We think some background is necessary to let all of you know the lengths we had to go to in order to secure a Magnavision
player for our staff to review. Way back in early December of last year, we called Bob Jones, PR Director of Magnavox's head
office in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, who promised to send us a press kit containing photos, technical information, and a catalogue
of all currently available MCA discs. After a month went by with neither hide nor hair of the info turning up, we again called
Mr. Jones, who "had no idea what caused the delay," and again promised to furnish us with information as soon as possible.
We also asked if we'd be able to view the player at the then-upcoming CES in Las Vegas, to which Mr. Jones replied with a
weary sigh that, since Magnavox would not have a booth at the show, they would not be displaying Magnavision there either,
not even at a private suite for their dealers and members of the press. After we expressed surprise, if not total astonishment,
that his firm was inept and bungling enough to totally ignore the largest and best-attended (50,000+) electronics convention
mere weeks after the triumphant introduction of the player in Atlanta, we were put on "hold" and forgotten about. After we
called back and again posed the question to Mr. Jones, we were again put on hold and later were told that he'd call us back
with further information. We're still waiting for that call (and the PR kit, too).
Though it would appear that Magnavox could care less about any videophile's (as well as THE VIDEOPHILE's) interest in their
firm's products, we tried to avoid letting this get to us. Undaunted, we continued our Quest for the Holy Disc Player at the
CES, where it was, sure enough, conspicuous by its absence. It was at this point that we began to wonder if we'd ever get
to see one, and even if the legendary machines existed at all. But, lo and behold, when we least expected it, local video
store Audio/Video Craft managed to get one in (for display purposes only) and, through the courtesy of their sales manager,
Carl Vickery, we were able to examine the unit in-depth and file this report... no thanks at all to our friends at Magnavox.
The sleek, low-profiled device (22" x 16" x 6") is encased in a rigid black and silver colored plastic cabinet and has
a gleaming futuristic appearance that would almost make it more at home in the Jetson's living room that ours in 1979. Its
styling is equivalent to the most advanced audio components and it is light-weight enough (35 pounds) to fit comfortably on
any living room stand or shelf.
We found the Magnavision player to be almost child's play as far as installation goes, requiring the usual single cable
between it and the set for standard viewing. Unlike the normal 75 ohm cable supplied with home videotape recorders, however,
Magnavox uses a peculiar adaptor box/cable set-up which we found to be somewhat more difficult to hook up. Near the RF Out
jack is a small switch to select between a channel 3 or channel 4 output. Direct audio/video outputs are available in the
two RCA phono jacks for stereo audio output, providing easy connection to video monitors, large-screen sets, and (ahem) what-have-you.
We note that the discs revolved by means of the center hub, not by the nonmoving platter, unlike all standard audio turntables.
As shown on the facing page, (select the "1979 one-sheet" link above) there are a total of 15 knobs, buttons, and dials
on the Magnavision player, almost twice as many as any competing home videotape deck and surely enough to satisfy most of
the chronic button-pushers among us. Everything is clearly labeled and intelligently laid out and we're sure that almost anyone
will have no trouble figuring out all the functions with a minimum of trial and error.
From right to left, the controls are as follows: Index, which pops in a small multi-digit number display in the upper left
of the picture, indicating the location of the scene being viewed (similar to professional SMPTE Time Code displays in big-time
editing equipment); Search Forward and Reverse, which allows you to scan an entire disc in a matter of 30 seconds, with or
without the index numbers visible for easy scene-finding; Sound 1 and 2, used to select which channels you want to come out
of your set's or stereo system's speakers; Fast Forward, which speeds up the picture 3 times normal forward speed; Normal
Play Forward and Reverse, for regular speed playback in either direction; Slow Forward and Reverse, which allows you to continuously
change the speed from almost still-frame to standard speed by means of the Variable Speed Control sliding knobs; Still Forward
and Reverse, advancing the picture a frame at a time in either direction, one frame for each time the button is depressed,
and the Power On/Off button.
All of the controls have tiny red indicator lights located immediately above them to show when they are in use. Also, all
of the buttons (except the Variable Speed knob) are of the light-touch solenoid type, a welcome relief from the mechanical
piano-type levers used in almost all home videotape decks. All modes are instantly switchable from one to another, but the
sound is heard only in the Normal Play Forward mode.
Since the controls are fully electronic, we wonder if remote control might be possible for the players; apparently it could
be done, but it may require more time and effort that would be worth to attempt it. If we're able to get a maintenance manual
for the 8000 and figure it out, we'll let you know.
To load a disc into the player, you pop up the lid by means of the top left sliding lever, a mechanical switch that releases
the lid's catch. The lid seemed a bit difficult to open up at first, not unlike a car's engine hood, but with some practice
you can get used to it. You next drop a video disc down over the round center post, similar to dropping a 45 record on an
audio turntable, and then close the lid. It's at this point that you turn the power on (not before, according to the instruction
manual) and, after a brief warm-up of 20 seconds or so, the player will be up to speed and an image will appear on the screen.
We judged this feature not particularly desirable, being reminiscent of Kenner's "Close 'N Play" toy turntable (a well known
state-of-the-art audiophile product); we'd rather initiate the play mode ourselves, as with practically all other audio and
video playback devices currently available. [The lid is designed to keep curious little fingers away from the rapidly rotating
disc (1800 rpm), but it would be nice to initiate "play" whenever you choose.--Ed.]
After the Search mode is used, the player will return to the mode used right before search was initiated; after Fast-Forward
it reverts to a still-frame. With only a few minutes of practice, one can easily juggle the controls around resulting in some
fairly dazzling and often comical effects, such as "exploding" and then "imploding" a space-ship from Galactica. In either
Search or Fast Forward, the images on the screen are fairly locked and stable, looking something like a fast-motion scene
in a feature film. Slow motion, too, is generally of good quality though the Variable Speed control has to be adjusted carefully
to avoid a kind of "jumpiness" in the picture; also, the slow motion in reverse isn't nearly as smooth looking as it is in
forward. Occasionally, the still-frame will flicker a bit on the screen, though this can be quickly corrected by advancing
once more to the next frame, which should be perfectly stable (and superior to any 1/2" or 3/4" tape still frames we've ever
seen). We understand that discs containing a great deal of single-frame material will have two or three redundant frames to
compensate tor this occasional difficulty.
We found the Index and Search features to be of particular interest, since they are by far the most accurate cueing system
ever offered in a home video player--much more accurate than, say, Sony's RM-300 Betamax Random-Access unit. The frame numbers
are derived from information encoded in the vertical interval area of the video, located right outside the picture track area.
These numbers are permanently recorded on the disc, unlike the mechanical counters on tape machines which are prone to inaccuracy
due to the slipping of belts.
We noted that the Still and Slow-motion features can be used only with the Standard Play (30 minutes a side) discs. The
longer Extended Play (60 minutes a side) discs contain more than one frame for each revolution, making it too difficult for
the video and servo electronics to "decide" which frame to still; hence, the still and slo-mo controls are inactive with these
discs. Also, Standard Play discs have each of their 54,000 frames encoded with the index numbers mentioned above, where EP's
display only elapsed time in minutes and seconds. At the current time, most of the discs released (except Animal House) are
of Standard Play type, so while that means you will have to change them every half hour or so, it also means you'll be able
to play them in a variety of different ways.
Changing discs is relatively fast and easy--you turn off the power, wait a few seconds for the hub to stop turning, and
depress the lid-release lever. A few seconds later the lid will click and you can open it as explained earlier.
I'm sorely tempted at this point to simply say that the Phillips/MCA video disc player works by sheer sorcery--but that
would be the easy way. At the risk of putting everyone to sleep, here goes...
To summarize the information we've received: "MCA DiscoVision is a system which records audio-video information on a disc,
replicates [duplicates] this disc accurately and inexpensively on plastic and finally plays the replicas on any standard television
receiver, monitor or video projector by means of a disc player. The production of a video record begins with a mastering process
where the original program from any video source is recorded in real time as a geometrical pattern on the master disc. After
mastering, this pattern is reproduced in the various replication steps leading to the production of multiple inexpensive plastic
video records. Specifically, the mastering process uses a laser beam to cut the holes in the coating of a master disc and
thereby records information. After processing, this master is used to produce replica playback discs. The player reads the
information on the playback disc by sensing the reflection of a low-powered laser beam and recreating an electrical signal
corresponding to the original information. This signal is then used to modulate an RF carrier on a monitor or on an unused
TV channel of a TV receiver. This modulated signal is connected to the receiver where it is processed within the receiver
in the usual manner to produce a color picture and sound."
Like I said--magic. In the consumer player, the disc is read from underneath, from the inside (closest to the label) to
the outer edge of the disc, exactly the opposite of a normal audio disc. Also, either videotape or film can be used as program
source material, transferred by laser to the master disc in real (actual) time.
Mass-produced discs are replicated by injection molding, very simflar to audio discs, but with an added metal reflective
layer and plastic scuff coating. Although all MCA video discs can be freely handled and touched without harm, the instruction
manual advises to keep excess handling to a minimum.
Since there is no physical contact with the disc--only a light beam bouncing off the disc's surface--the system can be
held in stop motion for as long as you wish without any harm whatsoever (unless you happen to be watching the Rocky Horror
Picture Show). The discs will last virtually forever, barring any intentional damage from being tap-danced on or otherwise
broken in half.
None of MCA's discs are encoded with any Stop-Copy/Copy Guard-type systems. Reasons that come to mind for this being so
are the fact that the anticopying Systems aren't perfect and tend to screw up people's pictures, plus the fact that the video
disc player incorporates Time-Base Corrector circuitry (as shown in this block diagram), which would probably defeat any such
sytem even if one had been used.
As I testified under oath in court recently, the MCA/Phillips player puts out a better picture than any home videotape
I've ever seen, and is almost equal to U-Matic players as far as audio and video specifications go. It's better than either
in terms of features, ease of use, and program access time. Audio quality, too, is nothing short of superb and easily equals
commercially available audio discs and comes close to the best direct-discs and master tapes.
Unlike the product of most prerecorded videotape companies (Magnetic Video, et al), the film transfers done for MCA's discs
are extremely well done, using some of the finest quality 35mm prints we've ever seen. Battlestar Galactica, for example (reviewed
elsewhere herein,) looks better on a disc than it ever has on ABC's west coast network broadcasts.
Now this isn't to say that the video disc or player is perfect--close, but not quite. Occasionally we noticed a few small
"scratch"-like horizontal lines here and there, or a band of color appearing in certain scenes, but this may have been a function
more of the initial videotape transfer than of the disc itself. As a matter of fact, the limiting factor here may well be
the tape transfer. MCA might be better off transferring the films directly to masters because, even though the 2" helical
IVC 9000 recorders they're using are about the best available, surely they will still add some noise of their own. Then there's
also the matter of the 30-minute-a-side disc to contend with, which some claim to be a disturbing feature.
We were very disturbed to find that there are no sample discs included with the Magnavision players--a particularly thoughtless
omission, in our opnion. MCA would be wise to prepare some cheap, floppy-type sampler discs which show cips from all the Universal
features available at their friendly neighborhood stores. Surely the cost of such a sampler disc would be minimal, and the
PR value would be tremendous. Another idea would be to include a "play me first" disc that would explain the player's many
features and offer operational tips.
At any rate, as it is, Magnavox's player does its job well, and in the home video market it's nothing short of dynamite.
We're simply flabbergasted and amazed with it. If there's any product that belongs in the home of every VIDEOPHILE reader,
the MCA video disc player is it.
We must admit that if there were another company offering an MCA-type disc machine, we'd probably be more inclined to plug
them, in view of the "couldn't care less" attitude from Magnavox. As it is, rumors of a consumer disc player from Pioneer
continue to abound, and I, for one, would be happier with a product from that company than from Magnavox, if only because
of their fine reputation as a leading mass-market high-fi manufacturer; and then, some hard-core videophiles will probably
not rest until they own the much more advanced industrial video disc player from Universal/Pioneer (reported on next).
Until that time, most, if not all, of the folks around here have already got a space reserved on our shelves for a Magnavision
player, if they ever come to LA... someday.