The Rise and Fall and Rise of One SL-HF400

Wallace White

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Current Beta Machines: SL-HF400

My first experiences of Betamax were at an early age, my father having purchased an early Sony unit. I do not recall the particulars of the deck, except that it did not use "soft-touch" buttons and its wired remote control consisted of a single button: PAUSE. My brother Bailey and I watched "Star Wars" on it with alarming regularity. We borrowed a friend's black-and-white, no-sound camera to record "Our Family" in 1980 (when I was four) and "Winter Snow" in January, 1985, when Nashville received a giant 10-inch snow.

The first Betamax eventually became embattled with serious problems. In accidentally driving over a few speed bumps on the way to the repair shop, my mother managed to restore it into working condition, if not for long. By '84 or so, we needed a new VCR and chose to buy a Sanyo Betacorder rather than give in to VHS. The machine performed well for a time but developed an appetite for magnetic tape. (See Hamid's story for more info on that design flaw.) We quickly became adept at tape splicing and avoided the fatal FF-STOP combo. The inevitable purchase of a VHS deck ensued. My brother was happy to use the Beta and took it with him to Stanford; when it developed more problems, he failed to hold on to it.

I followed my brother to Stanford. In the fall of '95, the beginning of my sophomore year, I found a Sony SL-HF400 for sale in a university newsgroup and jumped at the chance. The owner was also looking to sell a Yamaha external Dolby Surround amplifier, which I purchased with the Beta for $100. News quickly spread among my friends (with a lot of help from my roommate Ben Olding) that ol' Wallace had gone and blown a hundred bucks on a Betamax. Worse still, I didn't even have a TV. Few were able to appreciate that it was actually a SuperBeta hi-fi. I also tried to justify it in that I can set the timer to record radio programs such as A Prairie Home Companion, but that didn't help either.

Not long after I found a small TV set for sale, and with the Sony GX60ES receiver I stumbled onto a few years ago and a set of Polks, my Beta home theater was ready to go. I still needed something to watch on it, however, so I took the '400 home to Nashville with me over Thanksgiving. I recorded a few good movies off DSS while home but made the incredibly poor judgment of packing the machine in my luggage for the return flight. The machine handled the trip to Nashville fine in my bag, but the return trip proved to be dangerous.

I unpacked the deck afterwards and found the front swing-panel knocked off its hinges. Thinking little of it, I put the panel back in place and hooked everything up. I turned the machine on and inserted a tape and pressed PLAY. Nothing happened. In fact, none of the transport buttons had any effect, including EJECT, and the remote didn't do anything at all. The fact that the tuner and timer still worked was little consolation.

An investigation under the hood left no doubts as to the difficulty: the left circuit board on the front of the machine had been shoved backwards, the right-edge getting stopped by a nice steel tab sticking off the frame. The board showed hefty cracks around this spot, which carried the wire to the IR sensor as well as other key ones.

At this point, even those who had accepted my argument that Beta was indeed better and that its hi-fi features were noteworthy turned on me. I began avoiding conversations with the guy down the hall with the VHS hi-fi and laserdisc. These were hard days. I didn't lose all hope, though, knowing that the newsgroup was frequented by some ardent Beta supporters and that a friend of mine was a PhD. candidate in EE analog systems. Sure enough, Jeff Hum came through with an SL-HF400 service manual, and Tamara's soldering skills were more than up to the task of jumping the broken wires. I was back in business.

Against all better advice, I stocked up on L-750HG's and took the machine home again for Christmas break, this time without incident. The time proved to be very productive, yielding the taping of about ten good movies ("Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Caine Mutiny") and a couple of crummy ones ("Cliffhanger"). Winter quarter verified the old adage that "If you get a Beta, they will come," as more than a few weekends found our room full of friends enjoying the quality of a good Betamax movie. Some even began to adopt the party line ("Beta has better chroma and luminance!" "It just wasn't marketed and licensed well.") and repeat it to the masses of unbelievers.

My birthday on February 11, '96, epitomized this unilateral support of the format. During that day I received not one, not three or four, but a full dozen Beta movies as gifts. Admittedly, "Lords of the Deep" and "Superfly T.N.T." may not have been worth the 65 cents these kind souls paid for them, but others like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Fletch," and "Kamikaze '89" have been very enjoyable to watch or, in the case of the last, to laugh at and never watch. Between these gifts, Christmas presents, and blank tapes, the Beta collection has swollen to 30 total movies.

I tried to ignore another problem resulting from the transportational accident, but finally I had to give it some attention. The single level control for the stereo audio inputs only controlled the left channel after el incident. The right channel was fixed at a high level, requiring the left channel be set at 7.5 (on 0-10, with 5 neutral) to make the channels match. A few months later the left channel stopped responding as well, though thankfully it quit at the same 7.5 level. While undesirably high, this level did not seriously degrade most recordings, but I eventually resolved to fix the problem. I knew I could connect a potentiometer across the two leads of each RCA input to burn up a variable amount of the signal; it was very fortunate that the internal level control failed at a high level, requiring no amplification. So, with the recommendations of some friendly folks on, I built a dual line-level attenuator that is patched inline just before the Betamax. It does just as good a job of controlling the levels as the internal control did, and it allows independent left-right control as a bonus.

That is the State of the Beta for now, though I am sure that developments will continue to emerge for a long time to come.

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Submitted Thu Apr 4 17:02:36 1996