What was beta max

Betamax is a video format for home use first introduced by Sony in 1975 with the SL-6300 recorder. It was first released in Japan and the USA and was presented in the PAL version on April 5, 1978 by Akio Morita, co-founder and chairman of Sony Corp., Tokyo in Germany (Düsseldorf). The first legendary model was the TV / beta combination LV-1901. The first external stand-alone beta recorder to appear was the SL-7200. The first NTSC recorders were so-called "one-hour recorders". On March 21, 1977 the "two-hour model" SL-8100 was presented in Japan and at around the same time in the USA. In addition to Sony, the developer, Toshiba and Sanyo had joined the format; this is how the term "beta format" was created roughly analogous to the VCR generic name in Europe under Philips management.

Sony LV-1901 (1975)

Sony also succeeded in persuading the current American No. 1 color television producer, Zenith, to adopt the beta format. From the autumn of 1977, Zenith manufactured this device family itself under Sony licenses. Timelife Inc., Paramount Pictures and about twenty smaller companies in the entertainment industry were already offering more than 5000 program titles as pre-recorded Betamax cassettes in 1977. Sony had also set up a service through a friendly American company to transfer Super 8 amateur films to Betamax cassettes; 16 rolls of film fit comfortably on a one-hour Betamax cassette. In 1977 the three companies mentioned in the USA asked for $ 985 (around DM 2310 / € 1155), in Japan the same device cost 255,000 yen (around DM 2179 / € 1089).

Zenith beta max recorder

In addition, there is the HF unit with 13,000 yen (around 110 DM / 55 €) and, if desired, the currently far from standard time switch with 10,000 yen (85 DM / 42 €). As with the current 2-hour version of the VCR device, the previous one-hour cassette plays twice the time. With the first two-hour recorder, the SL-8100, Sony also released two new cassettes: the L-500 for one or two hours (depending on the device), and the L-250 for 30 or 60 minutes. Sony paid attention to backward compatibility: by flipping a switch, the machine plays for an hour or two. When inserting a recorded cassette, the cassette type was automatically determined and set. Philips is currently responding with the first two-hour VCR, the VCR 4000. -

At Betamax, the cassettes are smaller than those of comparable video formats such as VHS or Video2000, but the tape contained has the same width (12.7mm). Due to the smaller cassette housing, the maximum playing length of a tape is 215 minutes (L-830 cassette).

Sony timer (1976)

Sony SL-6300

List of available cassettes
L-125 30 min
L-250 65 min.
L-370 95 min.
L-500 130 min
L-750 195 min.
L-830 215 min.
 Beta cartridges of different game lengths

Betamax was in some respects superior to the later VHS, Video2000 and VCR video formats. Even the first recorders offered rich colors and a sharp picture. In terms of equipment, the recorders already had some innovations to offer, some of which were only introduced later in other systems. For example, it was possible for the first time with the Sony SL-8080 (1979) to mark tape positions and play them in a targeted manner (index marking / Automatic Program Search (APS). The SL-C9, which was released later (1983), combines features such as stereo sound, noise reduction, multiple timers, image search, and complex Slow motion functions, remaining tape display, APS and much more .. Particularly noteworthy was the connection option for a PCM digital audio processor, which digitizes the sound before it is recorded on the cassette, which enables brilliant stereo sound in CD quality.

 Sony Dynamicron L-750 cassette

The technical model for Betamax was the semi-professional video format "U-Matic", also developed by Sony, for which Sony received the Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1976. Like U-matic, Betamax uses the "U-Loading" system.

Sony developed the smallest portable video recorder (SL-F1) in 1983. Due to the compact dimensions of the cassette, other video formats had no chance of surpassing or undercutting this.

 U-loading system

Betamax generally records with a horizontal resolution of 260 lines, in SuperBeta-Pro mode even with 280 lines. For comparison: VHS only uses 240 lines. In order to be superior to the "competing formats" in terms of running times, cassette changers for the models SL-C7 and SL-C9 have been released which enable the recording / playback of up to 4 cassettes in a row (with 15 seconds interruption when changing). A great thing for vacation if you don't want to miss your favorite series.

 Motor of the SL-F1

Anyone who did not want to accept losses in terms of playing time or image / sound quality was (and is) served very well with the beta format. VHS tried to increase the longer running times through long play. But apart from the massive loss of quality due to the reduced tape speed, VHS didn't even begin to get playing times over 14 hours straight. Not so with Video2000.

 Chassis of the SL-F1

Here a cassette had a playing time of up to 8 hours. The disadvantage is that the cassette has to be turned over by hand. Since Video2000 also used half-inch tape, there was only a quarter of an inch left for one side. Reducing the width of the tape logically results in poorer quality. The only disadvantage of the first PAL Betamax recorders is the poorer sound quality compared to VHS and Video2000. The tape speed of Betamax is a little slower than VHS / Video2000. This problem has been addressed by introducing BNR (Beta Noise Reduction).

 Head drum      

This was built into the Sony SL-C6ES for the first time. The following recorders, where the designation "begins" with SL-HF, already had HIFI sound. The Sony SL-HF100ES is one of the best recorders in terms of sound.


The Sony SL-HF950ES, first released in 1985, not only combines all desirable features, but also introduced the "SuperBetaPro" mode, which can only be used with high-quality tapes. The extremely good picture quality and the excellent HIFI sound make some S-VHS recorders look old despite their age. All in all, the Sony Betamax video format not only has its followers today, but a real fan base.


 Remote control RMT-143 with JogShuttle

The unfortunate marketing, which led to Betamax not being able to prevail over VHS, still makes many people shake their heads :-) But everyone who still uses Betamax today is proud of it. Not only because the recorders are still working perfectly after more than 20 years, but also because they know that they have something special.


Related Links

Introduction of stereo sound - Betamax VS. VHS
The first HIFI video recorder - Betamax VS. VHS
The first beta max recorder LV-1901
List of all Sony PAL beta max video recorders
List of all Sony beta max video recorders (NTSC / PAL)
List of beta max video recorders from different manufacturers
Betamax video cameras


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