Dumpsters Full Of Betamax's

Hamid Khan

E-mail: 101323.2634*compuserve.com
Web URL: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/hamid
Current Beta Machines: SF-F1UB, SLO-1700, various others

Hey, I'm another Betamax VCR fan from the other side of the Atlantic! I found your homepage after a Lycos search using the term 'Betamax'. I have several Beta vcrs and over 300 tapes. All were bought second-hand for way below their original price. Most of them were purchased as non-working machines and I fixed them myself, typically by obtaining two or three of the same model and 'part-swapping'. However perhaps you could help. I am looking for instruction manuals for two of my Beta decks. The first is the SL-F1UB portable VCR which is used with the HVC-4000P video camera. In the USA the F1 VCR was sold as the SL-2000. The US model had a twin speed switch (BII / BIII). Sadly Sony never added this facility to PAL Beta.

Another manual I am looking for is the SLO-1700 Beta hi-fi deck. This is an industrial type unit designed for tape duplication. It has no tuner or timer and it doesn't care about not recording to 'write-protected' tapes. On the front there is a glass tube full of mercury with a sticker beside it saying "2000 Hours". On the top, a small plastic cover comes off to reveal DIP switches. I'd be particularly interested to learn what either of these things do. What's the situation regarding Betamax in the US? Over here, it died a sudden death around 1990 when the video rental market went VHS-only. Almost overnight perfectly good VCRs became worthless garbage and could often be picked up for peanuts at 2nd.hand stores. Many others were found littering the streets on garbage collection days and that's when I started collecting them seriously. On one occasion I filled my car up with over 20 on one trip - and I could have gotten more. Making them work again was not too difficult in most cases only cleaning and adjustment was required. The ones with difficult faults were used for spares.

Tapes were obtained from people who had discarded their old VCRs, and from video rental shops eager to get rid of them. In 1993 I puchased 270 original movies from a dealer in London for less than US$140. Much cheaper than hiring them on VHS, and better quality !

Some people think I'm a bit crazy because I collect old 'junk' like Beta VCRs. I'm glad I've found someone else who appears to be crazy about them. However I'm sure you're not really crazy; in fact you seem quite sensible and as far as acquiring Betamax video recorders is concerned, I'd say that great minds think alike !

The following is a reply to my reply, in which I mistakenly expressed my amazement at finding an industrial machine in the dumpster. Clarification and more stories ensue.

Thanks for your speedy reply. Firstly I think you misunderstood me ; I didn't find the Beta hi-fi or the portable deck in the trash - I had to pay for them, but needless to say they cost me a fraction of their original price. I did get loads for free at one time. That was when I lived in Bristol in the west of England at the time the big movie distributors decided to drop Beta. It seems that vcrs are used almost exclusively for viewing pre-recorded tapes. The reason for this is almost certainly the lack of regular TV channels to watch on this side of the pond. There are only four (yes 4) channels available in England without cable or satellite dishes and over 70% of people cannot get cable (including me!). At that time the figure was even higher. Bristol had a very limited cable service in only a few districts. Approximately 365 million videocassettes were hired out every year in the U.K . and the film and video companies did not want to encourage the growth of pay TV for fear of them losing money from video releasing. Even today there is normally a 1-year hold back period during which a movie is only available on video and not on satellite/cable.

Beta reached Britain a little later than VHS in the late 1970s. By that time both systems had playing times of at least three hours. There were also several Philips machines on the market. I also had a Philips N1700 (with chunky square tape cartridges) and a V2000 (tapes similar in size to VHS but double-sided like audio tapes). There were numerous variants and most were incompatible. The machines were about twice the size of a normal VCR and extremely heavy. I met someone with several of them in his garden; he invited me to help myself to them!

The reason why Beta was slow to catch on seems to be because the TV rental shops over here favored VHS. Thorn-EMI which owns Radio Rentals and D.E.R. over here and Rent-a-Center in the US also has a stake in JVC. With a huge music publishing empire to boot, Thorn EMI gave VHS a head start by publishing pre-recorded tapes as well as pushing JVC-manufactured VCRs under their own name. To be fair, they also released their movies on Beta for a while, but no machines were for hire in the shops.

Independent dealers supported Beta and that's how I got so many old vcrs in the dying days. Following the demise of pre-recorded movies, customers renting Beta machines were offered VHS decks instead. At first the old Beta decks were sold secondhand, but soon there were so many on the market that the price collapsed and the TV shops no longer considered them worth selling. I used to buy them for $5 or $10 but in the end the man at the TV shop in Fishponds, Bristol had 300 machines and no space so every week he filled the dumpster with up to 40 of them of which I picked the best ones. Most got damaged or the clocks smashed when they were hastily thrown in. The low cost of 2nd hand units and high cost of servicing meant that many people threw out their Betas when they went wrong rather than fixed them. For a while I sold these people a cheap working unit and helped myself to their old broken one, fixing that and selling it to the next sucker. But I couldn't turn back the tide. New VHS decks were getting cheaper and temptingly available on instant credit. In the last few years following the death of Betamax there has been an enormous growth in home video ownership over here and of course VHS accounts for over 95% of sales. The explanation might be that people were unwilling to commit themselves to a major purchase of a VCR when they were uncertain about which system would be supported in the future. VCRs are at least twice as expensive over here compared to the US. With many more rental machines available, and a greater number of manufacturers selling VHS machines in the shops, people must have had much more confidence in the system right from the start.

Sony promoted Beta by stressing its better quality. But most people didn't seem to care and anyway the difference is slight. It may not be noticeable at all on a well-worn pre-recorded tape, which as I've said was the most common use. A few enthusiasts like me recognize the superior results and still use Betamax but for the most part it is all but dead. I think Sony discontinued all their British Beta / Super Beta models several years ago. Interestingly TV broadcasters continue to use Betacam, which employs Beta cassettes. Their surplus tapes can be re-used as blanks in Betamax machines and can often be obtained for little money (as little as 30 cents!) along with used Betamax tapes in 2nd hand shops in London. New tapes are about $15 for two and only two shops in my hometown sell them.

Your info on the technology behind Beta was interesting. The U-load principle was first used in the Sony U-Matic professional video format in the 1970s. All the Sony Betas keep the tape 'laced' around the video head during rewinding and fast forwarding to save time unthreading it. This results in more video head failures in my experience. Most of the Sanyo Betacord machines unlace the tape before a rewind or forward, like VHS. Naturally they suffer mechanical faults but rarely have worn heads. These and the early Sony models made up the bulk of the discarded machines I acquired in Bristol. It's probably no use to quote specific model numbers because they are different in the UK (we use the PAL color system). The commonest 'finds' , in case you get an old British book out of your library, were the Sony C5, C6 and C7 and the Sanyo VTC 5000 series. Toshiba made a few Beta decks ; the front - loading models that I found almost always had faulty heads though. The Sony C6 was a very heavy front-load deck and I think its American cousin was the SL-6000. Its common faults were not loading a tape (belt problem) and a white flash on the picture every few seconds accompanied by a sound 'glitch'. Solution - adjust the capstan motor speed on the PCB with the tracking control on.

The C7 was extraordinarily complex and deserves an e-mail of its own. I have two C7's (one used for spares) and a German-made mechanical tape changer like you talked about. I got some of these out of the trash in Bristol but nearly all of them had the same fault - a broken plastic lever arm. The C7 and the autochanger are the most unreliable pieces of Beta equipment if you ask me. As for the Sanyo, the VTC-5000 is similar to the American VCR-3900 but ours has no speed selector and only 8 channel selectors (well there are only 4 channels!). These machines chew tapes due to a design fault in their microprocessor. If the tape fails to rewind or fast forward (usually because the reel drive belt has broken) the CPU tells the deck to start lacing the tape which of course it can't unlace afterwards. This apparent bug is present in many Sanyo Betacord VCRs so remember if you get one cheap at your local flea market, don't put a good tape in it !

[Ed. Note: I owned a Sanyo machine with this exact problem, though I didn't know it to be a design fault in general.]

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Submitted Sun Apr 7 14:02:39 1996