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Camcorders used to be nerdy widgets; now they’re hip, they’re cool, they’re digital! Rick Maybury gets all unnecessary over DVC...



Are digital camcorders any different? What’s the big deal, camcorders are for sad anoraks and gaga parents...


So they say, and according to some, a certain Mr Beadle hasn’t exactly helped to  elevate the art of video movie-making to the level it deserves. In short camcorders  have had an image problem.


What do you mean, the picture quality of most home videos looks okay?


Okay is about the best you can say of analogue camcorder technology. Look closer and you can see the pictures from most VHS-C and 8mm machines are a bit whiskery around the edges. Colours are fuzzy and there’s noise all over the place. If you try to edit or copy a recording it really starts to suffer. That’s one of the main reasons why home videos shown on broadcast TV look, well, amateurish, and that’s before you consider the content...


How about Super VHS-C and Hi8, aren’t they supposed to be near-broadcast quality formats?


They’re certainly a lot better than bog-standard analogue, but even they can be quite noisy, and multi-generation copying or editing is still a problem.


So digital is the answer then?


Digital video recordings are inherently less noisy, the pictures contain a lot more detail -- almost as much as a broadcast TV picture -- sound quality is better, and recordings can be endlessly copied, edited or ‘cloned’, virtually without loss.


This all happened a bit suddenly...


Camcorder manufacturers have been working independently on digital recording systems for several years, but this time, instead of several companies developing their own formats, and slugging it out in the marketplace,  they actually got together early on and settled on a common specification. Things went very smoothly indeed, and the DVC (Digital Video Cassette) was born in record time, with none of the in-fighting that has dogged previous product launches.


How big are these cassettes?


Most digital camcorders use a ‘mini DV’ cassette, that holds about an hour’s worth of tape, they’re about the size of a matchbox. Full size DVC cassettes, that last for up to 3-hours, are roughly two-thirds the size of a VHS tape.

Mini DV tapes can be played back on full-size DVC VCRs, like the Sony DHR-1000.


How much is all this going to cost?


The first DVC camcorders from Sony and Panasonic cost between £3200 and £3500, but they were serious machines, aimed at semi-pro users and well-heeled enthusiasts. Then last Summer JVC jumped in with the GR-DV1, an extremely cute little pocket-size machine costing just £1800, that achieved trendy gadget status almost immediately. Since then Sony and Sharp have brought out digital minicams of their own, for around the same price.


Are they going to get any cheaper?


Inevitably, but it will be quite a while before they’re competing head-to-head with analogue equipment, which has the benefit of more than ten years of economies of scale.


But what’s in it for me?


Picture and sound quality are stunning. DVC puts you on a par with the professionals, at a fraction of the cost. The latest compact models are small, simple to use and work almost anywhere. If you’ve ever fancied a shot at being a TV producer this could be your big chance. Remember, there could be several hundred TV channels by this time next year, they’ve got to fill them somehow...









It’s time to talk about dialogue speakers. Choose wisely, they can have a big impact on the performance of a home cinema system



The original function of the centre-front channel on a Dolby Surround movie soundtrack was not simply to carry dialogue, but to fix the audience’s attention on the screen. In a typical cinema only those seated close to the centre of the auditorium get equal earfuls of all channels. There’s a danger that anyone sitting along the sides, and at the rear, will be unduly distracted by sounds coming from the surround channels. Movie sound engineers counter this by feeding dominant sounds through the centre front channel, which on most movies just happens to be dialogue.


The bandwidth of the centre channel on a Dolby Pro Logic home cinema system  is similar to the right and left stereo channels so, in theory at least, any good hi-fi speaker could be used. However, this is a rather specialised application -- arguably the most critical sound channel in a home cinema system -- so it’s definitely worth spending a little extra on a speaker that’s designed for the job.


Of necessity centre channel speakers have to be placed close to the TV screen, and that can lead to all sorts of problems. The powerful magnets inside most speakers can cause ‘staining’ or patches of  colour on the edge of the screen, so it’s important that dialogue speakers are magnetically shielded.


Centre channel speakers should produce a tight, well focused sound, that grabs the viewer’s attention, and they need to be adept at handling the band of frequencies used for speech. Ideally the cosmetics should blend in with current TV design, and be capable of fitting in the small gaps above or below the screen. It’s not a good idea to balance a centre channel speaker on the narrow top panel of a TV cabinet though. Apart from the chance of it falling off -- bassy sounds can make them ‘walk’ -- they need to be sonically decoupled from the TV. It’s far better to mount the speaker on a shelf, or use wall brackets, above the screen if possible. Speakers positioned underneath the screen often produce a cramped or confined sound.


Choosing a centre speaker can be quite tricky. It’s important that it should be a good match for the main stereo speakers, otherwise the sound could appear detached, remote or jumpy, especially when voices or effects track from side to side across the screen. It’s unwise to equate price too closely with performance; some cheaper speakers give a very good account of themselves,  which makes it difficult to make many specific recommendations.


Nevertheless, the Tannoy 622 at £180 is a consistent favourite, it’s a solid design that produces a sharp image, with better than average bass handling. Close on its heels comes the Harman SC305 which costs £150. The Canon S-C20 at £200, is also well-liked; bass and mid-range are clean and well defined, though the treble can be slightly thin. Finally, the Kef 200C, another £200 speaker, that been described as powerful and authoritative.





Name Steve Farah, via e-mail

Kit       Steve is in the market for a NICAM video recorder

Problem  After reading through a lot of NICAM VCR reviews Steve is convinced video recorder manufacturers are playing fast and loose with their stereo sound systems. He wants to know why so many hi-fi machines seem to have automatic gain controls (AGC) nowadays, rather than manual recording level controls, which used to be common on first generation stereo VCRs. How does this affect the sound?


Expert Reply  In fact virtually all hi-fi VCRs record ‘raw’ NICAM sound. It’s not necessary to compress the sound any further -- i.e. to limit the dynamic range of the loudest and softest sounds -- this has already been done by the broadcasters, prior to transmission. Since the characteristics of the VHS hi-fi recording system are broadly similar to NICAM, there’s no need to meddle around with the sound. On the other hand, manual recording level controls or an efficient AGC are useful when recording from another audio source, in particular a microphone, where the change in sound level may well be outside the range of the system. That’s why all camcorders and some top-end ‘edit’ VCRs have AGC, and sometimes manual level controls as well.



Name  Milly Olsen, Sheffield

Kit       Akai  SX1000 satellite receiver, Sony KV-27XRTU TV, Toshiba V-726 NICAM VCR

Problem  After successfully connecting her VCR up to the satellite receiver and on through to the TV, using SCART leads, Milly has encountered a problem. At first it worked fine, then things started to go wrong.  Satellite stations disappear whenever she changes channel, and she can’t get a picture from the VCR, using the AV connections. Milly suspects a configuration problem has developed on the satellite box, following a power failure. She has tried re-setting the satellite tuner’s AV inputs, from ‘auto’ to VCR but with no success. The only thing that seems to work is to press TV/VCR button on the satellite remote control handset, every time she changes channel.


Expert Reply This is a bit of an odd one. It seems logical to blame the satellite receiver, but I suspect it’s not the cause of this particular problem, having encountered similar behaviour once before, on another system with a Toshiba VCR. Check the VCR display panel to see if the word ‘Moni’ is illuminated. If so this shows the VCR is in the satellite monitor mode, which means it’s looking for an input from the satellite tuner, and is sending a switching signal to the tuner, via the SCART. The tuner is misinterpreting this as a command for an external input, which is why pressing the TV/VCR button brings the picture back. Changing the AV inputs on the satellite tuner set-up menu will have no effect, though it’s possible you’ve compounded the problem further. The simplest thing would be to carry out a global reset on the satellite receiver. Pressing the ‘Sat Mon’ button on the VCR handset should toggle the monitor function off, and restore things to normal.



Name S.R. Hamilton, via e-mail

Kit NAD AV716 AV amp, B&W 600 speakers, Jamo sub, JVC HR-J825 VCR, ancient Ferguson 26-inch TV 

Problem  SRH has spent a fair chunk of his children’s inheritance on his home cinema system and now wants to spend the rest on a new TV. He want’s to know if anyone makes a basic no-nonsense, large screen colour monitor, so he won’t have to pay out for a lot of redundant facilities that he already has (NICAM, stereo sound etc.).


Expert Reply There’s plenty of big studio-quality, professional video monitors on the market, the only trouble is most of them cost several times as much as similarly-sized stereo TVs, so you’re not going to save any money, or gain much in terms of picture quality as you’ll be using it with ‘domestic’ source components. You won’t save much by buying a large mono TV either -- assuming you can find one. In any case, what makes you think a NICAM decoder and stereo sound on a TV will be redundant? It means you’ll be able to watch stereo TV programmes, without having to switch on the VCR and AV amp.



Name Diana Beardsley, London NE

Kit  JVC AV29SX1EK TV, Bush IRD155 satellite receiver, Mitsubishi HS-550 VCR

Problem Diana was sold on the idea of a 3D-Phonic sound from a TV but she feels the effect is a little shallow and with no rear speakers she suspects she is missing out on the full surround sound effect. Diana wants to know if there’s a simple way to upgrade her system.


Expert Reply JVC’s 3D Phonic system has at its heart a fully functional Dolby Pro Logic decoder. Instead of feeding the rear and centre channel outputs to separate speakers it cleverly combines them with the stereo channels, to create the 3D effect. It’s not surround sound as we know it Jim, and you have to keep your head quite still, though for some it’s worth sacrificing performance for the ease of installation, lack of external speakers and cables.  JVC thoughtfully provided the TV with line-level outputs from the DPL decoder, so it’s possible to put together a full surround system. The simplest method is to pipe the outputs for the rear effects and centre front channels through a stereo amplifier and speakers,  using the TV’s own speakers for right and left stereo. They’re just about okay but don’t expect too much in the way of bass. Better still, dispense with the TVs speakers altogether and use the DPL decoder as a source component, to drive an external amplifiers and speakers. Ironically a multi-channel AV amplifier would be the simplest and cheapest solution, though since most AV amps have on-board  DPL decoders it would probably be easier to use that instead, and just use the TV for the picture, which just happens to be one of the best in that size range.



Name Colin Jackson, via e-mail

Kit  Philips 284521 TV, Tatung TVR 6151 VCR, Pace MSS290, Sony MHC-991 DPL system

Problem until he heard a friends home cinema system Colin was reasonably happy with his set-up. Now, he’s becoming aware of it’s shortcomings, and want’s to know which components, or components could be usefully upgraded, to bring it up to scratch?


Expert Reply Without any details of your friends system it’s difficult to know what you’ve been listening to, but looking through the list of components you’re using, there’s one rather obvious weak link, and that’s the VCR. Apart from anything else this is quite an old model, dating back to 1991, and according to our archives it was an undistinguished performer back then. The rest of your equipment is good middle-of-the-road kit, but because you’ve opted for the system approach there’s not a lot you can do about the sound side of things, without starting again from scratch. A new NICAM VCR should make a big difference but if you want to take it any further you’ll have to let us know what sort of budget you have.



Name  Josh Patesh, Kenley

Kit Panasonic NV-SD400 VCR, Panasonic NV-S88 camcorder                                                                                                   

Problem  Josh brought a camcorder to record his kids growing up, so he can embarrass them when they’re older. He edits his recordings to his VCR and has been generally happy with the results. However, he has read somewhere that video recordings self-destruct after a few years, and is now wondering how long his precious memories will survive?


Expert Reply The simple answer is that no-one really knows how long magnetic video recordings are going to last. Apparently the BBC has early experimental video recordings that were made almost 40 years ago, that would be playable, if they had anything to play them on... It seems likely that if recordings are carefully stored, away from heat, humidity and strong magnetic fields, they’ll last 20 years or more; we have VHS tapes dating back to the late 1970’s that still look very good indeed. However, the big question is, will there be any working VHS video recorders around in another twenty years? Your best chance of preserving your recordings for posterity is to make digital copies. Digital recordings are far less prone to wear and tear, and you’ll be able to make near perfect copies or clones, as and when formats and systems come and go. At the moment the only domestic digital video recording system is DVC; unfortunately the one and only DVC VCR costs over £3000. You could wait another three or four years, by which time recordable DVD should be an option. This will use a magneto-optical recording system which, it is alleged, should last at least 30-years.   



Name Neil Somerfield, via e-mail

Kit            Olivetti Envision P75 multimedia home computer, Panasonic T28X1 TV, Philips VR-838 VCR, Yamaha DSP A690 AV amp, B&W speakers

Problem            Neil admits he was taken in by the hype surrounding ‘living room’ PCs. His Envision PC, which is connected to the TV by a SCART cable, can play audio CDs, CDi discs, as well as CD ROMs, but he’s unhappy about the quality of PC graphics, and CD sound, and wants to know if there’s anything he can do to improve performance.


Expert Reply A couple of years ago ‘PC-TVs’ like the Envision were being touted as the ultimate multimedia home entertainment solution, but the concept bombed horribly. The simple fact is PC graphics look dreadful on a domestic TV, and PC monitors make bad TVs. Forget trying to combine home computing and home entertainment, for the moment anyway. Maybe someone will come up with a convincing argument one day, but for now get yourself a decent CD/CDi player, or maybe wait for DVD. Separate the Envision from the TV, put it in another room and get a proper monitor, and all will be well.



Name Ben Messenger, Birmingham

Kit            Harmon Kardon AV1150 AV amp, Sony KV-X2982 TV, Panasonic NV-HD650 VCR

Problem            Ben is in the market for some new home cinema speakers; until now he’s used old system cast-offs. He has around £500 to spend, and is torn between the Jamo AV400s and JPW AV system 4. He has auditioned both, and been suitably impressed.


Expert Reply A tough choice, and the Jamo package is one of the few to include an active sub-woofer, which will help relieve strain on the amplifier if you’re looking for plenty of impact. However, the JPWs are the more articulate of the two options, and the one’s to go for if you’re more interested in precision than rattling the floorboards. Have you considered any others? You should certainly have a listen to the Mission AV1 package, which is also a good deal cheaper, selling for just under £240. If you want to blow the whole £500 then consider the JBL TLX70. This is the one to go for is bass and guts are important.



Name Shelly Good, Pratts Bottom

Kit about to buy a widescreen TV

Problem            With digital TV just around the corner, with the promise of regular widescreen broadcasts, Shelly wants to know if any of the widescreen sets on the market at the moment are fully future-proof, able to handle all the different display formats, or should she wait?


Expert Reply             Future-proof, you’ve got to be joking... Any TV, whether it’s a current 4:3 set of a 16:9 widescreen model, will be able to receive digital broadcasts, from both satellites and terrestrial transmitters, using a set-top receiver box. However, at this stage of the game it seems very unlikely that any existing 16:9 sets will be able to automatically detect widescreen broadcasts, and switch their display format accordingly. Doubtless that will be a features on widescreen models in the future, once digital TV is up and running. We reckon its better to wait. 



Name            William T. Brough, via e-mail

Kit  Nokia VR-3784 VCR

Problem William’s well used VCR is now a couple of years old, and starting to show the strain. The picture looks a bit fuzzy and some tapes have trouble tracking; William want’s to know if DIY head cleaners are now safe as he can remember VCR manufacturers warning against their use in the early days


Expert Reply There were all sorts of scare stories in the early 1980s, about the kind of damage VCR cleaners could do to delicate VCR head mechanisms. Some manufacturers warned their warranties would be invalidated if cleaner tapes were used in their machines, oddly enough some of them sold head cleaner cassettes as badged accessories. It’s highly unlikely a good quality head cleaner cassette, used according to the manufacturers instructions, could so any damage, assuming the VCR is otherwise okay. They’re definitely worth trying, if you suspect the heads are becoming contaminated. This is usually a fairly slow process, and sudden deterioration in picture quality might be something more serious, and require expert attention. Dry head cleaners are very effective at removing light soiling, Scotch used to do one with a message, that became clearer as the cleaning process progressed. They’re probably a bit scarce now, since Scotch pulled out of the tape market, but TDK do something similar, which is just as good. ‘Wet’ cleaners are normally more effective on heavily contaminated heads. Always allow time for the cleaning solution to evaporate; if you load a tape immediately after cleaning it could get stuck to the wet head drum and become mangled.



Name Simon Quigley, via e-mail

Kit            Goldstar TV, Sony SLV-E70 VCR

Problem            When recording off-air TV programmes, Simon has noticed that the stereo soundtrack seems to come and go. There’s no indication of a problem on the VCR but occasionally the word ‘NICAM’ flashes up on the TVs on-screen display for no apparent reason.  Is this a sign of a fault?


Expert Reply It sounds more like a weak signal or problem with the aerial lead. The NICAM indicator on the TV comes on whenever it’s receiving a stereo broadcast, normally you’ll only see it for a second or so, after changing channels. The fact that the indicator is flashing on at other times suggests that the signal is weak, or being interrupted. NICAM data is sent on a separate carrier frequency, and it’s possible this can be affected, without any noticeable change in picture quality. Get your aerial checked, and the leads that connect to the VCR.



Name Angus Teller, Edinburgh

Kit, Yamaha AV amp, Sharp VCR, Sony TV, Grundig satellite receiver Philips CD player, Marantz AM/FM tuner

Problem Angus has done a quick tally and reckons he has more than a dozen remote controlled gadgets in and around his home, including ‘bleeper’ boxes for the answering machine, car alarm and home security system. It’s all getting a bit too much and want’s to know if he can reduce their numbers with a ‘universal’ remote control, or reduce running costs by using rechargeable batteries?


Expert Reply You should be able to control most of your home entertainment components from one multi-function remote box, though be warned, it won’t necessarily make your life any easier. For example, you won’t be able to access some of your components secondary functions from a Universal remote controller -- VCR timers, CD track programming etc. are not usually covered  -- and remembering all the various modes, and switching between different pieces of equipment can be quite a business. It’s important to choose a high-capacity remote that has a large library of commands, or better still, one with a ‘learning’ facility, that can be programmed from your existing handsets. You won’t find a ‘universal’ replacement for the car or house alarm remotes, they’re almost invariably RF systems, that transmit radio signals containing coded data commands, that are (or should be) impossible to duplicate.


You could try using rechargeable batteries though I suspect some units won’t work as nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride cells used in rechargeable batteries operate at a slightly lower voltage, compared with normal disposable batteries. It’s doubtful you’d save money anyway, batteries in remotes usually last for a year or so, rechargeable cells cost between five and ten times as much as throw-away cells, so it’s unlikely you’d see a payback in the lifetime of the equipment.



Name Elaine Denselow, Norbury

Kit wants to buy a Laserdisc player

Problem            Elaine is clearly unimpressed by all this DVD business and would like to buy a Laserdisc player after seeing the picture quality on a friends TV. She wants the best picture possible, her budget is £600


Expert Reply Far be it from us to suggest you wait, but consider this: If DVD takes off, and we suspect it will, the supply of new Laserdisc titles will almost certainly slow down. DVD picture and sound quality is as good, if not better than Laservision, and the 5-inch discs are a whole lot more convenient.


However, back to your question, the Pioneer CLD-D515 is within your price bracket, and it’s AC-3 compatible. If picture performance is paramount then you’re going to have to find at least another £100 or so, for the Pioneer CLD-D2950, it plays both sides of the disc, and is about as good as it gets.



Name Duncan Moore, Mitcham

Kit Nokia 3784 VCR, Mitsubishi CT-33B3 TV

Problem Some pre-recorded video tapes seem to disagree with Duncan’s TV and VCR. The symptom is usually flashing lines at the top of the picture. The same tapes, played back on his father’s Panasonic VCR and TV, are fine. He has sent us a list of the titles affected, which includes several Disney movies


Expert Reply I would be prepared to bet your VCR is having difficulty coping with the copy protection signals on some commercial tapes. A lot of duplication houses, and in particular those handling Disney titles, use the MacroVision process, which can affect some VCRs. Simple modifications are available for some models, I believe your machine is one of them, though you would have to take it to an authorised dealer to find out and have it fitted.



Name Albert Winnals, via e-mail

Kit Mitsubishi HS-M56, Toshiba 2855 TV, JVC AX-VB6 AV amp, Canon speakers

Problem A peculiar echo or reverberation has developed on the Mitsubishi VCR’s stereo soundtrack. It seems to come and go, but it doesn’t affect recordings made on Albert’s previous machine (Amstrad UF40).


Expert Reply Check the audio system selector switch, it should be set to hi-fi. It sounds as though it’s on the ‘mix’ setting, which means you’re hearing both the stereo hi-fi soundtracks, and the mono linear soundtrack together. They’re slightly out of phase with one another, which creates the reverberation effect you describe. The reason you don’t hear it on tapes recorded on your Amstrad VCR is because that was a mono deck, so you only hear the linear soundtrack.


Ó R. Maybury 1997, 0701









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