Christmas and Hanukkah 1990 promise to be a video holiday.
There already are one or more videocassette recorders-64 million machines-in nearly 70% of all homes in the United States and that number will jump this holiday season as both first-time video buyers and consumers looking for a second VCR or laser video disc players crowd home video stores.
More and more Americans are considering a VCR a necessity.
If you have never bought a piece of home-video equipment before or if you want to upgrade your system, or simply want to add a second or third VCR, there are some things to bear in mind.
Never buy a VCR with two heads no matter how cheap the machine (and you will find them for $200 or less). These machines simply do not adequately play back prerecorded tapes. If you want a cheap, second VHS machine, you can find a four-head VCR for $300 or less. Go with established manufacturers such as Sony, "CA, JVC or Zenith.
The key question is what kind of VCR to buy. There are seven types: Super VHS, VHS Hi-Fi, conventional VHS, Beta, ED Beta, 8mm and Hi8. More than 300 different VCRs fall into one of those groups.
The smart money is to ignore all of the VCRs and jump into the laser video disc field buying a combination player that plays audio CDs as well as laser video discs. Prices range from less than $500 (a basic player) to as much as $4,500, a double-sided player with digital special effects and the best picture you can currently buy for the home.
A laser disc machine that records is still several years away for the American consumer. Our choice until then: Pioneer CLD-3080 (less than $1,400), which plays both sides of the disc, offers digital special effects and has a S-Video Output (connectors designed to send color and brightness signals separately, resulting in an improved picture).
If you must have a machine that records programs off the air and plays rental tapes, the best choice is a Super VHS machine that sells for about $1,500. Ed-Beta and Hi8 offer comparable pictures, but only a Super VHS machine will play those conventional VHS tapes. Our choice: Mitsubishi HS-U82 (less than $1,700). The Toshiba SV-F990 (less than $2,300) is also a nifty machine with digital effects and the most practical feature any new VCR can have: PIP, the picture-in-a-picture that puts an inset picture from a separate video source on a TV screen with a main picture.
Before you buy, shop around. During the holiday season, prices will vary by several hundred dollars depending on the store's stock and sales policy. It doesn't hurt to shop at a store that offers service and installation.
The optimum color television picture size for most homes is about 31 inches. Forget the traditional living-room cabinet and go for the new monitor-receivers with vastly superior picture resolution and direct audio/video inputs so you can easily connect your VCR and other components.
Forget the bigger front projection and rear projection screens. Most are too big for the average room and next to most 31-inch models, they look anemic. Our choice: Proton VT-331 with the best-looking picture we've ever seen (less than $2,500). The 27-inch model (less than $1,500) is just as good, although the smaller picture does diminish the home video experience. If you never heard of Proton, don't worry. Just compare its picture to any other monitor-receiver and you'll be sold. It's that good.
If you are to really enjoy the audio-video experience in 1990, it is essential that you combine your stereo system with your TV set. The picture may still be primitive compared to theatrical standards, but the sound can easily equal or surpass the performance of most movie theaters' sound systems.
The most important thing to look for is an audio-video receiver or sound processor that includes Dolby Pro Logic. This multichannel configuration (front, center and surround channels) will change your routine TV viewing into something very special.
Good choice for audio-video receiver: Pioneer VSX-9700S (less than $1,350) with all the bells and whistles available. Our choice for sound processor: Yamaha DSP-A700 (less than $1,000) together with the audio-video selector unit, Yamaha AVS-700. It's the best surround sound processor we've heard. Many experts are touting the new THX system from Lucasfilm. It's terrific, but the price tag is too high for most consumers' pocketbooks (Tehnics SH-TX100, about $12,000).
Whether you are looking for a bargain VHS machine with minimum performance or state-of-the-art magic flirting with digital freeze-frame and broadcast stereo sound, there's plenty to choose from in 1990's avalanche of video products.
The VCR, like the television set before it, has irrevocably changed the American home:
With cable and pay-TV offering an unprecedented variety of product and the price of movie rentals falling to less than a buck a day, it's the perfect time to join the millions of consumers who have created a home entertainment center that a decade ago was only a pipe dream.