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GROUP TEST

 

STRAP – SMALL TVS & COMBIS

 

HEAD

SMALL SCREEN GEMS

 

STANDFIRST

There is life below 28 inches… If you are thinking about buying a second set for the bedroom, or maybe to keep the kids quiet then have a look through this selection of 21-inch NICAM TVs and TV/VCR combis

 

COPY/INTRO

A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the home cinema market revolves around gargantuan tellies, miles of cables connecting lots of little black boxes and possession of a healthy bank balance, but there is another side to it. Whilst screen size and audio facilities can be important in a living room set-up, these days in many homes it's not the only room with a television. The point is a lot of us now have two (or more TVs) and we want to be able to enjoy top quality pictures and sound, and watch movies, wherever we happen to be.

 

Until now the second set market has been dominated by the ubiquitous 14-inch and 15-inch colour portable but there is a distinct shift towards TVs with larger screens and improved sound facilities – like NICAM stereo -- especially on TVs destined for the bedroom. Bedrooms and children's rooms are also the natural home for combination TV/VCRs or 'combis', and here too a minor revolution is underway, with a handful of manufacturers producing models with larger screens, one or two of them even have stereo sound.

 

It's worth remembering that screen size is a function of viewing distance and room size. A 21-inch TV can have the same apparent size and visual impact as a 28 or 32-inch TV, depending how close you are to the screen, which is usually the case when the TV is in a bedroom or smaller room. Combi TVs fulfil a slightly different need, namely the ability to replay tapes and make recordings when the main living room VCR is otherwise occupied. Even if the VCR is available it may be difficult to connect a distant video recorder to a bedroom TV, and impossible to control said machine without elaborate cable or wireless links.

 

21-inch TVs have long been a favourite of the British telly buyer for the past 30 or so years, the move towards larger screen sizes is a comparatively recent trend, that began in the early 1990s. It was fuelled by a combination of factors, including the development of NICAM sound, on-going price erosion on larger screen sizes and stereo VCRs plus the first stirrings of home cinema. NICAM sound came relatively late to the 21-inch sector, for quite a long time few manufacturers bothered fitting stereo sound systems to their smaller models, often with good reason. A lot of early stereo 21-inch TVs had titchy forward-facing elliptical speakers (a lot still do) the narrow separation produces a shallow soundfield that is all but dissipated when you move a metre or two from the front of the screen. Improved cabinet design, more efficient speakers and the development of 'spatial' sound systems that generate a wider stereo image have made 21-inch NICAM TVs a much more viable proposition. Even so, it pays to use your ears, as well as your eyes when auditioning these TVs as despite the NICAM badges some models might as well have mono sound systems for all the good it does.

 

Combi TV/VCRs have come a very long way in the past five years. Until the early to mid 1990's the few models that were available were regarded as niche products. Most of them had 14-inch screens very basic recording and replay facilities and the majority were sold for commercial use, as 'AV Presenters' for use in shops, showrooms and at exhibitions. The growing demand for second sets and the boom in bedroom TVs prompted several manufacturers to re-think their strategies. The once boring combi TV has been re-born as the 'televideo', or 'TVCR' with more imaginative styling, better facilities and a much wider choice of screen sizes, though 14-inches remains the most popular.

 

Early doubts about combining two such diverse technologies in one box were soon dispelled as most models proved to be at least as reliable as separate TVs and VCRs.  Functionally there have been some major improvements in just the past two or three years with more combis than ever having twin tuners (so you can watch one channel, whilst recording another), and more recently, the arrival of models with NICAM sound and VCRs with stereo hi-fi sound. One or two quite large combis have appeared, with 21-inch screens and over, but it seems unlikely we will see any really big-screen or widescreen models in the foreseeable future. That's not to say really big combi TVs won't happen but we think it far more likely they'll have DVD mechanisms rather than bulky tape decks, which would also fit in much better with the move towards fully integrated digital home entertainment systems.

 

Buying a 21-inch TV or combi is no different to buying any other sort of television. Of course picture and sound quality must come first, followed by features and facilities but these days there's a wide diversity in styles and cosmetics, so you can afford to pay a bit more attention to how it is going to look up against your room décor. You may even feel inspired to experiment with some of the bolder colours and designs that are now available. Generally speaking the picture quality on most mid-market 21-inchers is much of a muchness. There are one or two notable exceptions, but a lot of the CRTs come from the same factories and the same goes for key tuning and processing microchips. There is a much wider variation in sound performance though, and you can tell quite a lot from the size and position of the speakers and any secondary audio facilities. Pedigree has a lot to do with it too, we have found that manufacturers who put some effort into how their large screen TVs sound usually try quite hard with their smaller screen sets.     

 

As far as the bells and whistles are concerned you probably won't need so many if the TV is going to be used in a secondary role. However, don't dismiss the usefulness of things like front-mounted AV sockets (you might want to hook up your VCR camcorder or video game for a spot of bedtime fun), and things like sleep timers come in very handy afterwards. On combis that are going to be well used shortlist models with twin-tuners and check how easy they are to use, instruction manuals rarely make good bedtime reading…

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

We use a standard set of electronically generated static test patterns to show up any glaring picture faults, alignment errors (geometry, convergence etc) and give us a good idea of the TVs basic abilities. However we also place a lot of emphasis on the TV or a combi's ability to handle moving video and we run through a selection of movie clips that we know are going to give the picture processing circuitry a really hard time. TVs and combis used in bedrooms and other rooms in the house may have to rely on less efficient aerials so we make a special point of checking tuner sensitivity.  Sound quality is crucially important in smaller rooms, which often have highly absorbent furnishings and very low levels of background noise. Since these TVs are going to be used in slightly different surroundings to a normal television we've placed extra emphasis on ease of use – especially in poor light – readability of on-screen displays and screen reflectivity. Finally the VCR sections on the combis go through the same kind of tests we used to assess stand-alone video recorders -- with minor modifications -- to check things like resolution, noise levels and colour fidelity.     

 

THE TESTS – 21-INCH NICAM TVS

 

BUSH 2171NTX,  £300

VERDICT ****

The Bush 2171NTX is a simple, almost classic design, there are no frills or fancy curves just a simple square-cornered box with forward firing speakers mounted either side of the screen. The feature list is quite brief, in addition to NICAM and fastext it has a sleep timer, child lock and a stereo wide mode. The input and output sockets are also a bit thin on the ground. It has a single SCART socket plus a set of phonos providing a second AV input/output but there are n o front-mounted sockets or a headphone jack.

 

Tuning is semi automatic, it automatically locates and stores broadcasts but it can be a long slow business. Part of the problem is that before it gets to the UK UHF channels it searches through VHF and cable bands stopping at any sign of a signal along the way and storing them. After almost four minutes our sample managed to latch on to 15 'stations' most of which were just strong interference and had to be manually deleted. Active channels are not identified; station naming is manual and again it all takes time to sort out. From switch-on to exiting the set-up can easily take between 10 to 15 minutes, depending how quickly you learn to use the buttons. 

 

Picture quality is good, the image is bright and clean, even with a marginal signal and there's plenty of leeway in all of the picture adjustments, to allow for a wide range of lighting conditions. Geometry and focus are both good and colours are sharp and natural looking. The sound output is quite puny, okay for bedroom use, but even at full tilt it's not what you would call loud. The stereo soundfield is disappointing, even with the stereo wide mode switched on. More than a metre or so from the screen it becomes muddy and confused. Actual sound quality is quite reasonable, though it's as well not to stray from the mid points on the bass and treble controls as the responses tail off quickly, making it sound flat and lifeless. Picture and sound settings can be stored, but it's a global adjustment that affects all channels.

 

Apart from the lack of any front inputs or a headphone socket the 2171NTX is actually quite well suited to light bedroom duties. Stereo sound is a bit of a let down but the picture is fine and once it has been set up it is easy to drive.

 

Bush 0181-594 5533

 

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Features             NICAM, fastext, stereo wide, NTSC display, sleep timer, child lock

 

Sockets            AV in (SCART) AV in/out (phono)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ***

Features            ***

Ease of use            ***

 

Captions

 

·        A plain foursquare design, the side mounted speakers actually make it look a little smaller than it is

 

·        Only one SCART but it does have a second AV in/out via a bank of phono sockets

 

·        Rather a lot of buttons for such a basic TV, but once set up it's reasonably easy to use

 

 

HITACHI C2156TN,  £280

VERDICT ****

The thick screen surround and wider than usual forward facing speaker panels conspire to make the screen on the 2156TN look smaller than it actually is. Even so it's quite a handsome little set with straight, unfussy lines and a concealed panel on the front that hides all of the AV sockets and menu controls (handy if you loose the remote). Talking of sockets, this one has the lot, in addition to normal composite video and stereo line-level audio inputs there's also an S-Video socket on the front, and a headphone jack. There's more good news around the back, it has two SCART sockets, the top one is configured for composite video and RGB and the lower one for composite and S-Video, in short a full house!

 

It has a fair assortment of AV features, it has an auto-switching 16:9 display, stereo wide, bass boost, pseudo stereo, switchable picture noise reduction and a 3-mode (cool, warm, normal) colour temperature control and the remote handset can also control Hitachi VCRs.

 

Installation and set-up is largely automatic. Auto tuning seeks out the broadcast stations but they appear in order of frequency, you have to press a button to sort the channels into logical order and correct any problems with the station ident (our sample failed to recognise BBC1 on a slightly weakened signal)

 

Picture alignment was on the button on our sample, the image was bright with lots of detail, colour accuracy is good and noise levels are low. Noise reduction wasn't really necessary; in any case it made the picture look soft when it was on. Treble and mid range are fine but in common with most small TVs bass content is limited, even with the bass boost on. Wide mode helps to spread out the sound a little, even so the stereo image is fairly narrow and tails off quite quickly as you move more than a couple of metres from the screen.

 

Apart from the slightly heavy-handed cosmetics there's much to admire about the C2156. AV performance is very good indeed; connectivity is excellent, it has a better than usual line up of secondary features and the price is very fair indeed!  Recommended.

 

Hitachi 0181-849 2000

 

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Features             NICAM, fastext, auto tuning and channel naming, stereo wide, sleep timer, picture noise reduction, 3-mode colour temperature, bass boost, 16:9 display, VCR controls (Hitachi models only) on handset

 

Sockets            rear: AV in (2 x SCART) front: AV in (phono), S-Video in (mini DIN), headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

 

·        The screen looks a little lost with the wide screen surround and speakers, AV inputs and manual controls are behind a flap on the front panel

 

·        Twin SCARTs, AV 1 is configured for composite and RGB video, AV2 has an S-Video input

 

·        The handset is a bit cluttered, finding the right button takes a bit of practice

 

 

JVC AV-21TS4EK,  £280

VERDICT ****

We're not sure how JVC managed it, but somehow the AV21TS4 manages to look a good deal larger than it really is. The cabinet is certainly imposing. It is an agreeably rounded shape, cuddly almost, from the side it looks like a real lump but head on the narrow sculptured speaker panels either side of the screen and the scalloped plinth bring it back into proportion. JVC has given it an impressive specification, there are all the usual bits and pieces NICAM, NTSC replay, fastext etc., but there are lots of add-ons. For example, the fastext decoder has a 64 number favourite page memory. It has a 16:9 display mode and 2-stage 'zoom', for inflating letterboxed material to full screen. There's a low-contrast 'Eco mode' for saving power, the remote handset will also control JVC video recorders and there's a 3-stage colour temperature control.

 

Then there's TV-Link, JVC devote rather a lot of space to it in the instructions, it enables TV tuner information to be downloaded to compatible VCRs and facilities like one-button direct record – what you see is what you record – and one button TV and VCR on/standby. To be honest we're more interested in the fact that it has front mounted AV inputs twin SCART sockets, a child lock and something called Hyper Sound, which is basically a souped up stereo wide facility. Installation is easy; the auto set-up system finds names and sorts all local broadcasts in just over a minute. It works well but our sample stumbled a bit when fed with a weakened signal. 

 

It definitely prefers a good strong signal, anything less and picture noise becomes quite noticeable. However with a good aerial image quality is excellent, vibrant, packed with detail and crisp colours. It's worth fiddling with the brightness and contrast since the factory defaults are set way too high, changes are stored but they affect all channels. The sound is surprisingly mellow and well rounded considering the size and placement of the speakers; there's even a hint of bass. Hyper Sound spreads the soundfield a little but not enough to carry the stereo image very far from the screen.

 

The AV-21TS4 has a plump, comfortable feel to it. It's up to date without being trendy, picture and sound are both very good and it has bucket-loads of features, several of them are actually quite useful…Recommended.

 

JVC, 0181-450 3282

 

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Features             NICAM, fastext with 64 page no. memory, auto tuning and channel naming, stereo wide, sleep timer, 3-mode colour temperature, 16:9 display, 2-mode zoom, TV-Link, low power Eco mode, VCR controls (JVC models only) on handset, child lock,

 

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

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        It's a handsome beast from the front, not so sure about the profile though…

 

·        Good connectivity, twin SCARTs and line audio outputs via a pair of phonos

 

·        The remote is on the big side but its easy to use and can control JVC VCRs

 

 

SANYO 21DN4,  £260

VERDICT ****

There's a reassuringly traditional feel to the CE21DN4. Forward-facing speakers panels stand crisply to attention either side of the screen, the controls and front AV inputs live behind a hinged flap on the plinth below and the silvery cabinet looks trim and tidy from any angle. Sanyo has given sound performance top priority, it's the only set in this roundup to have 3D, pseudo surround system, and it actually works quite well. Other sonic goodies include a bass expander mode and there's a hidden volume limiter facility (sometimes called Hotel mode) that allows the owner to restrict sound output.

 

Normal picture controls are augmented by a 3-mode picture preference setting and a 2-stage contrast control. Installation is fully automatic; in fact you get no choice since it starts the set-up routine as soon as it is switched on for the first time. It takes around 90 seconds to find, sort and label all available broadcasts. The handset is a bit strange, and we're always wary of remotes with buttons that have no function, more so when the button in question is marked 'menu'. In fact there are no menu displays as such, just a series of on-screen bar-graphs and graphics that appear in response to button presses.  It's not helped by the dreadful labelling; the button that steps through the picture settings is called 'F'…

 

The screen produces a clean detailed picture with good reserves of brightness and contrast, colours are natural looking with no noticeable smearing in areas of high saturation. Picture geometry and focus are both bang-on. We're rarely impressed by 3D sound systems but this one is really rather good, creating an unusually wide soundstage, with noticeable depth. Depending on the source material it can be a little fluffy and individual sounds are not well focused but it is one of the best we've heard and a good way of livening up mono or dull stereo TV and video soundtracks.

 

This is a most agreeable television, apart from the remote control and weedy on-screen graphics it's a real gem. Picture quality is fine and it is one of the few 21-inch NICAM sets with a stereo sound system that works more than a couple of metres from the screen. It gets better, just take a look at the price, at £260 (or less) it's a real bargain! Recommended!

 

Sanyo, (01923) 246363

 

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Features             NICAM, fastext, auto tuning and channel naming, Active 3D Sound, on/sleep/alarm timers, 3-mode picture preset, 2-mode contrast, bass expander, VCR controls (Sanyo models only) on handset, child lock, volume lock, preferred channel switch on

 

 Sockets            rear: AV in/out ( 2 x SCART), front: AV in (phono), headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              *****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Sharp lines, a touch of elegance, definitely one of the best looking sets we've seen

 

·        Connectivity is satisfactory with twin SCARTs and a set of front AV sockets

 

·        Handset horror – buttons that do not do anything, others that do unexpected things…

 

 

SONY KV21X5,  £350

VERDICT *****

The first thing that strikes you about the KV21X5 is the rather busy cabinet, there are angles and curves all over the place, it manages to look reasonably compact yet there is no doubt it is a stereo TV. The second thing that hits you is how good it looks, even when it is switched off. That's mostly down to the HiBlack Trinitron tube which is indeed very black and undoubtedly a key factor in the set's unusually wide dynamic range, but more about that in a moment.

 

The specification is fairly restrained; it has a fastext decoder, full auto set-up and a set of on and off timers but few if any gadgets. Sony seems to have put more emphasis on utility features. For example, it has two SCART sockets instead of the usual one, plus a set of line-level audio outputs on the rear panel, and AV inputs and a headphone socket on the front. Auto installation tunes, sorts and labels the available channels – and it only takes around 30 seconds – and in addition to all of the usual manual picture adjustments it has two presets, which optimise brightness, colour and contrast for movies or live events.

 

It's not all sweetness and light though. The remote handset is okay but button spacing and control labelling could be better and the on-screen display is a swine to use at first. The root of the problem is the use of tiny icons to represent the main selections. It's one of the few TVs we've seen where it has been necessary to read the instructions… Fortunately you quickly get used to it but if nothing else the icons could do with being larger as at normal viewing distances they're quite hard to decipher.

 

Back to that Trinitron tube. The picture is pin-sharp, subtle shades are accurately rendered, and colours look vibrant and seem to have real depth. What really stands out though is the wide contrast range, from deepest black to peak white and all shades of grey in between. It sounds quite good too the audio system has a smooth even response though bass tails off quite early. Sadly the stereo image is quite diffuse – there's no stereo wide option -- and the DSP mode doesn't seem to do very much at all.

 

Smaller screen TV pictures almost always look good but this one is very distinct cut above the average. Maybe the sound could do with a bit more 'oomph' but at least there's the option to hook it up to a hi-fi. Nevertheless it's a real class act, and comes highly recommended!   

 

Sony (0990) 111999

 

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Features             NICAM, fastext, auto tuning and channel naming, digital sound processing, sleep timer, NTSC input, parental lock,

 

 

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

 

Picture             *****

Sound              ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        A real smoothy it looks good even when it is switched off

 

·        twin SCARTs, line audio outputs and AV sockets on the front, it's well connected

 

·        button labelling could be better on the slim line remote

 

 

THE TESTS COMB TV/VCRS

 

AIWA VX-T147,  £279

VERDICT ****

Although the styling does little to hide the fact that it is a combi it is one of the most distinctive models in this roundup. Don't be misled by the grilles either side of the screen, it's not stereo but the sound produced by the two speakers is an improvement over most other mono combis.

 

The T147 looks as though it comes from the same stable as the Bush BTV-150, certainly some of the key components are the same but it is a noticeably more refined design with a better line up of features. It has a Video Plus+ timer with PDC, there's NTSC replay fastext and an informative on-screen display. One interesting extra is an anti-theft security lock, with prevents anyone using it, if it should be stolen. It is activated with a user-set PIN code and the owner can store their postcode in the unit's memory. If the power supply is interrupted for more than a few minutes it locks up and can't be used, the embedded post code data might help reunite it with its rightful owners, if it later recovered.

 

Tuning is semi-automatic it takes around two and a half minutes to locate all five channels and after sorting the channels into the correct order and setting the date and time it's ready to use. The deck mechanism is reasonably nimble although the remote handset is heavily laden with buttons the labelling is good.

 

There are no problems with off-air picture quality, the image has plenty of contrast, there's brightness to spare, colours are crisp and well defined. Picture alignment is spot-on; the tuner is very sensitive with good co-channel rejection. The tape deck is a modestly specified 2-head type with average to good performance, resolution peaks at just under 240 lines, noise levels are fairly average but colours are clean with minimal bleed. The twin speakers create a wideish soundfield, it has a slight nasal quality but there's a little more bass than usual and it's loud enough to fill a small room.

 

It's a shame it doesn't have a stereo audio system, it would probably sound quite good; nevertheless, twin speakers are the next best thing. The price is reasonable indeed and its worth shortlisting.

     

Aiwa (0990) 902902

 

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Features            14-inch colour TV, fastext, Video Plus + with PDC, auto set-up, on timer, 2-head mono VCR, LP/SP, NTSC playback, anti-theft security, repeat play, index search

           

Sockets            rear: AV in/out (phono), front: headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        no, it's not stereo but the twin speakers produce lively open sound

 

·        not a SCART in sight, all AV connections are handled by phono sockets

 

·        a chunky little handset, lot of buttons but functions are clearly labelled

 

 

BUSH BTV150,  £250

VERDICT ***

Combis don't have to be pretty to look at but most manufacturers have a stab at giving them a bit of a personality. Apparent not at Bush though, the BTV150 is a plain and simple black box. There's nothing wrong with that, for an AV presenter destined to spend its life sitting on a shelf showing promotional videos, indeed it's an advantage, but it seems a bit odd on a product that appears to be aimed at the consumer market.

 

Why else would it have fancy features like fastext, NTSC playback and smart-looking on-screen displays? Nevertheless, Bush has stopped short of giving it a Video Plus+ timer and the tuner is a real throwback to the bad old days. Tuning is almost entirely manual, the sweep tuner seeks out a broadcast then the user has to assign or confirm the channel number, store the setting and move on to the next station. After that the date and time has to be set; okay, so it only takes a few minutes but these days we expect electronic minions to do those things for us.

 

With only one SCART socket on the back AV and a headphone jack on the front connectivity is poor. Operationally it's not much to write home about either, picture adjustments are buried deep in the on-screen menus, it can take 5 or 6 button presses just to get to them. The remote handset is a real muddle too, with frequently used controls, like the menu selector keys lost in a sea of little buttons. The deck is quite slow to respond, taking a full 8 seconds to get from record to play mode.

 

TV picture quality is good though the contrast range could have been a little wider and deep blacks tended to look a bit grey. The 2-head mono VCR is a fairly lightweight item, out sample just about squeezed 230-lines out of our test recordings but noise levels were quite high and the off-tape picture always managed to look a bit fuzzy. Still frame and picture search is both very noisy and unstable. TV sound and the mono linear soundtrack are best described as adequate.

 

The BTV150 has few redeeming features though the price makes it worth considering. It would be suitable for kid's bedrooms or for very occasional use, when other members of the family are using the main TV or VCR.

 

Bush 0181-594 5533

 

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Features             14-inch colour TV, fastext, on/off timer, 2-head mono VCR, LP/SP, NTSC playback, 31-day/8-event timer, repeat play, index search, 2-speed picture search

 

Sockets            AV in/out (SCART), headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             ***

Sound              ***

Features            ****

Ease of use            ***

 

Captions

·        Short on style and  the plain boxy shape makes it look quite bulky

 

·        Just the one SCART AV socket, in fact it's the only AV socket

 

·        The remote handset looks okay but button labelling and location is a mess

 

 

HITACHI C1420VT,  £305

VERDICT ****

A combi or televideo is basically a small colour TV plonked on top of a VCR, which is precisely what the C1420 looks like. The rounded corners of the 14-inch picture tube are emphasised by the rounded corners of the screen surround and cabinet, it somehow manages to look a bit old-fashioned but not in a trendy retro sort of way. Nevertheless the specification is reasonably up to date with an automatic tuning system and Video Plus + (with PDC) timer though time and date still have to be set manually. Sadly Hitachi have been quite mean with the sockets, there's a single SCART on the back panel and a headphone jack on the front so camcorder. Video game hook ups are going to be a bit awkward and unlike a lot of recent models it has only basic teletext facilities. The VCR is a 2-head twin speed model with mono soundtrack, there are no luxury feature as such but it does have repeat play, a child lock, on/off timers and it can play NTSC tapes.

 

Installation is relatively quick, our sample took only 50 seconds to find all five terrestrial channels, however they're not sorted into the logical order, that has to be done manually, nor are the stations named. Control operation is satisfactory but the design of the front panel could have been better, it is quite difficult to extract tapes when they're ejected, due to the overhang from the screen surround.

 

The tuner is sensitive with good noise suppression; the picture is clear and sharp but not especially bright. It looks a tad flat in fact and could do with a little more contrast to improve the appearance of peak whites. Off tape performance is very good however, our sample resolved just under 250-lines and noise levels were ver very low. Trick frame replay is typical of a 2-head machine with wide noise bars during picture search and on the wobbly still frame. The mono linear soundtrack is hissy but it's no worse than usual, TV sound is also cramped and the small speaker doesn't help.  

 

There's little to get excited about with this combi, it works well enough and both TV and VCR picture quality are average to good but that's about as far as it goes. It's a solid little machine but there's nothing about it that says 'buy me, I'm different', even the price is unremarkable for what it is.

 

Hitachi 0181-849 2000

 

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Features             14-inch colour TV, teletext, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto tuning, on/off timer, 2-head mono VCR, LP/SP, NTSC playback, repeat play, index search, child lock,

 

Sockets            AV in/out (SCART), headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ***

Features            ***

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        Unimaginative styling and the rounded screen make it look a bit old fashioned

 

·        Bad news for camcorder owners and video games enthusiasts, one SCART and no front AV terminal

 

·        Lots of small buttons, not much fun in the dark…

 

 

PHILIPS 14PV345,  £320

VERDICT *****

Philips has been incredibly active in TV/VCR combis lately and in addition to virtually cornering the market in exotically featured large screen models it's smaller sets have set new standards in design and specification. The 14PV340 is one of those 'why hasn't it been done before' type products. This 14-inch combi is the first one we can recall to have a built-in FM clock radio, which when you think about it makes a lot of sense for bedroom use.  It looks the part too, the cabinet is a far cry from the usual two-box shape we have become accustomed to, it's curvy, rounded, and sexy almost and the silver cosmetics really make it stand out. The only disadvantage of the shape is that it doesn't have a flat top, so things slide off…

 

Several Philips combis now have twin tuners but surprisingly not this one, but that's about the only feature that's missing, it has a Video Plus+ timer with PDC, that's used to create station idents, sort the channels and set the time and date. The teletext decoder is a fastext type, it has a set of front (side) mounted AV inputs (and a rear mounted SCART), on and off timers and NTSC replay. We have one small quibble about the FM clock radio. It works in conjunction with the TV – they probably share the same power supply – so although the screen is blanked there is still a low-level 'line' whistle coming from the TV which, if you can hear it, could be quite annoying. Set-up is fast; it takes just over two minutes from start to finish.

 

Off air reception is very good, the picture is clean and sharp and although the sound is mono, the twin speakers are a fair size and there's volume to spare. Off tape performance is a cut above average too, even thought he deck is a two head mono design. Resolution is a whisker over 240 lines, colours are bright and noise levels are low. Still and picture search is broken by noise bars but they're not too intrusive. 

 

The line whistle from the set when it's in radio mode could be a nuisance for some users but apart from that it's lovely. AV performance is amongst the best in its class, it is very easy to set-up and use and the styling is drop dead gorgeous.

 

Philips 0181-689 2166

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             14-inch colour TV, fastext, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto tuning, on/off timer, 2-head mono VCR, LP/SP, NTSC playback, repeat play, FM tuner with clock and alarm

 

Sockets            rear: AV in/out (SCART), side: AV in (phono), headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             *****

Sound              ***

Features            ****

Ease of use            *****

 

Captions

·        Lots of curves and that shiny silver cabinet is almost sexy

 

·        A single SCART on the back but there's a set of AV inputs on the side

 

·        The remote is easy to use and on production models it will be coloured silver

 

 

SAMSUNG T1-21B5DF,  £350

VERDICT ****

We can't even begin to imagine what bizarre thought processes led Samsung's designers to make its latest 21-inch combi look like the backside of an armadillo, but we're pleased they did! The TI-21B5DF is proof positive that combi TV/VCRs don't have to be dull, and that's even more important on models with larger screens, which could easily end up as big ugly black boxes. This model has a 21-inch tube but only mono sound. A NICAM version is also available, though both models use the same 2-head mono VCR. Other standard features include fastext (with 4-page number memory), twin tuners – so you can watch one channel whilst recording another – there's also a Video Plus + timer, on and off timers plus a child lock.

 

Normal picture options are augmented with two preset and one custom mode, which stores colour, brightness and contrast settings. There's switchable noise reduction for off-air signals and a feature called Crystal PB (playback), which softens the off-tape picture, reducing the impact of noise on old or worn recordings. Additionally there are three picture sharpness settings (normal, sharp soft), plus the characteristic noisy and unstable still frame and picture search of a 2-head VCR.

 

On the front panel there's a set of AV inputs and a headphone socket. On the back it has a single SCART socket. Tuning is automatic though don' try it unless you have a good signal as it can make mistakes and by the time you've sorted it out it would have been quicker to tune it manually. For the record the search tuner takes around 90 seconds to scan the band.     

 

Off tape resolution is a whisker under 240 lines and noise levels are low. Highly saturated colours are a bit fuzzy but overall the picture isn't half-bad. Off-air performance is quite impressive too but be aware that the tuner will show up any deficiencies in your aerial system. At normal listening levels it sounds fine and treble response is unusually crisp but at higher volume settings off-tape audio has an annoying background buzz. Although not a major issue our sample proved to be quite touchy and a slight rap on the cabinet made the picture jump during tape replay.

 

Samsung come with a really eye-catching design. Picture and sound performance are quite respectable and the price is very fair indeed. If you're in the market for a serious-sized combi this one is well worth shortlisting.

  

Samsung, 0800 521652

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             21-inch FST, twin tuners, fastext with 4-page memory, sleep/on timers, 3-picture modes, NTSC replay, index search, Video Plus+, child lock TV

 

Sockets            rear: AV in/out (SCART), front: AV in (phono), headphone (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ***

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

Captions

·        An organically inspired shape, it works quite well too

 

·        Just one SCART socket but there's a set of AV inputs and a headphone socket on the front panel

 

·        Not the prettiest handset we've seen, and what are the VCR functions doing on the fastext buttons?

 

 

THE VERDICT

We didn't expect too many surprises from this group and we weren't disappointed, this is not the place to look for cutting edge technologies or major advances in performance. The second set market is all about extending your home entertainment options and in that regard there's no shortage of choices available to you. Combi TV/VCRs is a fast maturing product area and most of our adverse comments are concerned with the sometimes dowdy cosmetics, though credit where it's due, one or two manufacturers have obviously put a lot of effort in their designs. The key feature of the 21-inch NICAM TV market is value for money, there are some extraordinary bargains to be had if you shop around and £300 or so is not a lot to pay for the kind of performance and specification we have been seeing here.

 

Although in general combis have improved enormously over the past three or four years and have begun at least to shake off the fusty 'AV presenter' image we have still be convinced that they have anything other than a minor role to play in mainstream home cinema. Even the larger screen models, including those with stereo sound systems, lack the flexibility needed for serious AV applications; we consider it an advantage to be able to mix, match and when necessary upgrade components in a system, with combis it's like it or lump it! However, they are perfect for the bedroom or children's room and are much more convenient than a separate TV and VCR. Portability is another consideration, though it has to be said that the cost advantage is negligible, following the dramatic fall in price of 14-inch TVs and mono VCRs.

 

Twenty-one inch tellies have traditionally been something of a commodity item but they have become a much more attractive proposition in the past couple of years. If you were in the market for a second set, rather than plump for a small screen portable you would be well advised to take a look at something a bit more substantial. For very little more money you can get a proper TV with something approaching half-decent sound and extra convenience features. As usual the bottom line is that if you want top-notch performance you have to pay for it. If picture quality is your main concern then the Sony KV21X5 is the one to go for. The sound doesn't quite live up to the picture's precision and depth of image but it shouldn't disappoint in a smaller room. The JVC AV-21TS4EK, Hitachi C2156TN and Sanyo 21DN4 are all close runners up. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses and we would be inclined to rate them on looks as well as features since there's not a lot to choose between AV performance. There's certainly nothing wrong with the Bush 2171NTX but the price is not that special and for the same sort of money it is possible to get more facilities and marginally better sound.

 

Choosing a combi is a lot more complicated now those larger screen models have begun to appear. We only looked at one 21-inch model and the Samsung T1-21B5DF is a good example of how it should be done. It's great value too, but we think that if you're going for a set that size you should be looking at models with NICAM sound and preferably a stereo VCR as well. Of the rest the Philips  14PV345 caught our eye, the built-in radio alarm is a great idea, but we're a tad concerned about the fact that the TV circuitry sounds as though it is running when the radio is on. The Aiwa VX-T147 is cute and the twin speakers help to beef up the sound, it's a good all-rounder and the price is fair. Hitachi has played it very safe with the C1420VT, it's a solid enough design, performance is fine and it has a useful assortment of features but it's not going to set the pulse racing. The Bush BTV150 has a few features in common with the Aiwa combi and it is a little cheaper but that is reflected in the simpler specification and less adventurous styling. The picture and sound are okay and it does the job but it doesn't grab your attention like some of the others.

 

BEST IN TEST

21-in TVs

Sony KV21X5

The picture quality of Sony's Trintron tubes has been head and shoulders above its rivals for as long as we can remember. The competition is catching up, but as far as this group is concerned the KV21X5 is in a class of its own. It's a little dearer than the others if previous experience is anything to go by this TV should still be earning its keep long after the rest have turned up their toes.

 

JVC AV-21TS4EK

JVC has an unerring eye for what the average punter wants and the AV-21TS4EK is a textbook crowd pleaser. It has just the right number of bells and whistles, picture and sound quality is good enough to satisfy most users and the price is bank-manager friendly. We have to say that it's a bit frumpy side-on, but that's not what you'll be looking at, is it?   

 

Combis

Philips 4PV345

Philips has shown us that combis can be much more than a VCR and TV bolted together. The 4PV345 is one of a number of imaginative and eye-catching designs that are helping to liven the market. We are still a little troubled by the implementation of the alarm radio but not enough to rule it out as a Best Buy.   

 

Samsung T1-21B5DF

Samsung, like Philips are working hard to enliven the combi market and the T1-21B5DF is a very bold design indeed. We particularly like what they've done with the cabinet styling, which has an almost organic quality. The bits inside the box work well together, AV quality is satisfactory and there's a useful selection of sockets, but the clincher has to be the price, it's a bargain!

 

BOX COPY 1

DIGITAL

You might be wondering if it's a good idea to buy a new TV right now, what with all this digital business. You may even have seen a lot of TVs in dealer's showrooms plastered with 'digital ready' and 'digital compatible' stickers, so what's happening? Point number one, all TVs – and combis for that matter -- made within the past ten years or so and fitted with at least one SCART socket are primed and ready for the digital revolution. All you have to do is connect them to a digital set top box.

 

Digital set-top boxes are basically receivers and decoders, they pick up the digital transmissions, unscramble the data and turn it into normal analogue PAL signal that can be fed into the TVs SCART AV connector. At the moment only a very small handful of TVs have built-in digital decoders, but they are in effect 'dual-standard' since they also have analogue receiver circuitry as well. Digital TVs will become more common in the coming years but it's going to be a fairly slow business. SKY Digital and ONdigital must sort themselves out and agree on such things as common access and control systems, otherwise there is a concern that consumers will be put off the prospect by having to choose between one system or the other. 

 

Point number two. Analogue TV broadcasts will continues for several years to come. The precise 'switch off' date for analogue transmitters has yet to be decided but we are fairly confident that it won't be for at least another 8 to ten years, or about the average life span of a TV or combi brought today. Even if there's an early switch-off older analogue-only TVs and combis can still be connected to a digital set-top box, so there is no chance that any of the products we've been looking at will become completely redundant.

 

But is digital TV so good that it's worth putting off any new purchases? No, not really, picture and sound quality isn't much different to what we're getting right now. Of course digital TV does open the way for more widescreen programming, and there is a much larger number of channels available, but if you're getting a good picture now you probably won't see any improvement.

 

RIVAL BUYS

 

Panasonic CTV21MD4, £280

A full house specification including full auto set-up owner identification, Q-Link, lots of digital picture management systems and a punchy sound system, The Quintrix screen also has a good reputation for picture quality and there's twin SCARTs on the back for full AV connectivity

 

Philips 21PT4475, £300

Just out, this snappy-looking 21-incher boasts plug and play installation (full auto set-up), some advanced audio features (Delta Volume and Volume limiter) preset picture controls and twin SCART sockets. The Blackline tube should ensure better than average picture quality and Philips sets usually sound pretty good.

 

Daewoo GD14F7T1, £225

A relative newcomer to these shores Daewoo is fast building a reputation for value for money products. This 14-inch combi May not look win any beauty contests but it is very attractively priced and well featured with fastext, NTSC replay and a VideoPlus + timer.

 

Sony KV14V5, £380

Fitted with a 14-inch Trinitron tube it's off to a very good start, though the styling makes it look a bit top heavy. A good all-rounder though, with a capable 2-head mono VCR, front AV sockets, Video Plus+ with PDC and even a 16:9 display mode.

 

TABLE 1 – 21-inch NICAM TVS             

BRAND

Bus

Hit

JVC

San

Son

Price

300

280

280

260

350

SCARTs

1

2

2

2

2

Front AV

-

*

*

*

*

Headphone

-

*

*

*

*

Audio out

*

-

*

-

*

Stereo wide

*

*

*

*

*

Power cons*

95

90

113

100

105

Picture quality

****

****

****

****

*****

Sound quality

***

****

****

*****

****

Features

***

****

*****

****

****

Ease of Use

***

****

****

****

****

Overall score

****

****

****

****

*****

 

* Power Consumption in watts

 

TABLE 2 – COMBI TV/VCRS                  

BRAND

Aiwa

Bus

Hit

Phl

Sam

Price, ££s

279

250

305

320

350

Screen

14-in

14-in

14-in

14-in

21-in

Audio

Mono

Mono

mono

mono

mono

SCARTs

-

1

1

1

1

Timer*

VP

31/8

VP

VP

VP

NTSC replay

*

*

*

*

*

Front AV

-

-

-

*

*

Audio out**

Hp/A

Hp

hp

hp

hp

Picture quality

****

***

*****

*****

****

Sound quality

****

**

***

***

***

Features

****

****

***

****

****

Ease of Use

****

***

****

****

****

Overall score

****

***

****

*****

****

 

* Timer days/events, VP = Video Plus+

** Audio out, A = line audio, hp = headphones

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 0707

 

 

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