BLANK VIDEO TAPE
Last year in the UK we spent £160 million buying 60 million video
cassettes. If you put them all end to end they would circle the Earth nearly
nine times! Just two of the fascinating facts unearthed by Rick Maybury during
his quest to find the best blanks
Video tape is amazing stuff, countless man-year of research
and vast amounts of money have gone into its development. Blank tape has a
direct and often quite noticeable effect on picture and sound quality, yet many
VCR owners spend about as much time choosing blank tape, as they would devote
to buying a box of matches.
Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. The blank tape industry
devoted a great deal of time and effort during the 1980’s, persuading us that
their standard grade formulations were so good, that it was unnecessary to pay
more for higher grade products. It led to cut-throat pricing and exotic
guarantees, that sidelined dearer, high-performance tapes. Improvements in VCR
design have helped to mask the superior picture quality of some tapes -- especially
on cheaper machines -- but there is a still good case for paying extra, for
tapes used in home cinema VCRs.
However, it can be a confusing business. Unlike audio tape
there is no clear-cut grading structure, manufacturers can and do invent all
kinds of weird and wonderful designations, some of which are completely
meaningless. Nevertheless, the general idea is that standard grade or SG tapes
are the most durable and best for watch-and-wipe recording; high grade or HG
has slightly better noise characteristics and help improve the look of LP
recordings; Super High Grade and ‘Hi-Fi’ grade normally has finer and more
efficient magnetic particles and extra coatings, making it suitable for stereo
VCRs. Master or Pro grades have the highest performance formulations, and
fewest imperfections, so they’re ideal for critical applications, like
camcorder recording and editing.
To help you sort the wheat from the chaff we’ve collected
together a small selection of standard and higher grade tapes, including some specifically
designated for Hi-Fi, Home Cinema or NICAM applications.
BASF’s standard grade tape, designed to fill the gap left by
Scotch who pulled out of the blank tape market earlier this year. Low noise and
dropout, competent but unexciting performance.
BBC HIGH QUALITY
A prestigious brand name, flagged as being ‘suitable for NICAM
recording’, though the tape itself
appears to be a fairly ordinary standard grade formulation. Minimal dropout but
average noise levels.
FUJI Super HG
Fuji’s famous double-layer formulations have moved up-market
though this ‘hi-fi Super SHG tape is a more than capable home cinema performer.
Noise is very low and dropout is negligible
JVC EHG Hi-Fi
They invented VHS, so they’ve got no excuses. No that they
need any, EHG produced an excellent set of results, with the joint lowest noise
levels and near zero dropout on our sample. Recommended.
A standard grade, watch-and-wipe tape that’s good enough for
undemanding home cinema applications. Lower than average noise and dropout and
generally quite reasonably priced.
MEMOREX SUPER HIGH QUALITY
The Memorex brand is now owned by BASF, who are pitching
this tape at time-shifters and LP VCR owners. Only modest amounts of noise, some
dropout but within acceptable limits
Brought from a local discount shop for the equivalent of
£1.33 (3 for £3.99) the packaging make no special claims, which is just as
well. Significant picture noise and there was some dropout. Avoid.
SONY V HI RESOLUTION
This is one of a family of Sony ‘V’ tapes, designated for
NICAM and Hi-Fi VCR recordings. Excellent performance with very low noise
levels and virtually zero dropout. Worth considering.
Reliable and consistent, TDK E-HG has always turned in a
good all-round performance. Very low noise levels -- on a par with JVC EHG --
and no noticeable dropout. Recommended.
VIRGIN SUPER HIGH QUALITY
Personally endorsed by Mr Branson, it is nothing if not
versatile. Frequent recording, NICAM, satellite, cable and home cinema are all
listed. Average noise and low dropout. A good general purpose tape.
BOX COPY 1
HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE
Blank video tape is manufactured in batches, so some slight variation
in performance can be expected. Clearly this makes it rather difficult to judge
consistency, though we do have test data from previous years, so we can spot
any significant trends. Our tests are deliberately simple and designed to
reflect real-world conditions. We make a series of recordings, using a number
of VCRs from various manufacturers. The tests involve a mixture of electronically
generated test patterns, that are designed to highlight the effects of noise
and dropout. Noise has a big effect on picture clarity and colour purity,
dropout -- imperfections in the tape magnetic coating -- show up as white dots
or flashes in the picture.
BOX COPY 2
TOP TAPE BUYING TIPS
* It’s worth spending a little extra on high-grade
formulations if you make a lot of LP recordings. Most twin-speed VCRs need all
the help they can get at the slower recording speed, the lower noise levels on
these tapes can make a significant difference to picture quality
* Shop around, and look out for special deals on multi-packs,
especially at this time of year. Longer, four hour (E-240) tapes are normally
the best value, with room for two full length feature films, though the savings only work if you make use of
the whole length
* Only buy well known names, avoid strange sounding or unfamiliar
brands like the plague, even if they’ve got the VHS logo. Buy only from
reputable stockists. Tapes sold on market stalls or car boot sales may have
been improperly stored, subject to extremes of heat or humidity, which can have
an adverse effect on performance
* It’s worth experimenting with as many different brands and
grade of tape, especially if your video recorder has a tape tuning system. Some
VCRs can show a marked preference for particular tapes and if you find one that
suits your machine, stick with it
* Older stereo VCRs with less efficient auto-tracking
systems often benefit from ‘hi-fi’ grade tape, which should have more
accurately cut edges and improved magnetic characteristics. They’re worth
trying in more up to date machines too, lower noise levels will yield a crisper
picture, sharper colours and less background hiss on the stereo soundtrack.
R. Maybury 1997 2209