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AIWA NSX-AV75 MIN DPL SYSTEM, £400

 

Why’s it here: Aiwa seem to have made it their business to set price and specification benchmarks for Dolby Pro Logic mini hi-fi systems. They’ve had plenty of practice, the NSX AV90, launched about this time last year, was one of the first DPL package systems to sell for less than £500, albeit by only a penny.  Aiwa have done it again, this time with a system costing less than £400, though the competition is hotting up, and it’s reign as the cheapest system on the market was rather brief. Nevertheless, the NSX-AV75 still looks like the one to beat.

 

Any unique features: The number of unnecessary winking lights and flashy displays has to be a record, thankfully some of the more irritating ones can be switched off. Karaoke voice cancelling and echo functions are unusual on home cinema equipment, but behind its surprisingly sober-suited exterior the AV75 is a bit of a party animal. There’s a 3-CD autochanger, twin auto reverse cassette decks and extensive CD and tape to tape copying facilities. There’s a useful set of DSP and equaliser modes an AM/FM tuner plus the usual clock with sleep, wake-up and radio -record timers.

 

How does it perform: The classy-looking bookshelf-sized speakers are fine for most musical sources but set-piece effects on movie soundtracks, that you know should have the floorboards rattling, can be deeply unmoving. Aiwa appear to recognise the problem exists and have given the AV75 a line-level output for an active sub-woofer. It certainly needs one, particularly if its primary role will be as a as a home cinema system. The DPL processor does a very good job of resolving and localising effects, and although the power levels across the frontal soundstage are a bit uneven, centre-channel dialogue is very clean and sounds move reasonably smoothly from side to side. The rear channel could do with just a bit more power in reserve though. At full whack it’s just about loud enough to fill normal-sized living room but it will run out of puff in a larger space.     

 

Our Verdict: Aiwa have tried very hard to give the AV75 as wide an appeal as possible, and as a well-rounded home entertainment package it succeeds brilliantly. It has good potential as a home cinema system too, but those noisy action blockbuster fans should budget for an active sub-woofer as well.

 

Aiwa UK Ltd, telephone 0181-897 7000

 

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Features                     3-mode Dolby Pro Logic, 2 x 75 watts RMS (front stereo), 3 x 25 watts RMS (centre-front and rear), 3-mode DSP, 3-CD auto changer with 30-track memory, twin auto-reverse cassette decks with Dolby B NR, 3-band AM/FM tuner with 30-preset, extended bass, AI and program edit, high-speed dubbing, clock, sleep and event timer, karaoke mike mixer with variable echo and voice cancelling functions 

 

Sockets                       line audio in/out, subwoofer and  surround speakers (phono), front speakers and AM antenna (spring terminals), CD digital out (optical jack), microphones and headphone (minijack), FM antenna (coaxial)

 

Sound Quality            ****   

Build Quality              ***

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ***

Overall value              ****

 

Competitors                           

Philips FW-672                  £600

Samsung MAX-632P             £380

Technics SC-CH570                        £500

 

HEAD

SAMSUNG MAX-632P, mini DPL hi-fi system £380

 

Why’s it here: It seems as though they’ve been around forever but Samsung only set up shop in the UK fourteen years ago. In that relatively short time Samsung have had quite an impact on the budget TV, VCR and camcorder markets. They’re about to do the same with widescreen TVs and now it looks as though they’ve set their sights on packaged home cinema systems. The MAX-632 is the first Dolby Pro Logic mini hi-fi from Samsung and at just under £380 it is currently the cheapest DPL hi-fi  on the market. They’ve even managed to undercut Aiwa, which takes some doing.

 

Any unique features: No, but the fact that they’ve managed to put a system together for less than £380 is quite remarkable. More so when you consider that in addition to the Dolby Pro Logic facilities (DPL, phantom and 3-channel), it includes a tray-loading 3-CD autochanger, twin auto-reverse cassette decks, AM/FM tuner, it comes with a set of five speakers, generous cables and a rather snazzy remote control handset. No signs of any serious corner-cutting there, though the range of DSP and equaliser modes are quite modest, moreover the speakers look and feel a bit, shall we say, lightly built...

 

How does it perform: The system has a bass-boost facility but it doesn’t seem to do a great deal and it can’t be used when the system is in DPL mode. Given that the speakers are fairly insubstantial, it’s not altogether surprising that lively effects on movie soundtracks can lack drama. The DPL processor is reasonably responsive though, and it does a good job picking out centre channel dialogue but the speakers and amplifier power outputs are not particularly well balanced. The soundfield is a bit uneven in places. It shows up most clearly when sounds move across the soundfield, or from the front to the rear channels, when it can seem a bit jumpy. Regular audio performance is a lot easier on the ear, the thin bass isn’t anywhere near as noticeable moreover the CD and tape decks do a good job, particularly in view of the low price.   

 

Our Verdict: MAX 632 is a welcome addition to the DPL mini hi-fi market. The impressively low price makes home cinema technology more accessible to those on a tight budget and the audio components work at least as well as most other mini hi-fi system in the same price bracket. Hooked up to a decent set of speakers it could be a real winner. 

 

Samsung UK Ltd., telephone 0181-391 0168

 

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Features            3-mode Dolby Pro Logic, 2 x 50 watts RMS (right and left), 20 watts RMS (centre)  2 x 10 watts RMS (rear), 3-mode DSP, 3-mode equaliser, extended bass, 3-CD autochanger with 24-track memory, twin auto-reverse cassette decks with Dolby B NR, 3-band AM/FM tuner with 30 station presets, high-speed dubbing, 5 -speakers, clock, sleep and event timer 

 

Sockets            line audio in, centre and surround speakers (phono), front speakers and AM antenna (spring terminals), headphone (jack), FM antenna (coaxial)

 

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ***

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****

 

Competitors

Aiwa NSX-AV75               £400

Philips FW-672                  £600

Technics SC-CH570                        £500

 

 

HEAD

SANYO VHR-797, NICAM VCR, £350

 

Why’s it here: VCR prices continue to fall; that’s good news for us, but not the manufacturers. They call it erosion, it squeezes profit margins until they squeak, but it’s a necessary evil in a highly-competitive, densely-populated market. The choice of machines has never been greater, which is why Sanyo are doing their best to make their VCRs stand out from the crowd. The company specialise in affordable, well-specified machines, pitched at the busiest sectors of the market. The VHR-797 is its current top-end NICAM video recorder, it costs just under £350 but the feature list reads more like a £450 machine.  

 

Any unique features: Luminous control buttons are a neat idea. The tape library system could be a boon for those forming large tape collections. The machine logs time, date and programme category information on recordings made on the machine, it’s an extension of the familiar CTL indexing system. When a tape is loaded the VCR whizzes though and build up a menu of what’s on the cassette, recording can then be quickly accessed. Super Quick Review uses a sound buffer to replay real-time mono sound in picture search modes. Satellite control is unusual on a £350 VCR, thumbs-up too for front AV sockets, twin SCARTs and audio dub.

 

How does it perform: The built-in IR remote control used by satellite control system covers just 9 brands, so check before you buy, if you plan to use it. The facility to hear a video soundtrack, in real-time, in forward or reverse picture search, never fails to amaze. Super Quick Review isn’t just an audio feature though, Sanyo have worked hard to reduce the impact if noise during trick-play and although they cannot match the squeaky-clean performance of JVC’s Dynamic Drum system, the disturbance is minimal. The picture on our well-used sample was just a touch soft and resolution was only a little above 230 lines. Noise levels were fairly average too, though colour fidelity and registration were both good. Background noise levels on the stereo hi-fi soundtrack were relatively low, the response is flat and wide  though bass tails off a little earlier than usual.

  

Our Verdict: Sanyo’s intention was to get the VHR-797 noticed, and they’ve succeeded. Features like Super Quick Review, the Tape Library system and even the luminous control buttons, turn what would otherwise be a fairly routine NICAM machine into something rather special. In spite of fairly average AV performance it’s in the home cinema ball-park.

 

Sanyo UK Ltd., telephone (01923) 246363

 

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Features                     NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ with PDC, satellite control, auto tuning and set-up, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, tape library system (see text), audio dub, endless play

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

Dimensions                 360 x 97 x 300mm

 

Picture Quality            ***

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ***

Overall value              ****

 

Competitors

Hitachi VT-F645    £350

JVC HR-J645            £350

Mitsubishi HS-761            £350

 

HEAD

GRUNDIG GV-6401, NICAM VCR, £300

 

Why’s it here: Grundig are not a brand we normally associate with budget AV equipment though over the past year or so -- and since their break with Philips -- there has been a marked reduction in the cost of their entry-level stereo VCRs. The GV-6401 is their lowest priced NICAM video recorder to date, it sells for just under £300, putting it in close competition with some of the cheapest machines on the market. The big question is, how have Grundig managed to get the price down, and what sacrifices have they made in order to do so?

 

Any unique features: Not one, in fact it lacks several facilities that we had begun to take for granted, even on ultra-cheap machines. For example, there are no on-screen displays, which makes life quite difficult when programming the timer as the front panel display is on the small side. It doesn’t have power on and play, index search, and you can forget luxuries like satellite control or audio dub. The remote control handset is horribly small and destined to quickly find its way down the back of the sofa. Fortunately it has some home cinema basics, including twin SCART AV connectors, and a set of front AV sockets.

 

How does it perform: Auto installation is slow and without an on-screen display, deleting or re-ordering store channels means getting down on your hands and knees. The VCR comes with a SCART cable and the modulator is switched off by default, encouraging users to use a direct AV connection with their TV. The one area where Grundig do not appear to have cut any corners is in picture and sound performance. The 6401 isn’t about to set any new records, but with a resolution of 240-lines and below average noise levels, image quality is reasonable. There was one small glitch however; in still replay mode the picture has an annoying 25Hz flicker. The image is remarkably steady though, which suggests they may be using some sort of digital field store. It sounds quite good too, the hi-fi tracks and a clean, evenly balanced response with only moderate levels of background hiss. 

 

Our Verdict: If Grundig want to make an impression at the low end of the NICAM VCR market they really need to come up with something a little more exciting than the 6401. To be fair, picture and sound quality are not too bad, but next to most other £300 VCRs it looks uncomfortably basic.

 

Grundig International, telephone (01788) 577155

 

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Features                     NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto installation, NTSC replay

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

Dimensions                 380 x 280 x 94mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ***

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ***

Overall value              ***

 

Competitors

Akai VS-G745   £300

Philips VR-675      £300

Sharp VC-M69    £300

 

HEAD

SHARP VL-DC3H DIGITAL VIEWCAM, £1500

 

Why’s it here: Over the past twelve months the number of digital video cameras on the UK market has tripled, from five to fifteen. Prices have fallen from an average of £2600, to just over £2000, (that’s a distorted by a couple of semi-pro models costing over £3500), the majority of now machines now cost significantly less. It’s a fast growing market and Sharp have been there, virtually since day-one, with a digital version of their ViewCam range, but at £2000 the VL-DC1 was starting to look uncompetitive. Sharp had another problem, their pioneering use of a built-in LCD monitor screen has been copied by almost every other manufacturer, so they had to come up with something a bit special, to remain competitive. In fact the biggest selling point for the recently launched VL-DC3 is the price; Sharp have managed to get it down to just under £1500, which makes it the second cheapest digital camcorder on the market.

 

Any unique features: Just one, it has a playback zoom facility, that enlarges a selected portion of the screen. The DC3 is basically a re-jig of the DC1, with neater styling, a slimmer body, slightly simpler zoom lens, and easier to use deck loading mechanism, with the tape carrier behind the 4-inch LCD screen. The DC3, and the DC1 before it, have fully automatic focus and exposure systems; there are manual overrides, but they’re buried deep in the machine’s menu-driven on-screen displays. An electronic image stabiliser cuts down on camera shake and, in common with other ViewCams, the screen/deck is attached to the camera module by a pivot, so it can rotate, for overhead or waist-level shots, and face forward -- automatically inverting the image as it does so -- for self or memo recording. Unlike its predecessor the DC3 now comes with an infra-red remote control, and it’s fitted with the industry-standard IEEE 1394 -- aka FireWire -- digital video interface. This  enables data to be transferred to a suitably-equipped PC or digital video recorder, for near perfect copying, editing and processing. There’s one new optional extra, it’s the VR-3SUP digital ‘stills’ unit. Sharp tell us it will be bundled free with the first batch of machines, so hurry, thereafter it will cost around £300. It clips on the side of the machine, still images and stills taken from moving video are downloaded into the module’s 4Mb flash RAM. Pictures can then be transferred to a PC, using a supplied serial cable and software. Still images can also be copied the other way, from the PC to the camcorder.

 

How does it perform: We haven’t seen a bad DVC machine yet, though they vary widely in how well they cope with difficult lighting conditions. The DC3 is towards the lower end of the scale. There’s full auto, and a reasonable assortment of manual options, but unlike every other DVC camcorder on the market, it has no program AE facilities. They’re useful  for dealing quickly with unusual situations. Picture quality is good, resolution on our sample topped 450 lines, a little below what the format is capable of, but the picture is significantly sharper and cleaner than analogue Hi8 or S-VHS-C. Colours in particular look a lot crisper and there’s bags more detail, the picture appears to have added depth. Still image quality is good, though PC printouts are not quite as sharp as those from a mid-range digital still camera.

 

Sharp have opted for the format standard twin 12-bit PCM stereo soundtracks, one of which can be dubbed. They’re very clean, with negligible background noise; forward sensitivity is good though the single-point mike set into the front of the machine produces a fairly shallow stereo image.

 

Our Verdict: Despite the facelift the DC3 is still quite bulky, and the design makes it difficult to use one-handed. It lags some way behind the others when it comes to recording facilities like program auto exposure. It has no editing features to speak of, and no special effects, apart from the rather lonely-looking ‘strobe’ and cinema recording modes. Nevertheless, as a high quality, fuss-free family camcorder it does quite well. Bringing down the price of this Mark 2 digital ViewCam has certainly helped put Sharp back in contention -- at least as far as value for money and family appeal are concerned -- for one more season at least.

 

Sharp UK Ltd., telephone 0161-205 2333

 

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Features                     Mini DV format, 10x optical 25x digital zoom, 5-lux low light sensitivity, 4-inch colour LCD monitor screen, auto focus and exposure with manual overrides, image stabiliser, audio dub, time/date recording and world clock, backlight compensation, gain-up, fader, self-shooting mode, snapshot recording, playback zoom, timecode recording, strobe recording, cinema mode, built-in loudspeaker

Sockets                       AV out, via adaptor (phono & mini DIN), DC power (dummy battery), external mic via adaptor (minijack), FireWire (DV jack)

Dimensions                 167 x 104 x 73mm

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              *****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****

 

Competitors

JVC GR-DVX    £1600

Panasonic NV-DS1            £1500

Sony CCD SC100 £1400

 

HEAD

SHARP MD-X8 NETWORK AUDIO MD MINI SYSTEM, £700 (£900 with PC card & Software)

 

Why’s it here: A growing number of internet web sites now carry digital music files, that can be downloaded onto a PC hard disc, and heard though a suitable software player, soundcard and speakers. The MD-X8 with its optional PC card and control software frees the music from the PC, by transferring it to MiniDisc, so it can be heard through a half-decent amp and speakers, or played on  portable and  in-car decks. It’s a taste of things to come, with several record companies eyeing up the internet as a way to distribute and sell music. Sharp have teamed up with one of them. Cerberus are acting as marketing arm for a number of well-known labels, selling copyright-paid music from their jukebox-styled web site at a flat rate of 60 pence a track.

 

Any unique features: The whole deal is unique, though Sharp have been clever and avoided confusing the issue by keeping the two technologies separate. The system unit is a one-box mini-sized stack, with the MD recorder section on the top. The AM/FM  tuner (with RDS) and main display panel are in the middle, a 3-CD drawer-loading autochanger is at the bottom of the pile. Additional features include SRS (sound recovery system) 3D surround effects, 3-mode sampling rate converter (32, 44.1 or 48kHz) making it compatible with most other digital sources. It has a full set of CD/PC to MD editing functions, a message-memo recording facility and the amplifier delivers 50 watts RMS per channel into a pair of neat-looking bookshelf speakers. Video game fans will feel at home with the wacky remote controller.

 

The internet connection pack is an optional extra, costing an additional £200. The interface is in the form of a type II PCMCIA (PC-Card)  that slots into a socket on the side of most laptop PCs, (and some desktop models); it connects by cable to a socket on the front of the system unit. The soundcard also provides a control link for the hi-fi, for transport and  editing functions. The PC can also be used to create labels and compose titles for recording on the MD.  So far the software is only compatible with IBM PCs and compatibles, Sharp say they’re looking into the possibility of developing a version for Apple Macs.

 

How does it perform: Unsurprisingly the system has two quite distinct personalities. As a mid-to top-end CD and MiniDisc system it compares favourably with other package systems in the same price bracket. Initially the speakers sounded slightly shrill but they began to mellow after a couple of days, bass response remains fairly average.

 

The Network Audio side is an altogether different kettle of fish. Setting up the interface and software is not for the faint-hearted, you do need to know your way around a PC, Windows 95, PC-card configuration, and the internet. It’s the nature of the beast that things can and will go wrong. Even when they go right transferring files from one box to the other is still a bit hit and miss; this remains Anorak territory. Hi-fi buffs might like to wait a while too, the system worked reasonably well with simple computer-generated midi files but we downloaded some vocals and orchestral samples and they sounded quite rough. It’s difficult to say what is going wrong but the data is compressed three or four times on its journey from web site to MD, with bits being discarded at every stage. The results were quite variable, but the main problems were significant loss of detail, a narrow bandwidth and quite high noise levels.

 

Our Verdict: Network Audio still has some way to go before it can be considered as an alternative to popping down to your local record store, unless you’re exclusively interested in midi-generated sounds. However, the potential is there, and the MX8 is ready and able to make the best of what Network audio has to offer; hopefully on-going refinements to the software will improve the end result. Something needs to be done about user-friendliness too; as it stands you’ve got to be PC literate to use it, it badly needs just one easy to use interface, rather than the motley collection of programs it currently uses.

 

Sharp UK Ltd., telephone 0161-205 2333

 

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Features                     front-loading MD recorder with CD & net to MD copying an editing facilities, 3-CD draw-loading autochanger, AM/FM tuner with RDS, 2 c 50 watts RMS, SRS 3D surround sound, sampling rate converter (32, 44.1 and 48kHz)

Sockets                       line audio in (phono), speakers (spring terminals), PCMCIA card, keyboard (DIN)

Dimensions                 240 x 270 x 330mm

 

Sound Quality            MD/CD****, NA ***

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ***

Overall value              ****

 

Competitors

There aren’t any...

 

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997, 0812

 

 

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