JVC GR-SZ7 — the best consumer VHS camcorder?
There were dozens if not hundreds of VHS camcorders produced from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s, but the JVC GR-SZ7 stands out of the pack.
Videomaker magazine praised it for “breathing new life into the flagging S-VHS-C format”. The magazine spoke highly of the “ultra high-resolution, 570,000-pixel CCD sensor” and of the very fast f/1.2 lens. Complemented with advanced signal processing, the GR-SZ7 offered “stunning image quality for a serious videomaker”.
In July 1995, Videomaker magazine chose the SZ7 the best Super VHS-C camcorder of 1994.
And then… digital video happened. DV standard was codified in April 1994, when more than fifty companies agreed on a new digital video format. First DV camcorders were released in the fall of 1995 and made analog video obsolete overnight. It is enough to say that DV was as good or better as Betacam SP and very close to DigiBeta.
VHS and Hi8 lost their steam, research and development stopped. For the next decade, analog camcorders were re-positioned as entry-level machines, with advanced features stripped down.
This makes the SZ7 the swan song of consumer VHS camcorders. It uses Compact VHS cassettes, and can record in Super VHS mode if you use Super VHS tape.
The camcorder is equipped with electronic image stabilizer, but it is not very effective. Autofocus hunts a lot, so it is best to lock focus and adjust as needed in manual mode. Thankfully, the focus control is very well designed.
Exposure is fully automatic. It is possible to adjust exposure to increase or decrease overall brightness, but it is not possible to lock the exposure, and aperture and shutter speed cannot be controlled individually. This is inexcusable for an advanced and expensive camcorder like the SZ7; its original list price was $1800.
The only option to control exposure aside of exposure compensation is turning automatic gain on or off. When gain is turned off, the camcorder will not add gain when there is not enough light. By using a variable neutral density filter I can force the camcorder to open up the aperture and to slow down the shutter speed even at daytime. I add filtering until the image in the viewfinder begins to dim, then I back off a bit.
Fully opened aperture helps separating subject from background by blurring out of focus areas. Slow shutter speed adds motion blur to moving objects. All this blurring hides low resolution of VHS.
The camcorder records Hi-Fi stereo audio, which was a big deal when most camcorders recorded monophonic audio track that had worse quality than a compact cassette. The camcorder has a stereo built-in mic and a stereo input. Sadly, there is no way to control audio gain, it is fully automatic.
After capturing the video through S-Video cable into ViXS TV/FM card, digitizing it, deinterlacing, cleaning color noise, reducing shimmer, scaling it up and sharpening, it looks usable. It would look very good on a 20-inch CRT TV set. But watched on a 50-inch plasma panel, it gives off a feeling of being permanently out of focus. This just shows the leap that happened first with DV, then with high-def. Video quality that we now accept as a given, was nothing less than a miracle in mid-1990s.
The SZ7 was a great camcorder for its time, probably the best in the segment, but its time has long gone. ■