THE CONSUMER BETAMAX
In 1975 125,000 home video cassette recorders were sold in the USA and they were all Sony Betamaxes. That year the video recording revolution officially began. As you already know from the previous panel (The First Home unit) it wasn't the first attempt to put video cassette recorders in the hands of the public, and it wasn't the first one marketed by Sony either. The first official Betamax was in the LV-1901A television console.


The SL-7200, seen above, was the first stand alone recorder and playback unit. Expensive and bulky it gave anyone with the money, initiative and a television the opportunity to time shift off the air television programs. Soon other companies joined in by licensing the format and Beta seemed to be another winner in the long line of revolutionary successes from Sony. The rest is history. Sony eventually lost it's domination of cassette video recording supremacy to VHS but over the years they released a great many models, each better than the last in some way. What we have here is the line up from Sony of the many Betamaxes that did battle in the marketplace. Click on the picture and here we see three early designs. Each one was introduced to meet a specific need or challenge presented by the competing format. In the middle is the SL-7200, the first stand alone unit. In the upper right is the SL-8200 which offered a new slower speed, making it possible to record up to three hours in BII. It still couldn't match the four hours of VHS but Beta cassettes were cheaper, smaller and handier than the competition. Plus a changer was now available that could allow you to record up to six hours straight, if you wanted. The model in the upper left is the SL-8600, the first unit with a digital clock/timer. It is also the first and only single speed home unit. It was a mistake, but an understandable one. Sony wanted to market a unit that went head to head on price with VHS and the SL-8600 was inexpensive. But Beta lovers were upset! What happened to the BI speed? Many still had tapes recorded in BI and this unit didn't allow for the faster speed to be played back. They felt locked out. But Sony learned a valuable lesson with this unit and that was don't step on the toes of your faithful followers. After the SL-8200 fiasco almost every Betamax from Sony would play back the BI speed. Click the picture and here we have the next design change from Sony, the BIII series. The SL-5400 was released first then came the SL-5600, which was slightly better and more costly. Last was the full featured SL-5800 with variable pause and scan. The SL-2000 in the lower right is the first portable unit. It only recorded in BII but it play back both BI and BII. Why no BIII? Sony reasoned that for quality that BII was the more stable speed for portable use, plus it would of added weight and this unit was already more than most people wanted to carry around. It was basically a spin off of a professional unit that Sony had already been offering to broadcasters, the SLO-340 (shown in the next panel "The Pro Betamax"). The SL-2000 had a tuner/timer that separated from the recorder, an innovation soon copied by VHS. The next photo shows the next change in Betamax, the front loaders. Gone was the press down tray on top of the recorder. Now you could stack things on top of the recorder because you now pushed the cassette into an opening in the front. Technically stacking things on top was a bad idea but being able to put the units into a home entertainment center (also marketed by Sony) was a good idea. The units proved to be very popular and five design variations were offered. Actually there was a sixth which we'll talk about it in a moment. Click on the picture and here we see the next improvement in Beta. Now the cassette slot has moved to the left, but the biggest change was inside. A new transport mechanism was introduced that allowed slimmer more compact units. They were marketed as the E-Z Beta (easy Betas) with the idea that anyone could used these small compact machines to record their favorite sports programs or soap operas. And they were simple too. (Evidently it was decided that video recording was just too complicated for the average user.) These units had big buttons, easy to read displays and were simple to program. By now Sony and the other Beta manufacturers were in a bloody war with VHS. Innovation and ease of use were major factors in winning over customers. All of the units recorded in BII and BIII, and played back in BI. Click the picture and here are more additions to the slim line of Betamaxes. Now customers had many models to choose from. There were simulated wood grain cabinets, different colors and various button configurations. All the time Sony was pushing the superior picture quality of the Beta format. But the best was yet to come. Click the picture and the first Betahi-fi stereo units are seen. The first was the SL-5200 which was introduced at the end of the SL-5000 series run, then came the SL-2700 and SL-2710. Betahi-fi was a technological triumph. Only studio recorders could rival the quality and specifications of the stereo reproduction these units could produce. Betahi-fi required more electronics so this feature was reserved for the high end models. Sony informed their dealers that here was the death blow to VHS that they had been waiting for. The other format didn't have the signal space to duplicate Betahi-fi. And they were right, sort of. VHS came up with a clever way to duplicate Betahi-fi by using an imbedding recording system. It was inferior and lost signal strength after every playback, but in the long run people didn't really care about the quality of the Beta format. They wanted longer recording time, cheaper and to play rental movies. Something Sony apparently wasn't very good at. Click the picture and these are the neat little portables. Each was light, featured, play all three speeds, recorded in BII and BIII and separated into two units. They were to be the last portables because something new was coming (more later). Click the picture for the line up of cameras that were available for use with the portables, and several home units as well. The next picture is of the two specialty models from Sony. The LV-1901A console and an interesting projection unit that had a Betamax built-in. It was for the niche market of theater presentation, seminars and sales meetings. Two models were made, one without the recorder. The next picture is of the three talking Betamaxes. Here Sony tried another interesting idea that, while unique and clever, didn't really prove to be popular enough to continue. Click again and here is an idea that did prove to be very popular. Monaural units, the SL-HFR series, that could be upgraded to Betahi-fi at a later date by using a special adapter. It was kind of an inexpensive way for customers to test the waters by getting a Betamax then adding stereo later. A SuperBeta unit was even made in this series, more on SuperBeta in a moment. The next picture shows the first SL-HF series of Betamaxes. The SL-HF prefix was now the official designation for stereo units. The four shown here are each a step up in features from the last as the numbers go up. A general rule for Sony models but not to be completely trusted as you will see. None of the units up until now received stereo broadcasts. One reason for this was that Sony was making Betamaxes in stereo before a broadcast standard had been adapted. When it came along Sony made adapters for it and units that received it (stereo broadcasting is called MTS). Here are two that features MTS stereo, the SL-HF400 and SL-HF600. Now the SL-HF300 and 500 did not even though you would think the SL-HF500 being between the 400 and 600 should. Told you that you couldn't trust the numbers. But they didn't come out at the same time. There is something else new here with the SL-HF600, it is the introduction of SuperBeta. Sony improved the already superior picture of Beta by boosting up the luminance signal. They could do this when VHS could not because of the bigger recording area that Beta enjoyed. VHS did counter with HQ models. They had slightly better electronics but the signal wasn't improved. It was just a way to counter Beta. Click the picture and now we see another clever innovation from the Beta camp. Betamovie was the worlds first camcorder. They used a video drum that was half the size of conventional Beta and had one dual recording video head. They were compact, lightweight, compatible with the regular home units and Sony couldn't make them fast enough to meet demands. Five units were made that scaled up from a tube type to CCD, from regular Beta to SuperBeta. All recorded in the single speed of BII except the last one, the BMC-1000 Pro was BI. Click the picture again and here is the second series of SL-HF units. Now the numbers get confusing and the features varied across the scale. Generally the high numbers meant more features. The next picture is of the multi-standard units. Sony sold Betamaxes all over the world so in addition to PAL standard units sold over seas they also made units that played and recorded multiple standards. They are shown here. Click the picture and here are some interesting variants from what we've seen so far. Units that only played back, as in no recording. Introduced for use in presentations, rental or display situations these models are quite rare and unusual. The next picture shows the top off the line models that became legend among Beta supporters. Full featured and sporting effects that were unmatched in consumer video recording. Click the picture and we see the opposite. Made near the end of Beta manufacture the low end units that were made to appeal to people on a budget or to compete with cheaper VHS models. The next photo are low end SuperBeta models. Next are the SL-S series of units that were sold in countries around the world that used the same NTSC standard as the USA. These were also the last Betamaxes. Next are the digital Betas that used special electronics to stored video and produced unique effects like flash motion, mosaic, PIP, etc. Next comes ED Beta, the last major upgrade to the Beta format. Up to now every recording made on a betamax had been backward compatible. ED Beta was different. The luminance is so high on these units that special tape is needed to handle it. Metal Tape, and they won't play in normal Betas. But the ED Betas units will play standard Betas tapes. How was the improved picture of ED Beta? Incredible! Over 500 lines of picture, better than standard television broadcasting. The next photo is the last Betas. What you see here are the last of their kind. The SL-HF2100 was the pinnacle of SuperBetaHi-fi. The SH-HFT7 was the last variant from the normal Beta VCR because it had a built in amplifier that allowed speakers to be used. It also feature digital audio enhancement such a concert hall effect and simulated stereo. The next photo shows some Beta units that were never made and the last photo is the adapter that many people would have liked to of had made but couldn't ever be made. That covers the life of Beta. A wonderful past with an unfortunate ending. In the panel to come we look at how Beta dominated the professional world, where there was never any doubt who was the winner. To got to the next panel "The Pro Betamax" click here.