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TOSHIBA V-728B NICAM VCR, £299

 

VERDICT *****

 

Why’s it here: As the price of entry-level NICAM video recorders drops below £200 Toshiba continue to dip a fairly cautious toe into the budget VCR waters with their first sub £300 machine. The V-728 replaces the best-selling V-727, which originally sold for £360; in addition to being cheaper the new machine is better specified and more sharply styled. Toshiba have wisely decided to remain clear of the blood-letting at the bottom end of the market, helping to maintain their reputation for putting performance above price and flashy widgets.

 

Any unique features: The V-728 has been finely-tuned to meet the needs of home cinema enthusiasts and it has one of the smartest auto-set up systems in the business, that kicks in as soon as the machine is plugged in for the first time. It also reports on any problems, with informative error messages and suggests appropriate solutions. For good measure it has Video-Plus+ linked satellite control, a multi-brand TV remote and NexTView Link which allows the VCR to communicate with suitably equipped TVs. This enables features like auto TV switch on, when a tape is inserted in to the VCR, and TV Picture Record, a one-button command for recording whatever channel the TV is tuned to.    

 

How does it perform: Resolution is just under 250-lines which is within spitting distance of the VHS format's upper limit. Picture noise levels are well below average for VCRs in this price bracket, colours are crisp and accurate and although it doesn't have any tape tuning facilities as such, it favours higher-grade formulations. Still-frame and slomo replay are both rock-solid. Noise reduction on the stereo hi-fi soundtracks is very effective and the response is flat and uncoloured.

 

Our Verdict: The V-728 has a very clear identity and unlike the scattergun approach adopted by a lot of other manufacturers, it is squarely aimed at home cinema applications. There are no superfluous editing functions and a welcome lack of flashing lights and gadgets. AV performance and ease of use have been given top priority, and the price is spot on. Recommended!

 

Toshiba UK Ltd., telephone (01276) 62222

 

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Features            NICAM, Video Plus+ timer, satellite control, auto set-up, 'Eco' standby mode, audio dub, NexTView Link, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay (stereo)          

Sockets             2 x SCART AV, line audio out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial)         

Dimensions     370 x 89 x 309mm           

 

Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              *****

 

Rival Buys

Grundig GV6401,             £300

Philips VR675,             £300

Sharp VC-MH69 £300

 

CRITICAL CAPTIONS

·        The chiselled fascia makes a pleasant change from bland standard-issue front panels

·        Twin SCART sockets and stereo outputs on the back, but no joy for camcorder or games fans with no front-mounted AV socketry

·        Large easy to find buttons and multi-brand TV controls, a definite cut above the norm

·        A full set of convenience features, including NexTView Link, for extra features, like TV picture record

 

 

HEAD

TECHNICS SA-AX720 DPL AV Receiver, £300

 

VERDICT *****

 

Why’s it here: We can expect to see the words 'DVD Ready' adorning a growing number of home cinema products in the coming months, but it pays to look closely at the small print. This is billed as one of the key facilities on the Technics SA-AX720 DPL receiver-amplifier but it's the other features, and the price that will be of more immediate interest to those who have yet to take the plunge.

 

Any unique features: DVD Ready in this instance means a set of six discrete inputs, for DVD players with an on-board (or connected to an external) Dolby Digital/MPEG audio decoder. Five of the channels are routed to a bank of Enhanced Class H+ 100 watt RMS power amps; the sixth sub-woofer channel merely passes through and it is up to the user to supply an active sub, or single-channel amplifier and speaker. The Dolby Pro Logic decoder has the usual phantom and wideband options, and there is a Dolby 3 Stereo mode, for non-surround sources. The AM/FM receiver has 30-station memory plus a full set of RDS functions.

 

How does it perform: What sets this AV receiver apart from the crowd is the punchy 5-channel amplifier that generates a big, full-bloodied surround soundstage. The power is evenly distributed, overcoming the usual problem of feeble effects channel. The DPL decoder is fast and good at locating low-key background effects that are often lost on budget AV amps. The amplifiers deliver a crisp dynamic sound across the range and rarely put a foot wrong, and whilst they lack the absolute precision hi-fi enthusiasts crave, they're more than match for most AV sources, including mid-market DVD.

 

Our Verdict:The SA-AX720 is an efficient and flexible combination of home cinema components, providing a useful halfway house alternative to integrated 'one-box' systems and stacks of boxes. The powerful 100 watt amps and nimble DPL decoder more than justify the asking price, the relatively painless upgrade path to 5.1 sound is a definite bonus.

 

Technics, telephone (0990) 357357

 

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Features            5 x 100 watts RMS, Dolby Pro Logic/Dolby 3 Stereo, DVD-ready with 6 discrete channel inputs, AM/FM tuner with RDS, sleep/on timer, Help functions        

Sockets             AV inputs and outputs (phono), front speakers (binding posts), centre, rear speakers (spring terminals)      

Dimensions            430 x 158 x 324mm

 

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              *****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****

 

Rival Buys

Onkyo TXSV434, £400

Philips FR-752, £300

Pioneer VSX-505RDS, £300

 

CRITICAL CAPTIONS

·        It's big and butch with lots of impressive-looking knobs to twiddle, ease of use is generally good

·        Not a pretty sight, the handset has lots of tiny buttons but it will control all of your other Technics and Panasonic AV components

·        Fairly straightforward back panel socketry, and a cooling fan to show it means business

·        The main display looks a bit lost on the vast front panel but readability is good and winky graphics have been kept to a minimum

 

HEAD

PARASOUND HCA-1205A THX Certified 5-Channel Amplifier, £1700

VERDICT *****

 

Why’s it here: The THX badge is clear and unambiguous mark of technical excellence in a market awash with techno babble and hype, so the Parasound HCA-1205 5-channel amplifier is off to a very good start. THX is a very precise set of standards laid down by Lucasfilm Ltd, for home cinema equipment. It is designed to ensure an accurate recreation of the theatrical experience in the confines of the average living room, but Parasound, has gone one better and bill the HCA-1205 as 'The World's most powerful THX certified amplifier'; it's probably the heaviest as well!

 

Any unique features: The HCA-1205 tips the scales at over 22.5 kg, that's largely due to a toroidal transformer the size of bowler hat. If called upon to do so it can deliver up to 45 amps peak current per channel, via 30 matched bipolar output transistors. Designer John Curl has made no attempt to miniaturise or rationalise construction, each amplifier module is a separate entity, each one rated at 140 watts RMS, (the original THX spec suggested 100 watts as the ideal maximum…). Inputs and outputs are handled by top-grade connectors and it's housed in an industrial quality 19-inch rack-mountable case. There's no displays or knobs to play with, just a solitary on/off switch and a row of set-and-forget input level presets on the back panel.

 

How does it perform: It's so smooth, sound almost oozes out of the speakers. The THX standard has come in for a bit of stick from hi-fi purists but it's hard to imagine anyone finding fault with this part of the system. The most impressive feature is the amplifier's transparency. Nothing is added, and nothing is taken away, even at full tilt there's not a trace of noise or distortion. It never sounds even remotely stressed, explosions and dynamic effects retain all of their energy. This is not brute-force power however; it handles quieter, more detailed sounds with equal precision, without ever making you aware of its presence.

 

Our Verdict: The amplifier performs flawlessly, it will delight well-heeled THX fans, with speakers and source drive components that can do it justice.

 

CSE, telephone (01423) 359054

 

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Features                     5 x 140 watts RMS high current (45 amps peak current)

amplifier, THX certified, auto switch-on, gold plated binding posts, independent

input level controls

Sockets                       audio inputs (phono), speaker connections (binding posts)

Dimensions                 482 x 152 x 457mm

 

Sound Quality            *****

Build Quality              *****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 *****

Overall value              ****

 

Rival Buys

Denon AVP-A1, £4900

Harmon Kardon, AVI250, £1000

Rotel RB985 £725

 

CRITICAL CAPTIONS

·        It's big, black and it'll blow your socks off . It's heavy too, a hernia-inducing XX kg

·        Don't go looking for knobs and buttons, there's a bank of level controls on the back, and that's it…

·        Industrial-strength speaker terminals and input sockets that shout out for top-grade cables and interconnects

·        Front panel displays are confined to a small, discrete row of power status and current overload LEDs

 

 

HEAD

ONE FOR ALL TOPLINE 8, Universal remote control, £70

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: Forget rogue asteroids, millennium bugs, alien hordes and deadly viruses. The biggest threat to humanity is remote control! Scientists predict that within a generation our legs will shrivel up and become useless, (with 200 TV channels in the offing our brains surely won't be far behind…). They're taking over, at night they grow legs and replicate, do you even know how many there are in your living room? It's not too late, fight back, you can eliminate 8 of them with the Topline 8 zapper from One For All!

 

Any unique features: Topline 8 is one of a number of universal remotes that can control up to 8 devices, but it's the only one we're aware of that's configured for home cinema. It can be set to switch on all of the components in a system with one button press, or several devices can be controlled at once with user-defined key assignments. The built-in clock can be set to switch devices on and off up to seven days in advance -- handy for recording from a tuner, or using your TV as an alarm clock -- and there's a macro function, for initiating a sequence of commands.

 

How does it perform: A full-house set-up is a bit of a palaver, punching buttons and constantly referring to the product codes in the back of the instruction manual. If you're lucky it works with the first couple of codes. Should none of the printed codes work then there's the option to step through the entire code library, the manual warns it could take a while… Fortunately we were able to control everything we put in front of it, including an ancient, and usually troublesome Goldstar TV. Frequently-used functions, like channel change, volume and VCR transport are easy to find; some tuner, amp and DVD/CD commands, particularly those buried deep in on-screen menus, may not be so accessible.   

 

Our Verdict: We reckon £70 is a bit stiff, though we've heard of manufacturer's replacement handsets costing as much. It has to be better than armfuls of separate remotes for day to day use though the Topline 5 at £50 might be a better deal, unless you've actually got 8 components in your system.

 

One For All Ltd., telephone (01492) 860881

 

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Features                     8 individual control assignments, one-button 'Home Theatre' control grouping, macro sequence function, timed sequence, sleep timer, volume lock, clock display, backlit display and illuminated buttons, software upgrade via telephone                   

Dimensions                 240 x 70 x 40mm

 

Build Quality              ****

Features                     *****

Ease of use                 ***

Overall value              ***

 

Rival Buys

Remote Angel, £85

Remotec 8, £35

Visual 8, £40

 

CRITICAL CAPTIONS

·        The two-tone sliver-black livery looks smart, but for how long?

·        The LCD display is quite small but the blue backlight helps improve legibility

·        Power comes from a set of 4 AAA cells. The time is reset but control data is retained during a battery change

·        The operating software can be updated by phone, the handset contains an inductive coupler that picks up data from the telephone earpiece

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1998, 1708

 

 

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