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Hot off the production line, Rick Maybury puts four NICAM newcomers through their paces



If youíve been in a TV and video dealers showroom lately you might be forgiven for thinking thereís been some new EC Directive, that requires all new video recorders sold in the UK to look the same. Fortunately, what VCR stylists lack in imagination, manufacturers make up for with so-called Ďadded-valueí features. Each year thereís a few new widgets, others migrate down from top-end and mid-range machines to budget models.


One feature weíre particularly pleased to see on several of this yearís new models is hi-fi stereo replay on NTSC recordings. Video Plus+ has tamed the timer and itís now almost universal, but PDC (programme delivery control), which has been hovering around in the background, has taken on a new relevance. The BBC have finally joined Channel 4 and some ITV companies in broadcasting PDC data codes, that automatically correct timer settings for over-runs and late schedule changes. The text data decoding systems used on VCRs with PDC has helped improve auto set-up systems; theyíre getting even easier to use with channel identification and sorting plus, increasingly, daily and sometimes hourly clock-checking as well. Thereís a few more machines with satellite control this year, more VCRs now have front AV sockets, and prices continue to drift downwards.  Itís a good time to buy, hereís four new arrivals to think whet your appetite!



AKAI  VS G745EK, £299.99

To be honest weíve been a little wary of sub £350 NICAM VCRs but following the success of the Aiwa FX1500 early last year itís clear machines in this price bracket can be considered for home cinema applications. Akai convincingly re-enforce the point with the new VS-G745EK which is based on the F735, but with several important changes. The most significant one is the price, itís down from £380 to just £300, but rather than strip-out features theyíve upgraded what was already quite a well-specified machine. It now has twin SCART AV sockets, an improved auto set-up system that stores stations in a logical order, auto clock-set which checks the time twice a day and NTSC replay with stereo hi-fi sound on SP and EP speed recordings. 


Akai VCRs have always been good value but theyíve really gone to town with this one. It has their S-IHQ tape tuning system, which works best on LP recordings using higher grade tapes. Thereís a set of AV inputs sockets on the front panel, index search and intro scan, blank scan and skip, record-search (playback in record-pause mode) plus a most impressive set of multi-speed replay features (X7, X5, X3, still and X1/10th normal speed, in both directions).


The on-screen menu display system -- an Akai speciality -- is easy to use and thereís a next-mode facility, that allows transport commands to be sequenced;  for example, it can be programmed to play a tape, rewind when it has finished, eject the tape and switch itself off. Time-shifting using the PDC-backed Video Plus+ timer couldnít be easier, the time and date information is shown on the remote handsetís LCD display, so it can be checked, before being sent to the VCR. The first few times it has to be told which channel the programme is on but the information is stored and only has to be entered once. 


Resolution on our sample was just under 240-lines on SP recordings, this fell by half a dozen or so lines on LP material (with S-IHQ engaged) but there was only a barely perceptible increase in noise levels, which in any case are respectably low. Trick-play stability is very good at all speeds. There was a small amount of hiss on the otherwise crisp stereo hi-fi tracks -- on both PAL and NTSC recordings -- but itís not enough to be concerned about.



Akai are clearly determined to make an impression at the budget end of the NICAM VCR market with the GS745. Picture quality is fair to middling and it sounds reasonably good (especially with stereo NTSC tapes) but combine that with the £300 price tag and impressive list of features and it looks like the bargain of the year!


Features            NICAM, Video Plus+, PDC, auto set-up, Super I-HQ tape optimisation, NTSC replay (stereo), multi-speed replay, multi-lingual on-screen display, LCD remote, blank skip play, blank skip, edit search, auto power off, index search/intro scan

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, stereo line-audio out (phono), front AV in (phono)

Akai UK, telephone 0181-897 6388


Picture quality            ***

Sound quality            ***

Build quality               ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              *****


MITSUBISHI HS-551, £379.99

Mitsubishi are now well and truly back into their stride, following a couple of years worth of rather bland machines. The HS-551 is a reminder of the old days, lots of useful features, good AV performance and a very competitive price. There is a small sting in the tail though, which weíre just about to come to.


The headline feature is satellite control, tied into the Video Plus+ timer, it also has  NTSC replay with stereo sound, but thereís a problem!  NTSC replay is an unadvertised facility, thatís because the factory have only recently begun fitting it. Early models can still replay NTSC tapes -- with stereo sound -- but theyíre in black and white. Mitsubishi tell us thereís no easy way of tell which machines have it in colour, apart from actually trying one out in the shop. You have been warned. The rest is all good news, the 551 has automatic tape optimisation, a full-function auto-install system, a clock that checks the time against teletext time signals every day at 8 am, a fine set of multi-speed replay function, several bonus features, like rental playback, edit control (with other Mitsubishi VCRs) and a set of control functions on the remote handset for Mitsubishi TVs. Thereís actually loads more widgets, and one of the quickest deck mechanisms in the business but weíd be here all day.


Auto install is engaged by pressing a small recessed button on the front panel, it takes just a couple of minutes to sort out all the local TV broadcasts, and it also checks for the presence of a satellite receiver, if it finds one it then asks the user for a 2-digit code, corresponding to the make of their satellite receiver. The remote handset is a bit of an oddity, it has colour co-ordinated buttons, green ones for menu functions, blue for Video Plus+, purple for the one-touch timer, and so on. The on-screen displays are very clear and the tape-usage indicator -- a kind of meter that shows how far the tape has been wound -- is an old Mitsubishi favourite.


Picture quality is good, with resolution just under 250 lines itís comparable with mid-market VCRs costing a £100 or so more. Colour accuracy is spot on and thereís hardly any picture noise. No complaints about sound quality, either, lower than average levels of background hiss, pin-sharp with lots of detail.



Assuming you donít end up with one of the early models, with black and white NTSC replay, the 551 is a real stonker. AV performance is very good, the price is very fair indeed and the list of convenience features just goes on and on.


Features            NICAM, Video Plus+, PDC, auto set-up, multi-speed replay, satellite control, one-key programming, on-screen display, auto recording speed selection, index search, blank search, tape tuning, Ďrentalí tape playback, parental lock, edit control (compatible with other Mitsubishi VCRs), encore replay (replays last 5 seconds), NTSC replay (B&W, stereo...)

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, stereo line-audio output (phono), satellite control (minijack)

Mitsubishi Electric, telephone  (01707) 276100


Picture quality            ****

Sound quality            ****

Build quality               ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****


SANYO VHR-776 £349.99

Sanyo mid-range NICAM VCRs have received a fair amount of attention during the past couple of years, mostly on the strength of one feature -- digital view scan -- which allows the soundtrack to be heard at normal speed, whatever direction or speed the tape is moving at. However, take away DVS and youíre left with some fairly bland machines, a bit like the VHR-776 in fact. To be fair thereís nothing intrinsically wrong with the 776, but itís a tough old world out there and this machine is now up against some very stiff competition. The highlights of the feature list, once you get past basic fare like Video Plus+, PDC and NICAM, are confined to fairly mundane things like NTSC playback (with mono sound), an on-screen display, repeat play, a child lock and something called record history, that recalls details of the last five time-shift recordings, Sanyo suggest it might come in handy for quickly programming daily or weekly events...


What it has got works well enough. Take auto-install for instance. The tuner seeks out all locally available stations, stores them in the correct order (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4), sets the time and date, which it checks on a regular basic, and it only takes a minute or so to do it. The menu-driven on-screen display is a model of simplicity, itís the sort of machine you can take out of the box and use right away without having to read the instruction book. It does what its told, the front panel layout is simple and unthreatening, even the remote is easy to use (though some of the buttons are on the small side). The point is the 776 is virtually a gadget-free zone -- unless you count the record history facility -- nothing wrong with that of course, indeed for some it might even count as a selling point, but you canít help feeling it could do with just a little more sparkle.


Video performance on our test machine -- an early production sample -- was fairly average. Horizontal resolution was just under 240-lines, there was some picture noise, but it was by no means excessive, merely average. The same goes for colour fidelity, and picture stability, neither good nor bad, just ordinary. The hi-fi stereo system sounded quite good though, background noise levels are very low, and it sounds very clean.



The problem with the 776 is not that thereís anything wrong with it, there isnít, it works well and the price isnít unrealistic, but it has to exist in a world where £350 buys VCRs dripping with widgets and gizmos. Admittedly many convenience features are of questionable value, but given an equality in AV performance itís the extras that get a VCR noticed.


Features            NICAM, Video Plus+, PDC, NTSC replay (mono), on-screen display, index search, multi-speed replay, repeat play, child lock,

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, stereo line output (phono)

Sanyo UK, telephone (01923) 246363


Picture quality            ***

Sound quality            ***

Build quality               ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ***

Overall value              ****


TOSHIBA V-726B, £399.99

Earlier this year we gave the £400 Toshiba V-705 a fairly lukewarm reception. It worked well enough but it was very basic and not particularly good value for money. Faster than you can say Ďdump the turkeyí, up pops the V-726B, another £400 machine, but this time the feature line-up is a lot more interesting. Externally they look almost identical -- the neatly contoured case makes a pleasant change from the usual boring black boxes -- but apart from them both being midi-sized NICAM VCRs with Video Plus+ timers, PDC and NTSC replay, theyíre completely different machines.


To begin with the 726 has proper auto-install, that kicks in as soon as the machine is plugged in for the first time. Itís quite unlike the crude manual tuning and clock-setting systems on the 705. It has a Video Plus+ based satellite control system, to simplify time-shifting satellite channels; the NTSC replay feature has stereo hi-fi sound and the on-screen display system has been uprated, to cope with all the extra facilities. Not that the 705 was entirely without merit, a few of the more useful features remain unchanged: thereís the same fine selection of replay speeds, it has index search and the front-mounted AV terminal stays put. 


Thereís no need to worry about the initial set-up on the 726, however, itís still worth reading the instructions, especially if the VCR is going to be used with a satellite receiver. Thereís a few points to watch out for, including sighting the machine so that it can control the satellite receiver -- infra-red control remote emitter windows are on the front and top of the case -- the correct control codes for different makes of receiver have to be assigned, and the satellite receiverís channel order might need re-arranging. The VCRís IR command library is pretty comprehensive, covering all of the major brands, and quite a few obscure ones as well. Once configured itís also possible to use the VCRís remote to change channel on the satellite receiver. 


On-screen performance is very slightly better than the 705; resolution at SP recording speeds was just a little over 240-lines, picture noise is below average and colour fidelity is good. The stereo soundtracks are very clean, thereís hardly any background noise, moreover the response is largely flat and uncoloured. Thereís a small increase in the noise levels on NTSC stereo soundtracks but itís not intrusive.



This is the machine the 705 should have been; hopefully it will now quickly and quietly disappear. The 726 puts Toshiba firmly back in the running in the key £350 to £400 price sector. Itís has all the right credentials for home cinema use and it might well tempt a few VCR buyers to trade up.


Features            NICAM, Video Plus+, PDC, auto set-up, satellite control, on-screen display, NTSC replay (stereo), multi-speed replay, index search, skip search

Sockets            2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), front AV input (phono)

Toshiba UK, telephone (01276) 62222


Picture quality            ****

Sound quality            ****

Build quality               ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****



Sadly the Sanyo VHR-776 ends up at the bottom of this particular pile. We have to repeat thereís nothing actually wrong with it -- it works well -- but equally thereís just nothing to make it stand out from the crowd. Toshiba have got the mixture just about right, the V-726 is a splendid machine that deserves to do well, though we suspect a lot of people seeking this particular blend of features will be tempted by the slightly cheaper Mitsubishi HS-551. This has a very similar specification, plus a few extra frills, though do bear in mind what weíve said and check with the dealer first, if NTSC replay in colour is important to you. The star of the show, though, has to be the amazing Akai VS-G745. Okay, itís not going to win any prizes for picture and sound quality, average to good is about the best you can say for it, though it still manages to put several dearer machines to shame. However, what finally won us over was the low price and unusually generous assortment of features, that includes multi-speed replay, tape tuning and best of all, NTSC replay with stereo sound. This could be the budget machine to beat in 1996!






* Stereo sound on NTSC replay. This is the feature home cinema enthusiasts have been waiting for. Previously itís only been available on a couple of top-end machines, now itís turning up on mid-market VCRs and one or two budget machines. (Incidentally this only works when the VCR is connected to a stereo TV by a SCART AV lead)


* Satellite control. The VCR timers fitted to the overwhelming majority of satellite tuners are like something out of the dark ages. Theyíre crude and difficult to use, anything that simplifies satellite timeshifting gets our vote.


* Auto-install and clock-check. Banish the instruction book forever, well almost... Auto install systems have revolutionised VCR set-up, no more scrabbling around on the floor, trying to find tiny buttons or follow complicated procedures, and no more fiddling around, every time the clocks go back or forwards


* Front-mounted AV input sockets. Just in case one day you get around to buying a camcorder...


* Sockets, and plenty of them. You can get away with one SCART AV socket and a set of stereo line outputs but two SCARTs are better, especially if your system is likely to expand in the near future.



” R. Maybury 1996 1705





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