ways persist and still frame is a touch wobbly, especially on recordings made on other VCRs. The hi-fi soundtracks are well up to home cinema standard, noise levels are a little below average and the response is smooth and flat.

 

Tape Navigation on a budget VCR is not unknown but this is the most sophisticated system to date and a good enough reason to buy this machine but add on all of the other goodies and the superior AV performance, and you have one very desirable video recorder. Highly recommended!

 

Hitachi 0181-849 2000

 

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Features

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay, Tape Navigation, Movietext/Closed Caption subtitle display, multi-speed replay, Prepare-Rec satellite recording system, TV control on handset (Hitachi models only)

           

Sockets           

Rear: AV in/out (2 x SCART), stereo audio line out (phono), RF bypass (coax) front: AV in phono

 

BOX OUT

Tape Navigation is an efficient way of organising a tape collection; all you have to do is number your tapes. Whenever you load a tape in the VCR it tells you what's recorded on it, when it was recorded, the channel, the type of programme and whether or not you've watched it. 

 

Picture  *****                 

Sound               *****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

 

Captions

·          The circular knob on the right is a variable speed, from 1/7x normal speed up to 9x picture search

·          Two SCART sockets and audio line out, all you need for simple home cinema hook-ups

·          A trim and tidy remote handset with clearly labelled buttons 

 

 

JVC HR-J665, £220

VERDICT *****

When it was launched last year the HR-J665 was priced at £230, it is currently selling for less than £220 in the high-street multiples, however we have seen it advertised for the magic £199.99, which brings it within the remit of this group test. Part of the reason for the steady reduction in price is that it's getting on a bit. Nevertheless, it will be with us for a little while longer since it will be several months before a replacement is due. The spec looked good when it was launched, it looks even better now the price has come down, it's more than capable of giving most of its younger whippersnapper rivals a run for their money.

 

The light silver-grey finish looks quite smart (a black version is also available). A circular cluster of transport keys and a large fluorescent display dominate the front panel; you may also have noticed a set of front AV sockets, perfect for a spot of editing or copying from a camcorder. Points of interest on the feature list include B.E.S.T (biconditional equalised signal tracking) which is basically a tape tuning system that optimises playback according to the grade and condition of the tape. REC-Link is a cunning satellite timeshift recording system. It works when the VCR is connected to a satellite receiver by SCART cable. The idea is you set the timer on the satellite receiver, when it comes on the VCR senses the video signal and starts recording for the duration of the programme. It's simple and clever and unlike most other satellite control systems it works with any make of sat box (provided it has an on-board timer).

 

Set-up is a doddle. It has a fully featured auto install system that kicks in when the machine is plugged in for the first time. This sets time and date and tunes and sorts all available channels; our sample took just 1 minute 40 seconds to accomplish this task. The manual timer deserves a mention because it is so easy to use. A set of rocker buttons on the remote set start and stop times, the date and channel. It's almost as simple as Video Plus+, more so in fact if you are in a hurry and haven't got the relevant programme's PlusCode to hand. The handset is a standard JVC item, it's quite big but it's well laid out and it controls the main functions on JVC TVs. We came across an unadvertised feature during the tests; this machine will replay S-VHS recordings, though only at VHS resolution. Needless to say it plays NTSC tapes as well, on any reasonably recent PAL TV.

 

Mode and status displays pop up from time to time, they are legible and to the point. Most secondary functions are accessed through a set of menu-driven on-screen displays; they may not look very pretty but they are functional and very easy to use.

 

The deck mechanism isn't going to win any prizes for the agility of its fast wind, an E-180 takes 2 minutes 20 seconds to get from one end to the other but what it lacks in speed it more than makes up for with stability and picture quality. Resolution topped out at just under 250-lines on a HG tape, which is close to the format's limit. Unusually low picture noise levels and crisp, natural-looking colours combine to produce the kind of picture that wouldn't look out of place on a mid-range or top-end deck. Still frame on recording made on the J665 are very stable, others can be a little unsteady, unfortunately that's all there is in the trick play department, apart from single speed forward and reverse picture search. Bass response is good on the otherwise unremarkable hi-fi soundtracks, there is some background hiss but it's no worse than average.

 

JVC is not a brand we usually associate with the word budget but for whatever reason here is a JVC video recorder, at a budget price, and a damn fine one it is too. The J665 has all the necessary qualifications for home cinema, it works well, it looks good, and it's easy to use. Worth considering.

 

JVC 0181-450 3282

 

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Features

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay, Rec-Link satellite recording, index search, B.E.S.T. tape tuning, 3-mode picture control, repeat play, TV control on handset (JVC models only)

 

Sockets           

Rear: AV in/out (2 x SCART), stereo audio line out (phono), RF bypass (coax) front: AV in phono

 

BOX OUT

Tape tuning is very rare indeed on budget VCRs but JVC's tortuously named B.E.S.T really can make a difference. It takes around 7 seconds for the machine to check the condition of a newly loaded tape; it is most effective on LP recordings made on higher-grade tapes.

 

Picture  *****                 

Sound               *****

Features            ****

Ease of use            *****

 

 

Captions

·          The silver grey cosmetics look very distinguished, a black version is also available

·          Twin SCART sockets on the back panel should solve most connection problems

·          The handset is quite bulky but at least it won't get lost down the back of the sofa…

 

LG AF999, £135

VERDICT ***

Until fairly recently the best thing you could say about LG video recorders was that they were cheap and fairly cheerful but if the AF999 is representative of the range the company has worked hard to update and improve the specification of its VCRs. The price is certainly eye-catching, even if the actual machine is undistinguished in appearance. It's a chunky little black box with a lively front panel display, the controls are liberally sprinkled across the fascia but there's a multi-speed shuttle control on the far right, which is a rare sight on VCRs at this end of the market.

 

It's quite well equipped with a full auto installation system that covers channel tuning and time and date setting. It has PDC linked to a Video Plus+ timer, a child lock, it can play both NTSC and SECAM tapes, there's a two-stage picture control, child lock and CM-Skip, which engages fast picture search for 30-seconds at a time to skim through ad breaks. A power save mode switches off the front panel display when the machine is not in use and a feature called Video Doctor provides on-screen status and diagnostic reports, including a helpful head monitor that advises when its time to use a head cleaner. Around the back it has two SCART AV sockets, which makes life a lot easier if it's to be used with other AV devices, like a satellite receiver or DVD player and on the front there's a set of AV input sockets, for simple camcorder and video game hook-ups.

 

The initial set-up took 2 minutes 20 seconds to tune in the five TV channels. After that it you are given the opportunity to reorganise the channel allocations; this is necessary since our sample stored them in the order they occur on the band, rather than sort the stations into the correct order for Video Plus+.

 

A sticker on the front of the machine ambitiously compares the on-screen display with 'windows', presumably a reference to the PC operating system but the only similarity is the use of a set of icons, which bear a passing resemblance to a desktop display. A four-way cursor control steps through each icon in turn, providing access to sets of menus from which various features or modes can be selected. There's a set of secondary on-screen mode and status displays including a bargraph showing tape position. The machine has two-speed trick play but for some peculiar reason this is only accessible from the shuttle ring on the front panel. There doesn't seem to be any way of accessing the lower of the two speeds (2x) from the remote handset, which is just daft. The same goes for slomo, which we couldn't find mentioned at all in the instructions, and only works on the shuttle ring when the machine is still frame mode.

 

The deck is quite slow taking over 3 minutes to fast wind a 3-hour tape. On screen performance is a bit mixed, resolution is a whisker over 230-lines, which is nothing special. The picture is also quite noisy, especially on cheap SG tape it works better with HG formulations. The OPR (optimum picture response) control – basically a picture softener -- doesn't help and either makes the picture look too harsh, or too soft. Saturated colours are marred by the higher than normal noise levels and tend to looks a bit mushy. Still frame can be a bit wobbly, it's not too bad on recordings made on the machine but on other tapes it is usually broken by a large noise bar at the top of the screen.  The hi-fi soundtracks are a tad trebly but otherwise the response is even and background noise levels are about average.

 

Previous LG VCRs were, to be honest, a bit lacklustre but the AF999 shows definite promise. The range of features is very good though and we are pleased to see genuinely useful things like front AV sockets, auto installation and twin SCARTs on such a low cost VCR. Picture quality is borderline home cinema; there is room for improvement, at least as far as noise levels are concerned. We would hesitate to recommend it for serious applications though it probably wouldn't be too bad on a small to mid range stereo TV.

 

LG, (01753) 500400

 

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Features

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC and SECAM playback, power save mode, child lock, CM Skip, sharpness control, 'Video Doctor'

 

Sockets           

Rear: AV in/out (2 x SCART), stereo audio line out (phono), RF bypass (coax) front: AV in phono

 

BOX OUT

 Front AV sockets used to be depressingly rare on budget VCRs but as anyone who owns a camcorder will know they're invaluable for making copies or editing home movie footage. The AF999 also gets extra brownie points for twin SCART sockets, which makes it so much easier to connect the TV or VCR to other AV devices.

 

Picture  ***                   

Sound               ***

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

 

Captions

·          A plain and unobtrusive design, the front AV sockets are concealed behind a little flap below the on-off button

 

·          Twin SCART sockets are a welcome sight, especially if your TV only has one

 

·          The handset is a good size with well laid out buttons

 

 

SHARP VC-MH722, £190

VERDICT ***

Sharp has always been a very active player in the budget sector of the VCR market and has produced some real crackers in the past. The VC-MH722 certainly gets off to a good start with a dramatic looking front-pane. It is a most distinctive shape blending bold curves with sharply sculptured edges and the display is large and easy to read. It's probably unwise to dwell too long over the ergonomics though and we suspect the stylists won all the arguments when it came to button shape and placement. In case you can't see from the photograph the eject button is a thin curvy sliver bordering the bottom left hand corner of the display – try finding that in the dark… 

 

Heading up the shortish list of features is auto installation, NTSC replay, a child lock, remote control functions for Sharp TVs, and Postcode Security. The latter stores the owner's postcode in the VCR's operating system memory, where it remains, even if the power is switched off. The idea is that if the machine is stolen and by great good luck it is recovered, it can be easily identified, and reunited with its rightful owner. On the back panel there are two SCART sockets – good news if you've also got a satellite receiver, or DVD player, and only one SCART on the TV. On the front panel there is a set of audio and video inputs, for quick and simple camcorder connections. It can replay NTSC tapes and it comes with a whopping big remote control handset smothered in little buttons. This is most odd when you consider that it is quite a basic machine, even so frequently used buttons are large, well labelled and easy to find.

 

The MH722 has a two-stage picture control and a modest selection of trick play facilities they are controllable from the handset and a rotary shuttle control on the front panel. The shuttle ring is flush with the fascia and it can be quite fiddly to use, until you get used to it. One not so obvious feature – from the outside anyway – is this VCR's unusually low power consumption in standby mode. It's below one watt, which might not sound terribly impressive but until recently 12 to 15 watts was the norm for the majority of VCRs in standby mode. Multiply that by 20 million or so – a conservative estimate of the number of VCRs in daily use – and you get some idea of the amount of power being wasted by the nation's VCRs just sitting around doing nothing!

 

Auto installation is quick and painless, our sample took a little over two and a quarter minutes to tune and sort five channels, then set the time and date. However, even more impressive is the agility of the deck mechanism. It was the fastest one in this group, and by a wide margin and it managed to wind through an E-180 in just one minute – that's quick!

 

When it comes to video and audio quality the MH722 gives a pretty good account of itself. Using good quality HG tapes resolution on our test machine was a fraction over 240-lines. Colour fidelity is good and skin tones look natural but there's a touch more noise in the picture than we would have liked. It's by no means serious but it takes away some of the crispness. The picture enhancer tends to overcompensate and the image ends up looking harsh. Trick frame stability is good – still frame is rock solid -- and the deck is quite well insulated against mechanical shock. Audio quality is fine, it's home cinema friendly and carries Dolby Surround soundtracks with ease, there's bags of treble the response is as flat as a pancake and background hiss is well suppressed.

 

If VCRs sold on looks alone then the MH722 would be an instant winner, however back in the real world there are two even more important considerations, and that's price and performance. The MH722 does very well on the first, and quite well on the second, in fact the only things counting against it is the fairly brief feature list, and the fact that there are some amazingly well specified machines on the market, costing just a few pounds more.

 

Sharp, 0161-205 2333

 

UP CLOSE

Features          

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, 2-stage picture enhancer, postcode security, child lock

                       

Sockets                       

Rear: AV in/out (2 x SCART), stereo audio line out (phono), RF bypass (coax) front: AV in phono

 

BOX OUT

The majority of budget video recorders have fairly basic deck mechanisms with relatively sedate fast wind speeds but the one in the MH722 goes like greased lightning. It takes just one minute to wind a 3-hour tape from one end to the other, not quite a record, but pretty close!

 

Picture  ****                  

Sound               ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

 

Captions

·          A distinctive front panel that's difficult to ignore

·          AV connectivity is good with two SCARTs on the back and a set of camcorder sockets on the front

·          The handset is a fair old size but layout and labelling are both good

 

THE VERDICT 700

First the good news – not that there's any particularly bad news… This group test convincingly proves that budget NICAM VCRs are safe to buy, even for a demanding application like home cinema. The only caveat to that is that some are better than others, in some cases a lot better so take your time and choose carefully!

 

Of the six players we've tested one machine stood out, and that was the most excellent Hitachi VT-FX860. Picture and sound performance were both very good, not quite the absolute best in the group but we would defy most users to spot the differences without doing an in-depth comparative study, staring for some considerable time at specialised static test patterns. However, in the end the feature that swung it for us was Tape Navigation. It's the first outing for an advanced system like this one on a budget VCR and the perfect way to bring some sort of order to your tape collection. It's a good way to maximise tape usage and it will even remind you whether or not you've watched a recording. Full marks too for the range of convenience features, which includes simplified satellite recording and Movietext, which will be a boon to the hard of hearing.

 

The JVC HR-D665 missed the top slot by only the slimmest of margins. It delivered the best picture and sound and has a useful range of extras, including Rec-Link satellite recording and a whole bunch of highly effective picture enhancements. It performs like a mid-range machine and although it's no spring chicken, it still looks as fresh as a daisy.

 

It was very difficult to choose between the next two machines, the Aiwa FX5100 and the Sharp MC722.  Both of them are very competent machines with AV performance to match, they're certainly suitable for home cinema and we wouldn't be averse to using them for a spot of home movie editing or copying.  The FX5100 is a bit of an eye-full – let's call it a certain cheeky charm -- not that we hold that against it, and it's packed with interesting and mostly quite useful features. As we said earlier it would definitely appeal to anyone who has an Aiwa mini hi-fi AV system and likes their components to match, moreover it is very good value for money. Whilst the Sharp machine is a little dearer than the Aiwa VCR it is mostly money well spent, especially if the bold and unusual styling appeals to you. The front AV sockets are a bonus and we can't help but admire the agility of its deck mechanism.

 

The LG AF999 ably demonstrates the company's determination to catch up with the Japanese brands, especially when it comes to presentation, styling and specification. However, the AV performance lacks the necessary precision for serious home cinema use. It lags a little way behind some of the others machines in this roundup when it comes to the secondary features, though not disastrously so and we rather like the clever on screen display. Providing you're not being too demanding or ambitious with the size of the TV it's going to be used with it shouldn't disappoint, though it's probably more at home as a second or backup VCR, and at that price it's good value for money.

 

Bringing up the rear we have the Bush VCR-870. It is incredibly cheap but this is one of those occasions when you really do get what you pay for. It is let down by mediocre picture quality and a fairly brief range of features, it's the only VCR in this group not to have full auto installation and it only has a single SCART socket. That wouldn't necessarily rule it out altogether, but video performance is simply not up to the kind of standard we associate with home cinema. To be fair to Bush it's not being touted for that sort of application and if all you're looking for is a simple and cheap stereo VCR, as a second machine in the bedroom, then it might be worth a quick look. However, be aware that for just a few pounds more there are several better-specified VCRs with superior picture and sound performance.  

 

BEST IN TEST

HITACHI VT-FX860, £200

An outstanding combination of performance features and value for money from a highly respected A-brand manufacturer. The main selling point, however, has to be Tape Navigation, the first time such an advanced system has appeared on a budget VCR, and we hope it won't be the last.

 

JVC HR-J665, £220

From the inventors of the VHS format – as JVC never tire of reminding us -- a machine that sets the standard for picture and sound quality on budget and entry-level VCRs. A well-rounded home cinema machine that proves you don't have to make compromises in order to save money.

 

AIWA HV-FX5100, £160

Yet another great value machine from a company that has done more than most to make video recorders more affordable. It's well featured, simple to use and distinctively styled. It's also the machine to have on top of your shortlist if you're security conscious or live in a high-crime area.

 

SHARP VC-MH722, £190

Another VCR that proves VCRs don't have to be boring black boxes, this one has real personality, with green credentials and one of the fastest deck mechanisms in the business. The MH722 is attractively priced and it shouldn't disappoint when it comes to picture and sound quality. 

 

RIVAL BUYS

 

PHILIPS VHR-600, £230

This is a rather dreary looking machine but don't let that put you off, it is well worth getting to know. The main attractions are above average picture and sound quality and near idiot-proof installation, set-up and operation. There are plenty of handy extras too, like a multi-brand TV remote, a super fast deck and it comes with a SCART cable.

 

SANYO VHR-789,£200

The styling is a bit flashy but the price is right and the roll call of features is most impressive. It's the first budget machine to have a tape library system, albeit a fairly basic one – compared with more recent types. It's green machine too with an 'eco' power save mode that saves energy when it is in standby.

 

TOSHIBA V709, £230

Toshiba is not a brand we're used to seeing in the budget VCR sector but it could become a force to be reckoned with. The 709 has the kind of AV performance that has won Toshiba's home cinema machines well deserved acclaim and it has to be one of the simplest machines to set up and use. Don't go looking for a lot of flash features, but if you're interested in top-notch picture and sound check it out.

 

TABLE 1                      

BRAND

Aiw

Bus

Hit

JVC

LG

Shp

Price*

160

130

200

220

135

190

Auto Install

*

-

*

*

*

*

Video Plus+

*

*

*

*

*

*

PDC

*

-

*

*

*

*

NTSC replay

*

*

*

*

*

*

SCART AV

2

1

2

2

2

2

Sat record**

-

-

*

*

-

 -

Front AV

-

-

*

*

*

*

Anti theft

*

-

-

-

-

*

 

* typical street price

** requires SCART lead and sat receiver with built-in timer

 

BOX COPY 300

What are the minimum qualifications for a home cinema VCR? It sounds like a fairly obvious question with a simple answer but it may not be as straightforward as you think. Obviously picture and sound quality are very important but it's not the be-all and end-all since a lot depends on the type of equipment a VCR (or any other AV device for that matter) is connected to. The plain fact is that analogue VHS is a whiskery noisy format, and its starting to look even more bedraggled since the arrival of DVD. The main problem with it is that picture faults – and there are many – are exaggerated on larger screens and displays. On TVs up to 28 inches a decent VHS VCR doesn't look too bad, but on bigger screens noise really begins to show up and machines with lower resolutions – below 240-lines – start to look very ragged. If you have a 28-inch (or above) TV then we would certainly recommend spending a bit more on VCRs with more sophisticated noise-reduction and tape tuning systems, which needless to say are comparatively rare on budget machines.

 

We prattle on a lot about resolution and noise but the surprising thing is that noise has a far more serious effect on 'picture quality' and it's what we notice first when making comparative assessments. Unfortunately noise is inherent in all analogue recording systems, it's generated by the electronic circuitry and it's on the tape. This highlight the main differences between budget and more up-market VCRs, the resolution on dearer machines is usually not much different to cheaper machines but the picture quality is noticeably better, thanks to tape tuning and noise reduction systems.

 

---end---

γ R. Maybury 1999 2012

 

 

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