It all started with the Sony Betamax and didn't end there ....
You want to see "Terminator II," but it's been replaced by "Hook" at the local Bijou -- so you rent it. You didn't want to stay up late at night, so you set the timer for "Late Night With David Letterman" to watch it the following morning over your greasy breakfast. You just shot three hours of video of your four-year-old slipping and sliding through the lawn sprinkler, and now you want to add some titles, a Kodak commercial-like soundtrack, and edit the instant nostalgia down to a length more suitable for posterity.
Fifteen years ago, these now-familiar activities didn't exist, impossible as that may seem to a generation born in the age of video. The VCR is the most culturally pervasive product produced in the last 25 years. Almost three-quarters of all American households own one, the stupidly flashing 12:00 a now weary comic staple. The VCR has affected not only the way we entertain ourselves, but how we view -- and review -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, both globally and personally. Jane Fonda got a whole new career; and Eastern Europe is a little freer, thanks to otherwise-censored information having been disseminated underground on innocuous-looking tapes.
From a technical point of view, today's state-of-the-art VCRs are the result of a rather fevered and very public perfection process. In the 15 years since the first Betamax was dropped on a public who wanted to watch both "Kojak" AND "Columbo" at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights in 1976, format changes and feature improvements have been introduced in new VCRs before the manufacturer's warranties had run out on our old ones.
This improvement process has slowed a bit, but only to catch its breadth. The now-ubiquitous hi-fi VCR has become the video linchpin for home theater. Timeshifting is finally getting easier now that RCA, GE and Zenith have incorporated VCR Plus capabilities. High-tech 8mm decks are emerging as a possible rival to VHS. And with the growing popularity of S-VHS among enthusiasts, and the addition of advanced editing features in many midpriced models, VCRs may have reached an important plateau -- a professional video studio on your living room shelf.
From this plateau, let's look back over the last 15 years and identify the 10 VCRs that have been the most important, most influential, the most world-shaking.
But how exactly does a VCR shake the world? Like so:
(1) MY FIRST VCR. No matter what has happened to Beta since, the Sony SL-7200 -- the first standalone VCR introduced in the U.S. -- is truly The VCR That Shook the World, if any VCR can lay claim to such a title. The concept of a home videocassette recorder was so world-shattering that for years the word "Betamax" was a synonym for "VCR," even after VHS had clearly usurped the VCR field. The $1,295 Betamax SL-7200 was officially introduced in February 1976, six months after Sony experimented with the LV-1901, a clumsy TV/VCR combination. But the SL-7200, however, had some limits: an outboard rather than a built-in timer, and only the one-hour Beta I speed. These drawbacks, although corrected by Sony within six months with its SL-8200, may have blunted Beta's head start.
(2) THE USURPER. JVC is the inventor of VHS. On June 4, 1977, it announced its first VHS machine, the HR-3300 Vidstar, at Chicago's Hyatt Regency. But two months previously, on March 30, Jack Sauter of RCA signed an manufacturing deal with Matsushita (JVC's parent company) that would change the face of home entertainment. At the end of September, RCA's Matsushita-made SelectaVision VBT200 became the first VHS VCR to hit store shelves. The first SelectaVision also was the first VCR equipped with both the SP two-hour and the LP four-hour recording speed. It had a built-in electronic digital 24-hour clock/timer, was packaged with a blank tape, and for a short period of time also came with several prerecorded tapes including Muhammad Ali fights. The machine was priced at $1,000 -- $300 cheaper than the one-hour SL-7200. The VBT200 was also the first consumer VCR tested by Video Magazine, the first home video publication. But it was RCA's $4 million advertising campaign that helped sell 50,000 units in the first year, giving RCA and VHS a stranglehold on the market.
(3) COMMERCIAL ZAPPING. JVC didn't like the quality of recordings made at the EP speed, and resisted including the six-hour feature in its early units. Its first two-speed deck didn't include EP either, but a new innovation that doubled normal speed to allow a user to visually scan through a recording. The most obvious use for the this feature of the JVC HR-3600, unveiled in March 1978 for a steep $1,395, was to zip past commercials during timer-recorded programs. The soon to be de rigueur feature didn't endear JVC to Madison Avenue, which had to adapt and create commercials that could be understood in fast motion, presaging the quick-cut, image-conscious, MTV-style spots in vogue today. The double-speed feature would seem odd today. Not only was it notably slower than the now-customary nine times normal speed -- the audio track produced recognizable yet comical high-pitched sound.
(4) IT STACKS UP. The VCR sat alone. The top-loading mechanism made it impossible to stack other components atop it -- until the Sharp VC6800, the first front-loading VCR, VHS or Beta. Unveiled in fall 1980, this $1,295 unit was packed with innovative features. The front hatch was recessed above and behind the control buttons, rather than the now ubiquitous mouth-type front-load design. The clunky system required the user to push "eject" to open the cassette door, then "stop" to close the door and load the tape. The VC6800 also had the first electronic tape index system, the APLD (Automatic Program Load Device).
(5) BUTTERING THE COUCH POTATO. Wireless remote control was not a new concept in 1980; TVs had had them for years. But it wasn't until the Mitsubishi HS-300U, which hit store shelves in the fall '80, that the couch potato's favorite feature was offered in a VCR. But it wasn't a standard feature. It was a $100 option, over and above the steep $1,350 suggested list price, and consisted of a rather strange receiver/transmitter combination. The IR sensor sat above the VCR, much like the clock on the first Sony Betamax, wired to a detachable rear-panel bracket. Odd, yes, but you could set the corded sensor to face almost any direction up to five feet away from the VCR, perhaps outside the closed cabinet that kept the ugly dohickey hidden from view. The HS-300U also used an innovative multi-motor technology with five motors instead of the normal two, similar to audio cassette decks. The radical design eliminated about 700 parts -- more than half of the belts, pulleys and other mechanical parts.
(6) "THE HILLS ARE ALIVE..." You could watch "The Sound of Music" at home. But you had to listen to Julie Andrews' Alps aria through the tiny four-inch speakers of your TV in mono -- until the Akai 7350, the first VCR to offer true stereo sound with Dolby. The stereo, however, was rather primitive, in both performance and execution. A Video Magazine test found frequency response to be only 40-9,000 Hz (+/- 3 dB) at the SP speed, and only 40-6,000 Hz at EP with a 50 dB S/N with Dolby. And although the Akai had the usual RCA stereo output jacks in the back for hook up to an amp, the only stereo inputs were through the microphone jacks, requiring combination attenuator/plug adapters so an FM signal wouldn't overload the circuits. The headphone jack, audio dub and RF output were all mono. The only real purpose for this machine was field recording or home recording of FM simulcasts of TV concerts -- niche uses at best. Nevertheless, it proved to skeptics that the bandwidth on half-inch videotape wasn't too small to reproduce high fidelity.
(7) IS IT CD OR.... In March 1983, Sony leapt the last hurdle in video: true high-fidelity sound. Sony also kept the cost down. The Beta hi-fi Sony SL-5200 was actually an entry level model, priced less than $1,000. With a 20-19,000 Hz response and 73 dB S/N, it was the best-performing piece of audio gear a consumer could buy at the time. Sony achieved hi-fi sound by piggybacking the audio signal, recorded as a four-channel FM signal rather than an AM signal, in spaces between the video tracks. Not only did this method widen the available bandwidth, but it reduced distortion, wow and flutter. There were drawbacks, however: with the audio and video signals linked, audio dub (a standard feature on VCRs until then) was no longer possible, shelving all home-baked "What's Up Tiger Lily?" projects.
(8) THE RESPONSE. Sony claimed that VHS would never be able to duplicate Beta hi-fi -- there wasn't enough space between the video tracks in VHS for the hi-fi signal. In June 1983, JVC started demonstrating preproduction models of a four-head hi-fi VHS machine. Using stationary "normal" stereo audio heads mounted 180 degrees apart on newly developed double-azimuth rotating video heads, the audio signals were laid down with the VHS video information on the same tracks, rather than between them. To avoid crosstalk, the JVC engineers developed the seemingly magical Depth Multiplexing (D-MPX) system, which laid the audio and video signals within different depths in the tape's magnetic coating -- the more powerful audio signals first, deep in the magnetic layer, then the relatively weaker video signal on top. But there was a problem with the noise reduction circuit, and actual production of VHS hi-fi languished for almost a year while the finishing touches were put on the so-called Panasonic NR system. In the spring of 1984, RCA once again ruined Sony's day with the introduction of its VHS hi-fi VKT550. Interestingly, while this first consumer VHS hi-fi machine settled the VHS-versus-Beta question once and for all, its video performance and features actually were inferior to RCA's 1983 top-of-the-line models. But like the Sony SL-5200, the VKT550 was intended as a $1,000 midline unit to attract more than just the early adopters.
(9) 8MM. Okay, this technically isn't a VCR. Or is it? The KodaVision 2000 system, the first 8mm camcorder introduced in the spring of 1984 and built by Matsushita, was designed as the video equivalent of a movie camera, a familiar subject to the photo marketing giant. The 2000 System was comprised of the nearly identical KodaVision 2200 or 2400 camcorders, the optional 2020 $199 ivory-colored cradle, into which the camcorder fit, and the model 2022 optional tuner/timer attachment. These three components allowed users the full function of a standard (if somewhat clunky and low-tech) VCR. At the time of its introduction, only 10 percent of American homes had a VCR, and Kodak hoped its basic portable-to-home deck approach would put it on the video hardware map. It didn't.
(10) S-VHS. At first glance, Super VHS appears to be a niche system, a fascinating failure that has failed to fulfill its promise. But when JVC bowed the HR-7700U in June 1987, the 10th anniversary of VHS in the U.S., it was clearly the finest home video recording system available. Capable of 400 lines of resolution, almost twice that of standard VHS, Video Magazine's Berger-Braithwaite Labs noted that the HR-7700U "ushers in a new era in consumer video." Technically, it was a marvel: it shoved the luminance (brightness) signal to a higher frequency, giving it more elbow room. Then, the Siamese-twin-like luminance and chrominance (color) signals were electronically separated, eliminating the signal bickering that distorted color. S-VHS also made the S-video jack standard for all video hardware. The catch for all these improvements? Tapes made on S-VHS VCRs couldn't be played on standard VHS VCRs (though standard-VHS tapes did, and do, play on S-VHS VCRs). There were few S-VHS prerecorded titles and therefore no reason to buy into the format. Anyway, most of us already had bought standard VHS VCRs. But is S-VHS a failure? While it may not have captured the general American public, S-VHS VCRs must be selling to make at least a little money -- or the bottom-line-focused VCR makers wouldn't still be making them. The format has been embraced by videophiles, espcially as a second or replacement deck, and by many professionals.
If we seemingly have glossed over other innovations and world-shaking VCRs, here is an honorable mention list to cover our assets: the JVC HR-C3, the first Compact VHS (VHSC) VCR, introduced with a smaller-than-usual camera as a two-piece combo in June 1982; the RCA VJP900, the first "docking" portable, in the summer of 1984; Mitsubishi HS-400U, the first VCR to incorporate MTS stereo, in December 1984; the Sony Video 8 CCD, its first 8mm VCR and the first VCR with built-in pulse code modulation (PCM) audio recording capability, in January 1985; the first SuperBeta machines from a variety of suppliers in April 1985; the NEC V-10U, the first VHS HQ units in early 1986; the NEC DX-1000, which had the first video noise reduction circuitry, late in 1986; the JVC HR-D570, the first VCR with digital special effects (those processed by a digital memory buffer -- the underlying recording technique remained analog), also in late 1986; the Toshiba DX-900, the first VHS PCM-equipped model, in September 1987; Beta's capitulation with the first Sony VHS VCRs, the mono SLV-50 and the HiFi SL-V70HF, announced in January 1988 and on shelves the following October; and, finally the S-VHS front- and backward S-VHS compatible Hitachi VT-F551A editing VCR, which hit stores late this past summer.