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GROUP TEST

 

NICAM MEGA TEST

 

INTRO

Thereís never been a better time to buy a NICAM video recorder. Prices are down, and features and performance are improving all the time. Weíve brought together twenty machines, costing between £300 and £530, in the UKs most comprehensive stereo VCR mega-test. If youíre in the market for a NICAM VCR, this is the place to start looking...

 

COPY

Buying a video recorder used to be really easy. Once youíd decided how much you wanted to spend there was maybe half a dozen machines to choose from in any given price bracket, and from that it was normally a simple matter to whittle the shortlist down to just one or two models. Unfortunately the once clear distinctions have become blurred. Stereo VCRs sell for less than mono machines, Super VHS decks have crept into the top end of the NICAM sector, and home cinema models jostle for shelf space with camcorder-friendly edit decks. Where do you begin?

 

The main consideration for a home cinema machine is AV quality. However, after more than twenty-five years of continuous development the VHS format is nudging  the limits of its performance envelope. Considering the wide price differentials thereís comparatively little difference in picture quality between many budget, mid-range and top-end machines. Many of the most important variations are now so small theyíre only visible on specialised static test patterns, indeed the TV and audio system to which a VCR is connected is likely to have as much, if not more influence on the picture and sound.

 

That brings price and features firmly back into the equation and in such a competitive market you would think VCR manufacturers would be busting a gut to make their products stand out. Thatís not the case, and genuine innovation is rare nowadays. Any new feature that isnít an immediate success quickly disappears. If that sounds depressing it isnít meant to be, it just means small and sometimes subtle differences take on a much greater importance, moreover it makes it easier to weed out no-hopers, who fail to make the grade because theyíre missing a vital feature or two.

 

The trick to buying a video recorder is to identify your needs; draw up a list of features you consider useful and then match that with whatís available. Obviously if youíre interested in home cinema the starting point must be a stereo machine with NICAM, after that you can rank features like time-shifting, multi-speed replay, ease of installation and whether or not youíre likely to need any camcorder-oriented facilities. Finally set a budget, though just for a change the dearest machines are not necessarily the best. To help you make an informed choice weíve gathered together twenty NICAM machines, good, bad and indifferent, that represent a broad cross-section of the current market.

 

BOX COPY 1

THE BEST TAPES TO BUY

The type of the tape you use in your VCR has a direct bearing on picture quality, no matter what Which? magazine says. Crappy tape gives crappy pictures and sound, so avoid any cheapo brands you havenít heard of. Some of it is so bad it can lead to accelerated head wear and clogging. Standard tape from the major manufacturers is mostly pretty good, but on some machines higher grade formulations give a clearer, sharper image with less noise, fewer dropouts and cleaner hi-fi sound. Donít be afraid to experiment. High grade formulations usually better on LP recordings where picture quality needs all the help it can get.

 

BASF VISION HI-FI

You might have to hunt around for BASF HG tapes but this one is worth seeking out, a good all-rounder and the sliding anti-erasure tab is a clever design feature

 

FUJI SHG

A high-performance double-coated formulation thatís been around for a while. Itís very consistent with low dropout and noise, especially good for demanding applications on stereo machines and editing video movies.

 

JVC EHG

If JVC canít make a good tape who can? Another very reliable high grade product thatís fine for all types of VCR recording, from recording off-air stereo material to copying home movies.

 

JVC XG (S-VHS)

If youíve got a Super VHS video recorder this is the one to use, quite simply the best tape on the market. It works well in ordinary VHS machines as well, though it can be a touch pricey

 

MAXELL GX/HGX BLACK

The lower noise on the slightly cheaper GX is normally a good bet for LP recordings, pay the extra for HGX if youíre looking for a top-class editing tape

 

PANASONIC HG

This has been around for ever, Panasonic obviously take the view that if it aint broke, donít fix it. A high quality all-rounder, for all types of VCR and recording jobs

 

SCOTCH EG+

Get it while you can. 3M, Scotchís parent company are pulling out of the consumer blank tape market. This is been a perennial favourite with movie makers and owners of LP machines

 

SONY UHG

Sony VHS tapes are good performers but UHGís lower than average noise and dropout levels add a little extra sparkle. Well worth considering for copying and editing as well

 

TDK EHG

TDK VHS tapes continue to show noticeable improvement and EHG is the best of the bunch with consistently low noise levels, always a good choice for stereo machines

 

TDK XP PRO (S-VHS)

Definitely the one to go for if youíve a Super VHS machine and high-band camcorder. Exceptionally low noise and dropout make it ideal for copying and editing

 

BOX COPY 2

FEATURES TO LOOK OUT FOR

Do you want a straightforward VCR or lots of toys to play with? You can have both if you wish, but with very few exceptions the trade-offs on a gadget-laden machine are performance or price or both. Itís not as bad as it used to be though, and many of the really daft widgets have disappeared. Most current convenience features are usually worth having; multi-speed replay definitely is, and it a good sign that the deck mechanism is up to scratch. Some sort of simple to use speed/direction control on the handset, like a jog/shuttle dial is a good idea. If youíre serious about audio performance then a manual recording level control definitely earns its keep.

 

Tape-tuning systems, that optimise recording and playback according to the type of tape being used, can be helpful. On-screen displays are almost essential, a couple of machines get away without one -- they make up for it in other ways --  but in general VCR front-panels displays are difficult to read across a living room, and thatís a pain when programming the timer, or trying to work out what the machine is up to. Timer programming used to be an issue, and some really cranky systems have come and gone, but these days you would be hard-pressed to find a VCR without Video Plus+ and programme delivery control (PDC). If you do a lot of satellite time-shifting consider a VCR with satellite control. Multi-brand remotes get our vote too, but be warned, the handsets on some machines will only control TVs of the same make. Auto-installation and clock setting saves a lot of messing around and NTSC replay has a lot going for it, particularly if you have access to US tapes; Quasi S-VHS is less important, unless you have a S-VHS-C camcorder.

 

BOX COPY 3

SOCKETS-U-LIKE

You will almost certainly regret buying a VCR with only one SCART AV socket. It will make it difficult to incorporate a satellite receiver into your system, without compromising picture and sound performance. Stereo line output sockets simplify connections to surround-sound decoders and AV amplifiers; look out for a headphone socket if youíve got sensitive neighbours. Even if you donít own a camcorder now, you might one day. VCRs with front-mounted AV sockets score extra points for camcorder convenience. Just in case you do get hooked on home movie-making, add a microphone socket and possibly even an edit terminal to the list.

 

THE TESTS

Aiwa  HV-FX1500, £350

Definitely one of the surprises of 1995, this very agreeable little machine costs no more than some mono VCRs, yet it performs as well as some NICAM models costing £100 more. Itís understandably light on features but it does have the necessary twin SCART sockets and a set of AV inputs on the front. Auto set-up simplifies installation, the Video Plus timer has PDC backup and thereís an on-screen display for routine operations. AV performance is average to good, itís a capable home cinema machine thatís well worth considering, even if youíre not on a tight budget. 

Value for money 95%

Aiwa UK Ltd, telephone 0181-897 7000

 

Akai VS-G735 £380

The VS-G75 looks quite promising. The price seems fair and it has an impressive array of features that includes comprehensive on-screen displays, Video Plus+ with PDC, a wide range of trick-play functions and S-IHQ tape tuning. Akai were one of the first with tape tuning and I-HQ is especially good at maximising picture quality on LP speed recordings on high grade tape. Thereís plenty of widgets, and AV performance is generally quite good, but thereís a problem. It has only one SCART socket, and that rules it out as a home cinema machine for all but the most basic systems. 

Value for money 65%

           

Akai VS-815            £480

NICAM VCRs donít have top be boring black boxes. True, the VS-815 is black, but itís not boring, itís almost worth buying for the motorised front panel/cassette hatch alone! In addition to staples like Video Plus+, PDC and on-screen displays (incidentally Akai pioneered OSDs on VCRs 15 years ago...) it has S-IHQ tape tuning, multi-speed replay, manual recording level  controls and more sockets than you can shake a stick at (twin SCARTs, front AV, microphone, headphone, line audio in/out). Very respectable on-screen performance using HG tape, particularly on LP recordings. Good sound too. Pricey but worth considering.

Value for money 79%

Akai UK, telephone 0181-897 6388

 

Ferguson FV98 £500

Ferguson are one of the few VCR manufacturers that dare to be different these days. And the FV98 is different, from the weird remote control handset with a rotary control in the middle, to wacky on-screen display with bouncing balls... Itís another Philippe Starcke inspired design, minimalist cosmetics but well equipped, with NTSC replay, auto installation, multi-brand remote, a useful line up of editing features plus a full set of AV sockets. Good points include picture and sound quality; watch out for the on-screen display system, it only works on a SCART hook-up to a TV with RGB input.

Value for money 80%

Ferguson Ltd, telephone: 0181-344 4444

 

Goldstar RC-705i     £300

It certainly looks the business, but behind the front panel flap there lurks a fairly old deck, dressed up to look like a modern mid-mount VCR. Home cinema suitability is compromised by a single SCART socket. Tuning and clock set are both manual and picture performance is very average. Thereís a few features to interest video movie-makers, like front AV sockets, syncro start and a very unusual title generator that adds simple graphics to recordings copied or edited from a camcorder. Itís also one of the few NICAM machines these days to have a manual recording level control.

Value for money 68%

LG Electronics, telephone (01753) 500400

 

Grundig GV540 £400

Launched earlier this year, this is Grundigís latest budget NICAM machine. It has a fairly routine mixture of convenience features, a few of them, like the Megalogic control system, are designed to work with Grundig TVs, but thereís plenty else besides, including NTSC and Quasi S-VHS replay, manual recording level control and a sprinkling of camcorder-oriented features. Not an easy machine to get to know, the instructions, remote handset and on-screen display are all quite heavy going. Picture and sound are fine, but trick play is a bit unsteady. Generally okay but we reckon it will appeal more to Grundig fans.

Value for money 80%

Grundig International, telephone (01788) 577155

 

Hitachi VTF460 £450

If your collection of tapes is getting out of hand then the VT-F460 with its Title Index feature can help you regain control. It keeps track of every recording made on the machine, and can locate programmes by key-letter search, title and date all you have to do is number the tapes. Itís also a well equipped time-shifter, with full multi-brand satellite control, Video Plus+ and PDC. Thereís a good selection of convenience features with multi-brand remote, auto program play, multi-speed replay with jog/shuttle controls, front AV sockets and  syncro start. A clean, sharp picture and crisp sound. Well worth considering.

Value for money 85%

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

JVC HR-J825 £530

The J825 marks a return to form for JVC. Itís a smart-looking top-end stereo machine, well specified but without going over the top, and with a mix of features that covers a broad range of applications. For home cinema fans thereís outstanding AV performance, a multi-brand remote and NTSC replay. VHS-C camcorder owners will appreciate the 8-scene edit controller, audio dub and insert edit, and granny will like auto installation, clock set and Video Plus+ with PDC. The lack of an on-screen display is offset to some degree by the LCD panel  on the remote handset. Pricey, but a real performer.

Value for money 83%

JVC UK Ltd., 0181-450 3282

 

Matsui VP-960 £300

So whatís the catch? Itís not obvious from the outside, the midi-sized, mid-mount design is bang up to date, and the feature list wouldnít look out of place on machines costing quite a bit more. In addition to NICAM and Video Plus+ with PDC it has auto-tuning, an on-screen display and audio dub. However, picture quality is not that great. Resolution is a little below average, itís quite noisy and colours look fuzzy. The sound system barely gets out of first gear with limited bass and thin treble. The deck mechanism grates and grinds and is dreadfully slow. Thereís no catch, you just get what you pay for.

Value for money 75%

Matsui (Dixons), telephone (01442) 353000

 

Mitsubishi HS-561 £480

Mitsubishi have been making solid, middle-of-the-road VCRs for as long as we can remember. Theyíre safe, predictable and usually good value. The HS-561 is no exception, itís a well-specified, easy to use, midi-sized home cinema machine with Video Plus+ linked satellite control, multi-brand remote and NTSC replay. Bonus facilities include a tape tuning system, colour co-ordinated control keys and on-screen displays, auto-installation, parental lock, audio dub, insert edit and  a super-fast deck mechanism. Picture and sound are both very good, pin-sharp colours and low noise levels all round. A very complete and very likeable machine that deserves to be high on any home cinema shortlist

Value for money 88%

Mitsubishi Electric UK Ltd., telephone (01707) 276100

 

Panasonic NV-HD600 £400

Panasonic used to be leading innovators, now they prefer to play it safe, with their mid-market VCRs at least. The HD600 is a conservative design, one of their first machines to feature a new-fangled Video Plus+ timer and on-screen displays. Itís also got auto-set-up, the requisite number of sockets for home cinema applications  and very solid multi-speed replay, but very few extra convenience features. No problem. AV performance is excellent and its CVC  (Crystal View Control) picture enhancer circuitry works overtime, sharpening up the image. Not the prettiest machine weíve seen lately but it does the job, and does it well!

Value for money 83%

 

Panasonic NV-HD650 £530

Panasonic have narrowed their sights with the HD650, specifically to home video movie-makers, judging by the selection of advanced editing features. They havenít ignored the basics, though, thereís a useful assortment of time-shifting and home cinema facilities, even a multi-brand remote, but specialised features, such as the front mounted AV sockets, editing terminals for 8mm and their own S/VHS-C

models, would be of little relevance to non movie-makers. Like its stablemate, the HD600, on-screen performance is excellent and the hi-fi soundtracks have lower than normal levels of background hiss. A superb machine but mainly of interest to suitably-equipped camcorder enthusiasts. 

Value for money 80%

Panasonic UK Ltd., telephone (01344) 862444

           

Philips VR-6557 £370

The 6557 is a new arrival; itís a remarkably conventional design -- for Philips at least --  but the price looks very fair. Theyíve given it a modest assortment of features. Over and above the basics, like auto-install, Video Plus+ and PDC thereís a set of front-mounted AV sockets, a front-panel shuttle dial, for controlling playback speed and direction, twin SCARTs and NTSC playback (though we couldnít get it to work on our sample).  Drawbacks include the lack of an on-screen display, and a remote handset from hell, with 60 tiny buttons. Mind you, manual timer programming is easy, using the handsetís LCD display. The picture is good as well, plenty of detail and sharp colours, stereo sound is clean.

Value for money 85%

Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone 0181-689 4444

 

Philips VR-757 £430

The 757 flies in the face of so many conventions, itís bound to raise a few eyebrows. The control system is idiosyncratic, it has a set of AV input sockets on the side, and the transport controls are on the top panel; this midi-sized machine is not well disposed to confined spaces. Thereís no on-screen display and the front panel display is difficult to read but itís not all bad news. Easy Link simplifies connection with a couple of recent Philips TVs, and thereís one or two handy camcorder features. A clean sharp picture with just a trace of hiss on the stereo soundtracks.

Value for money 75%

 

Samsung VI-375 £380

Just approaching its sell-by date, this machine is a Video Plus+ upgrade of an earlier VCR, that first appeared three years ago. Itís showing its age with a single SCART socket, manual set-up, the remote handset is rather bulky and the front panel controls are a bit strange. For the price itís not badly equipped though, and in addition to front AV sockets thereís a set of line-audio inputs and outputs on the back, audio dub and multi-speed replay. On screen performance isnít too bad either, resolution is only just below the mid-price norm, and the stereo soundtracks have a detailed, open sound.

Value for money 83%

Samsung UK Ltd., telephone 0181-391 0168

 

Sanyo VHR-795 £425

This VCRs main claim to fame is digital view scan (DVS), a feature that lets you hear whatís happening on the mono soundtrack whilst the picture is whizzing forwards, or backwards in picture search mode. Itís great for watching movies in double quick time, or skipping through the boring bits in sports events. The 795 also has full auto install, multi-speed replay, Video Plus+ and PDC but not a great deal else. The picture and stereo sound are both fairly average.  DVS is clearly the main selling point. Itís fun if you can make use of it, otherwise the 795 is nothing special.   

Value for money 80%

Sanyo UK Ltd., telephone (01923) 246363

 

Sharp VC-M60 £400

Sharp have managed to cram a remarkable number of secondary features into a small space. The midi-sized M60 boasts an advanced on-screen display and auto installation system with daily clock check. Thereís front AV sockets, multi-speed replay, multi-brand remote, instant replay and skip search (forward and reverse picture search for 20, 40, 60 or 80 seconds), repeat play, plus instant and delay start timers, in addition to the main Video Plus+ (with PDC) timer. It works well too, the picture is bright, lively and full of detail; sound is clean and uncoloured. A touch bland maybe but lots to play with and good value.

Value for money 85%

Sharp UK Ltd., telephone 0161-205 2333

 

Sony SLV-E700 £500

Sony VCRs are undoubtedly solidly built and generally speaking they perform well, but they tend to be quite expensive, compared with similarly-specified machines. The SLV-700 is a case in point, though what it lacks in gadgetry it makes up for with a sensible array of the most recent convenience features, like Video Plus+, PDC, auto installation, on-screen display, tape tuning and multi-speed replay with jog/shuttle dial. It doesnít have an NTSC replay facility, nor are there any front AV sockets, which might narrow itís appeal in some quarters, nevertheless, itís a classic design, that simple to use and provides great AV performance.

Value for money 78%

Sony UK Ltd., 0181-784 1144

 

Tatung TVR-734VN £350

Tatung used to have quite a high profile in the UK but now you may have to seek out their VCRs now as they donít seem to be very widely distributed. Thatís a shame because their latest NICAM machine is quite good value. The deckís a bit clanky and thereís only one SCART socket, but it has a full auto-install system easy to use Video Plus+  (with PDC) timer, on-screen displays, slomo replay, audio dubbing and auto repeat. Off-tape pictures have plenty of detail and comparatively little noise. Background hiss on the stereo soundtracks is kept in check, treble response tails off a little early but that neednít rule it out as a basic home cinema component.

Value for money 80%

Tatung UK Ltd., telephone (01952) 290111

 

Toshiba V855 £500

Toshiba have got the feature list on this machine about right. Itís easy to use with full auto set-up that includes daily clock check, integrated control functions, multi-brand remote and a smart on-screen display. Time shifting is a priority with Video Plus+, PDC and satellite control. Thereís plenty of useful extras too, like NTSC replay, front AV sockets, plenty of trick-play options, video insert and audio dub. No complaints about AV performance either, a clean sharp picture and crisp, evenly balance sound. It should be a winner, the only let down is the price, which is on the high side  

Value for money 80%

Toshiba UK Ltd., telephone (01276) 62222

 

CONCLUSION

THE BESTEST MACHINES FOR:

 

HOME CINEMA

Sheer weight of numbers tips the balance for the Mitsubishi HS-561, which has just about every feature youíre likely to want, or need in a home cinema VCR, combined with better than average AV performance. Only just though, Hitachiís F-460 and the little Aiwa FX155 are very close runners up.

 

CAMCORDER COMPATIBILITY

The Panasonic NV-HD650 wins hands-down for camcorder friendliness. To Panasonicís credit it doesnít only work with their own VHS-C machines, its built-in edit control facilities are compatible with other manufacturerís products, including leading 8mm machines. Outstanding AV copy quality ensures good-looking edits and transfers, not to mention sparkling home cinema performance.

 

TIME-SHIFTING

Video Plus+ and programme delivery control (PDC) have tamed the timer and all of the machines weíve looked at are easy to program, but the big easy to read graphics on the Mitsubishi 561 make it just that little bit easier. The Hitachi F460 gets an honourable mention.

 

SATELLITE TIME SHIFTING

The Hitachi F460 is the one to go for if you do a lot of satellite time-shifting, the control system is easy to set up and use and thereís the added advantage of the Title Index system, which will come in handy to keep track of all those tapes

 

FEATURES AND FACILITIES

It depends on what youíre going to use your VCR for, but for a capable Jack-of-all-trades, that combines a good range of features, with ease of use, and a good price, then you need look no further than the Mitsubishi 561.

 

STYLING

Love it or hate it, thereís no denying the Ferguson FV98 has got style. Itís not just the cosmetics either, the on-screen graphics are brilliant, a very welcome change from the usual boring menus, and the remote control handset has to be one of the most outrageous designs weíve seen in a long while.

 

---end---

” R. Maybury 1996 2301

 

 

 

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