High-Tech Tv

TELEVISION HAS GONE high-tech, and TV technology is evolving at a rapid rate. If you’re shopping for new video equipment, you may encounter choices as confusing, and technical vocabularies as arcane and intimidating, as those that confront someone shopping for a hi-fi or a computer. The once lowly television set has evolved into a “monitor-receiver"; descriptive terms such as cable-ready and stereo-ready don’t mean quite what they sound like; and in recent years the number of screen sizes and brand names to choose from has tripled. If you decide to buy a VCR (videocassette recorder), in order to watch rented movies or to preserve interesting TV shows for later viewing, you’re faced with another sea of jargon and confusing choices: VHS Hi-Fi, SuperBeta, MTS, Dolby NR, OTR, and so on. Knowing which features you’re interested in and which only sound beguiling will help make the choosing manageable.

Much of this complexity has arisen from a quest for higher quality, especially with the entry of hi-fi audio companies into video manufacturing. Their plans for elaborate audio/video “livingroom theater” systems are a far cry from the traditional focus on simplicity and competitive pricing of TVs.

You can still buy a no-frills TV set and enjoy it. You may enjoy music reproduced by a table radio, too, but the complexity of hi-fi stereo components usually pays off in greater listening enjoyment. Similarly, much of the technical jargon used to describe new TV equipment has to do with refinements that promise clearer sound and sharper pictures. You don’t have to be a videophile to recognize that the best high-tech TV monitors (notably those from Proton and NAD, and the Sony XBR series) produce sharper pictures, with finer detail and more vivid contrast, than any ordinary TV set.

Not many years ago television was like a newsstand with only three magazines. Along came UHF, PBS (public TV), non-network independent stations, cable TV, pay TV, and satellite receivers—providing dozens of viewing options and a much better chance of finding programming of interest. A dozen years ago a home machine that could record television shows was merely a fantastic hope; today such recorders are so commonplace and cheap that every fifth household has one.

You can take advantage of nearly all the recent advances in TV technology with devices that can be bought separately and added to a basic TV set. Or you can invest in a new TV set with all the advances built in, an expensive but convenient way to minimize the need for external add-ons and dangling wires.

STEREO HAS ACQUIRED the same importance for TV that Dolby Stereo acquired in movie theaters a decade ago. Besides its potential for spatial depth and left-right localization, it has stimulated a wholesale upgrading of soundtrack quality, so that even if you don’t receive TV programs in stereo form you’ll benefit from their generally clearer sound—free of the hum, hiss, whistles, and harsh distortion that used to be endemic. The PBS and NBC networks have been fairly active in producing programs with stereo sound, as have a few independent stations, but ABC and CBS are lagging. Evidently, the industry will adopt stereo in a spotty and gradual way, much as it converted from black-andwhite to color, two decades ago.

If you already have a VCR (or are planning to buy one), the simplest way to take advantage of improvements in TV sound is to use it as an audio tuner (if it isn’t recording a broadcast). Connect a cord from the AUDIO OUT socket on the back of the VCR to the AUX IN socket on your stereo amplifier. Even without stereo, some of today’s TV programs have much better sound than you would guess if you have heard them only through a TV’s puny one-watt amplifier and three-inch speaker.

The ideal way to convert to stereo TV is to invest in a new TV set designed from the ground up to accommodate it. But if you’re not ready to abandon your old set, there are numerous adapters that can be used with any TV. Some include an amplifier and speakers, while others are intended for connection to your present hi-fi stereo system.

The TV industry had to work out an encoding scheme in order to fit twochannel stereo sound into the TV broadcast signal; it is similar in principle to the technique already being used to squeeze two channels of stereo sound into each FM radio signal. The ability to decode televised stereo sound is denoted by either of two abbreviations for the same process: MTS (multi-channel television sound) or BTSC (the Broadcast Television Sound Committee, which selected the MTS encoding technique). SAP, a “second audio program” intended for bilingual narration and other special uses, is part of the MTS system.

A “stereo" or “stereo-ready” VCR or TV is not always ready to receive stereo TV broadcasts. It may be “ready” only to be connected to a stereo-decoding adapter. Some VCRs and TVs do have adapters built in. The fastest way to find out if a machine does is to look for the MTS or BTSC system to be mentioned in the accompanying literature.

Don’t assume that you need the “video” speakers for stereo TV which are offered as options on many new models and are also available separately. These are just ordinary loudspeakers, usually fairly small, containing magnetic deflectors, which allow you to place the speakers right next to the TV set without their magnetic fields’ smearing the color. In general you’d be better advised to buy speakers that sound good, preferably models that are large enough to perform well at low bass frequencies. Place the speakers at least two feet away from the TV screen on each side. That’s enough distance to prevent color distortion, and it will provide much better stereo imaging than speakers placed right next to the screen.

THE LABEL “cable-ready tuning" on a TV or a VCR means almost what it says: the unit can tune most cable channels directly, freeing you to use the cable company’s external converter with a second, older TV. Of course, you’ll still have to pay the subscription fee to receive the cable signals legally. And if your local cable company scrambles the signals of the extra-cost pay-TV channels (HBO, Showtime, and so forth) to make sure that you can’t watch without paying, you’ll still have to use the company’s converter to unscramble them.

Nothing would seem more natural than to combine cable-ready tuning with MTS stereo decoding, especially since many of the movies, concerts, and other special programs on cable channels have been produced with stereo sound. Alas, most cable equipment used today cannot transmit the MTS stereo portion of a TV signal. If yours is among the 40 percent of American homes wired for cable, you may be blocked from receiving stereo TV sound.

The natural reaction is confusion. If you’re buying a new TV or VCR, should you spend more to get one equipped with MTS stereo decoding? If cable TV is unavailable in your area, go ahead. But if you are a cable subscriber or might become one, the sensible course is to pick a stereo-ready set that takes an external plug-in MTS adapter, and put off buying the adapter until the conflict between cable and stereo is resolved.

Instead of resolving the conflict, the cable industry may simply detour around it and use an alternative method of providing stereo: “FM simulcasting,”delivering TV sound on unused FM frequencies by cable (not over the air). Many cable systems already supply stereo sound for MTV and The Movie Channel this way, so it would be relatively easy for them to use the same procedure with the new stereo-TV programming from NBC, PBS, and the other networks. If your local cable system takes this approach, you won’t need to invest in a TV or VCR with MTS decoding. Instead, you’ll be able to use a five-dollar splitter to send part of the cable signal to your FM stereo tuner or receiver (which you probably already use to receive the simulcasts your cable company makes available), or you’ll be able to rent a new cable converter with built-in FM tuning that automatically switches to the correct simulcast frequency when the TV channel is changed.

If you find all this a bit hard to follow, you’re not alone. The TV industry is groping to accommodate itself to its expanding technological possibilities, and there is no master plan.

POTENTIAL BUYERS of VCRs should be aware of the popular confusion about the terms hi-fi and stereo that has existed since the early sixties and that has become worse recently with the use of the terms for VCRs: a hi-fi VCR is stereo, but a stereo VCR may not be hi-fi. Hi-fi has long been misunderstood to mean mono, the opposite of stereo. Stereo, however, is a measure of quantity— not quality. It denotes the use of two channels to provide spatial perspective but doesn’t specify the sound quality on those channels. Hi-fi is supposed to imply a high quality’ of reproduction. Ideally, reproduction should be both stereo and hi-fi, but low-fi stereo systems abound.

When the Betamax and VHS videocassette systems were developed, TV sound was mediocre. VCRs were designed with a basic “linear” sound track just good enough to record speech, though even voices may become a bit muffled when the VCR is used at its slowest speed, to obtain several hours of recording time on a cassette.

The VHS Stereo system provides two linear sound tracks. It can record and play stereo, but the quality of the sound is still mediocre, with “flutter" often causing the pitch of musical tones to wobble. Most VHS Stereo machines include Dolby NR (noise reduction) to minimize hiss. (Stereo plus Dolby is not the same thing as Dolby Stereo, which is a trademarked process used to improve the sound of movies.)

A Beta Hi-Fi or VHS Hi-Fi recorder can faithfully reproduce a wide range of musical (and other) sounds, adding virtually no noise, distortion, or flutter. All hi-fi VCRs have two channels, so that they can record and play stereo. The technical name for the process that hi-fi VCRs use is “FM recording.” This is an internal process, not to be confused with FM radio or FM simulcasting, although some hi-fi VCRs do have a special button for recording FM simulcasts. When engaged, the button causes the VCR to record the picture using its own tuning circuits and to record the sound, in stereo, from an external source, such as an FM tuner. This capability will become particularly useful if cable companies adopt FM simulcasting for all stereo broadcasts.

For now, if you are going to play your videotapes through the speaker in the TV set, there’s no point in paying extra for sound you won’t hear; buy a basic VCR that is neither stereo nor hi-fi. If you really care about sound quality— and especially if you will be playing video sound tracks through your stereo system—buy a hi-fi VCR with MTS decoding (if you are not a cable subscriber) or an FM simulcast switch (if you have cable).

VCRs, of course, fall into two generic classes. VHS is more popular, especially for renting movies, while Beta is cheaper, especially if you want hi-fi sound. (Beta Hi-Fi machines are priced much lower than VHS Hi-Fi machines.) Both formats are evolving. Basic Beta is becoming obsolete; SuperBeta, its replacement, costs more but offers significantly sharper pictures. High-Quality VHS machines are already available, with enhanced picture quality’, but basic VHS decks will continue to dominate the market. A third incompatible VCR format, eight-millimeter, exists; an 8mm VCR is somewhat more expensive than the average VHS or Beta machine but is only half as large. Initially the 8mm format is likely to be popular primarily for “camcorders” (camera/recorders), for videotaping vacation trips and family activities.

A word about the profusion of names and quality grades for blank videotape: HG, HGX, High-Standard, Pro, HiFi, and so forth. In general, these premiumgrade tapes do not yield a significantly sharper picture than standard tapes. (Makers add to the confusion with names like Super Avilyn, which is a standard formulation. There is no “regular” Avilyn.) The main advantage of premium-grade tapes is a reduction in “chroma noise”—the technical name for the flickering, confetti-like colored snow that is most noticeable in brightly colored areas of the picture. Try a premium-grade tape and make up your own mind whether the improvement is worth the considerable increase in cost. □