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beta1My SL-HF600 Super Betamax player

Ah, the Beta player. Sony’s creation to battle the formidable VHS format in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. I’ve known about Betamax for a very long time but never owned or saw a player in stores growing up. As a matter of fact no one I knew owned a Betamax player, not even my uncle who was very into movies and A/V type electronics. Of course by the time I was old enough to care about things like video formats it was well into the very late 80’s and early 90’s. Long after Beta’s heyday had past. I only knew about it since it was often referred to in jokes of the day. For instance on the popular Married with Children I remember the Bundies only had a Beta player and thus when they went to rent a movie they were left with a rather lacking selection. This was funny at the time because as we all know Beta failed in its format war against VHS and was relegated to obscurity in the consumer sector. Owning a Beta player was seen as “backing the wrong horse” much like if you went out and bought an expensive HD DVD player not to long ago.

Now I say it failed in the commercial market and not just failed because  not to many people know Beta is actually still produced, although Sony announced it will be stopping production in 2016. This is because even though VHS dominated the home market in the 80’s and 90’s Beta was widely used in the commercial sector and in some places may still be used. This would be broadcast studios, new studios, professional video editing businesses and such places.

I won’t go into details since specs can be easily looked up via Wikipedia but Betamax was known to deliver a better image quality then VHS and offer slightly higher resolution. This partially the reason it was embraced by professionals. Like VHS and SVHS, Beta was upgraded over time and in 1985 super betamax was introduced and eventually in 1988 Extended Definition Betamax which supposedly had a better resolution then even Laserdisc, reaching DVD like quality. Beta failed in the end despite arguably better image quality. It’s often cited that the price of player/recorders as well as a lesser recording length compared to VHS were the chief causes.

The player I have above is a Sony model SL-HF600 from 1985. This was a mid-high end player and retailed for $700-$1000. It featured the then new Super Betamax standard as well as various options such as frame by frame, slow motion and hi-fi audio. I picked this player up at Goodwill for a few bucks and I’m rather happy with it. It fired right up and played a tape without any issues.

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Despite being slightly higher end the rear of the player isn’t to fancy and simply has composite video in/out as well as RCA stereo. There is also a switch for the hi-fi audio option.

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Some months later at a swap meet I did come across a box of Beta tapes and a cleaning kit.

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The tape I ended up buying for less then a dollar was a demo tape for Super Betamax. I assume this tape would be used for demonstration reasons in a storefront and looped to show off the new Super Betamax standard.

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As you can see above, Beta tapes were quite similar to VHS but were overall smaller then their VHS counterpart. Likely another reason professionals like news cameramen may of favored them.

So should you buy a Beta player? well….no. If your really really into outdated video formats and can find one for a few bucks working then I guess so but honestly their use is pretty limited. The style is neat and they can offer better image quality over VHS but its hard to endorse Beta when Laserdisc is such a better option then Beta. LD’s are arguably “cooler” and many more movies and special feature editions of movies were leased on LD. Some films that still haven’t been brought to DVD or Blu ray have thier best versin on LD. yes Extended Definition Betamax introduced in 1988 did offer virtual DVD quality images but very few players with this capability were ever produced as it was marketed to professionals. I don’t even think from my research any commercial films were produced in ED Beta format. I haven’t been able to even find a single film that was only released in Beta format or only VHS/Beta but not any other format such as LD or DVD to justify owning a player. So in the end they are neat but hardly practical in usefulness terms to own, even for the retro enthusiast.

If you think I’m wrong please let me know in the comments. I always love hearing compelling reasons to make use of old tech.

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2 Comments

  1. Yes, I owned one. It was a better quality then VHS. But the story I heard was that Sony licensed out the format and VHS was open for all. So….. The PORN industry used VHS and that really killed Batamax. At least that is what I read quite a few years back… True? No idea….

    • Now that you mention it that kind of rings a bell. I’m sure it contributed. I remember something similar with Blu-ray and HD DVD. I think i recall the porn industry initially backed HD DVD but we all know how that turned out.


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