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GROUP TEST

 

NICAM VCRS

 

COPY/INTRO

If youíve visited your local electrical discount superstore recently you may well have seen a stack of VCRs near the entrance selling for the quite ludicrous price of £69.99. A VCR for just seventy quid, has the world gone completely mad? Thatís not much more than the price of a good meal out for two, or a couple of tank-fulls of petrol, how on earth can they do it? Okay, those machines are pretty basic mono models and not the sort of thing youíd want to use in a serious home cinema set-up, nevertheless that is still a remarkable price and a telling reflection of the state the VCR industry is in.

 

The fact is very few manufacturers make any money out of VHS video recorders these days, nor have they done so for quite a while, and it has become abundantly clear to everyone that the formatís days are numbered. However, before we read the VHS format its last rites itís worth saying that thereís still nothing out there to replace an analogue VCR this side of a thousand pounds Ė at least not when it comes recording TV programmes. Digital hard disc and optical disc recording systems are with us now and will almost certainly start to take over the role of time-shifting within the next five years, but we suspect it will be a relatively slow process and it will be a very long time before any of us willingly relinquish our cherished tape collections. Your present VCR, even if itís a reasonably recent or advanced model, probably wonít be your last!

 

Nevertheless now that VHS is approaching retirement age after an incredibly successful run of almost twenty-five years we have noticed some subtle changes in the market. In the past year or so there has been a gradual reduction in the size and a shift in the makeup of most manufacturerís model ranges. There used to be a distinct stratification of products, starting with cheap and cheerful entry-level mono machines followed by step-up models with a few more features, then came the entry-level NICAM machines, mid-range stereo/home cinema VCRs with a few more bells and whistles and the small assortment of expensive top-end home cinema and edit decks. Increasingly weíre seeing just three or four product groups: 2-head mono, NICAM and top-end NICAM, the latter incorporating low-price S-VHS and a handful specialist edit-deck VCRs.

 

One side effect of these changes has been to make it harder for us to put together our traditional Group Tests, where we compare half a dozen similarly specified VCRs in a particular price band. Itís time for us to change too but the focus of our attention remains the same though, namely video recorders that are suitable for home cinema applications. You still wonít be seeing any mono VCRs in HE, but after that almost anything goes, providing it has a stereo sound system and can use analogue VHS tape. As ever we are interested in the latest and the best VCRs and although the variation is prices and specification has narrowed, the key things we look in our VCR tests hasnít changed. Performance is still the number one consideration, followed by price and specification; our general buying advice also remains the same, you should buy the best machine that you can afford, for the job in hand.

 

Whilst the future of home video recording clearly lies in the digital domain that doesnít mean VHS technology has ground to a halt. Far from it, and one way or another the format is going to be with us for a very long time to come. In the medium term its future has already been assured with the development of D-VHS, though on the evidence of the one machine that has made it on to the UK market so far Ė the JVC HM-DR1000 -- it still has some way to go before it can be considered a serious alternative to analogue VHS or a rival to other digital recording systems, but thatís more of a presentation problem, rather than anything to do with the technology. The resurgence of interest in Super VHS brought about by the introduction of low-cost decks has also give the format as a whole a welcome boost though it has been home movie-making, rather than home cinema, which has benefited most from that particular development.

 

Analogue VHS can still pull a few surprises, as several of the products in this group test ably demonstrate, and although the technical limits of VHS VCRs and tape formulation were reached some time ago manufacturers continue to surprise us with little tweaks and enhancements that manage to keep the format looking fresh. Weíre also seeing a steady stream of new convenience features that make VCRs interesting, easier to use and live with.

 

So what should you be looking for on your next VCR? At the risk of repeating ourselves picture and sound quality must be your number one priority and whilst the differences between the best and the worst machines has narrowed over the years, they are still there. Although our expectations have risen with the arrival of DVD -- and no one in their right mind is going to try and kid you that VHS is a patch on DVD Ė but at its best the picture on a top performing VHS machine can be very good indeed especially on-off air recordings. VHS can also show the young digital upstart a thing or two when it comes to ease of use. Admittedly tape cannot match the near instant access of disc, but with a VHS cassette thereís no waiting around for things to happen, and no loss of control with embedded commands stopping you from skipping through copyright notices and introductory sequences, telling you what recordings you can and cannot watch, and there are no convoluted operating system menus to worry about.

 

VHS is still a vital ingredient in the rich tapestry of home cinema technology and although there are fewer new models around than in previous years and prices have fallen through the floor thereís no excuse the skimp or cut corners. Here are ten of the most recent machines to whet your appetite, and even though weíve said it many times before, now is a great time to buy. Your next VCR may well be the last one you buy, so spoil yourself and make itís a good Ďun.

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

VCR testing is reasonably straightforward; weíve been doing it for a good many years now so we have a lot of reference data with which to make meaningful comparisons. The main part of the test involves making a series of recordings of calibrated tests signals. From these we can determine how much of the original signal and picture information is recorded and reproduced, both on the screen and through the speakers. The three key picture parameters we look at most closely are resolution, colour fidelity and noise; weíre also concerned with picture stability and the performance of the stereo hi-fi soundtracks. Whilst recording static test signals tells us a lot about a VCRs basic abilities we also make a series of off-air recordings and view a small selection of pre-recorded tapes. Weíve chosen a group of lively sequences from a number of movies Ėnew and old -- that contain a lot of challenging visual effects and dynamic surround sound soundtracks -- that really stretch a VCRs replay circuitry to the limit.

 

Needless to say we check how easy it is to install set-up, that has become much less of a chore nowadays since most VCRs have auto installation systems, even so there are still quite significant differences. We also pay special attention to remote control handsets and frequently used control functions, and round off with our favourite bit, a run through of all the extra convenience features gadgets and toys, that set a particular VCR apart from its fellows. 

 

JARGON BUSTER

 

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

 

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

 

PDC Ė Programme Delivery Control, corrects VCR timer programming for delays or late schedule changes. The VCR waits for a 'go' code Ė a data signal embedded in the video signal -- before making a time shift 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

 

Quasi-SVS Ė facility to replay Super VHS recording, albeit at standard VHS resolution

 

Resolution -- a video recorderís 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.

 

VHS-EP Ė Extended Play, one-third speed recording, increases record/replay time of 4-hour tape to 12 hours with minimal quality loss

 

S-VHS-ET Ė Expansion Technology, allows S-VHS recordings to be made on standard VHS tape with minimal reduction in picture quality

 

Video Plus+  Ė 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

 

LG BC999NI, £150

VERDICT ***

We came over all excited when the BC999NI emerged form its packaging. On the top panel thereís a large smoked black panel emblazoned with the legend Easy View. Maybe itís a smart new replay feature perhaps or could it be something to do with tape navigation? Needless to say it turned out to be none of the above, but it is definitely new and quite unique. The semi-transparent panel lets you look into the top of the machine, to see if thereís a tape insideÖ Hmm, great idea guys, except that most VCRs end up under the TV or some other AV appliance, obscuring the window and in any case thereís a tape-in indicator on the front panelÖ

 

Moving swiftly on, the BC999NI is very cheap with a street price of around £150 and you would be forgiven for thinking that it is has to be incredibly basic. Well think again, the spec is not half bad and LG has clearly put some effort into the styling. All the basics are included but we were pleasantly surprised to find it also has multi-speed replay, repeat play, NTSC replay, a child lock and Commercial Skip. This is a reprise of an old Mitsubishi VCR feature (remember them?) pressing the CM button puts the machine into forward picture search for intervals of 30 seconds. Thereís a set of AV sockets on the front panel the deck mechanism can wind through a 3-hour tape in around a minute.

 

Weíre not terribly impressed by the front panel display, which only seems able to show the time or deck mode, thereís no tape counter or time used/remaining for example, to find out where you are you have to press a button on the remote handset to bring up an on-screen display (maybe that explains the windowÖ). Thereís no menu as such, instead a set of tiny icons appears on the screen; itís quite hard work figuring out what some of them mean. The control system could be better too, you have to be careful when moving through the icons with the cursor keys as the function of the up/down arrows switches between channel change and item selection, depending on whether youíve selected an item, itís a real pain!

 

Picture quality is satisfactory, our sample resolved just under 240 lines, noise levels were low though, and colour rendition was okay, though reds looked a bit exaggerated. Noise levels on the hi-fi soundtracks is about average, the response was open and generally well balanced.

 

At £150 itís a very fair deal, AV performance is borderline home cinemas, it doesnít look too bad on TVs with smaller screens and at that price its worth considering as a second string VCR for the bedroom.

 

Contact LG Electronics 01753 50047, www.lge.co.kr

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, multi-speed replay, tape tuning, CM skip, child lock, repeat play

           

Sockets            Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line audio out (phono), RF in/out (coaxial). Front: AV in (phono)

 

BOX OUT

Letís be realistic, for £150 you canít expect anything too fancy, but for the price it is very well specified. Providing you donít push it too hard by connecting it to a large screen TV the picture performance is quite acceptable

 

Picture quality            ***

Sound quality                ***

Features                       ****

Value                            *****

 

Captions

          It makes a change from LG VCRs of yore, shame about the display panel, no tape counter, just time and deck mode indicators

 

          Twin SCARTs and a pair of phonos for easy AV hookups

 

          Functional and reasonably well laid out but the on-screen cursor controls are a bit of a mess

 

 

JVC HR-S7700, £330

VERDICT *****

JVC has done more than anyone to bring down the cost of Super VHS, and proves that thereís still scope for improving picture quality. The S7700 marks the first outing for S-VHS-ET in the UK, the ET bit stands for Expansion Technology, a clever tweak that allows Super VHS recordings to be made on standard VHS tape. This is a major cost-saver since specially formulated S-VHS tape is getting harder to find and as a consequence, more expensive.

 

Although well qualified as a home cinema machine it has several editing features, that make is especially attractive to owners of high-band (S-VHS-C and Hi8) and digital camcorders. They include insert edit, audio dub, record search (search in record-pause mode), syncro edit, timebase correction (for de-jittering wonky or noisy recordings) and noise reduction, though the latter is equally useful for watching whiskery old movies and off-air recordings. The S7700 is also the first JVC VCR to have proper timer-controlled satellite recording, in addition to JVCís Rec-Link system, which works with satellite receivers that have their own on-board timer. Thereís a full set of noise reduction and tape tuning systems and it will play NTSC recordings.

 

Visually it looks quite imposing, not exactly pretty, but the silvery front panel and large jog/shuttle dial on the far right give it a purposeful air. The S7700 has a full set of AV sockets on the back for easy system hook-ups plus AV and S-Video inputs on the front for the benefit of camcorder owners. The remote handset is a fairly standard JVC item though surprisingly without the usual multi-brand TV control facilities, it will control JVC TVs though. Auto installation is moderately quick taking a little over two and a half minutes.  

 

S-VHS-ET recordings made on standard HG tapes are just a whisker less sharp with only a fraction more noise than proper S-VHS tape, in fact we doubt is anyone would notice on moving video. Our sample yielded just under 400-lines on S-VHS tape and around 370 on a good HG formulation, resolution fell back to just under 250 lines in normal VHS recording mode, which is about as good as it gets. In all cases noise levels were well below average and colour accuracy was on he nail with crisp, well-defined shades and little or no smearing.  Stereo hi-fi sound and NICAM is pin-sharp, thereís no more than the usual amounts of background noise on the soundtracks and the response is wide and flat

 

Itís a little beauty and a bargain to boot. S-VHS-ET works brilliantly well, we could have done with it a few years ago, but better late than never and the S7700 shows that the VHS format still has plenty of life left in it.

 

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

 

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Features             S-VHS/VHS, NICAM, NTSC playback, stereo hi-fi sound, auto install, Video Plus+ with PDC, satellite control, multi-speed replay, digital timebase correction & noise reduction. B.E.S.T tape tuning, audio dub, insert edit, record search/retake, syncro edit, repeat playback

           

Sockets            Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, S-Video out (mini DIN), stereo line audio out (phono), remote pause & satellite control (mini jack), RF in/out (coaxial). Front: AV in (phono), S-Video in (mini DIN)

 

BOX OUT 50

Definitely of interest to camcorder owners and the ET feature helps keep costs down and it well suited to home cinema; itís just a shame there are no pre-recorded movies on S-VHS, to take advantage of the outstanding high-band picture quality

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       *****

Value                            *****

 

Captions

          Not one of JVCís most stylish machines but it wouldnít look out of place in most set-ups

 

          All the input and output sockets youíre likely to need, front and rear

 

          No multi-brand TV control functions on the handset but it will operate JVC TVs

 

 

JVC HR-S9700, £550?

VERDICT *****

If you look back at the review of the JVC HR-S9600 in last Septemberís HE you will notice a striking similarity between that VCR and this new machine, it is obvious that the two are in fact very closely related, but this is a S9600 with knobs on! The two key additions are S-VHS-ET (Expansion Technology) that permits near S-VHS quality recordings on ordinary tape, and an EP recording mode, which triples tape running times. They are the icing on what was already a very heavily decorated cake.

 

The S9700, like its predecessor is a highly specified edit deck, bristling with features that will appeal to camcorder owners, and in particular those with high performance digicams. The list of editing features is a long one, but hereís the highlights; it has a built in 8-scene edit controller that replays selected sequences in specified order, thereís a JLIP interface, that allows deck functions to be controlled by a PC, insert edit and syncro edit simplify camcorder to VCR copying of single scenes and for good measure thereís audio dub, a timebase corrector and front mounted AV sockets. The deck mechanism is remarkably nimble and itís possible to change speed and direction almost instantly, with hardly any picture disturbance.

 

Home cinema certainly hasnít been forgotten, indeed itís been given very high priority with Dynamic Drum for noise-free pictures on almost all trick-play speeds, and it has a full compliment of noise reduction and picture enhancements. Like the HR-S7700 this machine has a proper satellite recording system, though it feels a bit tacked on and relies on an external IR module on the end of a long wire, which has to be placed closed to the remote control window on the satellite receiver itís controlling. The casework is unchanged from the S9600 with the same drop-down front panel sporting a full set of controls and a neat little jog/shuttle dial. All good stuff, but it is features like ET and EP that are really going to make a difference, especially for dedicated time-shifters.

 

S-VHS and S-VHS-ET recordings are almost indistinguishable, if you look long and hard thereís a slight increase in noise and a small reduction in resolution down from just under 400-lines to around 370 lines but itís still miles better than bog standard VHS. SP VHS is as good as it ever was; our early sample was able to resolve just under 250 lines without any trouble. We expected great things of EP recordings after being so impressed with the efforts of the Panasonic SL-FJ760 but we have to say on this machine itís about as good as regular LP mode with flat colour and a marked increase in noise. Itís adequate for watch and wipe time-shifting but weíd hesitate to use it for archiving. Audio quality is very good, Dolby Surround effects are clearly resolved and background noise is well down on HG tapes, at all recording speeds and modes.

 

An accomplished home cinema performer but the price reflects the spec, which is heavily geared towards editing home video movies.

 

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

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             S-VHS-ET/EP recording system, NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, auto install, Video Plus+, Dynamic Drum, Video Navigation, multi-brand TV/satellite remote, NTSC replay, RA edit, audio dub, timebase correction, insert edit, syncro edit

           

Sockets            AV in/out (2 x SCART), S-Video out (mini DIN), line audio out (phono), JLIP syncro edit & LANC edit control (minijack), front: AV in (phono), S-Video in (mini DIN)

 

BOX OUT

If you have a high band or digital camcorder and want to lick your home movies into shape the S9600 has much to offer, and itís no mean home cinema machine either, but if you like the idea of EP recording the Panasonic FJ760 looks like a better bet

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       *****

Value                            ****

 

Captions

          Big and bold and the drop-down front panel gives it a very tidy appearance

          A comprehensive set of editing connections, compatible with most recent camcorders

          ??

 

 

Panasonic SL-FJ710, £270

VERDICT *****

Clearly aimed at the discriminating home cinema user, the FJ710 oozes quality from every orifice and panel, it even sounds good, and weíre not just talking about its audio abilities. Put the machine into fast wind Ė and it is fast Ė and it emits a most satisfying whine, the sort of noise that only comes from powerful motors and precision mechanics. True, youíre paying a bit more for the FJ710 but the feature list is tightly focused on its intended application. 

 

In addition to all of the routine stuff, (NICAM, Video Plus+, stereo hi-fi sound, NTSC replay etc. etc.), thereís Quasi S-VHS replay and Panasonicís tape library system that can catalogue the details of up to 900 recordings. It is remarkably sophisticated, a bit too clever for itís own good maybe and it takes some getting used to, moreover the wait for it to check each tape as itís loaded Ė even if it is only a few seconds Ė can be quite irritating, but if you like to be well organised then this is the one for you. This might also be the machine youíve been waiting for if youíve got any hearing problems, it both displays and records Teletext subtitles, and logs the fact on the Tape Library display. A couple of other extras worth mentioning are audio dub, manual recording level control Ė very rare these days Ė and Album Record, which is meant to make it easier to record still images from a digital still camera or camcorder.

 

Installation and auto setup is incredibly fast; our sample took a little over 30 seconds. All very clever but on the first attempt it shot past Channel 5, even though a solid picture appeared briefly on the screen. It caught it at the second attempt but you know what your old mum used to say, more haste less speedÖTalking of speed, forward and reverse fast wind is lighting quick, taking a little under 55 seconds to whiz through an E-180.

 

The on screen results are very encouraging, Panasonicís usual array of picture processing and noise abatement circuitry is brought to bear on the image, which looks very clean and detailed with resolution just under 250 lines. The few trick play options it has are steady and on the whole it is quiet and well behaved. Soundtrack noise is at a decently low level and the response is wide enough to handle anything Dolby Surround can throw at it, in short it sounds very good indeed.

 

Panasonic has got it exactly right with performance and spec tailored precisely to the needs of home cinema, okay so it costs a bit more and the Panasonic brand adds a bob or two, but this time itís definitely money well spent.

 

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

 

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Features           NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC & Quasi S-VHS playback, satellite control, multi-speed replay, audio dub, tape library system, Teletext subtitle display, Q-Link, multi-brand TV remote, Album recording, manual recording level control             

           

Sockets            2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial. Front: AV in (phono)   

 

BOX OUT

The FJ710 has all the makings of a home cinema classic, the feature list and performance are tightly focused on that one application, it looks and feels like a precision instrument and it hardly ever puts a foot wrong. Yes you can buy a NICAM machine for £100 these days, but it wonít look or sound half as good as this one

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       *****

Value                            *****

 

Captions

          The styling is a wee bit fussy for our taste but itís smart and wouldnít look out of place in most setups

 

          Not much to see here, just the obligatory twin SCARTs, stereo line out and aerial sockets

 

          How a remote should be, large clearly labelled buttons, multi brand TV control and all the stuff you don use very often hidden way under a sliding cover

 

 

Panasonic SL-FJ760, £320

VERDICT *****

The Panasonic SL-FJ760 has one of those new features we mentioned earlier in the introduction, itís called VHS-EP, where EP stands for Extended Play. EP is a new recording speed, approximately one third standard speed (SP), so a three hour E-180 tape lasts for 9 hours and a 4-hour tape runs for up to 12 hours. In fact the EP recording speed has been a standard fitment on NTSC VCRs for many years but the slower tape speeds of PAL equipment made it impractical, due to unacceptable quality losses, until now that is. JVC only finalised the specs for PAL VHS-EP a few months ago and it has been made possible by improvements in tape formulation, tape head design and video processing circuitry.

 

EP recording speed isnít the only item of interest though, this machine has an advanced tape library system that logs, and provides rapid access to recordings made on up to 999 tapes. It has Teletext subtitle recording Ė invaluable for the hard of hearing Ė Quasi S-VHS and NTSC replay (the former replays S-VHS tapes at in normal VHS quality), and it has a satellite control system. Thereís more, including a formidable assortment of editing functions like front AV sockets, insert edit, edit control via a Panasonic 5-pin edit terminal, manual recording level control and audio dub. It comes with a multi-brand TV remote, a jog/shuttle control on the front panel, noise reduction and Owner ID, which can help return the machine to its rightful owner in the event it is stolen and subsequently recovered. Thereís one or two Noddy features too, like an Album recording, for taping still images form a camcorder or digital still camera.

 

The auto installation system doesnít hang around, our sample took just 28 seconds to complete its tasks and it finishes off with the Owner ID set-up, for storing the userís postcode in a non-volatile memory. Picture quality at SP recording speeds is most impressive with 250 lines resolution, very little noise and accurate colours. LP recordings by comparison are not very good at all, resolution is well down, colour looks wispy and trick frame is in black and white. The real surprise is EP, resolution is a commendable 220 lines or thereabouts but noise levels are low and colours are bright and trick frame is in colour.  Hi-fi sound quality is very good on SP recordings and the response is wide and flat at LP and EP speeds but thereís a noticeable increase in background hiss.

 

On its own VHS-EP would sell this VCR, itís the perfect time-shifting tool, allowing you to capture a weeks worth of soaps on a 4-hour tape, but thereís plenty more besides and even though itís in the same price bracket as some S-VHS machines, we reckon for most non-camcorder owning users this is the one to beat!

 

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

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC & Quasi S-VHS playback, EP recording mode satellite control, multi-speed replay, audio dub, tape library system, Teletext subtitle display, Q-Link, multi-brand TV remote, manual recording level control, syncro edit & Album recording functions, insert edit      

           

Sockets            2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line out (phono), syncro edit (minijack), edit control (5-pin mini DIN), RF bypass (coaxial. Front: AV in (phono)

 

BOX OUT

Smart good looks, a host of genuinely useful convenience features, advanced editing capabilities, tape library, the list just keeps on going, but in the end itís the facility to make a 12-hours recording on a 4-hour tape, with minimal quality losses, that sells this machine

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       *****

Value                            *****

 

Captions

          Typically clean Panasonic styling with a large easy to read display and sensibly placed controls

 

          Lots of sockets, the round DIN connector is for linking this machine to an edit controller

 

          Maybe not a classic but the handset is neatly laid out and it can control a wide range of other makers TVs

 

 

Philips VR-860, £320

VERDICT ****

Philips continues to do what it has always done well with the VR-860, an unassuming middle of the road machine with good all-round AV performance and a light sprinkling of convenience features, the most notable of which is a useful Tape Manager feature that catalogues tapes and recordings as you make them. Itís not much to look at however, verging on the dull and dreary even and a distinct change of tack from some of the shiny offerings of the past couple of seasons. The front panel is dark and austere with only the prominent jog dial standing out. A set of AV input sockets are concealed behind a hinged flap on the far right side and the backside is equally uninspiring with just a couple of SCART sockets and a pair of stereo line out phonos. 

 

The Tape Manager feature logs time, date and channel details, plus a title if the channel broadcasts PDC data of each new recording and the tape it was made on. The recording can be easily accessed from a simple to use on-screen display and one neat touch is that the data can be copies across to another VCR of the same type, if and when itís replaced. Other handy extras include satellite recording, a multi-brand remote handset, NTSC replay and EasyLink. The latter speeds up the installation process when used with a NexTViewLink compatible TV and it supports Direct Record, which is a one-touch facility that allows you to instantly record whatever channel you happen to be watching on the TV.

 

Auto installation is quick and painless taking an average of a couple of minutes to sort itself out and the remote handset makes life reasonably easy with large well spaced buttons and clear labelling. Incidentally you may recognise the remote if youíve already got a Philips ONdigital receiver.

 

The 860 incorporates all of Philips current repertoire of picture enhancement and noise reduction systems, including Crystal Clear and Smart Picture, which are designed to sharpen up the image and reduce jitter on old or noisy recordings. Video quality is generally quite good with resolution topping out at a little over 240 lines. Colour fidelity is mostly good though our sample was a little over enthusiastic with its handling of highly saturated reds but noise levels were well under control and picture stability satisfactory on all but the most tired old tapes. Multi speed replay is steady and the deck is reasonably agile, able to change speed and direction quickly and a fast winding speeds. NICAM and hi-fi sound is sharp with a wide response and below average levels of background hiss. A likeable enough machine but short on personality and in the scheme of things, not especially good value for money.

 

Contact Philips 020 8689 2166

 

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Features            NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC playback, satellite control, multi-speed replay, tape library system, EasyLink, multi-brand TV remote, DNR    

           

Sockets            2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial. Front: AV in (phono)   

 

BOX OUT

Philips has produced some memorable VCRs in the past but the 860 is unlikely to join them. Itís a workmanlike enough design and AV performance is satisfactory but the only things itís likely to be remembered for is how ordinary it is

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality                ****

Features                       ****

Value                            ****

 

Captions

          Philips has taken a decidedly lowĖkey approach with this machine, not a front panel to get excited about

 

          The remote handset is a multi-brand TV type and a dead ringer for the ones supplied with its ONdigital receivers

 

          Just the bare minimum of sockets, twin SCARTs and stereo line outputs

 

 

Philips VR-1000, £330

VERDICT ****

In the past Philips has been responsible for some cracking Super VHS VCRs, in fact the classic VR-969 (the one with the white analogue clock on the front panel) is still around, but it couldnít compete with the ultra-low costs models coming from the likes of JVC, so rather than miss out on what has become an important niche in the market Philips has slapped its badge the JVC HR-S7600 Ė or a model so close it makes no difference -- and called it a VR100. 

 

Unlike its JVC counterpart the VR-1000 is a fairly bland-looking machine but Philips has incorporated or updated all of the important features, like the advanced picture processing facilities, switchable digital noise filter tape tuning, and JVCís Rec-Link satellite recording system. Needless to say it also has NICAM stereo hi-fi sound and it can play NTSC recordings. The remote handset is a multi brand TV type covering 12 different makes and it has a number of basic video movie making options such as syncro start, front mounted AV sockets, audio dub and a timebase corrector.

 

Auto installation engages the first time the machine is plugged in and after a couple of minutes all locally available station are tuned in and identified, the date is set and the clock is reading the correct time. The deck is silky smooth and well suited to editing tasks with fast changes of speed and direction. Picture quality is very good with S-VHS recordings managing just a gnats below the formatís 400-line benchmark; VHS recordings are also well up to scratch at a whisker under 250 lines. Noise levels on decent quality tape is very low; colours are lifelike with negligible shift or smear. Trick play stability is okay though the after-effects of digital noise reduction are evident during still and slomo with a slight texture on the picture. Background hiss on the hi-fi soundtracks is well suppressed and it carries Dolby Surround effects with ease, creating a big lively soundfield with crisp dialogue on the centre channel.

 

The VR-1000 was never going to be permitted to upstage the JVC S7600 and the price is unremarkable, given that JVC has recently introduced a very high-spec S-VHS-ET model at or around the same price. But it would be unfair to dismiss it out of hand and there are those who put great store by the Philips brand, irrespective of a productís source. We canít say weíre overly smitten by the way it looks but we have no doubt there are those who will find it appealing. However, in the end we have to say that given the choice between this machine and a JVC original, with a similar or better spec, for the same amount of money, weíd plump for the latter

 

Contact Philips 020 8689 2166

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             Super-VHS/VHS, stereo hi-fi and NICAM sound, Video Plus+ with PDC, multi-brand TV remote, multi-speed replay, audio dub, auto installation, NexTViewLink, digital timebase corrector, digital noise reduction, tape tuning, Rec Link auto satellite recording, NTSC replay

           

Sockets            AV in/out (2 x SCART), S-Video out (mini DIN), line audio out (phono) remote pause (minijack), Front: AV in (phono), S-Video in (mini DIN)

 

BOX OUT 50

Although it is basically a clone of a JVC Super VHS video recorder the VR-1000 does have a quite distinct personality of its own moreover it benefits from the Japanese manufacturerís undoubted expertise when it comes to picture and sound quality.

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       ****

Value                            ****

 

Captions

          If youíre into black box technology you wonít go far wrong with this one

 

          A fairly standard selection of connections on the back panel, the jack socket is for syncro edit

 

          Even though the handset is on the large size itís well appointed with multi-brand TV functions and a jog/shuttle dial

 

 

Sony SLV-SE800, £250

VERDICT ****

Everything about the SLV-SE800 is Ďchunkyí even the over-large remote handset. It has a sort of solid industrial feel to it and the cosmetics are typically Sony, stylish with hardly a knob or button out of place. Mind you, not even Sony can resist the occasional bit of marketing fluff with features like ĎReality Regeneratorí; itís sole purpose appears to be to light up a button on the front panel and slightly increase the harshness of the picture, so that it bears even less resemblance to realityÖ

 

Otherwise itís a very likeable machine; a bit short on fancy features maybe but what it has is put to good use. Smart Search is a rudimentary tape library system, itís not as sophisticated as SmartFile (that was the one with a memory chip embedded in the cassette spine label), but it does give you an idea of whatís on the tape, and how much free space remains. It can make timed satellite recordings but itís similar to JVCís Rec-Link system and relies on the satellite receiver having a timer. When the sat box switches on the SE800 senses the presence of a signal on the SCART connection and starts recording for the duration of the programme. 

 

Smart Dial timer is a great idea, it works when the machine is in standby mode, press the Smart Dial button and you can set time, date and channel with a few quick turns of the knob, very handy of youíre in a hurry.  The handset can control around 20 different brands of TVs, and this one is notable for having Teletext/fastext functions. The auto installation system proceeds at a fairly leisurely pace, taking over three and a half minutes but it did a thorough job and needed no further tweaking. The deck mechanism moves at a fair old pace and manages to wind a three-hour tape from end to end a little under a minute. Itís quite noisy though and changes in speed and directions results in some loud clicking and clunking. Editing features are a little thin on the ground, it has front-mounted AV sockets and audio dub but thereís no provision for syncro editing or any edit control functions.

 

Picture quality is mostly okay, OPC tape tuning makes the best of whatever tape is used but thereís a lack of vibrancy, colours are a tad flat and highly saturated areas look a bit whiskery around the edges. Resolution is a little over 240 lines and noise levels are just a bit below average.  It sound very good though, there very little background hiss on the hi-fi tracks and Dolby Surround effects come through sweet and clean.

 

Itís a competent and well-designed machine and well up to the job of home cinema but thereís little to get excited about, put it on your shortlist, but have a close look at whatís available in the same price bracket.

 

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

 

UP CLOSE

Features             NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC, syncro satellite recording, multi-speed replay, audio dub, Smart Search tape navigation system, SmartLink, multi-brand TV remote, ĎDialí timer (see text), owner ID           

           

Sockets            2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial). Front: AV in (phono)

 

BOX OUT

You can tell itís a Sony VCR at twenty paces, the styling and cosmetics are very easy on the eye and it has a feeling of solidity. Picture and sound quality are both up to the mark but beyond that thereís comparatively little to get enthused about.

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       ****

Value                            ****

 

Captions

          Smart and stylish, the extra knob on the front is for setting the very handy Dial Timer

 

          Just the usual compliment of sockets, a pair of SCARTs, line audio out and the aerial connections

 

          The big remote is a bit of a handful but it does have multi-brand TV functions, including a set of fastext buttons

 

 

Thomson VTH-6080, £225

VERDICT *****

We suspect that somewhere inside the Thomson VTH-6080 thereís a tiny kitchen sink. It makes sense, it has just about everything else, and not just the regular stuff, this is one has a real hotch-potch of features.

 

Take multi system and standard operation for instance, this machine will work just about anywhere, the tuner covers all broadcast and cable bands, and it will replay and record tapes in NTSC, SECAM, MESECAM and PAL. Brilliant, but why did the designers stop short of giving it a truly multi-national power supply? (it works on 60Hz supplies, but not down to the 110-120VAC in the US).  Thereís an abundance of editing features; it has front AV sockets, jog/shuttle control, audio dub, insert edit and an built-in edit controller, but the instructions are extremely vague about which other VCRs and camcorders it can be used with. Watch out too for the AV connections, this machine depends on the TV having an RGB input and must be used with the supplied SCART cable, otherwise you wonít see the menu display.

 

The 6080 can record and display Teletext subtitles, it replays S-VHS recordings (in normal VHS picture quality), thereís a manual recording level control, satellite recording, owner ID and it comes with a multi-brand TV remote. The styling is quite conventional too; we only mention that because Thomson used to employ the services of French minimalist Philippe Starcke to design its VCR boxes but most of this yearís new models (and DVD players), lack his distinctive touch.

 

Naviclick is another handy feature, itís a quick timer system that uses Teletext data; when you press the Guide button a page of text comes up listing forthcoming programmes on that channel, move a cursor up and down to select a broadcast, press the OK button and it will be recorded. Not all of the controls are so logical though, or maybe the horrible instruction books (yes, thereís two of them) make it seem more complicated than it really is. For example, we canít see the need to press the record button twice to start recording; more often than not if youíre in a hurry youíll forget and no recording is made.

 

Auto installation is fast, once youíve found it, hidden in the depths of the menus and tuning only takes around a minute. In the middle of all this technical wizardry is a very sedate deck mechanism that takes Ė gasp -- almost two minutes to fast wind a 3-hour tape, thatís almost arthritic by current standardsÖ

 

Picture and sound quality is right down the middle, resolution is a smidge over 240 lines, colours are a bit garish but noise is very low. Hi-fi sound is clean and well balanced with only average amounts of background hiss.

 

Despite itís funny little ways this is a VCR you can learn to love and if you take into account the multi-standard/system capabilities itís very good value. A bit odd but it grows on youÖ

 

Contact            Thomson 0181-344 4444

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             multi system and standard (PAL/SECAM/MESECAM/NTSC 3.58 record & replay, NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC and Quasi S-VHS replay satellite recording, Teletext subtitle recording, multi-speed replay, audio dub, NexTViewLink, multi-brand TV remote, manual recording level, 6-scene edit control, ID tag

           

Sockets            2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line in/out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial). Front: AV in (phono), remote pause (minijack)

 

BOX OUT

Multi-standard and multi-system VCRs used to be rare and exotic but as the 6080 shows it can be an everyday feature, at an everyday price. Itís an unusually well specified machine, a bit quirky too, but well worth getting to know

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality                *****

Features                       ******

Value                            ******

 

Captions

          An unusually Ďordinaryí looking design, no sign of Mr Starckeís minimalist tendencies on this one

 

          Some interesting extras, including external audio and video inputs, and a separate video out

 

          The handsetís not too bad, taking into consideration it has multi-brand TV functions as well

 

 

Toshiba V710, £180

VERDICT ****

Tosh VCRs are like comfy old carpet slippers, you know exactly what you are getting and you can be fairly sure there will be no surprises, nasty or otherwise. Thatís sort of reassuring but at the same time it makes reviewing the things quite hard, sometimes you need a magnifying glass and tweezers to spot the differences between one seasonís model range and the next. At least thereís something new to say about the V710, itís the first Toshiba NICAM VCR to sell for less than £200, which is as close as this company is ever going to get to the unseemly tussle at the budget end of the market.

 

Ignoring completely the current fad for shiny boxes and front panels Toshiba stylists seem to have gone back to late 1980s designs with this very plain looking machine. But for the fact that the cabinet is a compact 360mm wide it could easily pass one of its own predecessors, in fact back in 1989 Toshiba launched a hi-fi VCR called the V700, maybe Toshiba is planning to recycle model numbers as wellÖ

 

Enough merriment, the V710 is a plain and respectable little machine. Itís the sort of thing you could recommend to your old granny, should she seek your advice on buying a simple non-nonsense NICAM VCR. Toshiba on-screen displays havenít changed in ten years, theyíre the VCR equivalent of large print books, just the job if the old minces are getting past it, or you habitually sit more than thirty feet from the screen.

 

The closest the V710 gets to fancy gadgetry is auto installation -- none of your new fangled NexTViewLink nonsense here. It takes around 2 minutes to tune in a set the clock, which is not too bad at all. Some might consider NTSC replay and glow in the dark buttons on the remote a bit racy and audio dub seems out of place when the V710 has no other obvious movie-making pretensions, but thatís as controversial as it gets.

 

Weíve never had cause to complain about Toshiba VCR picture quality, at least not that we can remember and the V710 isnít about to change that fine tradition. Resolution is just over 240-lines, colours are sharp and natural looking and picture noise in minimal. Trick play is steady and the deck is no slouch when it comes to fast winding, taking a minute or so to get from one end of an E-180 to the other. The hi-fi tracks have an open and flat response, some background hiss is evident but itís well within acceptable limits.

 

If you favour the fuss-free approach to VCRs then you canít go far wrong with Toshiba machines and the V710 certainly wonít give you anything to complain about, but we have to say that itís just a bit, well, dullÖ

 

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

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video + timer with PDC, auto installation, NTSC, multi-speed replay, audio dub         

 

Sockets            2 x SCART AV in/out, stereo line out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial).

 

BOX OUT         

If itís excitement and a challenge youíre after then look elsewhere, the Toshiba V710 is one of the most simple and straightforward NICAM VCRs you could hope to meet. Perfectly house-trained to sit in the corner, mind its own and speak only when itís spoken toÖ

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality                ****

Features                       ***

Value                            *****

 

Captions

          Compact shape and conservative, some might even say dull styling

 

          SCARTs and phonos. All you need for a fuss-free installation

 

          A very sensible, not to say civilised remote control and the white buttons glow in the dark

 

THE VERDICT

With such a rag-bag assortment of VCRs, spanning a wide range of prices and market segments, it is going to be quite difficult to come up with the customary best and worst but weíll have a go... There are two machines in this collection that we would be happy to go out and spend our own money on right now Ė they are the JVC HR-S7700 and the Panasonic NSL-FJ760. The deciding factor would be whether or not we owned a camcorder in which case the balance tips in favour of the JVC model, mostly because of S-VHS-ET and itís editing facilities, but if home cinema and industrial-strength time-shifting were our main priorities then it would have to be the Panasonic 760 on the basis of outstanding AV performance and the EP recording feature, which works extremely well on this machine.

 

For really serious home movie making then the JVC HR-D9700 is in a class of its own and undoubtedly the one to go for if you can hustle up the extra readies. It is a delight to use and look at, ET recording lets you make Super VHS recordings on regular VHS tape, keeping the cost of editing and copying at the best picture quality in check and like the Panasonic 760 it has EP mode, though we have to say that the quality wasnít as good on this machine.

 

The two Philips VCRs were both okay but it has to be said that under the skin the VR100 is in reality little more than an oldish JVC machine that has long since disappeared. For about the same sort of money you can buy an up to date JVC video recorder with the same or better core spec and all sorts of interesting new features. The VR860 is just a bit ordinary, itís certainly not a bad machine, but again for the same money you can do better, including upgrade to S-VHS. The Sony SLV-SE800 will probably sell by the shed load to Sony fans, and they wonít be disappointed, itís a fine sturdy machine with a personality all its own but it lacks the sparkle and fancy features of many of its similarly priced rivals. One that springs to mind is the Thomson 6080, in fact this is likely to be selling for a little less than the Sony SE800 yet it has things like multi-system/standard operation, satellite control, Quasi S-VHS and much more besides. It has lots of foibles and those who wrote the instruction book and designed the control system are clearly sadists but all is forgiven at that price.

 

 At the budget end of the market we have two contenders from LG, and a surprise entry from Toshiba, who we really didnít ever expect to see rubbing shoulders and going head to head with the hoi-polloi of the VCR world. Remember, only £30 or so separates these two machines and whilst the general specifications are not that dissimilar, when it comes to on-screen results Tosh does the business. The V710 is proof positive of the Darwinian theories of evolution and natural selection. It might be about as interesting as a cup of cold tea but Toshiba has been building VCRs like that for years and in the end it really doesnít matter because there are always going to be plenty of people who just want a simple, reliable and easy to use video recorder.

 

 

BEST IN TEST

 

JVC HR-S7700, £330

With the S7700 youíve got everything covered, outstanding picture and sound quality, in both standard VHS and Super VHS modes, ET recording takes the sting out of Super VHS tape prices, without suffering any significant reduction in performance and it is an accomplished edit deck.

 

Panasonic SL-FJ760, £320

EP recording mode is a real breakthrough, on this VCR at least, up to 12-hours recording time on a 4-hour tape Ė with acceptable quality losses -- has genuine benefits for time-shifting, and this machine more than acquits itself as a home cinema performer.

 

Sony SLV-SE800, £250

The SE800 is actually not that special but contrary to what we said earlier, this could be the last VHS video recorder you ever buy, itís built like the proverbial brick outhouse and will probably see the format through to the bitter end

 

Thomson VTH-6080, £225

A maddening, idiosyncratic machine with plenty of foibles but you canít argue with the spec, or the price. A strangely appealing all-rounder with quite reasonable picture and sound quality, definitely worth considering if you move around a lot.

 

Toshiba V710, £180

About as idiot proof as itís possible to get, yes it is fusty and unexciting but AV quality is beyond reproach and itís very easy to use, but look at the price, less than £200 for a Toshiba NICAM VCR, theyíre almost giving it away!

 

 

RIVAL BUYS

HITACHI VT-FX860, £200

Ten years too late but finally you can tame your tape collection with this machineís outstanding library system. Itís a damn fine home cinema machine too with excellent picture and sound quality, and a price thatís going to keep the bank manager happy, nay ecstaticÖ

 

AIWA HV-FX5100, £160

If you are on a really tight budget, and we mean tight, then you could do a lot worse than the FX1500, currently our favourite NICAM cheapie. The in your face styling is bold and distinctive, the spec is impressive and itís easy to use with plenty of bonus features, like the anti-theft system

 

SHARP VC-MH722, £190

In a market dominated by blandness and conformity the MH722 stands out, proving VCRs donít have to be boring black or silver boxes. Itís not just a pretty face though, sound and picture quality are both very good, it has the fastest deck in the West and the price is definitely eye-catching.

 

 

TABLE 1                      

 

 

KEY

** typical street price

Format: S = Super VHS, T = Expansion Technology, V = standard VHS, E = VHS Extended Play, M = multi-standard

Q-SVHS = quasi S-VHS replay

Satellite recording R = depends on sat receiverís timer             

 

---end---

R. Maybury 2000 0207

 

EASE OF USE RATINGS

LG BC999NI                              3

JVC HR-S7700              4

JVC HR-S9700              3

Panasonic SL-FJ710               4

Panasonic SL-FJ760               4

Philips VR-860               4

Philips VR-1000             4

Sony SLV-SE800              4

Thomson VTH-6080                 3

Toshiba V710                            5

 

 

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