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MID-RANGE NICAM VCRS

 

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INTRO

These days you can get a half-decent NICAM stereo VCR for less than £300, so is it worth paying any more, and if so what do you get? Rick Maybury checks out six of the latest machines, selling for between £300 and £500 and rounds up this year’s best buys.

 

COPY -- REVIEWS

 

AIWA HV-FX2500, £300

Aiwa have been largely responsible for driving down the cost of budget NICAM VCRs, ever since they launched the FX1500 almost 18 months ago. They’re keeping up the pressure with the new FX2500, priced at just £300. Obviously you can’t expect too many frills for that kind of money, nevertheless the FX2500 is surprisingly well featured, with Video Plus+ and PDC, plus auto set-up and twin-SCART sockets. A one-touch playback feature simplifies replay of timer recordings, and there’s an index search facility, to locate the start of each new recording.

 

It’s not bad looking, the cosmetics and mid-mount deck are in line with current trends, and the on-screen display system keeps the user well informed. Auto set-up is reasonably fast, though it hesitates a little with weak signals and in some fringe reception areas it might be necessary to manually weed out unwanted channels. The remote handset is the only weak design point; lots of tint buttons, that are difficult to distinguish in poor light. The only other outward sign this is a budget machine is a slightly sluggish deck mechanism.

 

Picture quality is impressive, a full 240-lines of resolution with no more than average amounts of picture noise. Colours are reasonably clean, there’s a small amount of spillage though, particularly on bright reds and yellows. Still frame stability is fair, though a faint ‘hum’ bar is visible moving up the screen. There’s some background hiss on the stereo soundtracks, and treble tails off quite early, but it’s not serious and wouldn’t rule it out as a home cinema component.

 

Aiwa have been setting the pace at this end of the market but now they’ve got some serious competition as the big boys move in on their territory. The FX2500

qualifies as one of the best value NICAM machines on the market but be aware that there is now quite a choice in the £300 to £350 price bracket.

 

AIWA HV-FX2500, £300

Features                     NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up, index search, 

Sockets                       2 x SCART AV,  line-audio in/out (phono), RF bypass

Dimensions                 380 x 293 x 99mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ***

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****

Aiwa UK, telephone 0181-897 7000

 

HITACHI VT-F550, £400

The Hitachi VCR range has been looking very strong lately, and facilities like satellite control have proved to be popular. The F550 is a replacement for the F450, adding a number of new features, including improved on-screen graphics, a new LCD display panel and a bundle of picture enhancements, collectively called Dynamic Picture Equalisation. Briefly, they include measures to reduce jitter, a comb filter to combat colour delay, automatic tape noise optimisation and high-performance ferrite heads, borrowed from their S-VHS models. There’s convenience features a-plenty, including a multi-brand TV remote, audio and video dubbing plus a full set of multi-speed replay modes.

 

The new on-screen display have been designed to be easy to use, with graphics depicting the various installation options, instead of the usual menu list. Set-up is very straightforward, and the OSD simplifies the job of configuring the VCR’s satellite control functions. The chunky remote handset is a bit of a handful, and the flap covering the secondary controls can be quite difficult to open. The handset incorporates a clock but it’s bound to disagree with the one on the machine a lot of the time as the VCR’s clock is controlled by teletext time signals. Video Plus+ facilities are built into the handset and this helpfully displays the programme data, that can be changed, if necessary, before it is sent to the machine. The LCD display may be a retrograde step, the single colour (backlit blue) makes it’s difficult to spot things like recording mode, and there’s no SP/LP speed indication.

 

Dynamic Picture Equalisation is geared towards LP recordings, and it does make a difference, especially on higher grade tapes. The picture has very little noise, colours are sharp and stability is good. On SP recordings resolution is spot on 250 lines, the picture is very crisp, again with low noise levels. Trick play recordings are very steady and the deck changes speed and direction with hardly any fuss. The stereo hi-fi soundtracks are clean, an even response with minimal background hiss and as a bonus it replays stereo hi-fi soundtracks on NTSC tapes.

 

Although it’s not a big change from the 450 the improvements are all worthwhile, underling this machine’s credentials as a well-equipped, sensibly priced time-shifter and AV source component.

 

HITACHI VT-F550, £400

Features                     NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up, satellite control, NTSC playback (with stereo hi-fi sound), multi-speed replay, multi-brand TV remote, audio and video dubbing, index search, intro scan, rental playback

Sockets                       2 x SCART AV,  front AV in and line-audio out (phono), RF bypass

Dimensions                 380 x 279 x 93mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              ****

Features                     *****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

PANASONIC NV-HD610, £430

No-one could ever accuse Panasonic of acting in haste. A couple of years after everyone else they’ve just got around to fitting things like auto set-up, on-screen displays and auto installation systems to their VCRs. It has been worth the wait, though, and they’ve clearly learnt from everyone else mistakes. The HD610 is their latest NICAM top-ender; headline features are satellite control and a multi-brand TV remote. For good measure it has audio dub and insert edit as well, but no front AV terminal. That’s a bit of a surprise, considering they’re a leading camcorder manufacturers. It has NTSC replay though, with stereo hi-fi sound, and picture noise is kept in check with a facility called Crystal View Control.

 

Panasonic haven’t got around to making midi-sized NICAM VCRs yet, but the smooth styling and well-ordered front panel makes it look a little smaller than it actually is. Auto set- up system kicks in as soon as the machine is switched on, so there’s little for the user to do, apart from setting the satellite and TV brand codes. This machine, like most other recent Panasonic VCRs, has a self diagnostic system, so if a fault develops it should make life easier for the service engineer.   

 

The CVC button seems to be mainly for the benefit of dealers, switching it off just increases noise levels. When it’s switched on they are unusually low, in fact it’s one of the cleanest pictures we’ve seen for some time; colours are bright and vibrant. Resolution is good too, a fraction over 250 lines on our test machine. Picture stability is excellent, it only has still and slomo trick-play options, but they’re both very steady indeed.  Stereo hi-fi sound on NTSC replay is very welcome, and it sounds good too. PAL hi-fi is even better, bass and treble response are good and background noise on the soundtracks is kept well under control.

 

A sparkling performer, excellent picture and sound plus a solid assortment of features. Well worth considering.

 

PANASONIC NV-HD610, £430

Features                     NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up, satellite control, multi-brand TV remote, audio dub, insert edit, index search, NTSC replay (with stereo hi-fi sound), crystal view control

Sockets                       2 x SCART AV,  line-audio out (phono), RF bypass

Dimensions                 430 x 315 x 99 mm

 

Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            *****

Build Quality              *****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              *****

Panasonic UK, telephone (01344) 862444

 

SAMSUNG SV140i, £330

Samsung have largely succeeded in shaking off the cheap‘n cheerful image they acquired during the early days. In terms of facilities and performance their VCRs now stand comparison with the major European and Japanese manufacturers, though they’ve still got a little ground to make up when it comes to styling. The SV-145i is a bit of a mish-mash, with odd-shaped buttons, strange bulges either side of the display panel, and a phoney jog dial set in the middle of the shuttle ring. Considering the price it’s reasonably well appointed; in addition to Video Plus+ and PDC there’s an auto-installation, audio-dub, index search and a very effective parental lock, that completely disables the machine.

 

Auto installation has to be manually initiated but once it’s running it takes care of tuning and clock-set functions, sorting channels into a logical order. A simple menu-driven on-screen display covers manual programming, various housekeeping functions and mode displays. The box mentions something called Jet Drive, the deck isn’t particularly fast, but it is quite noisy during fast wind. The handset is unusual, most of the buttons are hidden under a flap, they include -- somewhat inconveniently -- the Video Plus+ controls. On the top flap there’s a pair of buttons marked ‘fine’ these have a number of functions, including tracking, still frame de-jittering and oddest of all, channel fine-tuning. Why this should be needed is a mystery. Sooner or later they’re going to be prodded by accident, and users will be left wondering why the picture is so poor.

 

Picture quality is fair to middling, resolution is okay -- almost 240-lines on our sample -- but noise levels are nothing to write home about. Bright colours are quite busy and sharp edges can look a little whiskery. There’s a good selection of replay speeds, including variable slomo, and they’re all quite steady. The hi-fi soundtracks have fairly clean response but background noise levels are rather average.

 

The 145i is a decent enough machine but whereas a year or so ago Samsung had the budget end of the market to themselves, they’re up against the likes of Aiwa and Akai now, who are producing some cracking VCRs that actually cost less, and are better specified than this one.

 

SAMSUNG SV140i, £330

Features                     NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up, index search, parental lock, audio dub, multi-speed replay

Sockets                       2 x SCART AV,  front AV in and line-audio out (phono), RF bypass

Dimensions                 398 x 310 x 90mm

 

Picture Quality            ***

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ***

Samsung UK, telephone 0181-391 0168

 

SONY SLV-E710, £450

So far Sony have resisted the urge to compete at the budget end of the NICAM market, that makes the SLV-E710 their entry-level stereo VCR, though the price is closer to most other manufacturers mid-range models. Nevertheless, their VCRs have a good reputation for performance and reliability, and whilst this machine may not be exactly overburdened with features and gadgets, what it does have is worth having. 

 

Sony have concentrated on functionality and ease of use. They’ve only just got around to feature like auto set-up but their implementation has been well thought out and the installation routine is fast and efficient. It has a very good range of trick-play facilities, with a very solid still frame, frame advance, slomo and fast play. Optimum picture control (OPC) is a tape-tuning option that automatically selects the most appropriate recording and playback settings for the condition of the tape and heads. The remote handset can control the main functions on Sony TVs.

 

Using a high-grade tape with the OPC function switched in, resolution is within a whisker of 250-lines. Noise levels are a little below average, nothing special, but the picture looks clean and detailed. Colour accuracy is fine, though there’s a slight emphasis on reds. Colour noise levels are low, even in highly saturated areas. Trick-frame replay is very stable and the deck mechanism is quite nimble, able to change speed and direction with minimal picture disturbance.

 

Background noise on the stereo soundtracks is well suppressed and the NICAM decoder is crisp, again noise levels are low. The response is generally flat with a solid bass line.

 

It is a little pricey for what it is, we’ve come to expect features like NTSC replay, front AV sockets and the odd widget on £450 VCRs. On the other hand built quality is hard to fault, it is well behaved, and picture and sound quality are both good.

 

Sony SLV-E710, £450

Features                     NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up, multi-speed replay, instant timer, index search, tape tuning,

Sockets                       2 x SCART AV,  line-audio out (phono), RF bypass

Dimensions                 430 x 109 x 310mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ***

Sony UK,  telephone  0181-784 1144

 

TOSHIBA V856, £500

Five hundred pounds is a fair whack for a NICAM VCR these days, so the V856 has to be a bit special, right? Well, their latest flagship model is in the classic mould, and the feature list contains a lot of useful items, like satellite control, a multi-brand TV remote with their nifty all-in-one combined function keys. Audio-dub, insert-edit and the front AV sockets are handy video movie-making facilities. The jog/shuttle control on the front panel is useful for scooting around a tape and analysing playback, frame by frame if needed (shame there’s not a jog/shuttle on the handset too...).

 

There’s a couple of new features; it has a new digital picture noise reduction system, and it’s Channel 5 ready. Basically that means the auto-tuning system allocates Channel 5 to tuning position 5 and the RF output has been set high up on the UHF band, (channel 60).  Should a conflict arise (at the time of writing Channel 5 were still making up their minds about channel allocations...), the output can be adjusted, but only from the remote handset, (that should amuse Channel 5 retuners...). The noise reduction system is unusually sophisticated and works by comparing successive picture frames, to identify and eliminate noise interference during playback. Auto installation works well, it’s fast too, and setting the brand codes for the satellite control system takes only a few moments.

 

Picture quality on Toshiba VCRs has always been pretty good, not the best but we’ve usually found little to grumble about. The new noise reduction system does make a difference to the texture of the picture -- there’s a little switch to turn it on and off -- but after gazing long and hard at test patterns and iffy tapes we couldn’t say hand on heart it was markedly better than previous models. Resolution on our sample was just a gnats under 250-lines, picture noise levels are reasonably low, but not significantly lower than rival mid-range machines.  Audio performance is good, though, very little background hiss and a wide, flat response.

 

A fine machine, a tad expensive maybe, but there’s something for everyone here, from home cinema enthusiasts and dedicated time-shifters, to video movie-makers.

 

TOSHIBA V856, £500

Features                     NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up, satellite control, picture noise reduction, audio-dub, insert-edit, multi-brand TV remote, NTSC replay (with stereo hi-fi sound), ‘all-in-one’ controls   

Sockets                       2 x SCART AV,  AV input and line-audio out (phono), microphone (minijack), RF bypass

Dimensions                 430 x 318 x 92mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ***

Toshiba UK, telephone (01276) 62222

 

SUMMARY

 

The best budget VCR so far this year has to be the Akai VS-G745EK, though the Aiwa FX2500 is a very close runner-up. Picture and sound quality on the G745 are both very good but the killer feature is NTSC replay in stereo, quite remarkable on a VCR costing less than £300

 

There’s been no shortage of home top-performing cinema VCRs either, but if picture and sound quality are the deciding factors then the Panasonic HD610 is going to take some beating. There’s the added advantage of satellite control, a multi-brand remote, all for the very reasonable price of £430.

 

We thought the Title Index archiving feature on the Hitachi F460 was a great idea, but they’ve have decided to drop it, so get in quick. However, on balance its new stablemate the VT550 wins the day with its pin-sharp LP recording capability, front AV sockets, multi-brand remote and NTSC replay with stereo sound.

 

When it comes to ease of use Toshiba VCRs are hard to beat. Their auto installation systems are fast and efficient and their remote control handsets are among the least threatening -- no hidey-holes full of tiny buttons. They’re not especially cheap, but the recently launched V-726 is definitely worth considering.

 

The ultimate VCR? We’re still waiting but if you’re looking for that rare combination of performance, facilities and value for money the Mitsubishi HS-551 should be on your list. Top notch picture and sound, with satellite control, multi-speed replay, and NTSC replay with stereo sound, (though check this first, as some early models may not have this facility).

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1996 0307

 

 

 

 

 

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