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Most people return from their holidays with suitcases full of tacky knick-knacks but for the discerning home cinema enthusiast,  a spot of overseas travel can be a good opportunity to stock up on some AV essentials



For anyone even vaguely interested in home cinema, a visit to the States or the Far East can be incredibly frustrating. Video stores in other countries often appear to be stacked to the rafters with goodies -- a lot of it unobtainable in the UK -- at seemingly give-away prices. The problem is, much of what you see -- software and hardware -- may not work when you get it home. Even if you do take a gamble on a few carefully-chosen souvenirs, Her Majestyís Customs and Excise can clobber you for import duty, wiping out any savings.


Fortunately itís not quite as depressing as it sounds, and whilst we strongly advise against buying AV products abroad on a whim, if you do your homework it is possible beat the system, save some money and stay on the right side of the law.



Pre-recorded tapes have always been a popular buy with British holidaymakers to the States and Canada; recently-released movies are available on tape in the US, sometimes several months before their UK theatrical release, (though the lead time is now getting shorter). You may also come across titles that, for one reason or another, are never released here, including movies like Clockwork Orange and films the distributors have decided will not suit British audiences.


We suspect a lot of casual buyers donít realise thereís a compatibility problem until they get their tapes home. However, many recent PAL standard video recorders can now replay NTSC-coded cassettes on ordinary TVs, you might be one of the lucky ones, check your instruction book.


Customs officials usually turn a blind eye to travellers bringing in a couple of tapes for personal use, provided theyíre not obviously pornographic or offensive. If you have any doubts donít bother, itís not worth the hassle and anything even remotely iffy could get you into big trouble. Filling your suitcase with a couple of dozen copies of a recently-released movie is not advisable either, and itís no good telling them theyíre presents for your mates, theyíve heard that one before...


On the whole, the risks involved buying a couple of pre-recorded movies on holiday are fairly small. The financial outlay is relatively modest -- tapes are up to 50% cheaper in the US. Even if your VCR canít handle NTSC recordings, you probably know someone who will let you watch it on theirs.  By the way, you can safely buy blank VHS and camcorder video tapes anywhere, though the running times of NTSC cassettes will be a little longer than that stated on the sleeve, and avoid any brands you havenít heard of.


Most European countries also use the PAL system, so compatibility is not usually an issue. SECAM cassettes brought in France (and the former Soviet Union) will play on PAL machines as the information recorded on the tape is the same in both cases. Release dates for tapes distributed in Europe are normally similar to, or lag slightly behind the UK, due to local licensing agreements and technical delays in subtitling or dubbing. Bear that in mind if you donít speak the language; donít forget to check whatís on the soundtrack. Prices on the continent also tend to be a little higher, so unless you have fairly specific interests, pre-recorded tapes bought in the EC and other non English-speaking countries are not usually a very good buy.


The situation with Laserdiscs is broadly the same, though clearly this is a specialist market. Owners of laserdisc players tend to be movie enthusiasts, more in tune with the home cinema market, and less likely to buy something on spec. The main benefit of buying abroad -- for owners of PAL/NTSC Laserdisc players -- is the much wider choice of titles. Laserdisc hasnít been terribly successful in the UK or most other European countries  -- Germany is an exception -- player populations are fairly small so only a small percentage of the titles available to American audiences have ever been released in PAL format. Unfortunately for serious home theatre buffs  NTSC discs are the only way to get hold of movies with AC-3 coded, multi-channel soundtracks (thereís not enough room on PAL Laserdiscs). A few NTSC discs find their way into European stores, so itís always worth trawling through the racks, but prices are generally a lot higher than the States, and watch out for foreign language soundtracks.


If you think the situation is going to improve with the arrival of DVD, then think again. The system is quite capable of operating across all video formats and frontiers, indeed itís a lot easier with digitally-coded information -- one disc suits all --  but it seems highly probable the industry will adopt regional coding; an announcement is expected soon. If it happens this will prevent DVD discs sold in the US, for example, playing on UK decks, and vice-versa. It is possible one or two hardware manufacturers may chose to market dual-standard players, but the signs are not encouraging.


If youíre travelling to Eastern Europe, and in particular the former Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc countries, you may well come across a lot of well known movies on tape and CDs but our information is that a lot of it is counterfeit, or dud. Hong Kong and Indonesia have a similar reputation. Buyer beware!



You only have to stand by the baggage reclaim carousel in an airport to see the a busy cross-border traffic in personally imported audio and video equipment. However, you can be sure a lot of it will end up being junked, due to compatibility problems.


Ignoring for a moment problems with import duty, guarantees, spares and repairs one of the main difficulties concerns mains-powered products. Household mains supplies of 220 to 240 volts AC/50Hz are more or less common throughout Europe, but equipment intended for the US and many oriental markets (110 V AC/60Hz) will almost certainly fry if theyíre plugged into a UK wall socket. Step-up transformers are available but theyíre no use with frequency-sensitive equipment. Some devices -- hi-fis and computers for instance --  have mains input selectors, or variable voltage power supplies, and these may be okay, though always check to see if theyíre capable of working on 50Hz mains. In short, unless you know precisely what youíre doing itís not worth taking a chance with gear from American or the Far East, unless itís intended for export to Europe.


Thereís not usually a problem with audio equipment brought in the EC, much of Western Europe or Scandinavia, though double check prices as the UK consumer electronics market is fiercely competitive; genuine savings are few and far between.


Video products are another no-go area. NTSC televisions, VCRs and laserdisc players definitely wonít work here, unless theyíre specifically billed as multi-standard/voltage models. You can of course use an NTSC camcorder in the UK (the battery chargers work anywhere), but you wonít be able to replay tapes on a UK TV, unless itís a multi-standard set. PAL and SECAM TVs and VCRs brought in Europe wonít work properly here either as most continental TV broadcasters use different frequencies for the picture and sound signals, so they wonít be able to receive British TV channels. A few models have multi-standard tuners, but unless you know that for a fact, give it a miss.


Now for some good news. AV accessories and a lot of battery-powered products -- with the obvious exception of portable TVs -- often work fine, wherever they come from. Things like loudspeakers and headphones are a case in point, but make sure you know what youíre buying, and again, know your prices. Personal and portable stereos usually work anywhere but you must discard any mains adaptors and power cords, and only use batteries on anything with a built-in mains supply unless you know itís okay for Brit supply voltages. Gadgets like universal remote controls can cause problems as they may not be programmed with codes to operate TVs and VCRs sold in the UK; models with learning IR facilities should be okay though.


Donít bother with mobile phones, you wonít save any money -- theyíre giving them here away for goodness sake! Even if you find one at a silly price, thatís compatible with the UK networks (digital GSM or PCN models will work), you will have great difficulty getting an air-time contract with a UK service provider.


An alternative to lugging equipment back from holiday is to import it yourself by mail order, or better still, get someone to do it for you. High-end audio specialists are a good place to start. Itís worth trying appointed UK dealers for kit thatís not marketed here. This may give you some protection as far as after sales service and repair are concerned, though donít expect to save a lot of money, if at all. DIY personal imports are fraught with difficulties. Apart from the inherent risk of buying something sight unseen, without local warranties and service backup, youíll need to know your way around freight and courier services, and UK Customs paperwork.




Let us assume you manage to find a piece of equipment with all the right compatibility credentials, and have successfully navigated the minefield of UK import restrictions and Customs, will you be able to get it to work, and what happens if it goes wrong?


These days most AV products and accessories come with multi-lingual instruction books, but itís always worth checking before you buy as setting up some electronic devices involve complicated button-prodding procedures, that may be difficult to follow if you canít read Japanese.


In most cases UK representatives or distributors of the manufacturer concerned will not feel obliged to honour any guarantees, they generally take a fairly dim view of so-called Ďgreyí imports. However, that said weíve found most customer-care personelle to be quite helpful when it comes to product enquiries and support. Thatís not to say you wonít be able to get repairs or after-sales service but it may be difficult -- and expensive -- if it involves obtaining spares for products that are not sold in the UK.  Needless to say you will also find it hard to obtain insurance or breakdown cover on something not brought through the normal retail channels.




NTSC replay has become a fairly common feature on budget and mid-range VCRs over the past five years but until fairly recently only a handful of models have been able to play tapes with hi-fi stereo sound as well. Obviously this is an important consideration for home cinema users, so weíve been picking our way through the specifications of this years models, with some encouraging results. Weíve managed to identify no less than 26 NICAM machines with this important facility. Several of them wonít be available for few months, and one or two are on their way out (look out for discounts).  We havenít had an opportunity to try all of them yet, and in a few cases weíve had to take the manufacturers word that they have this feature, so be aware that specifications can and do change.



Akai VS-G745, £300. Middling AV performance but outstanding value for money

Akai VS-G855, £370. Available in July, another very well-feature budget model

Akai VS-G2400, £1000. Akaiís first Dolby Pro Logic VCR, a stonking specification, due here in the next few weeks


Grundig GV-469M, £700. Luxury top-ender, out soon

Grundig GV640, £380. Not available until September, a bit of an unknown quantity, but the price looks promising


Hitachi VTS-550, £400 Available August, few details as yet but the specs sound interesting


JVC HRA-630, £350. Competent budget machine, good AV performance

JVC HRJ-635, £400. Solid performer, fair price

JVC HRJ-825, £470. Popular, top-rated model from last year

JVC HRS-7000, £700. S-VHS machine, a fine all-rounder at an attractive price


Mitsubishi HS561, £450. Classic home cinema VCR, dripping with features

Mitsubishi HS651, £380. Due out in July, specs still a bit vague but the price is very encouraging


Panasonic NV-HD600, £430. A best buy from last year, still going strong

Panasonic NV-HD605, £400. Replaces the 605, improved cosmetics and features, good AV performance

Panasonic NV-HD610, £430. Just arrived, a 605 with a few extra bells and whistles

Panasonic NV-HD650, £530. Well appointed edit machine, good pictures and sound

Panasonic NV-HS800, £900. Recently discontinued but thereís still a few around            

Panasonic NV-HS900, £750. Replaces the HS900, better spec, cheaper, looks and sounds good

Panasonic NV-HS1000, £1000. Top performing S-VHS model, aimed at camcorder owners


Philips VR-757, £430. So-so performer, fairly average

Philips VR-6557, £370. Useful budget machine, fair performance, good features


Samsung SV-300W £1000. Novel Ďworld standardí VCR with transcoding facilities


Sharp  VCM-H60, £380. Adequate stereo model, not many features though


Sony SLV-E810, £530. Top-end NICAM VCR, great picture and sound but pricey


Toshiba V726B, £400. Able budget stereo model, few frills but good AV performance

Toshiba V856            , £500. Due out in July, specs still sketchy



” R. Maybury  1996 0706


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