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This time last year a typical middle of the road NICAM video recorder would have cost you somewhere between £350 and £400, with the very cheapest machines coming in at just under £300. Today you can pick up a stereo VCR for less than £200! According to the HE supercomputer, at this rate NICAM VCRs will indeed be given away with packets of Cornflakes by August 2003…


That's good news for us, the VCR buying public, but it is driving manufacturers and retailers crazy. They call it price erosion and for the first time there's serious talk that some brands could disappear if it goes on. This kind of intense competition and cost-cutting means there's simply no money to be made on budget models. It sounds an odd thing to say but we hope prices do not get any lower, it would be a great shame if any makers pulled out, ultimately it will mean less choice. There are signs that prices have now bottomed out, so if you're looking for a stereo VCR now is a very good time to buy.


As prices have plummeted so the specification and performance of budget stereo VCRs has risen. The days when cost equated directly to picture quality have long gone, though it is still fair to say that the AV performance of dearer machines is usually marginally better than mid-range and budget models, though not by much in some cases! However, the main reason for spending more on a VCR is the extra convenience features, widgets and toys. A few of them are genuinely useful, though it has to be said that some of those fancy facilities can be over complicated and tend to be quickly forgotten.


AV performance should be your top priority when buying a VCR for home cinema applications, and it's worth briefly re-iterating the reasons why you need a stereo machine. The mono linear sound system that is standard on all VHS VCRs records the soundtrack along the bottom edge of the tape using a static recording head. Head to tape speed is painfully slow, slower even than an audio cassette consequently the amount of information that can be recorded on the tape is limited -- treble response is about as good as cheap transistor radio -- and background hiss can be really annoying. NICAM VCRs on the other hand have a stereo hi-fi soundtrack, the frequency response is similar to audio CD and although it's still a bit hissy, it is well suited to four-channel Dolby Surround soundtracks. A useful spin-off is that NICAM VCRs are usually built to a tighter specification, which generally means that picture quality and tracking are better too.


But isn't VHS going to be obsolete soon, with all this digital stuff in the pipeline? True, the VHS format is 20 years old this year, that's a good age for any recording system, but it's going to be around for a while yet. New formats, like D-VHS will appear this year, and there's the prospect of recordable DVD decks by the turn of the century, but try finding anything to play on them in your local Blockbuster or Woolies.  There's plenty of life left in the old dog yet, and as we're about to see, you don't have to spend a fortune to get tip-top performance…




The question is how do you define picture quality? It's not as simple as you might think, and it can be highly subjective. Nevertheless, the critical technical parameters are easily measured. Our checks include resolution, or the amount of fine detail a VCR can capture, and display. We assess colour accuracy, to see if what goes in is the same as what comes out, and we're very interested in noise levels on both the video and audio outputs. We use a combination of electronically generated test signals, reference tapes, our special collection of blockbuster clips and the good old Mark 1 Eyeball. Our eyes are much more sensitive to changes in noise levels than fine detail or colour fidelity. Subconsciously that's what strikes you first about an obviously good or bad picture; noise has a big effect on the clarity and sharpness of a picture. The trouble is VHS is an analogue system and noise is added to the video signal at almost every stage of processing. Video tape is one of the main sources of that noise so we've included a mini group test on blank VHS tapes. The results may not surprise you but there is a clear message, and that's poor quality tape can make even the best VCR show a crappy picture.




The fact is you don't have to spend a lot on a VCR to get half or even three-quarters decent picture quality these days. If you want that little bit extra then go for a Super-VHS model -- JVC are going to be introducing a new model this autumn costing just £350. However, you should be aware that ordinary VHS tapes won't look significant better on a Super VHS VCR and there are no S-VHS format recordings available in the UK. There's not a great deal of improvement in off-air recordings either.


However, if you don't mind spending another £50 to £100 you can get some useful extras on standard VHS machines. Satellite control is more common once you get beyond £350 though it’s by no means unknown on budget equipment. Tape archiving systems, that keep track of your tape collection, are starting to appear on mid range machines. If you've got a camcorder, check out the top-end models from the big name European and Japanese manufacturers (notably JVC, Panasonic, Philips and Sony) as these machines are more likely to have a range of useful editing features. Check to make sure they're suitable for use with your camcorder; VCRs with specialised edit control facilities may only work with camcorders from the same manufacturer.








To come



'The new Bush VCR860 has all the latest technology to make setting up, programming and operating easy. This feature-packed video cassette recorder has a price tag of less than £170, representing another great deal from Bush'



'Dynamic Picture Equaliser was developed to provide Hitachi VCRs with first class colours and clarity and thereby give the best possible picture quality. We took the signal processor and developed it incorporating three main components. Dynamic Picture Equaliser is advanced technology at its very best ensuring improved picture quality for all that you record'.



'The HR-J655 comes equipped with the highly-praised B.E.S.T. picture system which assesses the condition of the tape and of the video heads and automatically makes adjustments to optimise recording and playback picture performance. This model is also ready for wide-screen broadcasts with Widescreen (16:9) Recording and Playback capability'







'Sanyo's latest 4-head NICAM VCR, the VHR-778 incorporates the new Adjust Recording Timer and Tape Remainder feature. This automatically sets recording time to LP or SP speed, depending on how much time is required for a recording'



AIWA FX5500, £230 ****

One of the reasons VCRs are so cheap at the moment is due in no small part to Aiwa's aggressive pricing policy. Over the past four or five years they have repeatedly set new standards for cost and specification; the FX550 is the machine the major European and Japanese manufacturers will be gunning for.


Aiwa are not a company to hide their lights under a bushel, in fact they like their lights bright, plentiful and colourful. The main display is, shall we say, a bit showy. Every time you press a button on the remote a big blue ring winks on the right of the display and is surrounded by a burst of yellow dots. Don't worry about that, just look at the features list. As well as NICAM, auto set-up and NTSC replay (all speeds) there's multi-speed replay with a jog/shuttle dial, front AV sockets, 'Ad Skip' (5-second blasts of picture search, to whizz past the ads), audio dub and an anti-theft security device. This stops the machine being used if it is stolen, and helps identify the rightful owner, if it is later recovered.


The picture on our sample was ever so slightly soft with resolution a touch under 240-lines. Colour fidelity was very good though, and picture noise levels were as low as any of its dearer rivals. It's good to have multi-speed replay and the jog/shuttle but it's quite noisy, even on still frame. Audio performance is good, noise on the stereo soundtracks is below average and the flat, wide response carries Dolby Surround material fluently and easily. Cheap and cheerful springs to mind, but not in a derogatory way. It is cheap, and the cosmetics are lively, but this is also a well-specified VCR, and a capable AV performer that provides a cost-effective route into home cinema.


Main Features:             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer, NTSC replay, audio dubbing, jog/shuttle control, auto set-up, 'Ad skip', anti-theft security, audio dub



Sockets                       2 x SCART AV, line audio out (phono), front: AV in (phono)


Picture Quality            ***

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact                       Aiwa UK Ltd, telephone 0990 902902


Critical Captions


·        You just know Aiwa makes this, even before you see the badge. Bright and cheerful, something to watch when there's nothing on TV…


·        A very straightforward remote handset, secondary controls and the on-screen display buttons are concealed behind a sliding hatch


·        AV connections to the TV and any other components are handled by twin SCART sockets and a pair of line-audio outputs



BUSH VCR-860, £170 ***

This is going to sound really mean, especially at that price (it has been recently reduced from £199), but even the cardboard box the 860 is shipped in is thin and insubstantial. Sadly that can be said of the rest of the machine which has clearly been built to a price, rather than a quality threshold. It is very basic by current standards, even compared with other budget machines. There's no auto installation system, clock set is manual (it needs resetting if power is interrupted for longer than 30 minutes), there's no PDC facility; it has a single SCART socket and no trick play features to speak of -- still frame is a mess quite frankly. On the plus side it does have NTSC replay, a good assortment of 'auto' features (rewind, eject, power off), audio dub -- very unusual in this price bracket -- and auto repeat play. The latter makes it useful for shop displays and presentations.


It's a tidy looking little machine and the case is quite compact but it's heavily dependent on the busy remote handset; front panel controls are few and far between. They've even put the tuning button on the remote -- slap-bang in the middle -- we think that is a mistake, sooner or later it's going to get pressed by mistake.   


Without auto installation the initial set-up routine is a little more protracted than usual and the sweep tuner takes some getting used to, but the on-screen display is reasonably straightforward. On paper the resolution isn't too bad, it's hovering around the 240-lines mark, which is quite respectable for any machine, but the picture looks harsh. The display suffers from a fair amount of jitter and noise levels are quite high; there's a distinct 'fizz' in the picture and colours look a bit wishy-washy. Audio quality is a bit more encouraging. Noise levels are about average and the response is fairly flat, in fact it doesn’t sound too bad at all. Picture quality is iffy but the very low price might just help to sell it as a second or bedroom VCR.


Main Features: NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer auto repeat play, NTSC replay, audio dubbing


Sockets: 1 x SCART AV, stereo line audio in/out (phono), RF bypass (coaxial)


Picture Quality            **

Sound Quality            ***

Ease of use                 ***


Contact            Alba plc., telephone 0181 594 5533


Critical Captions


·        It's quite easy on the eye, and the lack of front panel controls makes it look unthreatening


·        The remote control has its fair share of tiny buttons, the labelling's not too good and we really don't like to tuner preset controls on the handset


·        No surprises around the back, there's a single SCART socket, line audio in and out plus the usual pair of aerial sockets



HITACHI VT-F645, £280 ****

The VT-F645 is the longest serving member of this roundup. It arrived late last year, selling for £350 but it was immediately discounted to £330 and now it's priced at £280, so what's wrong with it? Well nothing, it's actually a great little machine, Hitachi are simply reacting to a fast-moving market. It would still be a good deal even at its previous price.


It has all of the basic qualifications for a home cinema VCR, though it is slightly unusual by not having NTSC replay. We can overlook that because it has satellite control and Hitachi's Dynamic Picture equaliser noise reduction circuitry. It's one of the more effective systems we've seen lately and does a good job of limiting picture noise, especially on old or worn tapes. There's also a set of front-mounted AV inputs, full auto installation and a backlit LCD display on the front panel, though the latter is a mixed blessing. It's difficult to read the time when it is switched off, the viewing angle is quite shallow and the record indicator symbol is hard to see.


Resolution is a whisker under the VHS benchmark of 250 lines and noise levels are very low indeed, thanks to the Dynamic Picture Equaliser. Colour registration is on the button and accuracy is good; all in all a very crisp looking picture. Trick play (still and slomo) are both very steady, the stereo soundtrack is flat and uncoloured and there's below average levels of background hiss. Considering the new low price, satellite control and AV performance this has to be worth shortlisting. It has virtually everything you need in a home cinema VCR and a fine pedigree to boot.


Main Features            NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer, auto set-up


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


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact                       Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000


Critical Captions


·        Smooth good looks and a well laid out front panel, the only niggle concerns the LCD display, which can be difficult to see


·        The remote control handset is a bit crowded and some of the buttons are very small but it does the job


·        There are two SCART sockets on the back panel, along with a set of line audio outputs -- everything you need for home cinema connectivity

JVC HR-J655, £280 ****

Just how far NICAM VCR prices have fallen is clearly illustrated by the HR-J655. A year ago JVC's cheapest NICAM VCR (HR-J645) cost £350, its replacement, the J655 is now selling for £280! So how has this significant reduction been achieved? It's hasn't been at the expense of performance or features, in fact the only omission we're aware of is the station naming facility -- hardly a great loss -- and there's been some relatively minor cosmetic changes.


The overall specification remains essentially the same. In the scheme of things it is a fairly basic machine in that it has few, if any bells and whistles, though it does have JVC's laboriously named tape-tuning system (B.E.S.T or Biconditional Equalised Signal Tracking). There's one new gizmo, called Rec Link, which greatly simplifies satellite timer recording. The machine senses when a connected sate receiver switches on (via the receiver's internal timer), and then starts recording the output. There's also a new picture enhancement called Pro Digi, reduces noise and smear. The remote handset has been redesigned too, with larger buttons, and a vastly simplified manual timer programming system, similar to the one used on their more up-market models.


We've noticed a small improvement to picture noise levels, which were low to begin with. Resolution is still just under 250 lines and recordings have a wide dynamic range, solid blacks and peak whites really stand out. Colours too are strong and crisply defined, again with very little noise. Nothing much has changed in the sound department though, and levels of background hiss are on the low side of average.  JVC have opted for small refinements to their entry-level NICAM machine, rather than a complete overhaul, and it has paid off. Rec Link is a genuinely useful new feature, it's better in some respects to conventional satellite control -- set up is far easier -- but don't go looking for lots of gimmicks or gadgets -- there aren't any. This is a simple to use, fuss-free machine, capable of very good results, at a very fair price. Well worth considering. 


Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer, auto set-up, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, Rec Link


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


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ****


Contact            JVC UK Ltd, telephone 0181-450 3282


Critical Captions


·        Not one of JVC's prettiest VCRs but the most important controls are easy to find


·        The remote control  is similar to the one's supplied with their more expensive machines, the transport and timer controls are all very accessible


·        Twin SCART AV connectors and a set of audio outputs on the back, it's sufficient for most home cinema set-ups



SHARP VC-MH711, £230 ****

Added together, the nation's VCRs and TVs -- left switched on in standby mode -- currently consume the output of a medium sized power station. This year all of the major VCR and TV manufacturers have pledged to reduce the standby power consumption of their products to 6 watts or less. Sharp has gone one step further with their 98/99 VCR range, the VC-MH711 we're looking at here consumes just one watt in standby mode and only 16 watts when it's working, which is half as much as some rival machines.


Reducing power consumption doesn’t seem to have had any impact on the specification or feature list, and it clearly hasn't added to the price, the MH711 is one of the cheapest NICAM machines on the market. It's a compact design --  360mm wide -- with a Video Plus+ timer, auto tuning and one of the fastest decks in the business (63 seconds end to end on an E180). It's not exactly overloaded with gadgets but what it has is useful. There's multi-speed replay, controlled by a shuttle dial on the front panel, index search and a child lock. Someone has put quite a lot of thought into the remote and all of the controls are colour co-ordinated, making it marginally easier to find than most other button boxes.


Detail enhancement circuitry puts resolution within a gnats of 250 lines, not bad for such a reasonably priced machine, but the picture isn't scratchy and vertical lines aren't ragged. Colours look natural and are mostly free of noise. Levels of picture noise are generally low too; in fact the only real shortcoming in the picture department is a wobbly still frame. The soundtracks are fairly neutral with tolerable amounts of background hiss. Given the low price and above average performance the MH711 stacks up well as an easy to use no-frills home cinema VCR. Worth considering.


Main Features             NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer, auto set-up, multi-speed replay, low power mode, child lock


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


Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****

Ease of use                 ***


Contact            Sharp Electronics UK, telephone 0161-205 2333


Critical Captions


·        The cosmetics are quite bold but the overall effect is quite pleasing


·        A standard assortment of AV socketry with twin SCARTs and stereo line outputs


·        A somewhat colourful remote handset but at least it makes it easy to identify the various functions


SANYO VHR-778, £240 ****

Most Japanese and European VCR makers aim to cover all segments of the market; Sanyo are different, they focus on what the trade refer to as entry-level and step-up models, with the emphasis on features and value for money. The VHR-778 is a good example of this strategy. It's a compact, well-specified machine; core features include Video Plus+, auto installation and clock set. The bonus features are NTSC replay, Tape Library System and glow in the dark buttons on the remote handset, very neat!


Tape Library is a novel twist on an old idea. It uses index markers on the tape -- laid down at the start of each new recording -- to build up a kind of contents listing of what's on the tape; time-shift recordings can also be categorised (film, drama, news, music etc). It takes a few minutes for the machine to scan through the tape, but once it's done you simply key in the number the recording you want to watch, the machine fast winds to the beginning and starts playback.


Ease of use is a Sanyo forte and the VHR-778 is typical of the breed, taking only a couple of minutes to run through the auto-installation routine. Control layout and operation is perfectly straightforward and the deck mechanism is quite nimble. If we're being picky the recording indicator on the front panel is bit difficult to see. As far as picture quality is concerned it's comfortably inside the home cinema ballpark with resolution a shade over 240-lines. Picture noise is fine on new tapes, but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of extra noise reduction and old recordings can look a bit whiskery. The stereo soundtracks are clean and fairly flat, background hiss is there, but it's not intrusive. The 778 is a most agreeable little machine, sensibly priced with a good assortment of features and no unpleasant habits.


Main Features            NICAM stereo sound, Video Plus+ timer, auto set-up, multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, Tape Library System, luminous handset buttons


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



Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            *****

Ease of use                 *****


Contact                       Sanyo UK Ltd., telephone (01923) 246363


Critical Captions


·        A touch flashy in its sliver-grey and shiny chrome but who said all VCRs have to be boring black boxes?


·        Glow in the dark buttons is a real innovation and great fun under the bed-sheets…


·        There's a  full set of AV input and output sockets on the back panel, so its able to handle most types of AV hook-up



As recently as a couple of years ago we would have advised anyone seriously interested in home cinema to steer clear of cheap NICAM VCRs. At that time most of the machines on the market were simply too basic and very few models had the kind of AV performance needed for this demanding application. There's still one of two machine's we'd suggest you avoid -- the Bush VCR-860 is one of them -- picture quality simply isn't good enough and the single SCART socket is a serious limitation -- but we would be happy to use any of the other machines in this roundup. The only redeeming feature of the Bush 860 is the price, it might be worth thinking about as a second machine for the bedroom but for home cinema you need to be thinking in terms of spending at least another £60.


If you're on a tight budget and want decent pictures and sound then the Aiwa and Sharp VCRs are the place to start. The Sharp VC-M711 is quite basic but has a slight edge over the Aiwa VCR when it comes to picture quality; there's not much to choose between them when it comes to sound output though. The Aiwa FX5500 makes up for a slightly soft picture with a great line up of convenience features, flashy good looks and the anti-theft facilities.  The Sanyo VHR-778 is a good all-rounder, it costs only £10 more than the Aiwa and Sharp models -- picture and sound quality is somewhere between -- it has the advantage of being very simple to use and we're rather smitten by those luminous handset buttons.


If the ability to record satellite TV programmes is important to you then the choice is between the Hitachi VT-F645 and JVC HR-J655, they're both well worth the extra £40 or so, the F645 is a real bargain, considering that six months ago it was selling for well over £300.  In fact they're both splendid machines but the balance tips slightly in favour of the JVC VCR for the extra facilities, like NTSC replay and the particularly elegant Rec Link system, which makes satellite recording simple to set up and use.


If nothing else this group tests proves that the days of the 4-head mono VCR are numbered, the price gap with budget NICAM models has all but disappeared and you would have to have a very good reason not to buy a stereo VCR these days.


The big question is, will prices drop even further and if so, should you put off buying a NICAM VCR a little longer? That's a difficult one. Inevitably they will get cheaper but most industry pundits seem to think that stereo VCRs are now close to rock bottom -- at least as far as the 'A' brand manufacturers are concerned. We wouldn't be at all surprised to see someone bust through the £150 price barrier later this year, but we'd wager a pound to a penny that picture and sound quality will be rubbish! It may well be that you'll save a few pounds by delaying your purchase until the run-up to Christmas or next year's January sales. But can you wait that long, with so many great movies coming out between then and now? A better way to save money is to look out for discounts on discontinued models. The savings can be quite significant. Stereo VCRs that originally sold for £450 to £500 can be found right now selling for around the £300 mark though bear in mind that older mid-market machines -- more than eighteen months old -- may be no better specified than current budget machines.






Aiwa are a bit of a maverick in the consumer electronics business, it's hi-fi heritage is plain to see in the styling of the FF5500 but there's no doubting their expertise when it comes to video technology. A great specification and keenly priced, a good starting point for anyone interested in home cinema.


JVC -- Editors Choice

The J655 oozes refinement and sophistication, it's hard to believe this machine only costs £280 when the machine it replaces has such a similar specification but originally sold for £70 more. The important point, however, is that picture and sound quality are comparable with mid-range and top-end VCRs, costing a great deal more.  



Another very reasonably priced machine and again, the key feature is above average AV performance. Sharp has avoided overloading the MH711 with too many gadgets or gizmos and that has made it very simple to use as well. Low power consumption is another bonus; it's not going to make that much difference to your electricity bills, but every little helps.




Akai VS-G745, £280

Although this is little more than a cosmetic revamp of an even earlier model it still ranks as one of the best budget NICAM VCRs of the past twelve months. It has an excellent specification for the price and picture quality stands comparison with machines costing £100 more.


SAMSUNG SV605 £280

This is the cheapest NICAM VCR with a multi-brand remote control, it has NTSC replay, front AV sockets and plenty of other useful features but picture quality is only average and noise levels could be better. Even so, it's still very good value and worth considering for undemanding applications


SHARP VH-NH69, £300

This is an outstanding machine and one of the very few sub £300 VCRs to have satellite control. Multi-brand remote control is another rare feature in this price bracket. AV performance is above average and useful extras like Post-Code Security make this machine well worth considering.


TABLE 1                   

BRAND                      AIW            BUS            HIT            JVC            SAN            SHP

Price                            230            170            280            280            240            230

Video Plus+                *            *            *            *            *            *

NTSC                          *            *            -            *            *            -

SCARTs                     2            1            2            2            2            2

MB Remote               -            -            -            -            -            -

Sat control                  -            -            *            */1            -            -

Front AV                     *            -            *            -            -            -

Audio out                    *            *            *            *            *            *


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

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

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

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

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


Notes: 1 = JVC 'Rec Link', VCR switches onto record under control from satellite receiver timer


Table Comments



Bright and breezy, a real eyeful, and very good value



Incredibly cheap but video performance is not up to serious home cinema standard



The new low price makes it an even better deal, a well-specified all-rounder



Terrific value, a very reasonably priced home cinema VCR, without the frills



Buy Sharp and save the planet, a fine little eco-friendly VCR, and it's a snip at £230



Affordable, easy to use and good picture and sound, what more could you ask for?




NICAM -- near instantaneously companded audio matrix, digital TV sound system used by terrestrial broadcasters, quality is comparable to CD


Noise -- the unwanted part of a video or audio signal. Noise reduces the amount of information in the signal, making the picture look less sharp and colours indistinct, on the soundtrack it manifests itself as an annoying background hiss


NTSC -- national television standards committee, American 525-line colour TV system. VCRs with NTSC playback can replay US tapes on most recent PAL (UK standard) televisions


Resolution -- a video system's ability to record and reproduce fine detail


Satellite Control -- VCRs with satellite control have built-in infra-red controllers, that -- under instruction from the Video Plus+ timer -- switch the satellite receiver on and set it to the appropriate channel for the duration of the programme, which the VCR records.


SCART -- Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio Recepteurs et

Televiseurs. 21-pin plug and socket system used on pretty well all AV products (VCRs, TVs, LD/DVD players and satellite receivers etc.,), used to convey video, audio and control signals between AV devices.


Video Plus+ -- near idiot-proof VCR timer programming system where TV programmes are represented by a short sequence of digits, known as the Plus Code. These are published alongside programme information in newspapers and listings magazines.




If you think VCR makers are having a tough time with price erosion and wafer-thin profits, spare a thought for the companies who make blank tape. We have now reached the stage where some manufacturers have simply given up. Scotch  -- the leading brand for many years -- withdrew from the domestic tape market last year, and they probably won't be the last. Others are reducing the size of their ranges and new products have become rarer than hen's teeth.


Nevertheless it's been a great time for consumers, prices have never been so low and the other good thing to come of out it is the virtual disappearance of counterfeit and dodgy Chinese tapes. Importers simply can't compete with rock-bottom prices on branded products.


The performance of most standard grade VHS tapes is now so good there's little to choose between the leading brands. VHS tape is now at the technical limits of the format, gone are the days when manufacturers would vie with each other by introducing new trick formulations. Even so, it's well worth trying a few different makes and brands on your machine, we have found in the past that some VCRs show a marked preference for a particular brand of tape.


There is a also good case for spending a little extra on high-grade formulations, which often exhibit lower noise levels and respond well to VCRs with tape tuning systems.  Less noise means a cleaner, crisper looking picture, with more lifelike colours. It's all down to the size and efficiency of the magnetic particles, higher grade tapes use smaller particles, packed more closely together. That means more of the video signal ends up on the tape, leaving less room for noise.


High-grade tapes often have additional coatings, to reduce friction ('runnability') and reduce oxide shedding. Microscopic flakes of the tape's magnetic layer peel off from the base film or substrate. This results in what's known as 'dropout' which appear as brief white (and black) flashes in the picture. Oxide deposits can also accumulate around the tape path and when it mixes with the lubricants it can form a hard, abrasive paste, that increases wear and tear on the deck mechanism.


Testing blank video tape can be a tricky business, not because it is technically difficult -- it's not -- but because of batch variation and the somewhat transient nature of the market. There are a relatively small number of plants around the world producing raw videotape. They supply other companies with large reels or spools (called pancakes), for loading into the empty shells or cassettes. It works a bit like a spot market, in other words Company X may get their tape from Company Y one month, and Company Z the next, depending on the deals available. Company Y might produce great tape that gets a high mark on our tests, yet the cassette you buy in the shops could be spooled with Company Z's tape, which may be only mediocre that particular month. The moral of this story is that if you find a tape that really suits your machine buy a crate-load of it (making sure it's from the same batch), or stick to cassettes made by the companies who actually make tape.


Out tests concentrate on three basic parameters. The first is noise, which as we've said is the single most important factor when it comes to picture quality. Second we look at colour reproduction; this is directly related to the performance of the tape's magnetic layer, and how much information it can hold. Lastly we check consistency, this covers dropout. A well-made tape should have almost zero dropout, however, if the quality control isn't up to scratch or the coating process isn't carried out properly the dropout count rises quickly, and gets worse as the tape ages. We compare out results with data going back over ten years, which gives us a good idea of a company's track record, and helps to eliminate spurious findings. Finally we check things like packaging, unsealed cardboard sleeves moult dust like mad and this ends up inside your VCR, eventually clogging the microscopic tape head gaps. We've sifted through over a dozen tapes from top-name manufacturers and whittled them down to four top performers that we would go out of our way to buy.




The first point to make is that unlike audio tape, there is no official grading system for VHS video tape. Tape companies can (and do) call their products pretty much what they like, within the bounds of the Trades Description Act, and providing they do not upset JVC, who still licence the manufacture of VHS tape.


Standard grade (SG) tape is any tape that conforms to the basic JVC format specifications, (written over 20 years ago). Some manufacturers HG tape is drawn from SG stock that exceeds the basic quality levels but if you're serious about tape quality, check out the special formulations and multi-layer products, as these will have been produced to a higher standard. Once you get beyond high grade there's Hi-Fi, Super High-Grade and Pro Grades. Hi-Fi tape is basically HG or SHG tape with very smooth edges, to prevent tracking errors. SHG tape usually has the extra layers, special additives and coatings and Pro Grade tape should have zero dropout. Several companies also used to make library grade tapes. These were normally HG or SHG products supplied with hard lidded cases. The highest quality tape is S-VHS grade, though at around £10 a throw it is best saved for special occasions.




Fuji developed the double coating process and it comes close to perfection on this outstanding Pro Grade tape. Noise levels are well below average, even for higher grade tapes, and it has near zero dropout, making it suitable for critical one-off recordings, mastering and editing



We'd be disappointed if JVC couldn't come up with a decent VHS tape, they have, and this one's a real cracker with negligible noise and dropout. Colours look bright, lively and natural, and it's cheap enough to be used for everyday recording



The dropout count on this tape was good enough to put it into the Pro class; noise levels are very low too. An excellent all-rounder, suitable for all applications, from watch and wipe to camcorder editing



This one is a bit of a classic; it has been around for years and consistently ranks as one of the top performers. Dropout has never been an issue and noise levels are always well below the average for higher-grade formulations.



ã R. Maybury 1998 1105






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