I have to take issue with the title of this video, VHS tapes were not “bad.” They were great. They were incredible little movie-playing contraptions that snapped, rolled and clunked, and they smelled weird. But yes, it is worth putting their image quality to the test, so let this video walk you through it in the hi-def era.
YouTube user The 8-Bit Guy decided to check out if the most resilient home video format to date was “as bad as we remember.” His dedication to the truth should be applauded.
First of all, it’s so nice to watch him crack open an old VCR and clean up the dusty components. Ah to be young again, popping the hood on the trusty Panasonic and trying to untangle the busted copy of Die Hard from the tape heads.
Sure enough, his cleaned up VCR works and you know it’s a VHS because the first bit of video we get is a trailer for The Mask of Zorro. Fast forward.
Based on his first test with a used copy of Men In Black, The 8-Bit Guy is actually impressed with the quality he sees on the CRT monitor but he demonstrates just how poorly that transfers to a computer screen. But this still didn’t definitively answer what the image quality of VHS was like because that MIB is so worn out.
So, he decides to kick the test up-a-notch with a never-viewed copy of Back To The Future just to have a prime control subject. We can be sure that this never-been-opened tape is legit because it still contains an insert that offers $2.50 back via mail-in-rebate if you buy Jurassic Park on VHS.
With this fresh specimen, he proceeds to hook up his VCR to a laptop using a Western Digital Live TV that accepts composite video. That allows him to plug into his video capture device and get a more authentic signal.
He also throws in an extra layer for testing by using an older, professional quality tape to transfer a remastered, 1080p Blu-ray of BTTF. This really helps give us a better idea of what the format is capable of, if mastering and other factors were on par with today’s technology. So now we have a digital copy from Blu-ray using composite video, a new VHS transfer from that pristine source and an original, old VHS copy.
The Blu-ray running through composite video gives you a good idea of the effect that technology has on the picture. The most noticeable issue comes in around the edges of characters and objects where you can see a clear checkerboard pattern and rainbow color fringing.
Predictably, the older copy looks pretty bad compared to the Blu-ray transferred to VHS. But, honestly, the newer transfer looks pretty darn good.
As far as the old, but previously unopened copy goes, there’s a tremendous loss of detail and man, it’s hard to look at movies outside of their original aspect ratio these days. That was one thing that VHS truly screwed up.
Here are some screengrabs:
The full video contains some more examples with darker scenes.
What did the experiment teach us? For one, the composite video is capable of carrying more information than was being transferred back in the day. Also, you can make a halfway decent copy of a Blu-ray onto a VHS cassette. Above all, we learned that VHS looked bad. It wasn’t bad in general, but yeah, it looked bad.