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Betamax (sometimes called Beta) is a home videocassette tape recording format developed by Sony, released on May 10, 1975. The cassettes contain 1/2-inch (12.7mm)-wide videotape in a design similar to the earlier, professional 3/4-inch (19.05mm) U-matic format. The format is generally considered obsolete, though it is still used in specialist applications by a small minority of people.

Like the rival videotape format VHS (introduced in September 1976 by JVC), Betamax had no guard band and used azimuth recording to reduce crosstalk. According to Sony's own history webpages, the name came from a double meaning: beta being the Japanese word used to describe the way signals were recorded onto the tape, and from the fact that when the tape ran through the transport, it looked like the Greek letter beta (β). The suffix -max came from "maximum", to suggest greatness.

Sanyo marketed a version as Betacord, but this was also referred to casually as "Beta". In addition to Sony and Sanyo, Beta-format video recorders were also sold by Toshiba, Pioneer, Murphy, Aiwa, and NEC; the Zenith Electronics Corporation and WEGA Corporations contracted with Sony to produce VCRs for their product lines. Department stores like Sears (in the U.S. and Canada) and Quelle (Germany) sold Beta-format VCRs under their house brands, as did the RadioShack chain of electronic stores.Betamax and VHS competed in a fierce format war, which saw VHS come out on top in most markets.

Home Movies

Two piece camera/VCR systems rapidly displaced Super 8 mm film as the medium of choice for shooting home movies and amateur films. These units included a portable VCR, which the photographer would be cary by a shoulder strap, and a separate camera, which was connected to the VCR by a special cable. At this point, Beta had several advantages over VHS systems. The smaller Beta cassette made for smaller and lighter VCRs. Beta's superior picture was important for home movies, whereas the longer recording times of VHS were seen as superfluous.

However, consumers wanted a one piece solution. The first one-piece consumer camcorder, the Betamovie, came from Sony. A major requirement for a one-piece camcorder was miniaturizing the record head drum. Sony's solution to this involved a nonstandard video signal which would become standard only when played back on full sized VCRs. A side effect of this was that Beta camcorders were record-only. Consumers saw this as a major limitation.

VHS manufacturers found a better solution to the drum miniaturization issue. (It involved four heads doing the work of two.) Because it used standard video signals, VHS camcorders could review footage in the camcorder and copy to another VCR for editing. (Two Beta decks and a Betamovie were required for similar functionality, and this still didn't allow a videographer to review footage in the field.) This shifted the home movie advantage dramatically away from Beta, and was a primary reason for the loss of Beta market share: Owners of Beta VCRs found that a VHS camcorder would allow them to copy and edit footage to their Beta deck - something that Betamovie could not do. And if rental movies were not available in Beta, they could rent them in VHS and use their camcorder to play them. Owners of VHS VCRs could also choose a variant camcorder format called [VHS-C]. This used a miniaturized cassette to make a camcorder smaller and lighter then any Betamovie.

Sony could not duplicate the functinality of VHS camcorders, and seeing the rapid loss of market share, eventually introduced the Video8 format. Their hope was that Video8 could replace both Beta and VHS for all uses. For more information, see the article on camcorders.

The legacy of Betamax

The VHS format's defeat of the Betamax format became a classic marketing case study. Sony's attempt to dictate an industry standard backfired when JVC made the tactical decision to forgo Sony's offer of Betamax in favor of developing their own technology. They felt that it would end up like the U-Matic deal, with Sony dominating.

By 1980, JVC's VHS format controlled 70% of the North American market. The large economy of scale allowed VHS units to be introduced to the European market at a far lower cost than the rarer Betamax units. In the UK, Betamax held a 25% market share in 1981, but by 1986, it was down to 7.5% and continued to decline further. By 1984, forty companies utilized the VHS format in comparison with Beta's twelve. Sony finally conceded defeat in 1988 when it, too, began producing VHS recorders, though it continued to produce Betamax recorders.

In Japan, Betamax had more success and eventually evolved into Extended Definition Betamax, with 500+ lines of resolution, but eventually both Betamax and VHS were supplanted by laser-based technology. The last Sony Betamax was produced in 2002.

While most casual observers describe Betamax as an obsolete format, there is still a small but fervent group of enthusiastic supporters of the format who continue to use, maintain, and trade the machines and media. Many of these people maintain (on technical merits, not related to run time or availability of prerecorded titles, but more akin to professional video concerns) that Betamax is superior to VHS in many ways, including picture quality, tape wear, and system design and convenience of use. For many of these people, VHS never obsoleted Betamax, and DVD may not either; the discrepancy between their view and the mainstream arises from a difference in the criteria (i.e., the interests) on which they judge. Also, some appreciate Betamax decks as examples of superior engineering or innovation for the time—Sony's Betamax was first with many features, such as hi-fi sound, full threading on load (which allows faster transitions between stop, play, and fast winding tape transport modes), and digital freeze frame (never available on a large number of VHS recorder models), which VHS adopted later. Because of their high build quality, many Sony Betamax machines are still working well today, and high-featured models sell regularly for hundreds of dollars on eBay and elsewhere.

Home and professional recording

One other major consequence of the Betamax technology's introduction to the U.S. was the lawsuit Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios (1984, the "Betamax case"), with the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker determining home videotaping to be legal in the United Statesmarker, wherein home videotape cassette recorders were a legal technology since they had substantial noninfringing uses. This precedent was later invoked in MGM v. Grokster (2005), where the high court agreed that the same "substantial noninfringing uses" standard applies to authors and vendors of peer-to-peer file sharing software (notably excepting those who "actively induce" copyright infringement through "purposeful, culpable expression and conduct").

A rare Japanese market Betamax TV/VCR combo, the Model SL-MV1.

The early-form Betacam tapes are interchangeable with Betamax, though the recordings are not.

In the professional and broadcast video industry, Sony's Betacam, derived from Betamax as a professional format, became one of several standard formats; production houses exchange footage on Betacam videocassettes, and the Betacam system became the most widely used videotape format in the ENG (Electronic News Gathering) industry, replacing the 3/4" U-matic tape format (which was the first practical and cost-effective portable videotape format for broadcast television, signaling the end of 16 mm film — and the phrase "film at 11" often heard on the six-o-clock newscast, before the film had been developed). The professional derivative of VHS, MII (aka Recam), faced off against Betacam and lost. Once Betacam became the de facto standard of the broadcast industry, its position in the professional market mirrored VHS' dominance in the home video market. On a technical level, Betacam and Betamax are similar in that both share the same videocassette shape, use the same oxide tape formulation with the same coercivity, and both record linear audio tracks on the same location of the videotape. But in the key area of video recording, Betacam and Betamax are completely different. BetaCam tapes are mechanically interchangeable with Betamax, but not electronically. BetaCam moves the tape at 12 cm/s, with different recording/encoding techniques. Betamax is a color-under system, with linear tape speeds ranging from 4 cm/s to 1.33 cm/s.

Sony also offered a range of industrial Betamax products, a Beta I-only format for industrial and institutional users. It was basically cheaper and smaller than U-Matic. The arrival of the Betacam system reduced the demand for both Industrial Beta and U-Matic equipment.

Betamax also had a significant part to play in the music recording industry, when Sony introduced its PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) digital recording system as an encoding box/PCM adaptor that connected to a Betamax recorder. The Sony PCM-F1 adaptor was sold with a companion Betamax VCR SL-2000 as a portable digital audio recording system. Many recording engineers used this system in the 1980s and 1990s to make their first digital master recordings.

Initially, Sony was able to tout several Betamax-only features, such as BetaScan—a high speed picture search in either direction—and BetaSkipScan, a technique that allowed the operator to see where he was on the tape by pressing the FF key (or REW, if in that mode) and the transport would switch into the BetaScan mode until the key was released. This feature is discussed more on Peep Search. Sony believed that the M-Load transports used by VHS machines made copying these trick modes impossible. BetaSkipScan (Peep Search) is now available on miniature M-load formats, but even Sony was unable to fully replicate this on VHS. BetaScan was originally called "Videola" until the company that made the Moviola threatened legal action.

Sony would also sell a BetaPak, a small deck designed to be used with a camera. Concerned with the need for several pieces and cables to connect them, an integrated camera/recorder was designed, which Sony dubbed a "Camcorder". The result was Betamovie. Betamovie used the standard-size cassette, but with a modified transport. The tape was wrapped 300 degrees around a smaller, 44.671 mm-diameter head drum, with a single dual-azimuth head to write the video tracks. For playback, the tape would be inserted into a Beta format deck. Due to the different geometry and writing techniques employed, playback within the camcorder was not feasible. SuperBeta and industrial Betamovie camcorders would also be sold by Sony.

HiFi audio upgrade

Betamax introduced high fidelity audio to videotape, as Beta Hi-Fi. For NTSC, Beta HiFi worked by placing a pair of FM carriers between the chroma (C) and luminance (Y) carriers, a process known as frequency multiplexing. Each head had a specific pair of carriers; in total, four individual channels were employed. Head A recorded its hi-fi carriers at 1.38(L) and 1.68(R) MHz, and the B head employed 1.53 and 1.83 MHz. The result was audio with an 80 dB dynamic range, with less than 0.005% wow and flutter.

Prior to the introduction of Beta Hi-Fi, Sony shifted the Y carrier up by 400 kHz to make room for the 4 FM carriers that would be needed for Beta Hi-Fi. All Beta machines incorporated this change, plus the ability to hunt for a lower frequency pre-AFM Y carrier. Sony incorporated an "antihunt" circuit, to stop the machine hunting for a Y carrier that wasn't there.

Some Sony NTSC models were marketed as "Hi-Fi Ready" (with an SL-HFR prefix to the model's number instead of the usual SL or SL-HF). These Betamax decks looked like a regular Betamax model, except for a special 28-pin connector on the rear. If the user desired a Beta Hi-Fi model but lacked the funds at the time, he could purchase an "SL-HFRxx" and at a later date purchase the separate Hi-Fi Processor. Sony offered two outboard Beta Hi-Fi processors, the HFP-100 and HFP-200. They were identical except that the HFP-200 was capable of multi-channel TV sound, with the word "stereocast" printed after the Beta Hi-Fi logo. This was possible because unlike a VHS Hi-Fi deck, an NTSC Betamax didn't need an extra pair of heads. The HFP-x00 would generate the needed carriers which would be recorded by the attached deck, and during playback the AFM carriers would be passed to the HFP-x00. They also had a small "fine tracking" control on the rear panel for difficult tapes.

For PAL, however, the bandwidth between the chroma and luminance carriers was not sufficient to allow additional FM carriers, so depth multiplexing was employed, wherein the audio track would be recorded in the same way that the video track was. The lower-frequency audio track was written first by a dedicated head, and the video track recorded on top by the video head. The head disk had an extra pair of audio-only heads with a different azimuth, positioned slightly ahead of the regular video heads, for this purpose.

Sony was confident that VHS could not achieve the same audio performance feat as Beta Hi-Fi. However, to the chagrin of Sony, JVC did develop a VHS hi-fi system on the principle of depth multiplexing approximately a year after the first Beta Hi-Fi VCR, the SL-5200, was introduced by Sony. Despite initial praise as providing "CD sound quality", both Beta Hi-Fi and VHS HiFi suffered from "carrier buzz", where high frequency information bled into the audio carriers, creating momentary "buzzing" and other audio flaws. Both systems also used companding noise-reduction systems, which could create "pumping" artifacts under some conditions. Both formats also suffered from interchange problems, where tapes made on one machine did not always play back well on other machines. When this happened and if the artifacts became too distracting, users were forced to revert to the old linear soundtrack.

New standards: SuperBetamax and Extended Definition Betamax

In early 1985, Sony would introduce a new feature, High Band or SuperBeta, by again shifting the Y carrier—this time by 800 kHz. This improved the bandwidth available to the Y sideband and increased the horizontal resolution from 240 to 290 lines on a regular-grade Betamax cassette. Since over-the-antenna and cable signals were only 300–330 lines resolution, SuperBeta could make a nearly identical copy of live television. However, the chroma resolution still remained relatively poor, limited to just under 0.4 megahertz or approximately 30 lines resolution, whereas live broadcast chrominance resolution was over 100 lines. The heads were also narrowed to 29 micrometers to reduce crosstalk, with a narrower head gap to play back the higher carrier frequency at 5.6 MHz. Later, some models would feature further improvement, in the form of Beta-Is, a high band version of the Beta-I recording mode. There were some incompatibilities between the older Beta decks and SuperBeta, but most could play back a high band tape without major problems. SuperBeta decks had a switch to disable the SuperBeta mode for compatibility purposes. (SuperBeta was only marginally supported outside of Sony, as many licensees had already discontinued their Betamax line.)

In 1988, Sony would again push the envelope with ED Beta, or "Extended Definition" Betamax, capable of up to 500 lines of resolution, that equaled DVD quality (480 typical). In order to store the ~6.5 megahertz-wide luma signal, with the peak frequency at 9.3 MHz, Sony used a metal formulation tape borrowed from the Betacam SP format (branded "ED-Metal") and incorporated some improvements to the transport to reduce mechanically induced aberrations in the picture. Beta ED also featured a luminance carrier deviation of 2.5 MHz, as opposed to the 1.2 MHz used in SuperBeta, improving contrast with reduced luminance noise.

Sony introduced two ED decks and a camcorder in the late 1980s. The top end EDV-9500 (EDV-9300 in Canada) deck was a very capable editing deck, rivalling much more expensive U-Matic set-ups for its accuracy and features, but did not have commercial success due to lack of timecode and other pro features. Sony did market Beta ED to "semiprofessional" users, or "prosumers". One complaint about the EDC-55 ED CAM was that it needed a lot of light (at least 25 lux), due to the use of two CCDs instead of the typical single-CCD imaging device. The Beta ED lineup only recorded in BII/BIII modes, with the ability to play back BI/BIs.

Despite the sharp decline in sales of Betamax recorders in the late 1980s and subsequent halt in production of new recorders by Sony in 2002, both Betamax and SuperBetamax are still being used by a small number of people, most of whom are collectors or hobbyists . New cassettes are still available for purchase at online shops and used recorders are often found at flea markets, thrift stores or on Internet auction sites. Early format BetaCam cassettes, which are physically based on the Betamax cassette, continue to be available for use in the professional media.


A multitude of technical drawbacks hurt Betamax in its competition with VHS. The main problem with the format in the early days of the North American market was recording time. The original prototypes shown to Matsushita used a linear tape speed of 40 mm/s. The technology of the day needed that speed because of the 60 micrometer heads employed. Management had also told engineering to deliver a cassette about the size of a paperback book. Sony engineers and management decided that since one hour was acceptable to the U-Matic's buyers, it was acceptable for Betamax as well, and made a small cassette practical. They would find that home buyers wanted longer run times than professional U-matic users.

When, in 1977, RCA introduced a (Matsushita manufactured) VHS recorder capable of storing 4 hours on a standard T-120 tape, Americans and Canadians flocked to the longer run time, as it was perfect for recording the evening prime time schedule or afternoon football games. Sony shortly realized that 1 hour was not sufficient and introduced Beta II and Beta III speeds, but the smaller form factor limited maximum record time to 5 hours because of the approximately 1/3 smaller cassette; roughly half the time that a maximum-length VHS cassette eventually could hold. These maximum-time modes reduced playback quality considerably and required extra-thin tape to get the maximum length; some owners used either format in its best-quality, shortest-running mode with standard tape most of the time, which (after Sony made Beta II the fastest [best quality] speed on most consumer Betamax machines) made both formats competitive at two hours running time. The big problem for Beta was that VHS always introduced the next step in recording time extension months ahead of Sony. For the average street buyer, the longer recording times were a high point in terms of budget compared to the extra quality of Beta.

Another point against Beta was licensing. Sony's Betamax was the only VCR on the market when JVC's VHS system was launched, and JVC (with Matsushita as well) was willing to manufacture for other brands. RCA did contact Sony early on, but Sony was not interested in being an OEM. During negotiations with Matsushita/JVC, Sony, not wanting to offend anyone, turned away Hitachi, which then approached a very willing JVC for a licence. Later, confronted with JVC's licensing of VHS, Sony scrambled to sign up licensees for Beta, and was willing to be an OEM when Zenith came calling.

For regular buyers, variety is a strong point when purchasing a product, and seeing a system with wider support (in term of brands) attracts buyers, even before they see the image quality any system could offer.

In popular culture

  • In an episode of Shameless, Frank comments that the people of Norfolk are a 'very backwards people that probably still use Betamax'.

  • British punk-pop band Betamax released their debut single, "ninety-nine", on Holier Than Thou Records in September 2009.

  • Several episodes of The Simpsons show a movie rental place called "VHS Village". The sign on the store says, "Formerly 'The Beta Barn'."

  • Another episode of The Simpsons, shows a garbage dump, and depicts a space for "BETA", another with "VHS", and a last one space says "Reserved for DVD".

  • In an episode of The Mighty Boosh ("The Priest and the Beast" Series 2, Episode 2) the villain is the Betamax Bandit who is terrorizing the village. It seems he is doing so because of his anger over becoming obsolete to VHS. He is defeated when he is rewound into his original cassette form and taped over with Snooker.

  • In Doctor Who, a villain that the Doctor meets in The Idiot's Lantern (The Wire) is defeated by trapping it on a Betamax tape with a makeshift video recorder. The Doctor then taped over it just to be safe.

  • In the Pixar film, WALL-E, the main character of the same name owns a Betamax copy of Hello Dolly!, which he plays regularly.

  • Episode 18 of Cowboy Bebop, "Speak like a Child", focuses around the Bebop receiving a Betamax video tape with a significant clue to Faye's past, and Spike and Jet's subsequent efforts to find a Betamax player to view it on.

  • In episode 8 of the first season of "Ah! My Goddess" Keiichi is given a Betamax tape that is supposed to contain a self help video, but instead Urd uses it to convince him to kiss Belldandy. Also, in episode 7 of the second season, Keiichi considers wishing for Peorth to revive the Betamax format, but ultimately decides against it.

  • In That '70s Show, in the episode "Canadian Road Trip", Red buys a Betamax VCR to record television. In the episode, Red and Kitty use it to record an installment of "Roots" but Red forgets to insert the tape. Red also states "We're better than normal people. We have a Betamax."

  • In an episode of Everybody Hates Chris entitled "Everybody Hates Malvo," Chris' father buys a Betamax and his classmates all give him tapes but his rival gives him a tape based on the Ku Klux Klan.

  • In episode 7 of Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens, Akiba records a television show for Nagi on a betamax tape "as an alternative of Blu-ray", later explaining with the line "It's a Sony" in English.

  • In an episode of Malcolm in the Middle (Season 1, Episode 5) Francis finds some old pornographic tapes in a forgotten room at his school. Upon looking at the box, he says, "Damn. Beta." meaning that it's incompatible with whatever player he has.

  • British comedian Lenny Henry joked about owning a Betamax.

  • Australian disc jockey Maynard F# Krebbes held Betamax dance parties for "unfashionable people."

  • "Betamax Disco" appears on Los Angeles based electro band Le Mans' 2004's "Coldlife in the Fastlane" album.

  • Comedian Chris Rock compared women that do not give oral sex to a Betamax, remarking "They still make you?!"

  • In the Only Fools and Horses episode Mother Nature's Son, Raquel is running through all of Del's worthless junk cluttering Damien's bedroom. When Raquel gets to the pirated copies of The Posiden Adventure, Del attempts to say that they're not impossible to sell, before she interrupts with "All on Betamax!"

See also

  • Videotape format war
  • Peep search – A picture search system pioneered with Betamax and available on most video formats since.
  • Umatic - The predecessor to Betamax, using 3/4-inch tape instead of 1/2-inch.
  • Compact Video Cassette - Competitor product developed by Funai and Technicolor using 1/4" tape format.
  • Betacam - Umatic's replacement. A non-compatible, high-quality standard used by television studios and other professionals.
  • Video8 - A small form factor tape based upon Betamax technology, using 8 mm tape.

Notes and references

  2. "This is a revolution!", Sony History,

External links

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