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Best VHS player for playing old tapes

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
I plan to convert 30-40 old VHS tapes directly to quicktime movies using an h.264 encoder. I have the computer side of things solved but need to know which VHS VCR to buy for playing the old tapes.

These tapes have sat un-played for 20 or more years and have thermally cycled a lot, basically they have been abused. I know that I am going to find some degradation and want the best player for under $250 to read the information off of them and not snap the tape reels.

Thanks for any advice you can offer.
post #2 of 11
There's a point of diminishing returns where you have to weigh the cost of a top-line VCR (or more likely two) against the fact you only have a couple dozen tapes to transfer that are fairly worn. If your tapes were really superb recordings, or perversely if they were really bad but priceless, and you had hundreds to dub, fancy recorders might be useful. But it sounds like this is more of a "I forgot I had these sitting in storage and just want to make DVDs so I can get rid of 'em" situation. The problem with the "best" VCRs is they aren't consistent, you usually need two different brands to cover all the bases, and if used carelessly or incorrectly they often make worse tape players than the typical consumer models. Plus they can cost a fortune if in good condition, $100-300 or more.

Unless someone is already a dedicated video wingnut , who knows the ins and outs of the various VCR brands and models, I always recommend starting out simple and cheap to see if the results are satisfactory: they very often are. Look on eBay or Craigs List for a Mitsubishi 448 or 748 standard-issue VCR, these are built like tanks, they track well, and they don't damage tapes. They were last made in 2001 so they're relatively recent as VCRs go. They aren't the "last word" in picture quality, but if the tapes are already deteriorating you want a rugged gentle basic VCR, not a persnickety problem-prone diva VCR. If you can't find a Mitsubishi as quickly as you'd like, opt for a Quasar, Panasonic or Sharp circa 1995 (ask the seller to tell you the date stamped on the back of the VCR for sale). Any of these will be a good basic VCR and should cost no more than $20-30, if that.

Understand there are really only two choices in top-line used VCRs, the Panasonic AG series and the JVC svhs units. The Panasonics have generally seen pro use and been beat to death, the JVCs are fragile beasts that will destroy your tapes in an instant when they take a fit and act up. Neither is worth gambling on unless you have a ton of irreplaceable tapes to dub, and you have a "sixth sense" that keeps you one step ahead of these VCRs, which have a mind of their own. They also need constant fiddling of their various "enhancement" features and tracking if you're to obtain any advantage from them, they require babysitting. Of the Panasonics, the AG1980 is the one to get, cost runs $100-500 depending on condition and seller. The simiar-looking AG1970 is much older and is more suited to certain specific tapes, the AG1980 is more universally useful. Of the JVCs, frankly I would avoid all the SVHS models: they are legendary, many people think they're the holy grail, but every one of I've owned or used in studio settings has been a dog that wrecks tapes. Instead of the ancient and overpriced svhs units I'd recommend the newer "DVHS" JVCs: they are just as good but much newer and less prone to breakdown and tape eating. These cost $150-400 depending on model and condition, I recommend the JVC SR-VD400U.
post #3 of 11
Quote:
Originally Posted by damonseeley View Post

I plan to convert 30-40 old VHS tapes directly to quicktime movies using an h.264 encoder. I have the computer side of things solved but need to know which VHS VCR to buy for playing the old tapes.

These tapes have sat un-played for 20 or more years and have thermally cycled a lot, basically they have been abused. I know that I am going to find some degradation and want the best player for under $250 to read the information off of them and not snap the tape reels.

Thanks for any advice you can offer.

The best playback VCRs are those that originally recorded the tapes.

If the original VCR(s) that recorded the tapes is/are not to hand then one must find a VCR that will provide satisfactory playback/tracking. CitiBear has addressed that topic well. I would add that professional "editing decks" often function only at the SP speed so you should take that into consideration if your tapes are recorded at other speeds.

One of the most difficult tracking problems comes with tapes recorded at the lower quality speeds providing the longest recording times. The best quality speed, SP (two hours on a T-120 tape) does not usually present a playback/tracking problem.

The tapes should be fast-forwarded and rewound before playback.

Some VCRs treat a tape better than others as the end of the reel approaches. If the tape snaps it's easy to splice the tape near the reel. If the tape snaps where the spliced portion may run across the head drum the tape may be spliced but take care to NEVER RUN THE SPLICED PORTION ACROSS THE HEAD DRUM, THE SPLICE MAY DAMAGE OR DESTROY THE HEADS. SOME VCRS HAVE THE TAPE IN CONTACT WITH THE HEAD DRUM, EVEN DURING NON-VISUAL FAST FORWARDING AND REWINDING. IF THAT IS THE CASE THE TAPE MUST BE REMOVED FROM THE VCR AND THOSE OPERATIONS CARRIED OUT MANUALLY OR WITH A TAPE REWINDER. Open the swing-up tape guard, release the reel lock in order to observe the position of the splice, and manually roll the spliced portion of tape well beyond possible contact with the head drum before dubbing near the spliced portion of tape. I use a pencil or cotton swab for releasing the reel lock and a coin or my thumb to turn the reels manually, see the forth photo.

The most common tape "snaps" occur at or near the leader. Splicing there may not require opening the case. Block the tape guard open, release the reel locks, and extend the tape enough to splice in the leader or as near to the end of the reel as possible. Splice in the same manner as for reel to reel audio tapes. If both portions of a "snapped tape" are no accessible it will be necessary to open the case. Most tapes have small screws for opening the cassette for splicing tape or swapping tape reels. Some tapes have plastic rivets seated by melting the rivet's flange. Riveted cases may be destroyed in order to remove the tape but the tape reels may be transplanted into a screw-type case. Correctly realign the tape across the case rollers and lift the tape guard to avoid damaging the tape before closing the case.

Photo one shows the tape guard release location.

Photo two shows the tape guard blocked open.

Photo three shows the disengaged internal portion of the reel lock.

Photo four shows the external access to the reel lock.

Photo five shows the tape extended with the case intact.
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post #4 of 11
Thread Starter 
Thanks to both of you for the VERY helpful advice. A couple of followup questions:

Does FF and then RW the tapes "tighten" them for better playback? Interesting.

I'm pretty sure all the tapes were recorded in SP mode on an early 80s panasonic VTR+camera rig. Do I need a TBC to get decent playback of SP tapes?

Thanks again.
post #5 of 11
Thread Starter 
Also, my encoding hardware has component inputs. Are there any VHS units out there with component out? Is this even worth it?

Thanks.
post #6 of 11
Yes FF then REW is very good advise, it evens out the tension of the tape.
AFA your recorder, since they were recorded in SP and probably on a 4(video) head machine you'll want to use at least a 4 video head machine for playback.
Any of the better ones Citibear mentioned are 4 video head machines. Not sure how much audio fidelity is important to you but if the recorder was from the 80's their is a good possibility they're NOT HiFi but rather linear audio. Again a better playback machine will have decent linear heads but many of the cheaper HiFi players will have awful linear heads.
AFA component outputs, I'm pretty sure DVHS machines would have component outputs but you're really limited by the source and I doubt you'd see any improvement. In fact some people prefer composite over S-video(if your player has S-video) and they say the composite is actually better for filtering a poor source.
post #7 of 11
As Digado mentioned, it's ideal to get a VCR which recorded the tapes, but that's not always feasible.

I recently picked up a used Toshiba M-782 off Ebay for $56, which used to retail for $600 back in I dunno, maybe 2002? It was dead so the seller refunded my money. But I took it to a Mom-and-Pop type repair store in Japan and the guy cleaned and fixed it with a few belts, even though it's a Canadian model.

Most my tapes were recorded on a Toshiba M-785, the last VCR they made, with 6-heads and DNR. It's the successor to the M-782 and was built like a minicomputer. The M-782 didn't sell so they lowered the price on this model to $285. But I played some tapes back and dubbed to DVD the other night and image quality was remarkably good! Closeup segments are very close to DVD picture quality, mainly a tad creamier looking (and I'm used to Toshiba RD-XS HDD/DVD recorders). I was really surprised. Too bad I dumped boxes of VCR tapes the last time I moved since I figured the image quality was too poor compared to my current DVD recordings .
post #8 of 11
Quote:
Originally Posted by damonseeley View Post

I'm pretty sure all the tapes were recorded in SP mode on an early 80s panasonic VTR+camera rig. Do I need a TBC to get decent playback of SP tapes?

The TBC thing is another iffy question: you might need it, you might not. Most SP tapes that are first-generation camera-based originals wouldn't need a TBC, but since yours are really old (those 80s portable rigs were not that stable), its possible you might see a benefit. Again, its a question of "do you really want to go there": a VCR with built in TBC like the Panasonic AG1980 or MGA dvhs costs serious money, and the TBC circuit tends to soften the image which is soft to begin with on those old tapes. One way to test whether you need a TBC is to check if you have "flag waving" throughout a tape at the top of the screen (the top edge of the image is bent). Something like that can often be cured by a TBC vcr. If the tape is just generally not great-looking but otherwise stable, TBC/DNR circuits can make things look worse if you aren't careful. Borrow any random ordinary VCR you can get your hands on, and do a trial run with your worst tape: if you get a decent DVD out of it, you know you can just use a good, solid regular vcr. If your DVD comes out an unwatchable mess, then you can investigate the high-end VCRs further.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Clevor View Post

Most my tapes were recorded on a Toshiba M-785, the last VCR they made, with 6-heads and DNR. It's the successor to the M-782 and was built like a minicomputer. I played some tapes back and dubbed to DVD the other night and image quality was remarkably good!

Toshiba high-end VCRs sold very poorly in the USA compared to other brands, so they aren't that easy to find used and when you do they're usually broken. Good service for these is difficult to come by and not cheap. The only Toshiba that is really worth taking a chance on is the M-785, which had a unique, extraordinarily good DNR circuit better than any other VCR offered- Clevor is not exaggerating when he says its near DVD quality: its damn close. Unfortunately you'll find a leprechaun before you'll find an M-785 second-hand, there's just too few of them. Keep an eye out and you might score, but it could take months for one to turn up on eBay. People get into bidding wars over them, but since they're virtually unknown they go for less than some JVCs or the AG1980. Other Toshibas I've tried displayed a very noisy image, I couldn't believe how bad compared to an M-785, avoid those.
post #9 of 11
Quote:
Originally Posted by Clevor View Post

As Digado mentioned, it's ideal to get a VCR which recorded the tapes, but that's not always feasible.

I recently picked up a used Toshiba M-782 off Ebay for $56, which used to retail for $600 back in I dunno, maybe 2002? It was dead so the seller refunded my money. But I took it to a Mom-and-Pop type repair store in Japan and the guy cleaned and fixed it with a few belts, even though it's a Canadian model.

Most my tapes were recorded on a Toshiba M-785, the last VCR they made, with 6-heads and DNR. It's the successor to the M-782 and was built like a minicomputer. The M-782 didn't sell so they lowered the price on this model to $285. But I played some tapes back and dubbed to DVD the other night and image quality was remarkably good! Closeup segments are very close to DVD picture quality, mainly a tad creamier looking (and I'm used to Toshiba RD-XS HDD/DVD recorders). I was really surprised. Too bad I dumped boxes of VCR tapes the last time I moved since I figured the image quality was too poor compared to my current DVD recordings .

I purchased a new Toshiba M781 (the contemporaneous Video Only variation of the M782) in the summer of 1996. It was priced at $329. This M781 proved to be a recording workhorse from 1996 to 2005 and again as a videotape player during my extensive selective dubbing project in 2007. The M781 was able to satisfactorily track most Sony "V" T-160 EP/SLP recordings that presented tracking difficulties for all but one of my Panasonic DMR-ES30V and DMR-ES35V combo recorders. (I rebuilt the cassette manipulation mechanism of one DMR-ES35V in order to correct an occasional ejecting hang-up. Following that procedure this DMR-ES35V satisfactorily tracked the Sony "V" T-160 EP/SLP recordings. I have to admit that I don't know how this partial rebuild corrected the tracking problems.)

Before purchasing the Toshiba M781 my main-use VCR was a Sony SLV555UC, purchased for around $600 at Camera World in 1990. This Sony had the best EP/SLP recorded picture quality of any of the twenty (or so) VHS machines I've owned. Unfortunately the Sony spent a good amount of time in the shop (for one reason or another) until the power supply went bad in 1996 (after the extended service contract had expired). I kept the Sony in its original box for ten years, finally donating it to Goodwill in 2006.
post #10 of 11
Quote:
Originally Posted by DigaDo View Post

I purchased a new Toshiba M781 (the contemporaneous Video Only variation of the M782) in the summer of 1996. It was priced at $329.

I briefly had one of those top-line Toshiba's from around that time (think I paid around the same price - don't recall the exact model number, though), and it was probably the best VCR I ever had. They were top-rated everywhere at the time, and for good reason. So I'll vouch for those if you can find one.

Believe it or not, though, the best VCR I ever had for EP recordings was a GE from around that same time. It was top-rated for that quality at the time, and it was right before they went completely downhill as a brand (along with all the others by that point). There was actually no visible difference from the highest recording mode on a 480i CRT with EP on that deck.
post #11 of 11
Quote:
Originally Posted by DigaDo View Post

The best playback VCRs are those that originally recorded the tapes.

That's what I was going to say too.. I'm certainly no VCR expert, but as someone who recorded tons of videotapes at VHS EP(*) mostly, there would often be tracking errors when playing on another VCR. Though none of my existing VCRs work perfectly anymore, so at some point I'll probably try to borrow/get a VCR to try to recover any of my tons of old tapes that have anything useful on them.

(*) It was *such* a big deal for me when T130 tapes were available for the same price as T120 tapes (back when videotapes at around a buck apiece was a great deal), since you got a whole extra half hour!! heh
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