Life before the first VCRs arrived in the late 1970s was pretty boring. TV watching was limited to whatever meager offerings were available at that moment from broadcast and cable TV stations. VCRs and time shifting changed all that. Sure, the standard-definition image quality was pretty fuzzy, but we were delighted by the new technology. Once the novelty wore off, we started to notice how truly awful the mono lo-fi sound was. VCR audio was recorded on a single linear track at the upper edge of the tape, similar to how a compact cassette works (stereo machines were limited to the same narrow stripe width, so they sounded even worse). Wow and flutter were not our friends, and the high levels of background hiss were irritating if you were playing audio over a decent set of external speakers. The frequency range on these early VHS machines topped out at only around 100 Hz to 10 kHz.

Sony came to the rescue first with Beta hi-fi VCRs in early 1983, but I was a VHS guy, so I was thrilled when JVC responded later that same year with its HR-D725 hi-fi machine. In one fell swoop, lo-fi sound was banished—wow and flutter, tape hiss, limited bandwith, and mono were history. The new hi-fi format, while still analog, had CD-quality sound thanks to the use of audio frequency modulation (AFM), in which the recorded stereo audio signal was essentially hidden under the video signal on the same section of tape then extracted on playback. Hi-fi was spec’d to deliver the full audio frequency range, a quiet –70-decibel noise floor, and 90 dB of dynamic range.

Mind you, hi-fi VCRs weren’t cheap. I believe my first JVC was $500 in 1983 dollars, and blank tapes were going for $12 to $15 a pop. All of the major studios immediately started releasing hi-fi-encoded movies (which also contained the original linear audio tracks and were therefore backward-compatible with non-hi-fi VCRs). Not long after, multichannel television sound (MTS) stereo broadcasts started on NBC on July 26, 1984, with The Tonight Show. This allowed hi-fi VHS owners to take advantage of the superior audio for time shifting. But even before stereo broadcasts, a lot of audiophiles were so impressed with hi-fi sound, they used JVCs as audio-only recorders. I did, and made great-sounding party mix tapes from LPs!

vqworks's picture

I have a long history with JVC VCRs. Love your article.

Oh yeah, like virtually all early Hi-Fi VCRs, the HR-D725 included Dolby B noise reduction for the linear audio tracks to compensate for the mono track being split into two stereo tracks.

I remember when Stereo Review Magazine announced back in '84 that the Olympics was also being broadcasted in stereo for the first time. Those were great times.