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Consumer Dilemma: To Wait Or Not To Wait?

March 04, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

It might be called the Waiting Game.

That's what smart shoppers have to play when thinking about buying new video or audio equipment. The trick is to avoid laying down money on models that are going to be semi-obsolete a few months later because of a new development in the field.

It's a tough game. And now it's even tougher. In 1987, consumers might feel like they're playing the Super Bowl of the Waiting Game.

Here's why.

By the end of the year, revolutionary new advances will have been introduced in three major entertainment-electronics areas in the U.S. market:

--VIDEOCASSETTE RECORDERS. JVC has announced the development of a new Super-VHS (S-VHS) system, with a far sharper picture than any delivered by current home VCRs of any format. If the new machines and tapes turn out as good as the Japanese company claims, tech buffs will be forking out big dollars come fall or next winter (prices are estimated to run at least 20% higher than for current top-of-the-line VHS models). The new machines will play your old regular-VHS tapes, but your current machine won't be able to handle tapes recorded with the new system.

--COMPACT DISCS. First, you bought a CD player and thought you had something that wouldn't have to be replaced until 2001. Then CD changers came out, capable of playing five, six or even (in one case) 10 discs and of switching around between tracks--so you got one of those. Or you bought one of Pioneer's audio/video machines that plays either compact discs (though not as a changer) and movies on 12-inch LaserVision discs. Now comes the news there'll be new CD-Video (CD-V) players on the market in late '87--and they may or may not be compatible with Pioneer's format. The new machines will play regular 4.8-inch CDs plus new ones in that size featuring video portions. In addition, they'll handle 12-inch laser discs and planned new sizes (probably three and eight inches). Will there be changers? Probably not at first. Everything comes in stages--expensive stages.

--AUDIO TAPE. American record companies might try to tell you that DAT stands for that damned audio tape. Close, but not quite right. DAT stands for digital audio tape-- the bugaboo that looks as if it might spoil the labels' CD party--at least in terms of making everybody pay $12 to $15 a disc for digital sound. What the record industry wants is some sort of chip in the DAT recorders that will keep us from taping digital sound straight from a compact disc to digital tape. That's held up the whole DAT train, but Japanese manufacturers have gotten tired of twiddling their thumbs and will get things rolling this spring with the introduction of DAT machines and tape in Japan. An American debut might soon follow--which should make anyone think twice about now buying an analog audio recorder--especially one of those fancy $500 ones.

It's easy to understand why many consumers are in a dilemma over these looming changes. What if, for instance, you're close to buying one of those relatively new digital-effect, stereo-decoding, HQ-enhancement, hi-fi VCRs for $500 on up? What's the point, when the seemingly state-of-the-art machine may be old hat by fall, thanks to Super-VHS?

The same goes, of course, for buying a new compact disc player or audio tape recorder.

Here are some recommendations, taking into consideration that everyone's situation differs:

If you don't have a VCR (or whatever equipment you're contemplating) at all, or if you do have one but it's broken down beyond the point of being worth repairing, then it's pretty clear you should go ahead and get something now.

If your current audio tape player is working fine, hold off until the introduction of the DAT players and then make a decision about upgrading.

The same goes for a compact disc player--with this exception: If you're not too short on funds and want to upgrade to a changer, go ahead, but make do with one of the lower-priced models (about $350-$400, and keep in mind that Pioneer--perhaps the best buy in this price range--is selling off its first-generation changers and coming out with two new models in about a month).

OK, now VCRs. If you've got a Beta machine and you're tired of not being able to find tapes to rent, go ahead and get a VHS machine. Basically, you should consider two price levels (actual discount-store costs, not suggested list prices):

(1) $200-$300 for a bare-bones model--but even for this you should be able to find one with basic effects (fast-forward, still-frame) and HQ picture enhancement; (2) $500-$750 for a deluxe model with the works (make sure it has HQ, hi-fi stereo and MTS, and consider digital models--but remember that this refers only to improved or extra-special effects, not a digitally recorded picture).

Or if you want to upgrade from your old, bare-bones VHS to one with the just-mentioned features, go ahead--unless it puts too big a dent in the checking account.

Why the advice to not wait in most cases? Because even when those machines with the new developments are available, they'll be introduced at premium prices--and those prices will probably take about a year to settle at a lower (probably much lower) level. Even if you wait out the equipment, you may then find yourself waiting out the low prices. Who needs the frustration?

And one more thing: Be prepared for even more advances after these--like really digital VCRs, laser disc players that perform yet other tricks, and so on, and so on. Or as Linda Ellerbee would put it--and so it goes.

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