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GROUP TEST

 

BUDGET VCRS

 

AIWA HV-FX7700,  £150

Established brand names – one’s you’ve heard of at any rate – become increasingly rare at the budget end of the NICAM VCR market, which makes the Aiwa HV-FX7700 a most welcome sight. It’s the successor to the popular HV-FX5100 and continues the fine tradition of well-appointed and attractively priced home-cinema capable machines.

 

From the outside you wouldn’t know it costs just under £150. It’s a tad flashy perhaps, but in a tasteful sort of way, and it looks sturdily built. Obviously at that price you’re not going to get much in the way of bells and whistles but it’s by no means basic. As well as standard features like Video Plus+ PDC, auto installation and NTSC replay it has a couple of interesting extras, like Ad Skip NTSC replay and Owner ID. Ad Skip is a simple but useful idea, during replay press the button on the remote handset and the player shifts into fast picture search mode for 30 seconds, which should be enough to get you through the commercial break on most terrestrial channels anyway…

 

The anti-theft system is PIN code protected and unlike a lot of other systems, which merely identifies the machine’s owner, this one stops the VCR working when the power is cut off for longer than 30 seconds. Even if it is nicked you have the satisfaction of knowing it’s useless to whoever pinched it. (Apparently it can’t be unlocked without destroying the machine and proof of purchase is required before Aiwa will offer get it working again).

 

Features new to the FX7700 include an uprated deck mechanism and head assembly for improved trick play stability, it has a child lock, reduced power consumption and a redesigned remote handset. Everything is controlled from a set of clearly presented on-screen displays and it even takes care of the initial set-up, which starts automatically as soon as the machine is plugged in for the first time. 

 

We’re rarely surprised by the AV performance of budget VCRs, which is almost always dire but we have few complaints about picture and sound quality on the FX7700. Resolution is not far below what you’d expect from a mid-range machine with lots of detail, bright and cleanly rendered colours. Trick play is now quite steady – compared with the FX5100 – and there are lower than average levels of noise in the picture. The stereo hi-fi channels have a flat wide response and carry Dolby Surround soundtracks without any difficulty; background hiss is kept well in check.

 

Aiwa NICAM VCRs consistently outperform the opposition, which isn’t usually that difficult, but the FX7700 is more than just a bit better, it’s a quality design and as far as on-screen performance is concerned, stands comparison with A-brand machines costing £100 more. 

 

Contact Aiwa (0990) 902902 www.aiwa.co.uk

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay, Ad-Skip, anti-theft system, blank search, child lock,

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

 

BOX COPY

Most VCR anti-theft systems work by storing the owner’s postcode in a microchip called a ‘non-volatile’ memory. If the machine is stolen it will continue to work but if it is later recovered the postcode data can help return the machine to its rightful owners. On some machines the data in the memory can be erased, or the chip replaced. Neither is possible on the FX7700 and the machine is immobilised unless the correct PIN is entered, after the mains supply has been disconnected.

 

Overall              5

Picture Quality            4

Sound Quality            4

Features                       3

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            4

Value for Money            5

 

 

HITACHI VT-FX980,  £260

Why spoil a good thing? That seems to have been the attitude up at Hitachi HQ when it came to designing its new top-end NICAM VCR. The starting point was the very successful VT-FX880, launched about a year ago. We liked it a lot, in fact a measure of how much we admired that machine was that the only negative thing we could find to say about it was that we didn’t much care for the front panel LCD display – it is hard to see when the machine is switched off. Well, not much has changed on the FX980, the LCD is still there, a few minor cosmetic changes are evident but otherwise it’s business as usual, except for the price!

 

The FX980 costs £260 (shop around and you may find it even cheaper), which is around £80 less than the FX880 at launch. That’s not bad for a well-specified NICAM VCR from a top-name manufacturer; it looks even more enticing when you add in all of the extras. They include an advanced tape library or ‘Navigation’ system. It displays Closed Caption subtitles on pre-recorded movies (though sadly not Teletext subtitles). It comes with a multi-brand TV remote control, there’s tape tuning and multi-speed replay facilities, some basic editing features (front AV sockets, audio dub and a cranky syncro edit system) and satellite control, but we’ve saved the best ‘till last, and that’s Commercial Advance.

 

Commercial Advance is one of the few truly innovative VCR features of recent times. During playback it automatically detects ad breaks in recordings and whizzes through them in high-speed picture search mode, very civilised!

 

Although Hitachi hasn’t mentioned any performance enhancing tweaks we reckon picture quality is slightly up on the FX880. The machine’s ability to record and reproduce fine detail is close to the format limits, colours are vibrant and natural looking, trick play stability is excellent and the tape tuning system makes good use of higher quality tape with very low levels of picture noise. The broad flat response of the stereo hi-fi channels carry Dolby Surround soundtracks with ease and background hiss is a notch or two down on most of its rivals.

 

When it comes down to it there’s really not a lot of difference in the AV performance of the top half dozen or so mid-range NICAM VCRs and the Hitachi FX980 is definitely in that group. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other things that distinguish this machine from its rivals, not least the well thought out selection of home cinema oriented features, stylish good looks and attractive price but at the top of our list is the truly wonderful Commercial Advance.

 

Contact Hitachi 0345 581455, www.hitachitv.com

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, satellite control, multi-speed replay, Commercial Advance, video and audio dub, Tape Navigation library system, Closed Caption/MovieText subtitle display, tape tuning, multi-brand TV remote

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono)

 

BOX COPY

There’s no doubt that Commercial Advance is a technological breakthrough but sadly it is flawed. The trouble is it only works on recordings of ITV and Channel 4. Occasionally it obliges on Channel 5 but it won’t work any of the satellite channels. That’s because the system looks for the brief interruptions in the television signal – lasting only a fraction of a second -- that occur at the start and at the end of commercial breaks. This is a characteristic of the ITV/C4 network that allows the regional companies to insert their own locally produced ad breaks.

 

Overall              5

Picture Quality            5

Sound Quality            4

Features                       5

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            5

Value for Money            5

 

 

JVC HR-S8700,  £400

The 8700 is what we used to classify as an edit deck, a VCR geared towards home movie-making, and whilst that’s something it does very well indeed, that also means things like picture and sound quality should be a notch or two up on the average NICAM VCR.

 

The Super VHS recording system shouldn’t need any introduction but the ‘ET’ or expansion technology suffix might be unfamiliar. This basically means it can make S-VHS recordings on regular VHS tape, with only a relatively small drop in picture quality. However, it doesn’t change the S-VHS system’s main shortcomings, which are a complete lack of pre-recorded material, and the fact that off-air recordings do not look significantly better than standard VHS. Nevertheless, the S8700 has another handy trick up its sleeve and that’s an EP (extended play) recording speed, which operates at around one-third normal speed, so a four-hour E-240 tape gives around 12-hours recording time. Combined with S-VHS quality plus a raft of picture enhancements like B.E.S.T tape tuning and ‘Digipure’ video processing and features such as satellite control, Video Navigation tape library system, a multi-brand TV/sat box remote control, and you have one very serious home cinema time-shifting tool.

 

We suspect a fair few S8700’s are going to be bought by home video enthusiasts for its editing features and S-VHS picture quality, which at the moment is the only domestic video format capable of doing justice to material shot on a digital camcorder. They include audio dub and a manual recording level control. There’s also a timebase corrector for de-jittering old noisy or worn out recordings, front-mounted AV input sockets, edit control via a PC using JVC’s JLIP (Joint Level Interface Protocol) terminal and it can control the record/pause function on camcorders with LANC/Control L edit connections. It’s an easy machine to set-up (auto install takes just over 3-minutes) and to use, once you’ve got used to the overcrowded remote.

 

Standard VHS playback is very clean but it takes a dive in EP mode; you wouldn’t want to use it for taping anything important. Slap in a S-VHS tape and EP recording quality is back up to near VHS performance. (Unfortunately it cannot record in EP and S-VHS-ET modes at the same time). S-VHS and S-VHS-ET recordings look excellent, sharp and crisply defined; the only difference we could see was a small increase in picture noise in S-VHS-ET mode. Trick play is heavily digitised and the picture takes on an odd textured quality. NICAM and stereo hi-fi sound is lively and details at all speeds and background hiss is well suppressed. The S8700 is a classic edit deck but AV performance is outstanding and there are more than enough features to please home cinema fans.

 

Contact JVC 020 8450 3282, www.jvc-europe.com

 

TECH SPEC

S-VHS-ET, EP recording mode, NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay, satellite control (digital & analogue), Video Navigation tape library, multi-speed replay, audio dub, manual audio level control, insert edit, LANC syncro edit, JLIP PC control, timebase corrector, multi-brand TV/Sat remote control, TV Link

 

AV in/out (2 x SCART), S-Video out (mini DIN) line audio out (phono), JLIP & LANC (minijack), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono), S-Video input (mini DIN)

 

BOX COPY

The S-VHS-ET recording mode exploits a trick that VCR tech-heads have known about for a long time, namely that if you carefully drill an ‘ident’ hole in an ordinary VHS tape you can fool a Super VHS video recorder into believing it’s a specially formulated S-VHS tape, and save yourself a few bob. There is a drop in picture performance when recording on standard VHS tape, but on a good quality cassette it’s relatively small, and mostly confined to an increase in noise, rather than any significant loss of resolution.

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            5

Sound Quality            5

Features                       5

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            4

Value for Money            4

 

 

PANASONIC NV-FJ615,  £200

At a time when a lot of big name manufacturers are rationalising their VCR ranges, or pulling out of the market altogether, Panasonic is keeping the faith and currently has no less than ten models to choose from. In industry jargon the NV-FJ615 is a ‘step-up’ NICAM machine, part of it’s role is to help dealers tempt would be purchasers to dig a little deeper and buy this machine in preference to Panasonic’s baseline of entry-level NICAM VCR, the NV-FJ610.

 

That means the FJ615 has a few extra bells and whistles, over and above NICAM and hi-fi sound, NTSC replay, auto installation and Panasonic’s super agile Super Drive deck mechanism. In this instance they include a satellite timer control system that works with analogue and digital set-top boxes, a multi-brand TV/text remote control, quasi S-VHS replay, front-mounted AV input sockets and something called Album Record. Before you get too excited this is just a fancy record mode that makes recordings lasting between 3 to 20 seconds, from a digital still camera.

 

The Super Drive deck is fast, it’ll wind through an E-180 in less than a minute and it has a very quick Intro Scan system that looks for the start of new recordings and shows the first minute of so at picture search speed. Auto installation is also impressively fast and our sample managed to tune and sort the five terrestrial channels in a record-breaking 33 seconds. Ease of use has been given a high priority and Panasonic VCRs have some of the best on-screen display systems in the business. The FJ615 is no exception and it’s carried over onto manual timer programming, which relies on a set of simple rocker switches, hidden behind a sliding cover on the remote handset. Styling, layout and design are fairly routine and even the remote is less of a handful than usual, with big clearly labelled transport buttons.

 

Video recording quality is very good; colours are lively with no smearing and very little noise, presumably benefiting from a number of noise reduction and video processing systems. We’re a little disappointed by the meagre assortment of trick-play options, there’s only one fast picture search and one (forward only) slomo speed, and they’re not that wonderful, at least stability is often quite poor on recordings not made on the machine. It sounds very good though; the hi-fi tracks have a wide open response and lower than average levels of background hiss. The FJ615 is a competent and realistically priced home cinema machine, a little unexciting perhaps but don’t let that put you off, definitely worth considering.

 

Contact Panasonic (08705) 357357, www.panasonic.co.uk

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC & Quasi S-VHS playback, satellite control, multi-speed replay, Intro Jet Scan, audio dub, Owner ID, Album Recording, Q-Link, multi-brand TV/text remote

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono)

 

BOX COPY

Album recording is recognition of the growing popularity of digital still cameras. The idea is the FJ615 makes a series of still recordings, lasting between 3 and 20 seconds, building up a kind of visual album. Nice idea, however, not all digital still cameras have the necessary analogue video output these days (they’re mostly designed to work with PCs), and picture quality is not that wonderful by the time it’s copied onto VHS tape. Handy for sending copies of digital stills to non-PC owning grannies, maybe.

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            4

Sound Quality            4

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            5

Value for Money            4

 

 

PANASONIC NV-HS860,  £340

There’s no mistaking the chunky solidity of a Panasonic VCR and whilst the NV-HS860 might not be much to look at you can tell straight away that it is built to last. The spec is pitched firmly at home cinema users, with a nod in the direction of camcorder owning video movie enthusiasts, though it stops short of being a fully fledged edit deck. However, the main feature is S-VHS-ET recording, which allows Super VHS quality recordings to be made on standard VHS tape. The feature list is actually quite similar to the other S-VHS-ET machine in this roundup and like the JVC HR-S8700 it also has an EP (one third normal speed) recording mode, which gives up to 12 hours recording time on a 4-hour tape.

 

There are other notable similarities with the JVC machine, including satellite control, multi-brand TV remote and a tape library system, though the one on the HS860 is a good deal more sophisticated. One small oddity on our sample was the subtitle feature, which is supposed to display Teletext and Closed Caption subtitles on off-air or pre-recorded tapes. It’s mentioned in the instructions and there’s a button on the handset but the setup options were missing from the on-screen display so in short it didn’t work.

 

Two features that do work are timebase correction and digital noise reduction, which both help improve the look and stability of old or noisy recordings. Movie making facilities include a set of front-mounted AV input sockets and audio dub. The HS860 also has Panasonic’s Album Recording function this is for taping sequences of images, each lasting from 3 to 20 seconds, from a digital still camera.

 

Setup and installation, like the other Panasonic VCR in this group, is lightning fast and it’s ready to run in a little over 35 seconds, unless you opt to use the PIN code protected Owner ID security feature, which adds a few more seconds.

 

VHS picture quality is fine, close to the format’s limits, colour fidelity and registration is excellent and the digital noise reduction circuitry definitely earns its keep. VHS EP quality is poor but it is okay for watch and wipe time shifting. The differences between normal S-VHS and S-VHS-ET are difficult to spot, a slight increase in noise is the only obvious sign, S-VHS recordings made at EP speed are comparable with standard VHS, which helps take the sting our of the dearer tapes. Audio quality is good in all modes and speeds and noise levels are well below average.

 

Although it has fewer editing facilities than the JVC S8700 it is still an attractive prospect for digital and hi-band camcorder owners. In the end, though, it’s AV performance, the well-rounded assortment of home cinema features that sells this machine, that and the Panasonic name and a very reasonable price.

 

Contact Panasonic (08705) 357357, www.panasonic.co.uk

 

TECH SPEC

S-VHS-ET, EP recording mode, NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay, satellite control (analogue & digital), tape library, multi-speed replay, audio dub, Album Recording, digital noise reduction, timebase corrector, multi-brand TV/Sat remote control, Q-Link, Owner ID

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), S-Video out (mini DIN), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono), S-Video input (mini DIN)

 

BOX COPY

Timebase Correction (TBC) used only to be found on top-end edit VCRs. It is definitely worth having if you have a lot of noisy recordings, second-generation copies or old video movies in your collection. As video recordings age, there is an increase in picture noise levels, which can be tolerated, but the more serious problem is the way the synchronisation pulses in the video signal start to degrade. When this happens the result is an unstable or jittery picture. During replay the TBC circuit regenerates the sync pulses, restoring stability.

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            5

Sound Quality            5

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            5

Value for Money            4

 

 

PHILIPS VR765,  £220

Say hello to Phil, he’s your guide to operating the new Philips VR-765 NICAM video recorder. Phil’s a helpful chap, his face pops up on almost every page of the instruction book – sometimes three or four times -- wearing a variety of expressions, and when he wearing glasses you know he’s got a useful bit of expert advice… Sod off Phil!

 

Philips instruction books have always been a bit indigestible, but for Phil this would have been a big improvement but as it stands it feels patronising and actually makes it harder to find relevant information, like why does this machine keep switching itself off very few minutes? Auto standby can be disabled and is one of a number of potentially quite useful features but you’re more likely to stumble across them by accident. However, there’s no escape from the star attraction and that’s an advanced library system called Tape Manager. It reminds you of its presence every time you insert a cassette and dutifully scans it for data. Fortunately you can override the system and go straight to play or fast wind. It’s actually a very clever system and can catalogue the contents of up to 150 tapes, and help you find one with enough blank space for making a time-shift recording.

 

Other handy extras include a multi-brand TV remote, front-mounted AV sockets and audio dub, repeat play and auto satellite recording. This is a step down from full satellite control and depends on the sat box having its own built-in timer. A couple of other features worth a mention are Commercial Skip, which engages fast picture search and winds the tape forward two minutes, and Smart Picture, which is a 4-mode picture control to sharpen or soften the image.

 

Auto installation is painfully slow, our sample took almost six minutes to tune itself in but for some reason it didn’t set the date. Otherwise the machine is reasonably easy to use and although the remote is cluttered the controls you use most often fall readily to hand. Overall picture quality is fine, not quite he best we’ve seen but not far short with a good amount of detail, lifelike colours and no more than average amounts of picture noise. Trick play is very good with three forward slomo speeds, two scan speeds and a rock-solid still frame. Audio performance is up to home cinema standards with low levels of background hiss and a wide flat response. Audio dub is a useful extra but awkward to get at, and there’s an unusual manual input level control and switchable audio only recording mode, which might both come in handy one day.

 

Overall not a bad effort. It’s a bit quirky in places and Phil can disappear as soon as he likes but performance is good, the styling is pleasant enough and we’d be happy to give it a slot in our home cinema setup.

 

Contact                         Philips 020 8689 2166

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, auto satellite recording, multi-speed replay, audio dub, commercial skip, tape library, child lock, repeat play, multi-brand TV remote, Easy Link, Smart Picture

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV in (phono)

 

BOX COPY

The Tape Manager system on this machine keeps tabs on up to 150 cassettes. The machine assigns each new blank tape a number (a sheet of stickers is supplied) and stores data inside the machine. This can be copied across to another VCR if required. Details on each recording include the title, which is extracted from Teletext/PDC data, the date on which it was recorded, the length of each recording and how much blank space remains. You can browse the contents of the Tape Manager’s memory, or search a tape, though this can take quite a while.

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            4

Sound Quality            4

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            4

Value for Money            4

 

 

SAMSUNG SV-637B,  £180

The hinged flap on the front panel of the SV-637 probably looked great in the designer’s original conceptual sketches, a real touch of class on a budget product. The only trouble is, unless you get really close you can’t see the clock display. It might not seem like a big deal but a lot of people rely on their VCR’s time display and on machines with auto install, it’s usually the most accurate clock in the house. Quite honestly front panel flaps are a pain, they have to be opened to load tapes, and in this case, to get at the front AV input sockets, and one sharp knock and they break off.

 

To be fair it’s quite a pretty little machine, and watching the flap get knocked open when you press the tape eject button on the handset can be mildly entertaining. For the price it’s also quite well specified with satellite control, a multi-brand TV remote, audio dub and a rudimentary video processing system called IPC or Intelligent Picture Control. (We’re taking the multi-brand remote and audio dub functions on trust as these facilities were not available on the handset supplied with our test sample).

 

It has all of the little luxuries and convenience features we’ve come to expect, including a very quick auto installation system (90 seconds to search, sort and set channels and clock), multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, twin SCART AV sockets and repeat play. The latter can be preset to replay a recording a set number of times, which someone somewhere will probably find very useful.

 

The main on-screen display is very graphical with lots of little icons that lead to the menu selections; it’s very easy to use and it’s helped by the reasonably well laid out remote handset. That’s just as well because the front panel control layout is very strange; transport buttons are all over the place and if you press the satellite control IR transmitter window the machine goes into fast picture search mode… Weird!

 

Resolution is just a little below the average for a mid-range VCR, picture noise levels are okay on good quality tape and colour fidelity isn’t too bad, though there’s room for improvement in its handling of subtle shades and flesh tones. Tick play stability is excellent, better than some £250 machines in fact. Background hiss on the hi-fi soundtracks is noticeable, the response is okay but it can sound a bit ‘choppy’ at times, especially when handling sudden loud noises.

 

In the end the front panel flap is a fairly harmless piece of window dressing, which is compensated for by the features list and modest price. Audio and video performance is passable and the SV-637 just about qualifies as a home cinema machine.

 

Contact             Samsung 0800 521652, www.samsungvcr.com

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, satellite control, multi-speed replay, repeat play, AV-Link, audio dub, multi-brand TV remote

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono)

 

BOX COPY

Intelligent Picture Control or IPC is a sort of semi-automatic picture softener/enhancer that works by increasing the gain of the video signal amplifier. In auto mode the VCR decides picture sharpness for itself, our sample normally acted conservatively and settled a little below the mid way setting. Alternatively it can be adjusted manually from the remote handset, setting it to soft suits noisy or worn recordings, increasing sharpness works best on off-air material, though it is easy to go too far and make the picture look harsh. 

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            3

Sound Quality            3

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            3

Value for Money            4

 

 

SAMSUNG SV-5000W,  £500

We’ve become accustomed to the NTSC replay feature on a lot of VCRs that lets you play back tapes bought in the US, but the SV-5000 goes several stages further and actually converts or ‘transcodes’ recordings from one video standard to another. It’s one of a very rare breed of multi-standard VCRs, in fact there has only ever been one other like it and that was the remarkable and much missed Panasonic WV-W1 ‘World Video’ recorder, a tag picked up on the Samsung SV-5000. Digital video standards conversion is a complex and exotic technology, hence the higher than usual price, even so that’s less than half the cost of the Panasonic W1, and that stopped production more than five years ago! It’s also worth noting that as well as converting video recordings it has a multi-standard tuner and universal power supply, that works on 100 to 240 volts AC 50/60Hz, so it can be used just about anywhere!

 

Needless to say you can watch just about any VHS tape on this machine, including S-VHS recordings (but only at VHS quality), however, it’s the transcode facility that’s important since it means you can now send tapes and home movies to friends and relatives living abroad. (The NTSC playback trick on PAL VCRs doesn’t work the other way around, i.e. there are no American NTSC VCRs that can play back PAL tapes). It’s also possible the SV-5000 has commercial possibilities; a fair few small businesses started up around the Panasonic W1, offering conversion services for home video movies.

 

The SV-5000 is also a reasonably well-appointed home cinema machine with NICAM hi-fi stereo sound, it has a Video Plus+ (with PDC) timer, multi-speed replay, audio dub and a couple of odd digital special effects (strobe and solarisation), which we have to say seem bit pointless. Standards conversion hasn’t made the machine significantly harder to use – this function is largely automatic when replaying tapes -- but there are a few extra knobs and buttons to contend with. Installation is mostly automatic and our sample did is stuff – including channel sorting – in a little over three minutes.

 

Video performance playing back normal PAL recordings is satisfactory though noise levels are nothing special and trick play is decidedly hairy. The conversion system – we tried PAL to NTSC and SECAM to PAL -- works well producing a stable image though again there is a fair amount of noise in the picture but this has a relatively low impact on a clean first-generation camcorder recording.  Background hiss on the hi-fi soundtracks is about average. If you move around a lot or you need standards conversion on a regular basis it’s worth considering, otherwise stick with cheaper and more conventional VCRs.

 

Contact             Samsung 0800 521652, www.samsungvcr.com

 

TECH SPEC

Multi-standard PAL/NTSC/SECAM, quasi-S-VHS replay, NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, audio dub, video special effects (strobe and ‘Art’ or solarisation), multi-speed replay, universal power supply, child lock, glow-in-the-dark remote buttons

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out  (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono)

 

BOX COPY

Converting a PAL recording to NTSC is relatively simple and involves digitally ‘culling’ the extra TV picture lines and re-processing the colour signal. Going the other way – NTSC to PAL – is more difficult and involves a process called interpolation, that generates extra picture lines. Interpolation works by analysing pairs of picture lines – at preset intervals in the video signal – then taking a guess at what a would be in between. The VCR also has to convert the colour information in the signal, which again is a little more involved since PAL signals are more complex.

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            3

Sound Quality            3

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  4

Build Quality            4

Value for Money            4

 

 

SONY SLV-SE850,  £230

There’s no getting away from it, VCRs are not the most interesting things to look at but every so often a manufacturer has a stab at tarting up its products with some sort of ‘designer’ theme. The most notable example was Thomson, which let French minimalist Philippe Starck loose on its VCR and TV cabinets. Now it’s Sony’s turn, with the ‘Art Couture’ look, applied to the SLV-SE850 NICAM mid-ranger. It is quite distinctive too, very 60’s retro with a fluted front panel that wouldn’t look out of place on dashboard of a Mark 1 Ford Cortina. Needless to say – as with most designer styling exercises – it’s mostly kippers and curtains and inside the fancy box there’s a fairly ordinary Sony NICAM VCR.

 

Headline features include satellite control, tape library system, tape tuning, bizarrely named ‘Reality Regenerator’ picture processing and audio dub, which isn’t too bad at all for a nifty-looking Sony NICAM VCR costing less than £250. It has a few handy, non performance-related extras too, like glow in the dark buttons on the multi-brand TV remote handset, there’s an owner ID facility, twin SCART sockets and front mounted AV inputs.

 

Setting the machine up is fairly painless; the auto installation system has channels tuned and sorted, and the time and date set inside 90 seconds, less if your TV is SmartLink/EasyLink/Q-Link etc. compatible and can download tuning data from the TV. Satellite control is via a plug-in infra-red module that sits on or close to the set top box, sadly the functions are confined to analogue receivers and for models not covered by the extensive command library (and with a built-in timer) there’s a syncro function that starts the VCR recording as soon as satellite box switches on. Most secondary functions are controlled from an easy to navigate set of on-screen display and the Smart Search tape library, whilst fairly basic, is very easy to use.

 

The Optimum Picture Control (OPC) tape tuning system works well when the VCR is fed with high grade tape, picture noise levels are low, colours are sharp and well defined and recordings contain a lot of fine detail. Trick play is quite steady with minimal disturbance during picture search. Background hiss on the stereo hi-fi channels is at a low level and the soundtracks have a wide and open response that’s well suited to carrying Dolby Pro Logic material.

 

Usually there’s a price to be paid for fancy cosmetics, and the Sony name almost always adds a few bob to the price but that doesn’t seem to have happened on the SLV-SE850, which is good to look at, fairly priced and an able AV performer.

 

Contact Sony (0990) 111999, www.sony.co.uk

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay, satellite control, multi-speed replay, audio dub, SmartLink, multi-brand TV/text remote, owner ID security code, Smart Search tape library system, tape tuning, glow-in-the-dark remote buttons

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono), IR sat control module (minijack), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV inputs (phono)

 

BOX COPY

Sony claims that the rather grandly named ‘Reality Regenerator’ function automatically restores the picture to its original quality during playback, which would indeed be a clever trick. It’s actually a sophisticated picture sharpener system that improves edge definition but without messing around with the rest of the image, there’s less processing noise so the overall effect doesn’t look quite so harsh. Whilst not exactly a recreation of reality, it does work better than most rival picture enhancer systems, helping to crispen up the picture on well-used rental tapes. 

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            4

Sound Quality            4

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  3

Build Quality            4

Value for Money            4

 

 

TOSHIBA V860UK,  £250

One of several good things about Toshiba VCRs is that they hold few surprises, what you see is pretty much what you get, and almost without exception that means a well designed machine with a useful assortment of facilities and above average AV performance. The V860 isn’t about to let the side down, it may not be a very exciting machine and in the scheme of things the price is unexceptional but we can live with that. The only slightly unusual feature is on the back panel, and that’s a third SCART socket. That’s in addition to a set of front-mounted AV sockets, so there’s no chance whatsoever of getting caught sort with the connections on this machine; Tosh has also included a fully-wired SCART to SCART cable in the box, for good measure.

 

The rest of the feature list is more or less routine; the highlights include satellite control, multi-speed replay, from the handset and a large jog/shuttle dial on the front panel plus it has switchable digital noise reduction to clean up old recordings. The remote handset has glow in the dark transport buttons and it can control various other makes of TV and satellite boxes as well as the basic functions on Toshiba DVD players. Installation is reasonably rapid, our sample too a little over one and a half minutes from start to finish, though it had trouble with C5 and it had to be tuned in manually. 

 

It is a granny-friendly machine and generally very easy to use. Much of the credit for that goes to the well written instructions, not that you need them very often since it has big easy to follow on-screen displays, and one of the best remote handsets we’ve seen in a while. The important keys are big and clearly labelled and all of the infrequently used buttons hidden away behind a sliding panel.

 

Picture quality on this machine came within a whisker of getting five out of five, resolution and colour fidelity are both excellent and noise levels are very low, in fact the only minor aberrations were a scrappy still frame and touch of jitter, that you be hard pressed to spot on a normal moving picture. The noise reduction feature works quite well, a little too well on the plus setting and the picture can start to look a tad harsh when there’s a lot of movement on screen. Sound quality is very good and it was another close call on the scoring, in the end it dropped a point for the average level of background noise, even though frequency response and it’s ability to handle Dolby Surround soundtracks was more than adequate for serious AV applications.

 

Definitely a home cinema contender, few frills and a touch pricey, but a great performer and very easy on the eye.

 

Contact             Toshiba (01276) 62222, www.toshiba.co.uk

 

TECH SPEC

NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video+ timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC  playback, satellite control, multi-speed replay, video insert, audio dub, digital noise reduction, NexTViewLink, multi-brand TV/satellite remote (and Toshiba DVD players)

 

SOCKETS

AV in/out (3 x SCART), line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coaxial)

Front: AV in (phono)

 

BOX COPY

Pretty well all VCRs have some form of video noise reduction circuitry to get rid of the worst excesses of cheap tape and old or worn out recordings, but most are fairly rudimentary or little more than simple filters. The ‘Dynamic Noise Reduction’ system on the V-860 works in a slightly more pro-active manner. It compares successive frames of video information coming off the tape, looking for spurious noise elements, which change from one frame to the next, as opposed to normal activity and movement within the picture.

 

Overall              4

Picture Quality            4

Sound Quality            4

Features                       3

Ease of Use                  5

Build Quality            5

Value for Money            4

 

OUTRO COPY

With such a wide range of features and a spread of prices of £150 to £500 you’ll forgive us for not coming out with a glib ‘best in group’ nomination, nevertheless we are able to identify several machines as being either stonking good value, or exceptional performers, but before we do, a few words on the current state of the VCR market.

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the VHS format and whilst recordable DVD and hard disc-based recording technologies have been coming out of the woodwork lately, there’s little doubt good old analogue tape will be around for a few years yet. It’s certainly not going to be displaced overnight; most of us have too much invested in our tape collections for that to happen and in any case there’s still no economic alternative to a VHS VCR when it comes to time-shifting TV programs.

 

Nevertheless, VHS is showing clear signs of a technology rapidly approaching retirement age, AV performance is as good as it’s ever going to get, and compared with DVD it looks decidedly flaky. The downside of a very mature market like this one is a gradual reduction in choice, as manufacturers pull out or move over to DVD, the upside is some unbelievably low prices and very generous feature lists.

 

The point is, if your current VCR is starting to show its age and you are holding off buying a new one in the hope that it will linger on, or you are concerned that the format is going to be suddenly declared redundant then your fears are groundless. Replace that old machine now; the new one will probably have lots of extra features to play with and we guarantee it will get plenty of use, it’s going to be a while before that new fangled digital stuff is as cheap as a VCR!

 

If you are on a very tight budget then you need look no further than the splendid little Aiwa HV-FX7700 which delivers the kind of picture and sound quality you’re more likely to see on a machine costing £100 or so more. Unusually it is also the cheapest VCR in this roundup and it comes from a top-drawer brand; buying decisions don’t get much easier than this one! As far as the other two budget contenders are concerned, AV performance on the Samsung machine is fairly average; there’s certainly nothing wrong with the Panasonic FJ615, but it’s awkwardly positioned as a pricey budget model or a blandly specified mid-market VCR. Shop around and if you see one at a decent price, snap it up!

 

Things start to get a little more complicated when you have in the region of £250 to spend on a mid-range NICAM VCR. This usually means a few extra features – typically satellite control and a multi-brand brand TV remote – and luxuries like tape library functions and extra picture enhancements are not uncommon. In this category two models stand out, they are the Hitachi VT-FX980 and the Sony SLV-SE850, with a very honourable mention going to the Toshiba V860. Hitachi gets top billing for the splendid Commercial Advance feature and we like the Sony machine for the bold styling and specification, but we certainly wouldn’t rule out the Toshiba machine, particularly if it were going to be used with a big screen TV that could take advantage of the picture performance. The Philips VR765 is okay but it lacks any killer features.

 

At the top of the pile are the two S-VHS-ET machines, led by the JVC HR-S8700. It just pips the Panasonic NV-HS860 to the post, thanks to its more comprehensive editing facilities. Whilst they have little bearing on its abilities as a home cinema VCR we have to say that editing video footage is one of the few compelling reasons to buy a Super VHS video recorder. Nevertheless, for those without a camcorder and a penchant for high-band video the Panasonic machine is definitely worth considering, and you’ll save yourself a few quid into the bargain. Technically the Samsung SV-500 fits into the top price bracket but it is a highly specialised product with a somewhat narrow appeal, but if you’re into standards conversion it’s the one for you!

 

TAPE TESTS

A few years ago it was customary to round off our VCR group tests with a run-down on the blank tape market. Times change, cut-throat pricing has driven a lot of brands out of the market, moreover standard grade tape from the top name manufacturers is now so good that there’s little point in spending more on higher grade formulations. In any event the tape tuning and video processing circuitry in most mid-market VCRs effectively iron out what little differences there were. Our advice is simple, good quality blank tape is now so cheap there’s no need to take chances. By all means try a few different brands and when you find one that suits you and your VCR buy in bulk!

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000, 1611

 

 

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