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MID-RANGE SATELLITE RECEIVERS

 

INTRO

Forget those cheapo deals, hereís four mid-range satellite systems for your home cinema, that might even save you some money

 

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Work this one out. According to industry sources thereís been a shortage of satellite receivers over the past few months. It was caused by an increase in demand, but it happened at a time when manufacturers were reducing their output, or pulling out of the market altogether... The satellite TV market has always defied logic. In spite of a hike in BSKYB subscription charges and more crappy movies than you can shake a stick at, satellite TV goes from strength to strength. Perhaps itís the lure of new channels, or all those £100 systems? Sports coverage is still good  or maybe itís terrestrial TV has just got so bad.

 

But why are manufacturers cutting back production? Thatís almost entirely down to those cheapo deals. Profit margins on satellite equipment were tight to begin with, which makes life very difficult for companies trying to sell mid-range and top-end equipment in a market where entry-level systems are being so effectively subsidised.

 

The trouble is budget systems look very tempting, but how many people stop to read the small print? The actual cost of a Ď£99.99í satellite system is closer to £350, when you take into account the compulsory yearís subscription to BSKYBís movie channels, plus the mandatory installation fee. Moreover the receivers are either very basic, or theyíre older models that have reached their sell-by date. The oneís weíve seen work well enough, but at best AV performance is borderline for home cinema, or they have insufficient AV sockets to do the job properly.

 

So what should you be looking out for, if youíre in the market for a satellite system? Performance is clearly the number one priority, but unless the receiver has a full set of AV connectors some compromises will have to be made. That means at least three SCART sockets, plus stereo audio line outputs, so the receiver can be fully integrated with the TV, audio system and VCR.

 

Wegner-Panda 1 noise reduction used to be an essential feature on stereo receivers but now there are some very acceptable proprietary systems around, though given a choice weíd probably still plump for it. Itís important that the tuner has enough channels to cope with present and future demands, 100 simply isnít enough, 200 will just about do, 300 will see you through for a couple of years. That might sound like a lot but in addition to the 64 TV and 100 or so radio channels broadcast from the four Astra satellites -- with more to come -- thereís all those other satellites to think about.

 

If youíre interested in a multi-satellite reception then look out for receivers that have inputs for two LNBs. One is used for the Astra satellites, the second input connects to an offset LNB on the main dish -- for the satellites either side of Astra -- or it can be used for a second dish. You might also like to consider receivers that have provision for compatible positioner and a motorised dish.

 

The big question is how much is all this going to cost? Itís not as bad as you think, prices for home cinema-capable receivers start from around £150, and because theyíre not tied into subscription or installation agreements, can actually work out cheaper than the promo deals.

 

Weíve been looking at four new mid-market receivers. The highly unusual Pace MSS 100 is the cheapest at just under £180. BTís new SVS 300 is well specified and at only £200 it looks like a good deal. Grundigís GRD-300 is their latest top-end receiver and it sells for around £250. Lastly the £300 Nokia SAT 1800 IRD, a sophisticated top-end Astra receiver with multi-satellite leanings. Hereís how they got on.

 

REVIEWS

British Telecom SVS 300 £200 (inc. 60cm dish)

 

BT used to source their satellite systems from Cambridge Industries but since theyíve stopped making receivers BT have had to look further afield. The SVS 300 is made in the Far East -- China to be precise -- but the design has clearly been tailored for the European market, in fact it bears a number of similarities to both its predecessor, and the latest Grundig models with a centrally mounted numerical display and covered card slot.

 

It meets our basic criteria for home cinema use, thereís three SCART sockets on the back, along with stereo line audio outputs plus separate composite and base-band video outputs. The tuner has a 199 channel memory (near as dammit 200...), the first 99 slots are factory-tuned to Astra, and thereís a 40 favourite channel memory. The multi-lingual on-screen display is not menu-controlled as such, pages appear as particular function buttons are pressed. Nevertheless it gives access to an unusually wide range of tuning and video parameters, including a frequency scan facility, video invert, high and low brightness levels, plus audio channel selection (15 presets) and channel naming. It doesnít have a parental lock, though individual channels can be disabled; smart kids can be denied access by hiding the remote control. The VCR timer has an 8-event, 30 day capacity

 

The remote control is real oddity, itís on the large side, with extra tall buttons, a big pimple on the bottom and the infra-red transmitter LED pokes out a long way from the casing. The OSD system can be a bit awkward at times and itís quite easy to get lost and change things, without meaning to.

 

Receiver sensitivity is average to good; some sparklies remain on UK Gold, but generally the picture is clean with crisp, well-defined colours. Audio performance is pretty good for a non-Panda design, with low levels of background hiss. Speech on one or European two channels produced a odd sort of nasal Ďzissingí sound, despite a fair amount of fiddling we never found out why. Not substantially different from the old Cambridge design, it works well, and itís reasonably good value.

 

VERDICT British Telecom SVS 300: £200 (inc. 60cm dish)

 

Summary               In spite of the change of manufacturer itís business as usual. A competent, well-specified receiver. AV performance is fine, good enough for home cinema, and once youíve got used to the remote, fairly easy to use as well

Features            199 channels, 40 favourite channel memory, 8-event/28-day VCR timer, channel scan, channel lock, LNB tone switching, video invert

Sockets            3 x SCARTs, 1 x LNB input(F-connector), stereo line audio out, composite video out, baseband video out (phonos), RF in/out (coax)

 

HC RATINGS
Picture quality            ***

Sound quality            ***

Ease of use                 ****

Build quality               ****

 

Value for money 83%

Telephone BT 0171-492 2000

 

 

Grundig GRD300, £250 (inc. 60cm dish)

Grundigís take-over of the Gooding Satellite factory in Wales earlier this year has given them a useful  foothold in the UK, and one theyíve been quick to exploit with a range of receivers designed expressly for the British market. The GRD300 is one of three receivers launched this year, it joins the entry-level Minerva -- one of those sub-£100 systems -- and the GRD280 step-up model.

 

Styling is smooth though uninspired, along the lines of their previous GRD 150 and 250 receivers, though this one has a large centrally-mounted fluorescent display. On the left side thereís a hinged flap that covers the single card slot and a row of four buttons (power on/standby, channel up/down and pay-to-view authorise). On the back thereís three SCARTs, two LNB inputs and a pair of stereo line-output phono sockets.

 

The key features are a  300-channel tuner and the informative front panel display, which shows channel name and receiver status. This augments a simple menu-driven on-screen display that covers volume level setting, VCR timer (8-events/30-days), PIN-coded parental lock which restricts access to channels and menus, channel tuning adjustments and installation.

 

The tuner has 30 favourite TV channel and 10 radio channel memories. Everything is controlled from a particularly nasty remote handset, which is a real step backwards. The oneís supplied with previous models were very distinctive, well laid out and easy to use. The main problem with this one is the purple on grey labelling and tiny close-set buttons, that are almost impossible to distinguish in dim room lighting.

 

Grundig make a point of mentioning the receiverís 6dB threshold on the box, which suggests better than average sensitivity though our sample was nothing special. In fact reception on our reference dish of normally weak channels, like UK Gold, showed a greater than normal number of sparklies. Audio quality is very good, though, and their noise reduction system works very well indeed, comparable with Panda-equipped receivers. The new display and increased channel capacity is an improvement but for our money we prefer the old 150 and 250, which were always going to be a tough act to follow.

 

VERDICT Grundig GRD300: £250 (inc. 60cm dish)

 

Summary               An unexpectedly mediocre follow up to the award-winning GRD-250, let down by a horrible remote control handset and average performance. Good sound, though, so still worth considering

Features            300-channel tuner, 30 favourite channel memory, 8-event/30-day VCR timer, 10 favourite radio channels, auto screen blanking, index channel location, LNB tone switching

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

 

HC RATINGS
Picture quality            ***

Sound quality            ****

Ease of use                 ***

Build quality               ***

 

Value for money 80%

Telephone Grundig (01443) 220220

 

Nokia SAT 1800 IRD £300 (inc. 60cm dish)

The SAT 1800 IRD is the follow-up to the popular but now rather ancient SAT 1700 Mk2. Nokia have pulled out all the stops and given it some unique features, including a Video Plus+ timer with remote VCR control. Designed and built in Sweden, it continues the theme established by the SAT 800 with a smoothly sweeping split fascia. The lower portion opens to reveal twin card slots, though only the lower one is operational. Thereís also a numerical display and a set of three buttons, one of which is for on/standby. Thatís slightly irritating as it means dropping the flap to switch it on if you canít be bothered to hunt for the remote.

 

Loadsa sockets on the back, including three SCARTs, twin LNB inputs, stereo line audio out, plus extra LNB control and driver connections and external remote control interfaces. The tuner has a 500 channel memory, 18 favourite channels and three programme lists. Theyíre alternative favourite channel memories, categorised by subject and factory programmed for movie, news and sports channels, though the selection and category name can be easily changed.   

 

The 8-event/31-day VCR timer can be set using Video Plus+ codes, like most recent VCRs, but hereís the clever bit, the SAT 1800 will also switch on the VCR, set it to the correct channel and start recording for the duration of the programme. Itís similar to the satellite control feature on some VCRs, but in reverse. The receiverís IR command library covers most major makes and brands of VCR, the receiver is simply programmed using a 2-digit code. It works well, though we found the IR link temperamental and suggest Nokia include the optional IR transmitter wand as standard. The timer has PDC, which self-corrects for late programme changes. Everything is controlled by a clear and easy to follow menu-operated on-screen display, the remote handset is good too, with large, well-spaced and unambiguously labelled buttons.

 

AV performance is outstanding, there were only a handful of sparklies on UK Gold, all other channels looked sharp, with clear, bright colour and negligible noise. Itís multi-satellite capable, with provision for connection to a compatible positioner and motorised dish. Sound quality is excellent, no background noise to speak of, thanks to pukka Panda noise reduction. The best just got better.

 

VERDICT Nokia SAT 1800 IRD: £300 (inc. 60cm dish)

 

Summary     A superb receiver, first rate performance and the best VCR timer to date. Well worth the extra, and destined to become a classic!

 

Features            500 channel tuner with 18 favourite channel memory and 3 x 9-channel category lists, 8-event/31-day Video Plus+ VCR timer with PDC, PIN coded parental lock, 32 audio modes (20 preset, 12 user programmable), LNB tone switching

Sockets            3 x SCART AV sockets, 2 x LNB inputs (F-connector), stereo line audio out, LNB switching and VCR control (phono),  magnetic polarisers and IR link (spring terminals), RF in/out (coax)

 

HC RATINGS
Picture quality            *****

Sound quality            *****

Ease of use                 ****

Build quality               ****

 

 

Value for money 90%

Telephone Nokia (01793) 644223

 

Pace MSS 100 £180 (inc. 60cm dish)

No, Pace havenít started making CD players or video games consoles, though we suspect they wonít be averse to such comparisons. The MSS100 is a most welcome development, and arguably the most radical departure to date from the seemingly endless succession of black-box receivers. The layout is very unusual, with the three control buttons on the top, and the smart card slot on the side. Thatís fine if you donít go in for a lot of card-swapping, otherwise itís a nuisance as it means moving the receiver every time to get at it.

 

Paceís radicalism only extends as far as the cosmetics though, theyíve given it a fairly routine set of features. The back-panel socketry comprises a set of three SCARTs, line audio output phonos and a single LNB input. It has a 250-channel memory, with an additional eight favourite programme lists. These are organised by category (films, sport, news, light entertainment, radio, children, general and custom). Selections can be changed but itís quite a laborious process if you want to do a lot of shifting around. The VCR timer has 8-events over a 30 day period, and the parental lock is enabled by a 4-digit PIN code. There are no displays, just a couple of red and green LED status indicators. Menu displays are clear and concise, covering all key tuning operations, with a couple of useful extras, like frequency scan plus channel number and volume level setting at switch-on.  

 

The remote handset is an old friend. Thatís good and bad. Itís a fairly straightforward design, the buttons are small, and closely spaced, but theyíre clearly labelled. The fact that this handset is used for other models in the range is slightly irritating as there are at least four buttons (one enticingly labelled with a Dolby logo), that have no function at all. 

 

Sensitivity is about average, there were some sparklies on UK Gold, when connected to our test dish, but not enough to be concerned about. It doesnít have Panda noise reduction, Paceís own system knocks the hiss on the head well enough but we suspect it may be responsible for the slightly muted treble response. A new shape but familiar performance and facilities.

 

 

VERDICT Pace MSS 100: £180

 

Summary               Pace are daring to be different, hopefully it will inspire others. Weíre also pleased to say the radical new shape doesnít add to the cost, or affect performance.

 

Features            250-channel tuner, 8 favourite programme lists, 8-event/28-day timer, sleep timer, PIN-operated parental lock, channel scan, LNB tone switch

Sockets            3 x SCART AV, 1 x LNB input (F-connector), stereo line audio out (phono), RF in/out (coax)

 

HC RATINGS
Picture quality            ****

Sound quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****

Build quality               ****

 

Value for money 85%

Telephone Pace (01274) 532000

 

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” R. Maybury 1995 1110

 

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