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Okay, you can buy a perfectly adequate NICAM VCR for less than £250 these days, but is there a case for spending a little more? We put six mid-market models to the test, costing between £300 and £400



In industry jargon the six machines we're looking at here are known as 'step-up' models. They're the ones clued-up sales assistants will steer you towards when you express interest in a budget or 'entry-level' NICAM VCR. They'll point out all the extra benefits and features you get for just a few more pounds, and a lot of the time that is good advice. The specifications for mid-range or step-up models are deliberately made to look enticing, to extract that little bit of extra cash from your wallet, and who can blame the manufacturer and retailers? Thanks to intense competition VCR prices are at an all time low, profit margins are wafer-thin and there are some tremendous bargains to be had.


So what are you going to get by spending another £50, over and above what you would have paid for a basic NICAM VCR? Don't expect too much in the way of improved picture or sound quality, at least not from within a particular manufacturer's model range. Entry level machines frequently use the same deck mechanism and core AV processing circuitry as their more expensive stablemates, though you're more likely to find things like picture noise reduction circuits and tape-tuning systems on step-up decks.


The commonest add-on goodies are likely to be satellite control, front-mounted AV input sockets, multi-brand TV remote controls and audio dubbing. You may also get improved control facilities, things like jog/shuttle dials appear on front panels and occasionally remote handsets, it's also an excuse for manufacturers to liven up the cosmetics with smarter trim and sometimes a splash of colour, chrome or silver. In some cases step-up VCRs gain an extra AV socket on the back, though we have to say twin SCARTs are the norm nowadays, we'd advise against buying any machine with only one.


Look out for advanced convenience features, the current flavour of the month is tape library systems, that automatically catalogue all of the recordings you make on the machine in question. There are at least three systems at the moment, developed by Hitachi, Panasonic and Sony, with more to come. Unfortunately none of them work retrospectively, so if you're looking for a way of sorting out your existing piles of tapes forget it.


Step-up VCRs are almost always aimed at video movie-makers as well as those interested in home cinema. There used to be a quite separate category of editing decks, specifically tailored for camcorder enthusiasts; a few specialist machines remain but general editing features, like audio dub and front AV sockets are commonly fitted to mid-range models.


Is there right time to buy a mid-range VCR? The simple answer is yes, now! VHS video recorder prices have been falling for the past 25 years and there's no reason to suppose they won't continue to do so. However, price reductions are not coming quite as thick and fast as they used to, so there's absolutely no point in waiting. If you see the machine you want, at the price you're prepared to pay, buy it now, and get some good use out of it.


Finally, what about the future? Has VHS come to the end of the line with D-VHS just around the corner? Whilst it is there's little or nothing left to wring out of the analogue VHS the format will be with us for some time to come. D-VHS video recorders should start to appear in the next few months and if everything goes to plan, will become the format of choice for recording digital TV. There's every reason to suppose analogue VHS will plod along for another few years yet, and there's no point in even thinking about D-VHS until you go digital, but in any case there's no danger of your collection becoming unplayable as all D-VHS video recorders will be backwards compatible and able to play your existing tapes.  




Measuring the technical performance of a video recorder is a reasonably straightforward business. Basically we compare what goes in -- in the form of test signals and reference tapes  -- with what comes out during playback. The parameters we are most interested in are resolution and noise, both of which have a big impact on what we perceive as picture quality. Resolution tells us about how much information -- in the form of fine picture detail -- the VCR manages to capture and reproduce; noise is the opposite, it's a measure of how much unwanted information is added to the picture by the VCR's tape mechanism and signal processing circuitry. The same basic techniques are used to assess sound quality, but in the end the final judgements are made using the most critical test instruments of all, the human eye and ear.


Whilst AV performance always comes first we put a lot of emphasis on build quality and features, especially the genuinely useful or innovative ones. Finally, how easy is it to install and use? Over the years we've seen a lot of very competent machines spoilt by thoughtless control layout or awkward remote controls; if you can't find or work out to use some clever gadget it's just a waste of space, and money.






'The HR-DD855 is JVC's  top of the range VHS video for '98 incorporating JVC's own Dynamic Drum system with TimeScan which offers distortionless, full-colour variable high-speed playback even in Long Play.  It's a home cinema-ready hi-fi deck with Spatializer for more spacious sound without additional speakers.  This product also offers editing featured like Audio Dubbing and Insert Editing'.



The Panasonic NV-HD680 has a tape library with easy program search capability, making it really easy and quick to find any recorded programme on your tapes and to keep track of all recordings in your collection. This new model can also record Teletext subtitles -- a feature that will be particularly useful for those who are hard of hearing. The NV-HD680 also offers all the editing facilities a camcorder user could wish or'.



'The VR850, Philips' latest ease-of-use NICAM VCR, combines hi-fi styling with the latest Philips Crystal Clear Video technology - a suite of Philips-own enhancements including Natural Colours, Digital Studio Picture Control, Studio Tracking and laser-cut video heads - to produce sharp, noise-free pictures every time - whatever the source material'



To come



'With a sleek, silver design and a wide range of features the VC-MH731 is an ideal video recorder for the home theatre. Excellent picture quality, digital noise reduction (DNR), and high-speed rewind make it a high performance, user-friendly unit. It's also geared up for the future, with the Next View AV link allowing the video recorder to be controlled from the remote of a NexTViewLink TV'.



To come




JVC HR-DD855, £380 *****

The HR-DD855 is a modest upgrade of the DD845, first reviewed in HE at about this time last year. The most notable new features are Rec-Link satellite control and quasi-S-VHS replay; the front panel has been changed slightly and there's been a small drop in the price as well, otherwise the specification remains pretty much the same. The features that will sell this machine are Dynamic Drum and TimeScan; the former still manages to impress with noise-free replay, at all speeds, forwards and backwards. The TimeScan audio buffer provides real time sound from the mono soundtrack, again at all replay speeds and in both directions. Together it means you can watch a movie in just a few minutes, and still follow the plot. Video movie makers are very well catered for with audio dub and insert edit; there's a syncro edit connection on the back for JVC camcorders, it has a jog/shuttle dial for precise replay control and there's a set of front panel AV connections.


Auto installation is quite slow, it took almost five minutes on our sample, and at one point we thought it had given up… It gets there in the end though, storing and sorting all broadcasts. The on-screen menu and remote handset are reasonably easy to get along with, the deck mechanism is fast and responsive. The manual timer on this VCR has to be one of the easiest to program, time, date and channel information entered using a set of four rocker switches.


Picture performance is very good, our sample managed to resolve a full 250-lines, picture noise levels are low -- the tape tuning system responds well to high-grade cassettes -- and colour registration is spot on. Trick play performance is quite simply outstanding.  The stereo soundtrack has a wide, even response; there is some background hiss but it is no worse than normal and if anything a little below average.



Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, Dynamic Drum with noiseless multi-speed replay, Time Scan audio buffer, NTSC replay, Quasi S-VHS replay, audio spatializer, Audio dub, insert edit, Rec Link, multi-brand TV remote, Rec-Link


Sockets                       Rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line out (phono), remote pause (minijack) Front: AV in (phono)


Dimensions            400 x 330 x 98mm


Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact            JVC UK, telephone 0181-450 3282


Critical Captions

·        Front panel layout is conventional, the jog/shuttle dial on the right side gives very precise control over tape replay speed and direction, and no picture noise!

·        The remote handset is reasonably well laid out and it has multi-brand TV functions; timer programming is very simple



PANASONIC NV-HD680, £400 ****

The Panasonic HD680 is a top-end VCR in the classic mould, designed in equal measure to appeal to both home cinema enthusiasts and camcorder owners. Panasonic have never really gone in for flashy cosmetics so it's not much to look at but under the bonnet, where it really matters, it is packed with useful features. They include a couple of fairly new gizmos, including a Tape Library system, which catalogues the contents of several hundred tapes, and it can invisibly record teletext sub-titles. They are displayed only when you need them (useful if not everyone in the household has hearing difficulties, or you want to follow the plot when the phone rings).


For good measure there's full auto install, satellite control, a multi-brand TV remote and NTSC replay. Camcorder related facilities comprise syncro-editing functions compatible with a wide range of machines, insert edit, audio dub, a jog/shuttle dial and front-mounted AV inputs.


The initial set-up is uneventful and it's reasonably quick too, taking about two and a half minutes to set the tuner and clock. The handset is a convenient size with all of the most frequently used controls clearly identified and falling readily to hand. The Super Drive deck mechanism is one of the quietest in the business, changing speed and direction quickly without any of the usual clunks and clicks.


One thing you can normally depend on with Panasonic VCRs is cracking picture and sound performance and the HD680 is not about to disappoint. It scored well in all of our tests, it's ability to resolve fine detail is at or close to the limits of the VHS system at 250-lines, colour performance is very good indeed and picture noise is well below average, especially when using high grade tapes. The hi-fi soundtracks have some background hiss, but again it is less than most other machines in this price bracket and the NICAM decoder is very crisp 



Features            NICAM stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, Tape Library system, satellite control, multi-brand TV remote, Q-Link, subtitle recording, display dimmer, NTSC replay, syncro & insert editing, audio dub       


Sockets             rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line audio out (phono), sync edit (mini jack), 5/11 pin edit (mini DIN). Front: AV in (phono)            


Dimensions            430 x 87 x 304 mm  


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact            Panasonic UK, telephone 0990 357375


Critical Captions

·        Just another black box, but it's not bad looking with neatly laid out controls and the all-important jog/shuttle dial, for accurate speed and direction control

·        The remote control is a handy size, not too many buttons -- at least ones you can see -- there's more under the sliding flap -- and it can control a wide range of TVs as well


PHILIPS VR850, £350, ****

Over the past year or so there's been a distinct change in the appearance of Philips VCRs. They used to be quite restrained black and slate grey boxes, then last year a few bits of shiny trim started to appear now look at them! If nothing else the VR850 is going to stand out on the shelf, but how well does it stack up in the features and performance department?


Not bad at all, there are no big surprises or major changes from last year's model (VR-676), but it has sprouted a set of front AV input sockets and there's a 4-stage picture sharpness control and improved on-screen displays. The remote handset has some modest multi-brand TV control functions (it only supports Philips, Grundig, Panasonic & Sony models) and there's a child lock.


NTSC replay is in stereo and it is one of the few machines around these days with manual audio recording level control. Although not specifically pitched as a camcorder edit deck, that's something it should be quite good at with audio dub, a mini jog/shuttle dial on the remote handset and a fairly advanced syncro edit feature that works with camcorders having suitable edit control sockets.


Auto installation is a fairly relaxed affair, taking several minutes to complete. The tuner is unusually very sensitive, our sample managed to find and lock onto no less than 11 stations on an indoor antenna.


Resolution on our test sample was a whisker under 250 lines, luminance noise levels are low and colours are clean. By the way, we're please to see Philips encouraging the use of a direct AV connection by including a SCART cable in with the accessory pack. Picture stability is good and the noise bars during trick play are fairly. We found the 'Smart' picture control worked best in the 'Natural' position, the other settings seem to mangle the image in one way or another. It's good to see a manual recording level control again, though apart from the odd musical recording and maybe camcorder editing the auto system works well. Background hiss on the stereo soundtracks is well suppressed and the response is uncoloured.



Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, NexTViewLink, 4-stage picture control, child lock, continuous playback, manual audio level control, audio dub, syncro edit, multi-brand TV remote (only)


Sockets                       Rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line out (phono). Front: AV input (phono), microphone, headphones & syncro edit (minijack)


Dimensions                 430 x 290 x 100mm


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact            Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone 0181-689 4444


Critical Captions

·        If nothing else it's distinctive, leaning towards garish maybe but it should blend in well with the current crop of mini hi-fi systems

·        The handset is a very tactile shape and the controls are well laid out, the mini jog/shuttle is a handy extra 



SAMSUNG SV-717, £330, ***

Classy styling is not something you normally associate with Samsung VCRs, to be fair the appearance of its machines has improved over the past few years but the SV-717 is a whole new ball-game. The front panel is dominated by a large flap that conceals the tape hatch, controls and front mounted input sockets. It's surrounded by marble effect panels and green lights; it opens to reveal a set of curvy buttons either side of the slot and a large easy to read display panel, visible through a thin elliptical window on the flap. The only drawback with the front panel is the need to open it to gain access to the tape hatch and AV input sockets.


The list of features is more comprehensive than we have come to expect from Samsung and it's the first one we can recall that has a flying erase head. This will be of interest to home movie-makers as it allows new scenes to be cleanly inserted into the middle of existing recordings. There's a good assortment of home cinema features as well, like NTSC replay, a multi-brand TV remote and satellite control. A full auto installation system takes care of tuning and channel sort, and for good measure it sets the right time and date as well.


Samsung have put a lot of effort into the picture performance of the 717; whenever a tape is inserted an auto-tracking display appears on the screen and there's a feature called Intelligent Picture control, that automatically adjusts sharpness, or allows you to set it manually.


Actual picture quality is reasonable; the resolution was around the 240-line mark but noise levels are fairly average and there's some smearing on heavily saturated colours. There's also a slight amount of jitter in the picture, it's not too bad on recordings made on the VCR but on other tapes it can be quite noticeable. Sound quality is good, though and background noise on the hi-fi soundtracks is kept in check moreover the response is uncoloured and flat.



Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto set-up, satellite control, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, multi-brand remote control, insert edit, repeat play, intelligent picture control


Sockets                       Rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line out (phono). Front AV input (phonos)


Dimensions            490 x 182 x 400 mm


Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            *****

Ease of use                 *****


Contact            Samsung Electronics, telephone 0181-391 0168


Critical Captions

·        A very neat looking machine, we're not sure about the marble-effect panels and green lights either side of the front panel flap, but it is very distinctive and a welcome change from the usual black box approach

·        A very business-like looking remote handset with TV control functions, the jog-shuttle dial is a welcome bonus


SHARP MH-731, £300, *****

To be honest the MH-731 was a bit of a surprise. Sharp video recorders have always been a bit, well…ordinary. No this one, the 731 gets off to a flying start; it's a compact midi-sized design, a reminder of the cosmetics and livery of Sharp's recently launched, HE award-winning DVD player. It has all the right connections and features for life as a home cinema component, one or two facilities to please camcorder owners and it's finished in trendy silver; there's something for everyone here.


Convenience features include satellite control, NTSC replay, a multi-brand TV remote, audio-dub and a couple of welcome extras. Standby power consumption is less than 1-watt, and if it gets pinched there's a sporting chance you'll get it back. The reason for that is Postcode Security; the MH731 stores and displays the owner's postcode every time it is switched on, helping the police to identify the machine's rightful owner if it is subsequently recovered.


It's a noisy machine, but it's a good noise and it only happens during fast wind. It sounds a bit like a small jet aircraft taking off and landing; it can wind an E-180 tape from end to end in around one minute, which must be some sort of record.  It is very easy to use as well, the remote handset is a model of simplicity, until you open the flap that is, then it's as badly infested with buttons as everyone else's, but you only need to do that occasionally, to access the record, timer and menu buttons.


The good news continues with picture resolution only slightly under 250-lines, the picture looks a little hard but edges are clean and there is very little noise in the picture. Colours are lifelike and trick replay is very stable. The stereo hi-fi track shave a wide, clean response and noise is no worse than average.



Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto set-up, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, NexTViewLink, satellite control, Postcode security, child lock, audio dub, multi-brand TV remote, low power standby (>1 watt)


Sockets                       Rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line out (phono). Front: AV in (phono)


Dimensions                 360 x 289 x 93 mm


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact            Sharp Electronics UK, telephone 0161-205 2333


Critical Captions

·        It's small, just the job for slotting into tight corners or stacking with your mini hi-fi system

·        Now why can't other remote control handsets be like this? Big, well labelled buttons for routine TV and VCR functions, just don't look under the flap… 


SONY SLV-F990, £400, ****

You how it is when you keep saying a word over and over it starts to become meaningless, well Sony are dangerously close to doing that with 'smart'. It appears no less than five times on the front panel of the SLV-F990. The most interesting of the smarts is Smart File; this is Sony's tape library system and is without question the moist technically advanced system on the market. Programme information is stored in a microchip embedded in the cassette spine label. It's automatically read when the tape is loaded into the machine, or it can be 'swiped' past a sensor on the front panel. On the plus side it is incredibly easy to use but the downside is that all of your tapes need the special labels, you get five with the machine but thereafter they will set you back around £8 for a pack of five.


SmartLink is Sony's version of Project 50, the AV Link system adopted by most TV and VCR manufacturers, variously known as NexTViewlink, Easy Link etc. Basically it means the TV and VCR talk to each other via a SCART cable, enabling a number of features like auto switch on TV when you insert a tape, and Rec Link, to quickly record the channel you're watching on TV. The F990 has a full set of home cinema functions including satellite control, multi-brand TV remote, tape tuning and noise reduction. There are one or two movie making facilities, like the front AV sockets, audio dub and multi-speed replay but it's not an editing deck as such. As far as looks are concerned it's a tidy-looking machine, though nothing to get excited about and not significantly different from previous model ranges.   


The on-screen results look good, there's no problems with resolution, which is just under 250-lines, and noise levels are a little below average, however bright and heavily saturated colours have a tendency to smear slightly. The background hiss on the stereo hi-fi soundtracks is there, but it's not intrusive and the frequency response is very flat.  



Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, multi-brand TV remote, SmartFile, Smartlink, satellite control, security lock, tape tuning, audio dub


Sockets                       Rear: 2 x SCART AV, stereo line out (phono), satellite control (minijack). Front: AV in (phono)


Dimensions            430 x 100 x 314 mm


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact            Sony UK, telephone 0990 111999


Critical Captions

·        Sony keep it plain and simple, the only unusual feature is the SmartFile sensor, next to the on/standby button

·        It's big and covered in buttons, some of which glow in the dark



All of the VCRs in this roundup easily justify the extra cost, over and above their entry-level cousins. However, the general advice is that if, whilst in the shop or showroom you are persuaded to spend an extra £50 to £75 above your original limit, don't be railroaded by eager salespeople into looking at just one manufacturer's model range.


Samsung has made some big improvements to their step-up model and the SV-717 is now a real contender for the home cinema market -- particularly in terms of features, ease of use and looks. However, the 717 still has some ground to make up when it comes to picture performance, when compared with some of its rivals. Nevertheless, the SV-717 has all the necessary qualifications for a home cinema component; the only small problem is the competition, with includes cheaper and better-equipped VCRs.   


Philips VCRs used to be a bit of an acquired taste and were often notable for their idiosyncratic behaviour. Not any longer; you can take the VR850 anywhere and it won't let you down. Picture and sound quality are above average, it is easy to use and there are some useful extras that camcorder owners will undoubtedly appreciate. It has no serious, or even minor shortcomings, in fact the only quibble is the limited number of TV brands supported by the remote handset and the lack of any really distinctive features -- apart from the cosmetics -- that would set it apart from the crowd.  


In some ways the Panasonic NV-HD680 is the most traditional machine in this round-up, there has been no attempt to reduce the size or jazz up the front panel. It's also one of the best specified models we've looked at and the Tape Library feature, along with the editing features and the company's reluctance to get embroiled in the throat-cutting at the budget end of the market, explains the higher than average price. It's the most complete all-rounder equally at home as an AV component or editing home movies.


We really like the Sony F990 and the SmartFile tape library system is ingenious. The trouble is, we're not so keen on the idea of paying £1.50 each for tape labels, and there's always the nagging doubt in the back of your mind about what would happen if for any reason Sony stopped making them? Otherwise this is a solid and highly competent home cinema VCR, the cosmetics are a bit restrained by current standards but maybe that's no bad thing, at least it won't look horribly out of date three or four years down the line. You're also paying a little more for this machine but if past performance is anything to go by it is usually money well spent.


Dynamic Drum and Time Scan are almost guaranteed to get any JVC video recorder into the winner's enclosure and the HR-DD855 is no exception. It's a shame the successor to the highly acclaimed DD845 hasn't kept up the momentum with some extra features or widgets, this is little more than a cosmetic re-vamp but the 845 was always going to be a hard act to follow. Nevertheless, for movie buffs this is the one to go for, it has all you could ask for in terms of AV performance plus the bonus of noise-free trick replay and real-time sound.


Well done Sharp! The MH-731 was a very pleasant surprise. Picture and sound quality were both very good indeed, not the best in this group, but only by a whisker. However, what really impressed us with this machine was the ease of use. The design of the remote deserves an extra pat on the back, it's so simple to use, plus there's all those thought thoughtful extras, like Postcode Security, the incredibly fast deck and very low power consumption. 



SHARP MH-731, £300

Sharp are on a roll, following a succession of worthy but dull VCRs the MH-731 comes across as a really well thought-out AV component. It has been accomplished by simple attention to detail; picture and sound quality have taken precedence over flashy gadgets, and rather than trying to impress with lots of knobs and buttons Sharp have taken the opposite tack and concentrated on ease of use. It's affordable too, altogether a very smart (to pinch a term from Sony) little machine.


JVC HR-DD855, £380

It's fairly obvious why we rate the DD855 so highly, the Dynamic Drum is one of those extremely rare features that extend the VHS performance envelope and offer a genuine and quantifiable benefit to the user. Noiseless fast replay might not seem that important, but combined with real-time sound, it put you back in control of what you're watching.



It was a real toss-up between this machine and the Sony F990, they are both very similar, even down to the tape library systems, but in the end the balance tipped ever so slightly in Panasonic's favour, simply for the fact that there's nothing more to buy.    



JVC HR-S7500, £350

This VCR has to be the bargain of the decade; it's a fully-fledged Super VHS machine for the astonishingly low price of £350. Whilst S-VHS picture quality may not greatly benefit home cinema applications -- off air recordings do not look significantly better -- it is a very well-rounded design and a godsend for owners of high end camcorders, looking for a high performance edit deck


HITACHI VT-FX770, £340

The best Hitachi VCR to date, picture and sound quality are outstanding. It's packed with interesting features, like Tape Navigation, which stores details of all recordings made on the machine, and Movie Text, which displays 'Closed Caption' subtitles, recorded on a lot of recent movies, and some TV programs.  


TOSHIBA V-728B, £300

Toshiba video recorders have always been prized home cinema performers but you've normally had to pay for the pleasure. The V-728 is a Tosh for very little dosh, picture and sound quality are well above average and what lacks in gizmos it makes up for with simple set up and easy to use controls


TABLE 1                   

BRAND                                  JVC            PAN            PHIL            SAM            SHP            SON

Price                                        380            400            350            330            300            400

Video Plus+                            *            *            *            *            *            *

NTSC                                      *            *            *            *            *            *

Quasi S-VHS                          *            -            -            -            -            -

SCARTs                                 2            2            2            2            2            2

MB Remote                           *            *            *            *            *            *         

Sat control                              *            *            -            *            *            *

Front AV                                 *            *            *            *            *            *

Audio out                                *            *            *            *            *            *


Picture quality                        *****            ****            ****            ***            *****            ****

Sound quality                          ****            ****            ****            ****            ****            ****

Features                                 ****            ****            ****            ****            ****            ****

Ease of Use                            ****            ****            ****            ****            ****            ****

Overall score                          *****            ****            ****            ***            ****            ****







A mean, lean movie-machine that makes short shrift of dull films



Home cinema excellence with a touch of movie-making thrown in for good measure



A good all rounder for home cinema and camcorder applications



Elegant looks and an enticing spec but fairly average in the picture department



Small, cute and cuddly, it's also a great performer and good value too



The tape library supremo, but there is a sting in the tail…



ã R. Maybury 1998 0411



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