I was born after the Betamax came and went. In fact, I heard more about it in terms of its demise than any kind of praise for the technology. VHS was my life right up until 2006 (although I still use it to this day). If I’d been born a few years earlier, I might have seen the shift.
But for many, Betamax was a cult classic and Sony only stopped production and sales of Betamax products in March 2016. So let’s look at the rise, fall, and legacy of this iconic piece of video culture.
What is Betamax?
Sony’s Betamax (also known as Beta) was a video cassette format introduced in Japan on 10th May 1975. It was released as way for consumers to record everything from weddings to their favourite soap operas. The cassettes used a similar format to the U-matic, a Sony prototype cassette from the late 60s. but with a thinner design (0.5 inches vs. the U-matic’s 0.75inch width).
Betamax for professional recording
Betamax had a major influence on news broadcasting and music production for different reasons. Sony released the Betacam in 1982, the professional version of the Betamax, and it quickly became the most-used video format in electronic news-gathering (or ENG for short).
While the Betamax and Betacam formats were very similar, the difference between them was significant for professional recording. Betamax recorded in a lower-quality resolution and audio, using only two recording heads, while Betacam used four recording heads, producing a higher video resolution and audio quality.
In music recording, Sony created a digital recording system known as PCM that connected to Betamax recorders. The Sony PCM-F1 adaptor came with a Betamax VCR SL-2000 as a “portable digital audio recording system” and it became a mainstay for audio engineers when they made their masters.
Betamax for home movies
While Betamax enjoyed a good life in the professional market, it didn’t fare as well at the consumer level. Sony released its first Beta device in the US in November 1975 – the LV-1901 that came with a 19-inch colour monitor. There was also the Sony SL-6200, which came as part of the Sony LV-1901 with its teakwood cabinet, a 24-hour timer and camera input. The set also allowed you to record one channel and watch another which was an incredible feat back then.
But stiff competition in the West from JVC’s VHS format lead to its downfall outside of Japan. Their market share in the US rose to 60% by 1980 and left Sony in the dust. It was also cheaper to make VHS tapes in Europe, which pushed the format even further. That led to a gradual decline in Betamax tapes in the 80s, down to a market share of just 7.5% in 1986.
Higher quality in Japan
Even though Betamax wasn’t as successful in the West, Sony managed to localise its power in the videotape format war and build on it. The company released the SuperBetamax (1985) and Extended Definition Betamax (1988) formats, both offering better resolutions.
SuperBeta, as it was known, offered a horizontal resolution almost identical to live television at the time. However, the chroma resolution remained subpar in comparison.
In 1988, Sony released its ED Beta, or “Extended Definition” Betamax line, with 500 lines of horizontal resolution, matching DVD quality (which wouldn’t come out for another 7 years). Improvements were made to format to reduce the transport to reduce picture abnormalities and produce a better quality picture.
Tape length wars
Besides the general “videotape format war”, there was a subsidiary tape length war instigated by the RCA (Radio Corporation of America). The corporation tried to collaborate with Sony in making a format but wanted a 4-hour tape. Sony didn’t feel the Betamax was up to recording 4-hours of tape and maintaining a high-quality picture.
RCA went to JVC with the same proposal but received the same response although parent company Matsushita eventually gave in. This forced Sony’s hand and it managed to eek out 5 hours of Betamax footage with its Beta-III speed on an ultra-thin L-830 cassette. JVC more than doubled it with 10.5 hours on a T-210 cassette.
Other Beta variants and spin-offs
Sony’s range of consumer camcorders for the Betamax format, it was notorious for not including a playback function and it was later abandoned in favour of the Video8.
In June 1983, Sony added hi-fi audio to videotape as a way to edge JVC’s VHS format out of the market. However, JVC created its own VHS hi-fi system, about a year after the SL-5200 player was released.
Pioneer’s VX90 was basically a SL-HF900 without the Sony logo on it. It produced high-quality SuperBeta pictures and that Beta Hi-Fi stereo sound.
Marantz Stereo VR 200
Sanyo’s Beta player was the first consumer recorder to offer a quality stereo VCR (thanks to enhanced Dolby signal processing).
Toshiba BetaMax V-M40
Toshiba’s model was priced was $379 upon release in 1984. The V-M40 included a 7-day timer, 12 channel selector, a clock, and a moisture detector which shut the system down if moisture was found.
Zenith VR 8510
Produced by Sony for Zenith, the 8510 featured a SpeedSearch picture scan function and SuperScan, allowing users to switch into “fast speed mode” to view where they were in the fast-foward/rewinding process.
Sanyo Betacord VCR 4590
As you might have guessed, it was called Betacord due to its corded remote control.
Failure to adapt -- the true demise of Betamax
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, Beta, SuperBeta and EDBeta are still being used by a small number of people. Even though Sony stopped making new cassettes in 2016, new old stocks of Betamax cassettes are still available for purchase at online shops and used recorders (as well as cassettes) are often found at flea markets, thrift stores or on Internet auction sites.
Betacam cassettes are still available in professional circles but generally, Beta is nothing more than a novelty collector’s item. The simple reason why Betamax lost to VHS was Sony’s inability to cater to the general public. They wanted a medium that could record for longer, even if it meant compromising quality. Its legacy now lies in nostalgia and comedic devices.
A curious oddity is that Sony continued to make Beta recorders right up to 2002. But there have been some influential uses of Betamax, as we covered in an article about Marion Stokes.