How Digital Video killed Super VHS
Super VHS — or S-VHS for short — is an improved version of VHS, a tape-based home video format. When Super VHS was introduced in 1987, it was proclaimed to be a “quantum leap in home video picture quality” providing “dramatic improvement” over contemporary home video formats.
Super VHS was 60% more detailed than standard VHS, exceeding the parameters of broadcast television. But its abysmal color resolution remained unchanged.
Large objects having uniform color, shot with diffuse lightning and soft focus, looked great, but busy shots with a lot of detail appeared coarse and rough, making the difference between standard VHS and Super VHS “all but imperceptible”.
Big film studios did not see the increase in quality significant enough to justify releasing movies in SVHS.
To make matters worse, blank SVHS tapes were more expensive than regular VHS tapes, and SVHS recordings would not play in standard VHS machines.
Even the manufacturers conceded that the most likely segment where Super VHS could gain foothold would be camcorders. Since 1980s, VHS had an edge over other consumer camcorder formats in that one could take a cassette from a Compact VHS camcorder, put it into an adapter shaped as a full-size VHS cassette, and play it in a regular VHS VCR.
To watch a recording made in SVHS format though, a proper Super VHS machine was needed. Sometime in the early 1990s, JVC and its partners, in particular Panasonic and Mitsubishi, introduced machines that would play Super VHS tape but would not record. JVC called this neutered version of Super VHS “SQPB” — Super VHS Quasi Playback.
Was it really THAT simpler to make a playback-only SVHS machine compared to one that could also record? Did JVC charge its licensees extra fee for Super VHS recording capability? Or was it just marketing, with JVC positioning Super VHS as an upscale, almost a professional version of VHS, and as such commanding higher price and respect?
Super VHS was quickly accepted for shooting all kinds of amateur content from family vacation videos to adult movies. Shoulder-mount Super VHS camcorders and VTRs were advertised as professional equipment in publications that targeted amateur photographers and videographers. Super VHS was deployed to high schools, colleges and public access TV stations as a lower-cost alternative to professional video formats.
Meanwhile, in a digital galaxy not so far away, a supernova exploded. The first viable digital video and audio compression standard, H.261, was released in 1988. This pivotal event was followed by creation of MPEG group. The organization improved upon H.261, added missing features, provided reference implementation of the codec, and released it as MPEG-1 in 1991.
In terms of quality MPEG-1 was similar to early YouTube: frame size 352x240, frame rate up to 30fps, progressive scan, and a measly 1.5 Mbit/s bitrate, chosen so that it could be authored on the same media used for audio CD. MPEG-1 was quickly accepted for digital telecommunication services and for physical digital formats like VideoCD and CD-i.
MPEG-1 was considered similar to VHS in quality, although some tests found that it was even comparable to Super VHS, at least for one specific category of imagery, and that it offered, “for the first time, the advantages of digital recording in a familiar video format”. While MPEG-1 was acceptable for movies, it did not support interlaced video, and did not have high-frame rate capability, so it could not preserve “live” look of broadcast TV.
With the release of MPEG-1 and successes in developing digital TV, it became clear that with continuous improvements in data transmission rates, compression schemes and computing power, the advantage of digital formats over analog would only increase.
So it was no coincidence that JVC helped the MPEG task force to assess video quality of MPEG-1 in November 1989 at the research laboratories of JVC in Kurihama. Two years later MPEG met again at JVC Kurihama Technical Center to performed subjective assessment of MPEG-2, using compression rates from 5 to 10 Mbit/s for high-quality moving pictures.
After MPEG-2 was finalized in 1994, it quickly became the darling of the industry, used in broadcast television, satellite television, pre-recorded home video, news gathering, and even in making big-budget movies.
Clearly, Super VHS, being an analog format, offered too little too late. If anything, the place of VHS should have been taken by D-VHS, a digital format that would re-use the same mechanics and media as VHS, and would allow to record both standard and high definition video on a familiar-looking cassette using MPEG-2 encoding.
When JVC proposed proposed D-VHS in 1995, it was originally limited to dedicated satellite TV tuner built-in recorders. An expensive machine that was tightly coupled with a satellite dish, did not find many takers.
Belatedly, in 1999 JVC recruited Sony, who at that time was promoting IEEE-1394-related technologies as i.Link, to position D-VHS recorder as “the most practical digital-video recorder for home networks that use the 1394 serial interface”. D-VHS was expected to “vitalize the huge asset of VHS that has already been accumulated”.
But something went wrong with D-VHS along the way. Was the new format too late to the party just like Super VHS a decade before it? Were the machines too expensive? Whatever the reason, D-VHS “has been slow to gain consumer enthusiasm”. The re-ignited war with Sony, who pushed DV format, did not help.
Sony envisioned two DV variants: small (“MiniDV”) was supposed to be used in camcorders, while full-size was meant to be used in a next generation of home VCRs. Along the way Sony (who by that time already owned Columbia Pictures) and Panasonic (who had a stake in MCA) became nervous about giving consumers quality that was too good and that would not degrade from one copy to another like analog video. As a result, full-size consumer DV VCRs did not materialize.
By the end of 1990s, large-screen TVs, satellite television transmissions and advancement of HDTV created a demand for a machine that could record and play video with higher resolution than VHS, and apparently neither D-VHS nor DV was the answer.
So, in a surprising turn of events, JVC and Mitsubishi, the only remaining manufacturers of SVHS machines by that time, were joined by Sharp, Philips, Toshiba, Panasonic, Marantz, and even Sony to revive Super VHS, bringing to the market a fair amount of SVHS machines from $270 and all the way to $1,200.
In 1998, responding to demands of the customers, who were drilling a type detection hole in VHS cassettes so that their VCRs would accept them as SVHS tapes, JVC rolled out Expansion Technology (“ET”) that allowed recording SVHS video onto cheaper standard VHS tape, although the quality would be lower compared to recording on a proper SVHS tape. Reportedly, new JVC machines were “faster than a speeding bullet”.
But the Super VHS comeback was short-lived.
In 1988, the thinking was that “the public would be interested in a machine that would tape their favorite television programs in their absence for replay at home at their leisure. … Obviously, that product had to include the convenient cassette.” Well, turns out that most people did not care about “the convenient cassette”, they did not care about removable media in general, whether it were magnetic tape or optical disc. All they wanted was “pause live TV and go to the bathroom”.
This realization, along with the increased capacity of HDDs culminated in introduction of two tapeless digital video recorders in 1999, by TiVo and ReplayTV.
Digital video recorders brought a revolution into people’s homes. They allowed viewers, who missed the beginning of a show, to start watching it from the beginning immediately, before it have ended. Viewers could also pause a live program, and then restart it right where they left off. They could perform instant replay and then resume watching the rest of the program while it still was in progress.
For those, who used their VCR for time-shifting, DVR offered a radically new way of watching TV, which linear medium like tape could not provide. DVRs rendered tape recorders obsolete overnight.
Those, who bought or rented pre-recorded movies, continued using regular VHS machines or switched to DVDs, but Super VHS lost its last reason to exist.
The only segment where removable media was still important was the camcorder market. So, JVC continued to manufacture Super VHS camcorders.
Does it make sense to get a Super VHS VCR now? You know, to future-proof… something.
There are practically no pre-recorded commercial movies on SVHS aside of a several dozen titles, obscenely priced by eBay sellers. There are better options to record and time-shift broadcast television. There are better choices to watch standard-definition and high-definition movies, whether from physical media or from a streaming service.
One reason to have a Super VHS machine could be a richer feature set, like extra heads for slow motion, or flying erase heads for clean edits, but who edits their videos on tape nowadays?
All Super VHS machines have S-Video connector, which outputs luma and chroma separately instead of bundling them into a composite signal. S-Video may provide slightly better quality of the video even if you capture regular VHS.
Super VHS proved viable for amateur video production, but failed to capture pre-recorded movie market. The format was released at the time when analog video was quickly becoming obsolete. Super VHS failed to become a stopgap solution on the way from analog home video to digital.
Pre-recorded DVDs topped VHS sales for the first time in 2001. However, only 25% of homes owned DVD players in 2001, and VHS remained the top rental configuration until mid-2003. In 2006, A History Of Violence became the final major Hollywood movie that was released in VHS format.
The last VHS machine was produced in 2016 by Funai Electric. It was a combo unit DV220FX4 with a standard VHS Hi-Fi deck and a DVD player. ▪