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NICAM VCRS

 

INTRO

The first of the 97/98 season NICAM VCRs will be reaching the shops soon; we’ve bagged five models costing between £280 and £450, to give you a flavour of what to expect in the coming year

 

COPY -- REVIEWS

 

Hitachi VT-F660, £380

It looks quite normal from the outside, but this is one of Hitachi’s quirkier designs. The general specification seems quite straightforward; key features, over and above NICAM and stereo hi-fi sound, include satellite control, front-mounted AV sockets and a multi-brand TV remote. This covers 15 makes but there are some notable omissions, including Ferguson, LG, Samsung, Sanyo and Thomson. From now on it gets really odd. The F660 has Video Plus+, PDC and auto-install with clock check but the Video Plus+ decoder is in the remote handset, which means it has to have its own LCD display, and an internal clock. The main VCR clock is set automatically during set-up, and regularly checked against teletext time, so it should be pretty accurate. The handset clock on the other hand is free running so the two clocks can drift apart, which could get confusing.

 

If you choose to set the clock from the remote control you lock out the auto clock check function, and for some strange reason, freeze one of the options on the menu display; this would allow you to revert to auto check, but we couldn’t find anything in the instructions, to tell you how to regain control. A lot of people rely on the clocks on their VCR, to tell the time, the trouble is the 660 has a backlit LCD display, that’s only readable when the machine is switched on.

 

There’s more, but we’re running out of space. Individually these aberrations are not that significant, but when they’re added together this VCR can become a bit of an effort to use. That’s a shame because AV performance is generally very good. The picture is crisp and detailed, resolution on our test sample was just under 250-lines. Colours are sharp and noise levels are very low. Trick play is very steady. The stereo soundtrack is clean and uncoloured with below average levels of background hiss. Doubtless you could learn to live with its little ways, and it works well enough,  but it’s a change for Hitachi, who’s VCRs are usually quite slick. 

 

Features            NICAM, hi-fi stereo sound, Video Plus+ with PDC, NTSC playback, satellite control, auto installation and clock set, Dynamic Picture Equaliser, super fast rewind, jog/shuttle control, audio and video dub, multi-brand TV remote, software control RF output

Sockets            rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), front: video and stereo line audio in (phono)

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality              ****

Ease of use                 **

Features                     ****

Value for money ****

 

JVC HR-D645, £350

If there’s nothing on TV and you’re bored you could while away a few minutes reading the remote control handset that comes with the JVC HR-D645. It’s covered with labels and instructions that tell you how to control a JVC TV with it.  JVC are really into acronyms and little logos at the moment. A quick glance through the feature list reveals ‘push-jog’ speed control, ‘express programming’, ‘re-view’, B.E.S.T picture system, ‘Pro-Digi’ and not forgetting ‘Plug-and-Play’. It’s an old marketing ploy, giving impressive-sounding names to otherwise rather ordinary facilities. You get the feeling JVC are trying to keep up with the Joneses but they needn’t bother, the D645 works fine without all the puff.

 

Mind you, it’s not the prettiest machine we’ve seen, the cosmetics are a bit frumpy, and the control layout is peculiar. What looks like the fast forward and rewind buttons, sandwiched between the play and stop/eject keys, turns out to be for index search; the channel up/down keys are plonked between timer set and counter reset. The impressive-sounding Plug and Play facility refers to the auto set-up, but apart from being extremely slow it’s no different to most other auto installation systems. B.E.S.T or bi-conditional equalised signal tracking turns out to be a tape-tuning system and Push Jog is the name they’ve given to the elliptically-shaped button on the handset, that controls tape speed, direction and menu selections. There’s actually very little that could be described as new, that you wouldn’t find on most other £350 NICAM VCRs.

 

It works really well, the picture is one of the sharpest we’ve seen on a sub £400 VCR, with resolution a gnat’s over 250-lines, and it’s not at the expense of extra noise or crinkly edges. Colours are crisply defined with no trace of smearing or mis-registration. The hi-fi soundtrack has a flat, smooth response and there’s negligible background hiss.

 

Features            NICAM, hi-fi stereo sound, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto-set, instant review, NTSC replay with stereo sound, software control RF output, multi-speed replay, tape tuning,

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

JVC UK Ltd., telephone 0181-450 3282

 

Picture quality            *****

Sound quality              ****

Ease of use                 ****   

Features                     ***

Value for money ****

 

Sharp VC-MH68, £280

If you’re unfortunate enough to be burgled the chances are the thief will make off with your VCR. They’re relatively portable and very easy to dispose of, though villains might well regret pinching the MH68. This machine, and the others in Sharp’s 97/98 range are ‘chipped’, so they can be easily identified, if they’re recovered after being stolen. It also depends on the police knowing about the facility. Owners have the option to record their post code on an internal microchip, this is displayed on the screen every time it is switched on, and cannot be changed or erased without the owners PIN code.

 

Most villains would probably make a bee-line for the MH68, it’s a tidy midi-sized VCR, that looks like it could cost quite a bit more than the £280 Sharp are asking for it. Nevertheless, under the skin it is a fairly basic design. Additional convenience features, such as they are, include 2x replay, auto speed time-shift recording, repeat play and a child lock.  The auto installation system works well, and the RF output can be adjusted from the remote control, though unlike some recent models it doesn’t automatically search for a vacant channel, before it tunes itself in, the factory default setting of Channel 36 is bound to clash with C5 in many areas.   

 

Most routine functions are easy to get at, though VideoPlus+ timer programming is a menu option on the on-screen display, when it should be instantly accessible from it’s own dedicated button on the remote. Still frame and slomo performance are a little disappointing, with noise bars and jitter, that are difficult to eliminate. Normal SP replay is not too bad, resolution at just under 250 lines is good, but the picture can look quite harsh, with edge noise and some smearing of heavily saturated colours. There’s some background hiss on the soundtrack too, though fortunately not quite enough to disqualify it as a home cinema component. 

 

Features            NICAM, hi-fi stereo sound, Video Plus+ with PDC, post-code security, auto installation, software control RF output, child lock

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

Sharp Electronics UK Ltd., telephone 0161-204 2644

 

Picture quality            ***

Sound quality              ****

Ease of use                 ****

Features                     ***

Value for money ****

 

Sony SLV-E720, £400

The SLV-E720  is the replacement for the E710, and Sony’s cheapest NICAM VCR to date. It’s not a budget model by any stretch of the imagination but compared with other machines in the £350 to £400 price bracket, it has a rather modest assortment of features. The styling is rather plain too, dull even with none of the characteristic flair associated with many of their other AV products. The only touch of novelty is reserved for the remote handset, which has a neat joystick button for the transport functions and making selections from the menu-controlled on-screen display. 

 

The closest it gets to a luxury feature is OPC tape tuning, which optimises recording and replay according to the type or grade of tape used, and the condition of the heads, by making a short test recording whenever a new tape is loaded. The auto installation system starts by assigning the RF output channel, then it moves on to tuning in the five terrestrial channels. The instructions seem to imply that stations are sorted into a logical order, though for some reason our sample insisted on placing BBC 2 on channel 1, and BBC1 on channel 5.  The RF output channel adjustment is software controlled, from buttons on the front panel.

 

It has a useful set of trick-play functions, and there’s a handy ‘replay’ button, that winds back and plays the last ten seconds of a recording. Other little extras include a display dimmer and off switch. The remote handset has a full set of TV controls, including colour-coded fastext buttons, but this only works with Sony TVs. Picture noise levels are very low and the picture contains plenty of detail, resolution is spot on 250-lines and colour fidelity is good. Background noise on the stereo soundtrack is about average, otherwise the response is reasonably flat with a solid bass line.

 

Features            NICAM, hi-fi stereo sound, Video Plus+ with PDC, NTSC playback, auto tuning, auto clock check, tape tuning, replay, switchable RF modulator, software control RF output

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

Sony UK Ltd., telephone 0181-784 1144

 

Picture quality            ****   

Sound quality              ****

Ease of use                 *****

Features                     ***

Value for money ****

 

Toshiba V857, £450

At first glance the V857 seems little different to the V856 that it is replacing, and you wouldn’t be far wrong, except that the new machine is some £50 cheaper. Considering that that the highish price was our main gripe with the 856, when we first reviewed it last September, this is clearly a step in the right direction.

 

The headline features are identical, with satellite control, NTSC replay, front AV sockets and several useful control and editing functions at the top of the list. The main thrust of Toshiba’s new 97/98 VCR model range is Channel 5 readiness, and their digital noise reduction system, though since they were both featured on last years models this is hardly news. However, in the absence of any genuinely new facilities, they’re worth a second look.

 

Toshiba were actually one of the first VCR makers to prepare for the coming of Channel 5. The auto-tune system is programmed to slot the new station into the in the tuning order, and they broke new ground with software controlled RF output. This has two benefits, firstly the VCR looks for a spare channel during auto installation, so there’s little chance of a clash with C5, or any other station for that matter. Secondly, if you have to change the output channel for any reason, there’s no need to scrabble around the back, trying to find the RF adjuster screw. 

 

The DNR system is unusually sophisticated. It works by comparing noise levels on successive frames. We noted only a slight change on the 856 picture; it seems a wee bit more effective this time around, and the picture looks very clean, resolving a full 250-lines in SP mode. Trick play stability is good too, noise bars are barely visible in fast picture search. There’s no change to the audio performance, frequency response is wide and flat, with negligible background hiss.

 

Features             NICAM, hi-fi stereo sound, Video Plus+ with PDC, NTSC playback, satellite control, auto installation and clock set, digital noise reduction, NTSC replay, multi-brand TV remote, jog/shuttle dial, video insert, software control RF output

Sockets            rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), front: video and stereo line audio in (phono)

Toshiba UK Ltd.,  telephone (01276) 62222

 

Picture quality            ****

Sound quality              ****

Ease of use                 ****

Features                     ***

Value for money ***

 

BOX COPY 1

CURRENT CHAMPIONS

 

* Panasonic NV-HD610, £430, HE39

Panasonic were a bit slow off the mark with their home cinema VCRs but they’ve caught up quickly. The HD610 is an unusually refined, articulate and well-presented machine with all of the current must-have features. They include auto set-up, satellite control, NTSC with stereo sound, and a very effective noise reduction system.

Panasonic (0990) 357357

 

* Hitachi VT-F550, £400, HE39

Hitachi are another manufacturer that has made considerable strides with their NICAM VCRs in the past couple of years. The 550 has all the usual home cinema facilities, plus a few worthwhile extras, like satellite control, NTSC replay, front AV sockets, a multi-brand TV remote control handset plus audio and video dubbing.

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

* Philips VR-668,  £399 HE47

Philips have produced some rather strange VCRs in years gone by, but the 668 continues a run of really quite civilised machines, and one of only two on the market that can record teletext subtitles. It’s a flexible design, that will appeal in equal measure to home cinema users and camcorder owners, moreover it’s bang up to date, with a C5 ready auto installation system and multi-brand TV remote. 

Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone 0181-689 4444

 

* JVC HR-J935, £500, HE42

Genuinely new VCR features are comparatively rare but fittingly JVC have developed one of the most innovative facilities in recent years, and that’s the Dynamic Drum. This gives noiseless fast picture search, in both directions, with real-time sound, so you can watch a full-length movie, in twenty or so minutes, without missing a thing.

JVC UK Ltd., 0181-450 3282

 

* Mitsubishi HS-761, £350, HE46

A solid line up of features, better than average AV performance and a very affordable price are the main selling points. It’s pitched as entry-level machine, though facilities like NTSC replay, satellite control, multi-brand remote, front AV sockets and tape tuning puts a lot of dearer mid-range VCRs to shame.

Mitsubishi UK Ltd., telephone (01707) 276100

 

BOX COPY 2

BUYING  A VCR

 

* Don’t just buy on price. First identify the features you need, compile a shortlist of contenders then try to see and hear as many of them as possible

 

* If advanced features like satellite control and multi-brand remote TV handsets are important to you, make sure they will work with your TV and satellite receiver, before you buy

 

* Don’t take too much notice of fancy-sound picture enhancements, not all manufacturers make a song and dance about performance, check the reviews, and let your own eyes and ears be the judge

 

* Any home cinema VCR worth its salt will have two SCART sockets, NTSC replay, preferably with stereo sound, satellite control and good trick play facilities. Tape tuning and front AV sockets are useful extras

 

* Check the operation of the deck, award extra points for smooth, fast loading and changes of speed and direction. Be wary of slow and noisy decks, which can indicate crude mechanics

 

CONCLUSION

Dropping the price by fifty quid is one of the thinnest excuses we’ve come across  for giving a VCR new model number. The Toshiba V857 is virtually identical to its predecessor the V856. Obviously the price reduction is very welcome, AV performance is fine and it is well featured, though it is difficult to ignore the fact that it is still quite pricey, compared with other similarly specified machines. Sony, like Toshiba have decided to stay well clear of the budget end of the NICAM market. The SLV-E720 provided very few surprises. It’s a solid, predictable machine, maybe a little plain but picture and sound quality are both good.

 

Sharp, by way of a contrast, have set their sights firmly on the entry-level sector and the VM-H68 gave a very good account of itself. It also has one of the few genuinely new features to have appeared on this year’s crop of VCRs, though it has to be said that post-code security, useful though it is, does nothing for picture and sound quality. There were one or two rough edges, when it came to AV performance, but they wouldn’t rule it out for AV applications. Top honours almost went to the well featured and attractively-priced Hitachi VT-F660 but uncharacteristic control foibles lost it a few points.  In the end the JVC HR-J645 made it to the top of the pile. It’s not the most exotically featured VCR we’ve seen and the cosmetics are uninspiring, but JVC have managed to get the balance between price and performance just right.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 0705

 

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