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TOP SIX SATELLITE SYSTEMS

 

INTRO

Satellite TV has never been cheaper, or is likely to be ever again, so now is a very good time to take the plunge and buy a system. There’s some very tempting offers at the moment but remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or should that be dish... There’s also a lot of talk about digital satellite TV, should you wait? We’re still a few years away from a regular service, carrying the kind of programming you’d be prepared to pay to watch, and that’s when the remaining technical, political and financial wrinkles have been ironed out. Test broadcasts have begun, and English language channels could be operating by the end of this year but it’s still very early days.

 

Even when digital satellite TV is up and running you can be sure that for the first few years the equipment will be expensive, and be in no doubt there will be a subscription charge. Moreover, like all new technologies, there is a certain amount of risk involved, should the satellite operators, broadcasters or service providers run into difficulties. It’s a fragile business, don’t forget what happened to BSB!

 

Back in the here and now the satellite TV market has reached a certain amount of maturity -- cut-throat special deals notwithstanding -- and the technology has long since achieved ‘black box’ status, where the internal workings need not concern the user. Nevertheless there is still a wide variation in the performance and facilities between the various systems currently available. You need to keep your wits about when shopping around. The most fundament question you have to ask is, can the system pick up all currently available Astra channels. It’s not just a question of how many channels it has, the Astra 1D satellite, which was launched late last year, broadcasts on an entirely different band of frequencies to those used by the existing satellites. This has meant satellite receivers, and LNBs (the gizmo on the dish) have had to be re-designed, leaving several warehouses full of older, 1D incompatible systems sloshing around the system. You might also come across receivers without built-in Videocrypt decoders, clearly they’re no use at all, if you want to watch most English language Astra channels.  

 

Old Astra systems aren’t the only thing you have to watch out for. When BSB merged with SKY in 1990 there were an still an awful lot of unsold D2MAC receivers kicking around, that are now only useful to enthusiasts, who can convert them to function on other satellites. Quite a few ‘brand new’ boxed systems have turned up in street markets, with unscrupulous traders selling them as suitable for Astra, so beware.  

 

Clones are another difficulty; one receiver has been known to crop up under almost a dozen different names, with some amazing price variations. If you look carefully at front panels designs and layouts you should be able to spot the similarities. Hopefully this will get easier as one of the most prolific OEM (original equipment manufacturers) has recently pulled out of the market.

 

COPY

 

1. BARGAIN BASEMENT

Five years ago a basic satellite system would have set you back around £400, right now you can pick one up for less than £100, so what’s the catch? It’s a marketing ploy, pure and simple. The low price is being subsidised, £150 is a far more realistic for an entry-level system, so don’t expect these kinds of special deals to last forever. You’re also obliged to sign up for a year’s subscription to BSKYB, and pay to have the system installed by a firm nominated by the dealer. The half dozen or so systems involved in these promotions tend not to be in the first flush of youth, they generally lack the latest convenience features and not all of them can receive broadcasts from the Astra 1D satellite. That’s no big deal at the moment but you might find you’re missing out as new channels go on air over the next year or so. Performance can be fairly average too, especially sound quality, but if you’re on a tight budget, and prepared to make a few compromises there are definitely some bargains to be had.

 

GOODMANS ST-700 £99

The Goodmans ST-700 is our pick of the ultra-budget systems. It’s a reasonably good looking design, based on the Pace PRD700 and only sold through Comet stores. Plus points include stereo sound with proper Wegner-Panda I noise reduction, Astra 1D compatibility, a full set of AV sockets, VCR timer and a good selection of manual tuning options. It looses a couple of points by not having a front-panel channel display, two-digit channel selection is a little cumbersome, there’s no channel naming facility and the remote handset is a bit fiddly. Picture quality is actually quite good, and although there’s some background hiss on the soundtracks, it’s liveable. Yes, it’s basic, and with only 99 channels it might be struggling to keep up in a couple of years, but at that price who’s arguing, but hurry, Comet tells us stocks are now limited?

 

ALTERNATIVES

Pace Apollo 120      £99.99 (plus SKY sub and installation)

Matsui RD600             £99.99 (plus SKY sub and installation)

 

 

2. BUDGET SYSTEM

With so many sub-£100 systems floating around you might be asking yourself what is the point of paying any more? Admittedly the situation is a little clouded right now, but in the end you usually get what you pay for. In this instance it really is worth spending a little extra for sometimes quite marked performance gains, increased flexibility and more up to date facilities. You will also be able to choose what, if any, subscription package suits your needs and have a bigger say in the installation. It might even work out cheaper in the long run. More advanced receivers normally have larger channel memories and are better able to cope with new services as and when they appear. Build quality and reliability are also factors worth bearing in mind, and that doesn’t just mean the receiver. Cheaper systems often come with less efficient dishes and LNBs that can have a big impact on picture and sound quality.

 

GRUNDIG GRD-150 £200

Grundig are probably not the first name that comes to mind when talking about satellite systems but the GRD-150 is a real cracker. It has stood the test of time well. It first appeared in Spring 94, even then it was factory configured for Astra 1D channels, nine months before the satellite was eventually launched. Performance is outstanding, though it’s at its best under arduous conditions, when receiving weaker channels or during heavy downpours. The GRD-150 will still be going strong, long after noise or ‘sparklies’ have blotted out the pictures produced by most other receivers. It’s very easy to use, with a friendly on-screen display and all of the SKY Multi Channels together in one easily accessible block. It doesn’t have Panda noise reduction but Grundig’s proprietary GNRS system does a very good job of reducing background hiss on the stereo soundtracks. It might be getting on a bit but it can still show its more expensive rivals a thing or two!

 

ALTERNATIVES

Amstrad SRD-545             £170

Bush IRD-155      £200

Maspro ST8 Mk II £200

 

 

3. HOME CINEMA ALL-ROUNDERS

Now we’re getting serious. If you’re planning to buy a satellite receiver,  to use with your home cinema system, don’t cut corners. Obviously AV performance should be at the top of your wish-list but equally important are things like a large channel memory, Astra 1D compatibility, a full compliment of SCART and phono AV sockets and maybe a few luxury items, like twin smart-card slots and a really well thought out control system, that doesn’t leave you reaching for the instruction manual. As far as picture quality is concerned there’s no single indicator that can help you sort the wheat from the chaff, though the price will usually tell you that a little more work has gone into the design and manufacture of some receivers. When it comes to sound look for the Panda logo on the front panel, which should ensure a minimum level of competence when it comes to noise reduction.

 

PACE MSS300 £270

Pace have been at the forefront of satellite receiver design in the UK, virtually since day one, and it shows. The MSS300 replaced the highly successful PRD900 late last year. It’s a refined, smart-looking mid-range receiver with a 250 channel memory, that’s more than enough to keep up with any foreseeable developments. There’s three SCARTs on the back panel, along with line-audio out and two dish inputs, should you wish to upgrade to multi-satellite operation. On the audio front it has Panda noise reduction, plus a sophisticated tone control or ‘sound shape’ facility, that comes in handy to sort out the sound on some foreign channels. It’s incredibly easy to use, and it keeps you informed with helpful on-screen and front panel displays. Picture quality is excellent, and it stays that way, thanks to a super sensitive receiver that won’t quit when signal conditions deteriorate.

 

4. HOME CINEMA ALL-ROUNDER II

NOKIA SAT 1700 Mk II £300

Nokia are another one of those companies that has been around forever, they’re not quite as prolific as Pace, and the SAT 1700 Mk 2 owes more to a process of gradual evolution, indeed, it doesn’t look significantly different from the SAT 1700 Mk 1 which it replaced over eighteen months ago. Clearly Nokia have got the design right, and although it’s due to be phased out soon and replaced by the SAT-1800, it will be around for a while to come. Features include top-notch AV quality; needless to say it has Panda noise reduction and the stereo audio is particularly sharp. It has 320 channels, covering over 40 satellites, and that includes Astra 1D. It can be easily upgraded to multi-satellite operation with an optional positioner, or second dish, via twin LNB sockets and it has a really comprehensive on-screen display system. A classic design, if there was one.

 

ALTERNATIVES

Echostar SR800             £270

Grundig GRD-250                    £230

Pace MSS500                         £300

 

5. SURROUND-SOUND SYSTEM

After movies on tape, satellite TV is the second most abundant source of surround sound material, which explains why two leading manufacturers -- Amstrad and Pace -- have given their top-end receivers built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoders. Both receivers have on-board amplifiers, to drive the right and left stereo channels, and rear effects channel speakers, (they’re available as an optional extra) ,so they can be used instead of a AV amp, as the core component in a surround sound system. That, in a nutshell, is their greatest strength and weakness. This kind of ‘one-box’ solution is convenient and a relatively inexpensive route into home cinema, but this approach lacks flexibility, moreover because of space limitations and economic constraints, the audio sections in these receivers do not have the same capabilities and power as most stand-alone AV amplifiers. Nevertheless, they’re a very welcome development and ideal for those on a tight budget or with more modest requirements.

 

PACE MSS1000 £400

Last year the Pace MSS-1000 became the very first satellite receiver to feature a built-in DPL decoder. Even though it costs £400 it has gone on to become a best seller; the more recently launched Amstrad SRD2000, which also sells for £400, is catching up fast. The main features on the MSS1000 include twin smart-card slots, two dish inputs, a ‘categorised’  250-channel tuner, Wegner Panda 1 stereo noise reduction,  5-mode digital sound processor for livening up non Dolby material and a positioner interface for a motorised dish. The Pro-Logic decoder has four channels of amplification, for the front and rear speakers, there’s a line-level output for the centre-front channel, for connection to an external amplifier or TV (the Amstrad receiver has an amplified centre-channel output). Power output is adequate, though it might have trouble filling larger rooms. Picture quality is very good, even on noisy channels, but it’s the audio system that steals the show, producing a large, dynamic soundstage that adds considerably to the pleasure of watching movies and TV programmes.

 

ALTERNATIVES

Amstrad  SRD2000                    £400

 

6. MOTORISED DISH SYSTEM

We’re perilously close to anorak territory here. You need to have fairly specialist interests and be determined to want to wiggle your dish around, away from the Astra/Hot Bird cluster of satellites. To be fair ex-patriots from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia need a large steerable dish and exotic receiver to locate TV channels from the old country, but it’s not for the feint hearted. Multi-satellite systems are expensive -- prices start at around £500 -- and you need a suitable location for the dish, so that it can scan along the satellite belt. The dish itself will have to be fairly large as well, at least a metre, preferably one and half metres across, to pull in weak signals. Multi-satellite systems have are a lot easier to use nowadays, but it still helps to be a bit ‘teccy’, and have deep pockets, to pay for the extra decoders and widgets you’ll need, if you get hooked. 

 

PACE MSS500 IP  £400 (with fixed 60cm dish; steerable dish and mount extra)

The ‘IP’ in the model number refers to the MSS500’s internal positioner, a sub-system that controls the movement of a motorised dish. The positioner and its control circuitry can be programmed to store the locations of up to 64 satellites, along with their names, and channel allocations which are shown by the receiver’s on-screen display. The positioner is an advanced design that can compensate for any drift in the satellite’s orbit. Channel and satellite information are stored together, just punch in the channel number and the receiver automatically swings the dish onto the appropriate satellite, so it’s no more difficult to use than a regular fixed dish system. The receiver specifications and AV performance are essentially the same as the MSS500, which means it works very well indeed and has a 250-channel memory, twin smart-card slots, 4 SCART sockets, tone controls, VCR timer and Wegner Panda 1 stereo sound. This is multi-satellite for those without a degree in astrophysics.

 

ALTERNATIVES

Connexions CX200             £550

Echostar SR-8700                £1300

Strong SRT-1500                £600

 

BOX COPY 1

FIVE TOP TIPS

 

* Buy the best system you can afford, if you take picture and sound quality seriously

 

* Beware of unfamiliar sounding names, or end of line deals,  there’s a lot of iffy products floating around the trade

 

* Ignore any receiver that is not fully Astra 1D compatible

 

* Look for plenty of SCART AV sockets on the back panel, two is the least you can get away with these days

 

* Don’t believe everything you hear about ‘future-proof’ technology, there ’aint no such thing in the satellite TV business...

 

BOX COPY 2

FIVE THINGS HOME CINEMA USERS SHOULD KNOW

 

* A satellite receiver is only as good as the dish and LNB it’s used with, don’t be fobbed off with second rate components, be choosy and ask questions.

 

* By the same token a badly installed dish will result in poor quality pictures and sound. Make sure your dish is fitted by a reputable company, preferably one who is a member of the Confederation of Aerial Industries (CAI).

 

* Make full use of the receiver’s AV socketry for connecting it to your TV, video recorder and hi-fi system, you shouldn’t need to use the receivers aerial bypass at all.

 

* Satellite sound can be quite hissy, make sure any receiver you buy has Wegner Panda 1 stereo, or one of the better proprietary noise reduction systems.

 

* Some features do justify a few bob extra on the price ticket, like twin smart-card slots, dual LNB inputs, and upgradability to multi-satellite operation

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1995 1407

 

 

 

 

 

 

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