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GROUP TEST

SATELLITE TV RECEIVERS

 

INTRODUCTION

Satellite television has suffered from an image problem, virtually since day-on. It was mostly self-inflicted and in the case of early receiving systems, thoroughly well-deserved. First generation satellite receivers were often badly designed and incapable of keeping up with the rapid pace of development, rendering many systems obsolete within a year or two of purchase.

 

To be honest not a lot has changed and any receiver brought today is likely to start showing signs of premature ageing within a couple of years but thatís the nature of the beast. New satellites are being launched all the time, along with gadgets that enable owners of fixed dishes to pick up signals from two, three or even four additional satellites; two years ago a 100-channel receiver would have seemed extravagant, today itís barely adequate.

 

Apart from making sure you have enough channels to see you through the guarantee period, what else should you look out for when buying a satellite receiver? Astra 1d compatibility is important, the new satellite, due to be launched later this year, will be broadcasting on a different frequency band, below the one already used by Astras 1a, b and c, not all receivers can cope, and be warned, you might also need to buy a new dual-band LNB as well to receive the new channels, (look out for receivers that have control systems able to utilise this feature). Extra smart-card slots can be useful if you want to subscribe to channels not included in BSKYBís packages, and two LNB inputs will save a lot of bother, should you feel the urge to have a second dish -- and you might when you see the channel line-up on the new Eutelsat satellite, due to be launched next year.

 

Stereo sound is a must, even if you havenít got a stereo TV or AV system right now you probably will have soon. Satellite stereo sound can be quite hissy so look out for receivers with noise reduction circuits, the Panda 1 system developed by Wegner is still the most efficient, though manufacturerís own systems are improving all the time. Sound quality is more important than ever now with the increase in the number of programmes and movies with Dolby Surround encoded soundtracks, and essential if a satellite receiver is to have any credibility as a home cinema component.

 

Armed with these basic facts itís possible to make a reasonably informed choice, but to help you on your way weíve put together a selection of five systems, that highlight the various differences that exist amongst middle-ranking receivers, designed for those whose aspirations go beyond what Astra and BSKYB have to offer.

 

AMSTRAD SRD550 £250

Amstrad had a pivotal role in the development of satellite TV in this country and their range of budget-priced receivers have been consistent best sellers. The 550 is a move upmarket from the rather cheap Ďn cheerful receivers theyíre best known for. Itís one of a growing number of receivers to have two smart-card slots, for those who subscribe to services other than those operated by BSKYB, though some effort is still involved as this receiver has manual, rather than automatic or programmable card selection. Itís a neat looking design, only one visible control (on/standby), the rest are hidden behind a drop down flap, and less conveniently, on the underside. Internally itís a different story, this Chinese-made receiver is a real mess, a potential servicing nightmare with great dollops of silicon gel sticking components and cables together, presumably to cure or prevent instability problems.

 

Operationally itís reasonably easy to live with, the on-screen display shows channels by name and it permits access to most of the key tuning functions; the receiver is pre-tuned to existing and most future TV satellites, including Astra 1d, thereís no favourite channel memory but reorganising channels according to personal preference is simple enough. The feature list is fairly conservative, it has a VCR timer and parental lock, but little else besides.

 

Performance is generally satisfactory, sensitivity is a little average, and sparklies appear quite quickly in conditions of  reduced signal strength, particularly on weaker channels, like UK Gold; picture noise levels and colour fidelity both pass muster. The 550 uses a home-grown audio noise reduction system, which works reasonably well, though some background hiss is evident, and treble response a little muted.

 

VERDICT

Definitely one of Amstradís better efforts but one or two rough edges. Reasonable value and fair to middling AV performance.

 

Picture quality            ***

Sound quality  ***

Build quality               **

Features & facilities  ***

Ease of use                 ***

Value for money         83%

 

Features         parental lock, 8-event/31-day timer, twin smart-card slots

Sockets           3 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), 2 x LNB F-connectors, RF in/out

Dimensions     335 x 250 x 62mm

AMSTRAD, Brentwood House, 169 Kings Road, Brentwood,

Essex CM14 3EF. Telephone (0277) 228888

 

 

GRUNDIG GRD-250 £230

The GRD-250 is an upgrade of the earlier 150 receiver, with an extra LNB input and increased channel capacity. It looks pretty smooth, and thereís no buttons or switches to break up the curvy lines. In fact thereís only four buttons on the unit, theyíre behind a drop-down flap, along with the single smart-card slot. The flap itself is a very poor fit and one of the hinges on our sample broke off. A simple 3-digit LED display shows channel number and operating mode.

 

The receiver has been pre-tuned with all Astra channels, up to and including those that will be used by Astra 1d. All the user has to do is set the clock and decide which stations they want to store in the favourite channel memory. Grundig have also thoughtfully pre-programmed all of the stations in the BSKYB Multi-Channel package, they too can be accessed sequentially using the +/- buttons on the remote handset. Satellite radio is another strong point, and the 250 has no less than 23 audio modes, ten of them user-presettable. A menu-driven on-screen display puts up channel names and covers all day-to-day functions, plus the more advanced set-up options. The unusually detailed instructions even include a menu flow-chart, to help users navigate their way around the various functions. Concerned parents might like to note this receiver has impressive security arrangements that should frustrate most juvenile hackers.

 

Sensitivity results were not good on our sample, in fact it was the lowest in this roundup and sparklies were present on an unattenuated signal from UK Gold. Picture performance in general was fairly average, colours were noisy and had a tendency to over saturation. Audio performance was also unremarkable, the noise reduction system brought background hiss down to acceptable levels, but itís not brilliant.

 

VERDICT

A promising-looking receiver but let down by careless design and indifferent performance.

 

Picture quality                        ***     

Sound quality              ***

Build quality                           **

Features & facilities              **

Ease of use                             ***

Value for money         75%

 

Features         favourite channel memory, Sky Multi-Plus channel selection, radio mode, parental lock, 4-event/28-day timer

Sockets           3 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), 2 x LNB F-connectors, RF in/out

Dimensions     400 x 230 x 68

GRUNDIG SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS, Unit 10, Llantrisant Business Park, Mid Glamorgan CF7 8LS. Telephone (0443) 220220

 

 

MASPRO ST8 MK II £250

Although theyíre not exactly a household name in this country Maspro have been building satellite TV systems longer than almost anyone else, so they should have got the hang of it by now. The ST8 Mk II is an upgrade of an earlier design, with extra facilities, including twin LNB inputs, for multi-satellite operation. It looks unthreatening, and the transparent control panel and smart-card cover is a neat touch,  but the more advanced options are accessible if you need them. Like most receivers these days the ST8 is factory tuned so thereís no need to mess around with the receiverís higher functions, apart from storing a selection of favourite channels. It has been programmed to receive most currently available TV satellites, plus Astra 1d.

 

Convenience features include a 8-event/28-day timer, parental lock and fully tuneable audio and video settings, via a menu-driven on-screen display, though unusually thereís no channel name display. The only other quibbles concerns the somewhat meagre 128 channel memory, cluttered  remote handset and occasionally quirky control systems, which can have even experienced users reaching for the instruction manual.

 

The receiver has better than average sensitivity and sufficient gain in reserve to cope with reduced signal strength. Colour rendition is generally satisfactory, though noise is evident in areas of heavy saturation. Sound quality was okay, with a reasonably flat and even response, background noise levels are not excessive, though itís not the cleanest receiver weíve heard. 

 

VERDICT

The ST8 design is getting on a bit; this most recent incarnation gives it some breathing space and itíll soldier on for another year or two, maybe longer if you donít try anything too ambitious.

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality  ***

Build quality               ****

Features & facilities  ****

Ease of use                 ***

Value for money         80%

 

Features         20 Ďfavouriteí channels memory, sleep timer, picture mute, 8-event/28-day timer, parental lock

Sockets           3 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), 2 x LNB F-connectors, RF in/out, polarity switching, mains

Dimensions     360 x 262 x 73mm

MASPRO UK/ELECTROTECH, Unit 6, Drury Way Industrial Estate,

Laxcon Close, Neasden, London NW10 OTG. Telephone 081-451 6766

 

 

NOKIA SAT 1700 MK 11 £300

Nokia are another company with a long history in the satellite TV business, and like Maspro were making receivers when Astra meant fireworks and rusty Vauxhalls. SAT 1700 oozes refinement, itís slick and well presented, the only irritant being a blanked-off second card slot. One look at the back panel shows it is ready for just about anything, including some of the more exotic and unusual types of antenna. Thereís also connections for a companion dish positioner, for those who want to get into heavy-duty multi-satellite TV, with a steerable dish.

 

Feature-wise Nokia have struck a sensible balance between utility and gadgetry, it has a VCR timer, parental lock and favourite program memory, which should be more than enough for most users. However, for those who want to have a good fiddle, all of the main tuning adjustments are accessible via the comprehensive on-screen display system. Itís Astra 1d ready, and is one of the few receivers on the market at the moment to have both tone and voltage switching facilities, for automatic band selection on dual-band LNBs. Audio noise reduction is handled by Panda/Wegner circuitry and thereís an extra socket which dealers can use for fast programming the channel memory, should it need to be replaced.

 

On-screen performance is very good, sparklies only appear during poor signal conditions, even UK Gold looks clean; colours are sharp and largely free of noise, overall a good looking picture.  It sounds as good as it looks, noise reduction is very effective with minimal background hiss on most channels, the response is flat and Dolby Surround information emerges unscathed.

 

VERDICT

Top AV performance and very easy to use, definitely worth considering if you want to stay ahead of the game.

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality  ****

Build quality               ****

Features & facilities  ***

Ease of use                 ****

Value for money         88%

 

Features         Parental lock, 8-event/28-day timer, 16 favourite channel memory, 22kHz LNB switching tone

Sockets           3 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), 2 x LNB F-connectors, RF in/out, magnetic polarity switching, antenna control unit, fast program input, external LNB control

Dimensions     360 x 268 x 60mm

NOKIA CONSUMER ELECTRONICS, Bridgemead Close, Westmead,

Swindon SN5 7YG. Telephone (0793) 644223

 

 

PACE MSS-500 £300

Pace have been at the forefront of domestic satellite receiver design for some design, and they badge-engineer for some of the biggest names in the business. The MSS-500 is a stripped down version of the MSS-1000, (the first satellite receiver with a built-in Dolby Surround decoder); even without that feature the MSS-500 is still remarkably well-specified for the money, and equipped to deal with most foreseeable developments. The headline features include twin smart-card slots, mounted on an over elaborate sliding drawer mechanism; it has two LNB inputs, a wideband tuner with LNB tone-switching, tone and volume controls, a smart menu-driven on-screen and display and informative front-panel display. It has all the usual gubbins too, including a multi-event VCR timer, sleep timer and parental lock, plus stereo sound with Panda/Wegner processing.  

 

Front panel controls are restricted to four push buttons and a very trendy multi-function jog dial which controls channel selection, adjusts the volume and selects the four Ďsound shapeí tone presets; tone can also be adjusted manually from the on-screen display. Thereís never any doubt what itís up to, the large front-panel display shows status, channel name and number, as well as tuning and mode adjustments.

 

Picture and sound quality are both excellent, and with a deliberately weakened signals the picture degrades far more slowly than most other receivers, remaining watchable longer. Colours are bright and natural-looking, and with a good signal thereís remarkably little noise. Stereo sound is unusually crisp, hardly any background hiss thanks to the very effective noise reduction system. At first glance tone controls might seem out of place on a satellite receiver, and thereís no doubt it sounds best with a neutral setting, but itís a useful bonus for those with older TVs, or inconveniently located sound systems, and itís occasionally helpful to iron out inconsistencies between the various channelís soundtracks.

 

VERDICT

Definitely one for the shortlist. A well-appointed receiver thatís not going to get left behind, it performs extremely well and itís great value.

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality  ****

Build quality               ****

Features & facilities  ****

Ease of use                 ****

Value for money         95%

 

Features         twin smart-card slots, sleep timer, 8-event/28-day timer, parental lock, tone control/graphic equaliser,  Ďfavouriteí program memory, 22kHz LNB switching tone

Sockets           4 x SCART AV, 2 x F-connector, stereo line audio out (phono), RF in/out

Dimensions     360 x 320 x 66mm

PACE, Victoria Road, Saltaire, Shipley BD18 3LF. Telephone (0274) 532000

 

CONCLUSION

In spite of its good looks the Grundig GRD-250 turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, apart from the weak flap hinge and comparatively low sensitivity itís not an especially friendly design that can take some getting used to. The Amstrad 550 actually did quite well and should help to move the brandís image upmarket. Itís good value with a useful assortment of features; on the debit side the sound was a bit hissy, and the standard of internal construction leaves something to be desired. That may or may not be a problem, time and its long-term reliability record will tell. Fittingly the Maspro ST8 is a safe, middle of the road design, with performance to match. If it has any weaknesses then itís the rather average audio system, limited upgrade options and the lack of a second card slot. The Nokia SAT 1700 is also deficient in that respect, and they rub salt into the wound with that crude blanking panel. However, it more than makes up for that with excellent picture and sound quality plus extensive future-proofing and scope for upgrading. The Pace MSS300 is our number one choice, though, it combines the best of all worlds, with outstanding AV performance, ease of use, upgradablity and a unique assortment of genuinely useful features. 

 

INSTANT GLOSSARY

 

ASTRA

A network of medium-power TV broadcasting satellites co-located in a geostationery orbit at 19.2 degrees East of South. The three Astra satellites currently in service (1a, 1b and 1c), transmit 16 TV channels apiece and several dozen sound-only Ďradioí channels. A fourth Astra satellite (1d) is planned for launch later this year. The Astra satellites are owned and operated by the Luxembourg based consortium Societe Europeene des Satellites or SES.

 

GEOSTATIONARY or GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT

Back in 1948 Arthur C Clarke, the sci-fi writer had the bright idea that if a satellite in earth orbit was high enough, and travelled fast enough itís centrifugal force would counterbalance the Earthís gravitational pull, and from the ground it would appear to remain in a fixed position in the sky. Thatís the basis of all of todayís TV and communication satellites which orbit the earth, 36,000 km above the equator, at a speed of 11,069 km/hr.

 

IRD -- integrated receiver-decoder

Satellite receivers with built-in Videocrypt decoder. All IRDs have one or more slots for Ďsmart-cardsí, issued by channel operators upon payment of a subscription.

 

LNB -- low noise block converter

This is the widget mounted on the end of the arm in front of a satellite dish. Itís job is to convert the extremely weak and extremely high frequency signals transmitted by the satellite into a more manageable form. The LNB amplifies the signal and lowers the frequency, so it can be sent by cable to the set-top receiver.

 

SMART CARD

Plastic card containing a microchip programmed with data necessary to unscramble Videocrypt encoded signals, plus information relating to the subscriber

 

SPARLKIES

Name given to the characteristic bright flecks that appear on a satellite TV picture when the signal is weak or degraded. There are numerous causes, including dish mis-alignment, heavy rain or a poorly performing dish or receiver.

 

VIDEOCRYPT

Encryption system adopted by a number of broadcasters using the Astra satellites, including the channels which are part of BSKYB Multi-Channel subscription package. Videocrypt uses a technique known as line cut and rotate, which jumbles up the way television lines are transmitted. The system is difficult to crack, though pirate Ďsmart cardsí are being sold, however anti-piracy measures adopted by BSKYB can render them useless.

 

 

AT A GLANCE TABLE

 

MAKE/MODEL                                ££s      Chan   LNB    Score

Amstrad SRD550                               250      199      2          14

Grundig GRD-250                             230      250      2          13

Maspro ST8 Mk II                            250      128      2          18

Nokia Sat 1700 Mk 11                      300      320      2          19

Pace MSS-500                                   300      250      2          21

 

 

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1994 0607    

 

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