In life, two heads are often better than one. In videocassette recorders, four heads are always better than two. Most video-oriented people are accustomed to seeing four heads touted as one of a VCR’s most attractive qualities, but many still wonder what the heck the difference is between basic two-head machines and more Medusa-like models.

Is a machine with extra heads worth the extra cost?

Probably, and here’s why.

In video and audio recording, heads are little, metal electromagnets that perform two essential functions: They place the signal onto the tape (“write”) during recording, and they pick up the signal off the tape (“read”) during playback. (VCRs also have at least one audio head to handle the sound and an erasure head, but when a machine is called “four-head” the term usually does not include those.)

Video heads, though, are more complicated than the heads on an audiocassette recorder. Both VHS and Beta players have heads that rotate on a cylindrical “drum” at 30 revolutions per second, interacting in a “helical-scan” (or “azimuth”) method, and placed in one of several different arrangements depending on the manufacturer. Of more importance to consumers than the intricacies of how this system works is what difference the number of heads makes.


On some machines, having four heads may provide a slightly improved picture on slowest-speed taping; on others, extra heads won’t make any difference in picture quality. But there’s one area where extra heads make a very noticeable difference: special effects.

Of course, we’re not talking about movie-type special effects. No, extra heads won’t make the explosions in “Rambo” any more spectacular. But if you’d like to view one of those explosions in detail, that’s where a VCR’s “special effects”--freeze-frame, scan and slow motion--will come in handy. And a four- or five-head VCR will give you more flexibility in their use.

The most practical benefit of extra heads is special-effect function at more than one speed. If you only have two video heads, you’ll get a reasonably noiseless picture in scan, slow-motion and freeze-frame only on whatever speed the manufacturer has chosen--usually either SP (standard play, the fastest and most efficient speed) or EP (extended play, the slowest speed, providing the longest taping time) in VHS. On the other speeds, the machine will still scan or give you a still frame, but the picture will be largely obscured by visual static.

Machines with four heads or more (and a few three-head ones, too) generally provide these effects on two speeds. It’s a good idea, before buying even a four-head VCR, to check if the speeds with special effects correspond to the speeds you prefer to tape in. A four-head player’s special effects also may be of a better quality than a two-header’s, though not necessarily.

Also, there are machines with five, six or seven heads. Generally, these are different systems that provide pretty much the same features as four-head machines, and sometimes the advertisement-writers are counting audio heads (and in the new hi-fi machines, that means at least two audio heads).

In any case, the two-head videocassette recorder seems bound for eventual extinction, so unless you’re on a really tight budget, go for a VCR with four or more heads.

GETTING SMALL: The trade publication Electronic Media reported this week that both JVC and Sony claim to be introducing the “smallest and lightest” video camera/recorder. Both weigh in at about three pounds and measure 5 by 6 inches.

Which company wins the smaller-is-better contest by a silly millimeter doesn’t matter as much as the growing practicality of video cameras and “camcorders” for the average consumer. The compactness of the Sony “Handycam” model isn’t such a big surprise, since it’s in the relatively tiny 8-millimeter format. But the new JVC VideoMovie model (GR-C7) should be welcome news to people looking for a camcorder in the most popular format, VHS.


The GR-C7, which is expected to be in stores by May, is said to be 35% smaller and about 40% lighter than JVC’s previous GR-C2 model (the weight varies according to the choice of batteries). Like that unit, the new VideoMovie gets around the bulkiness of the VHS cassette by using a special, smaller “C-format” cassette, which fits into an adapter for play on a VHS player. Due to its size, this cassette holds less tape than a normal VHS cassette.

The VideoMovie can be used to play back tapes, but a separate playback unit is required for the Handycam, which will retail for between $1,300 and $1,400. The suggested list price for the JVC model will be $1,495 including accessories.

FINAL THOUGHT: If a videocassette recorder is commonly called a VCR, why isn’t a videocassette called a VC? Just asking.