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ONKYO ED-301 DIGITAL SURROUND PROCESSOR, £399, ****

 

Why’s it here: Stand-alone Dolby Digital/AC-3 decoders fulfil an important role for owners of first generation DVD players and laserdisc die-hards. Products like the Onkyo ED-301 provide a simple and cost-effective upgrade path to the delights of 5.1 channel sound, saving eager-beaver DVD owners the bother and expense of investing in an integrated decoder and multi-channel amplifier or a new player with onboard decoders. There's a sense that it's a product category with a limited life-span now that a growing number of DVD players and AV amplifiers have built-in decoders but for a lot of discriminating users there is still no substitute for the flexibility and hopefully, performance advantages of separate components.

 

Any unique features: It’s a shame that Onkyo confined the ED-301 just to Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic operation  -- DTS is rapidly becoming the flavour of the month -- but it offers rather more configuration facilities than most of the integrated decoder alternatives. These include a distance adjustment for each speaker group, a Cinema Re-Eq mode for optimising the output equalisation for smaller rooms and an LFE (low frequency effects) setting to reduce bass emphasis. Midnight Theatre narrows the dynamic range for comfortable late-night listening and speaker selection to compensate for different sizes and types of speaker. Needless to say it has a full set of digital inputs (coaxial and optical), two switched inputs, a video bypass, and a single multi-channel output connector using a PC type 25-pin connector.

 

How does it perform: After a fair amount of fiddling around with the speaker and mode settings (and without a remote control that can become quite tedious…), it is possible to achieve very pleasing results. Channel steering is excellent creating a vivid and dynamic frontal soundstage, dialogue is locked firmly to the centre but moving effects travel very smoothly across the soundfield. The rear channels are also very lively but the detail can be a bit mushy at times. The sub channel is powerful and precise coming in at exactly the right moments, generating a big attention grabbing sound on set-piece effects.

 

Our Verdict: The ED-301 is just the job for early DVD adopters who just couldn't wait for the integrated decoders to arrive or come down in price. Performance is a notch up on a lot of built-in decoders, it is an easy way to join in the 5.1 channel fun and the better than average range of adjustments should appeal to those with awkward-shaped rooms or fussy set-ups.

 

AudioClub, telephone (01296) 482017

 

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Features                     Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic decoding, Cinema EQ, LFE & Midnight listening modes, 2 switched channel inputs, optical and coaxial digital inputs, speaker type and distance settings

Sockets                       analogue, digital audio and composite video in/out (phono) S-Video in/out (mini DIN) optical audio in (optical jack), multi channel line-level output (25-pin D-Sub)                

Dimensions                 435 x 91 x 302 mm

 

Sound Quality            ****

Build Quality              ****               

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ****

 

Rival Buys

Denon AVD-2000 £380, Harman Kardon ADP303 £350, Yamaha DDP2 £350

 

HEAD

GRUNDIG GV-8400 NICAM VCR, £280, ****

 

Why’s it here: Grundig VCRs used to be a bit of an acquired taste but these days they're mostly well-behaved middle of the road designs, and fair value too. The GV-8400 is its latest NICAM model, in fact it is Grundig's only NICAM machine, the other model in the current range is a fairly basic 2-head mono VCR. By current standards the GV-8400 has a modest specification -- few gadgets or gizmos to speak of -- but it makes up for that with stylish good looks and enough AV facilities to qualify it as a home cinema machine.

 

Any unique features: Not really, the front Grundig are not known for being innovators in VCR design but there's one or two items that you might not expect to see on such an inexpensive VCR. The front AV connections are a bit unusual and the remote handset can control Grundig tellies. It has twin SCART sockets on the back, the full auto-install system can download tuner info from Grundig TVs and it has NTSC replay. It's not without the odd quirk though, the on-screen menu display can only be accessed from a button on the front panel and unlike most other VCRs it doesn't automatically play cassettes that have had the anti-erasure tab removed.

 

How does it perform: Nothing startling, resolution is around 240 lines, colours are warm and natural looking, maybe a wee bit flat in areas of high saturation but there is no noticeable displacement or smearing. There's a slightly higher than average amount of picture noise, but it is not enough to cause concern on a normal moving picture. Image stability is good and there's only a slight drop in definition on LP recordings. It has a good assortment of trick play functions; still, slomo and 2x fast play are very steady indeed. The hi-fi soundtracks have an even and largely flat response, background noise levels are satisfactory, some hiss is evident during quiet passages but it is not intrusive.   

 

Our Verdict:            It's not going to set the VCR market alight or set any new performance records but the 8400 is a solid enough little machine. The styling is smart and distinctive and it has everything needed for basic home cinema operations.  

 

Grundig, telephone 0181-324 9400

 

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Features            NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto install with clock set, index search, TV control (Grundig models only), child lock, direct record  

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

Dimensions            93 x 380 x 260 mm

 

Picture Quality            ***

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ***

 

Rival Buys

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First Tests

 

HEAD

HITACHI iCAM, £180

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: It's here because the world is full of bad people itching to get their hands on all your expensive home cinema kit, ring your doorbell late and night to flog you things you don't want, and crying babies. The Hitachi iCam is a video observation system that plugs into the back of your TV. Normally it sits next to your front door or in the kids bedroom doing nothing but if it picks up an unexpected sound, or the built-in PIR (passive infra-red) sensor detects body heat the TV automatically switches over to the camera so you can see, and hear what's going on.

 

Any unique features: The clever bit is the auto-switching facility, which works on most TVs with a SCART AV socket. iCam can be set to respond to sound or IR sensor, or you can manually switch the TV to the AV channel to view the picture from the camera. The matchbox-sized black and white camera works down to 0.01 lux, so you should get a picture, even if the only light is coming from street lamps or a porch light. It's weatherproof, so you can fix it outside; it comes with a mounting bracket and screws plus a 25-metre cable, which is fitted with a plug so installation time and effort is minimal. The outfit also includes a mains adaptor but it can be powered directly from some Hitachi TVs.   

 

How does it perform: In good light the picture from the camera is really crisp and detailed, the lens has got a wide angle of view, even so you can just about make out car number plates at a distance of 10 metres or so. Low light performance is also very impressive and although the picture gets quite grainy you can still see callers facial features quite plainly, even in really poor light. The microphone is quite sensitive, a little too sensitive in fact for noisy streets but it would be fine as a baby-minder, say, where background noise levels are low. The PIR sensor has range of around 3 - 4 metres, which is about right for covering a garden path.

 

Our Verdict: The camera module might have a mild deterrent effect but iCam doesn't really stack up as a security device since it only works when you're at home, watching TV. On the other hand if all you want is to keep an eye on who's at the front door or monitor a child's bedroom, then it works really well  

 

Hitachi UK , telephone 0181-849 2000

 

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Features            B/W video camera, PIR and audio switching, 25 metres pre-terminated cable. Fixing kit and mains power supply included         

Sockets             AV out (SCART), DC in (phono) camera to SCART adaptor (mini DIN)  

Dimensions            58 x 78 x 100mm (including mount)            

 

Picture Quality            *****

Sound Quality            ***

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ***

 

Rival Buys

Micromark CCTV/PIR, £90, Viewmate Telecam £120, Response TV Eye £140

 

 

PANASONIC NV-HD640, £230

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: The HD640 is the cheapest NICAM VCR in the Panasonic range – an 'entry-level' model in marketing speak – selling for around £230 if you shop around. Don't be misled by the budget tag, the HD640 is by no means basic, in fact it has the kind of specification that wouldn't look out of place on the mid-range VCRs of three or four years ago. It is targeted at the home cinema market and there's a distinct bias towards loyal Panasonic fans that own a recent TV, or are thinking of buying one in the near future.   

 

Any unique features: Panasonic likes to sprinkle its VCR specs with teccy sounding stuff like CVC (Crystal View Control), CAC (Chrominance Aperture Control) and SCF (switched capacitor comb-filter), but in the end the HD640 isn't significantly different to its predecessor, as far as general facilities are concerned. There are one or two new bits and bobs though, like Jet Rewind, which Panasonic claims will whizz an E180 from end to end in 60 seconds. (The best we got was 65 seconds, but we'll let that pass...) It comes with a newly designed remote handset, good job too; the last one was horrible. Incidentally, it will also control most Panasonic TVs. The HD640 is supposed to have an 'Exclusive Audio Recording' function which boosts the signal to noise ratio on audio-only recordings by 3dB but this is either done automatically or it has been dropped, as we could find no mention of it in the instructions. The Owner ID facility will store a name address and postcode so that in the even the machine is stolen, and later recovered, it can be traced back to the rightful owner.

 

How does it perform: The CACs and SCFs did the business on picture performance and the HF640 turned in a very decent set of results. Resolution was a smidgen under 250-lines (a smidgen is 0.75 of a dooberry), giving a sharp detailed image with below average noise. Colours are clean and accurate though saturated reds are a wee bit bright. The picture is very stable in all replay modes and it is possible to get a solid freeze frame. NICAM sound and the hi-fi soundtracks are clean with lower than average levels of background hiss.

 

Our Verdict: Panasonic VCRs rarely disappoint, they are solidly built and have a fine reliability record too but don't expect too many frills. If all you are concerned about is picture and sound quality the HD640 deserves your serious consideration

 

Panasonic UK, telephone (0870) 357357

 

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Features            NICAM, stereo hi-fi sound, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, Q-Link, auto set-up, scene/repeat replay, off timer, owner ID

           

Sockets             AV in/out (2 x SCART), stereo line audio out (phono), RF Bypass (coax)

Dimensions            430 x 87 x 300 mm  

 

Picture Quality            ****

Sound Quality            ****   

Build Quality              ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Overall value              ***

 

Rival Buys

Hitachi VT-F645 £250, JVC HR-J665 £230, Sharp VC-MH711£230

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1999, 0405

 

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1999, 1203

 

 

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