Last updated
Logo betamax 01.svg
Betamax Tape v2.jpg
Media type Magnetic cassette tape
CapacityUp to 5 hours
Read mechanism Helical scan
Write mechanismHelical scan
Standard Interlaced video
Developed by Sony
Dimensions15.6 × 9.6 × 2.5 cm
(617 × 334 × 1 inch)
Usage Home movies, home video
Extended to VHS
ReleasedMay 10, 1975;46 years ago (May 10, 1975)
DiscontinuedRecorders discontinued August 2002; Blank cassettes discontinued March 2016.

Betamax (also known as Beta, as in its logo) is a consumer-level analog-recording and cassette format of magnetic tape for video, commonly known as a video cassette recorder. It was developed by Sony and was released in Japan on May 10, 1975, [1] followed by the US in November of the same year.


Betamax is widely considered to be obsolete, having lost the videotape format war [2] which saw its closest rival VHS dominate most markets. [3]

Despite this, Betamax recorders continued to be sold until August 2002, when Sony announced that they were discontinuing production of all remaining Betamax models. Sony continued to sell Betamax cassettes until March 2016. [4] [5]

Original version

Three Sony Betamax VCRs built for the American market. Top to bottom: SL-2000 portable with TT-2000 tuner/timer "Base Station" (1982); SL-HF 300 Betamax HiFi unit (1984); SL-HF 360 SuperBeta HiFi unit (1988). Three betamax vcrs.jpg
Three Sony Betamax VCRs built for the American market. Top to bottom: SL-2000 portable with TT-2000 tuner/timer "Base Station" (1982); SL-HF 300 Betamax HiFi unit (1984); SL-HF 360 SuperBeta HiFi unit (1988).
Front and side of a Betamax cassette, without labels attached. Betamax blank top (modified) (tape only).jpg
Front and side of a Betamax cassette, without labels attached.
The underside of a Betamax cassette. Betamax-blank-rear.jpg
The underside of a Betamax cassette.

Launch of Betamax and early models

The first Betamax device introduced in the United States was the LV-1901 console, which included a 19-inch (48 cm) color monitor, and appeared in stores in early November 1975. The cassettes contain 0.50-inch-wide (12.7 mm) videotape in a design similar to that of the earlier, professional 0.75-inch-wide (19 mm), U-matic format.

Like the rival videotape format VHS (introduced in Japan by JVC in September 1976 [6] and in the United States by RCA in August 1977), [7] Betamax has no guard band and uses azimuth recording to reduce crosstalk. According to Sony's history webpages, the name had a double meaning: beta is the Japanese word used to describe the way in which signals are recorded on the tape; and the shape of the lowercase Greek letter beta (β) resembles the course of the tape through the transport. The suffix -max, from the word "maximum", was added to suggest greatness. [8] In 1977, Sony issued the first long-play Betamax VCR, the SL-8200. This VCR had two recording speeds: normal, and the newer half speed. This provided two hours' recording on the L-500 Beta videocassette. The SL-8200 was to compete against the VHS VCRs, which allowed up to 4, and later 6 and 8, hours of recording on one cassette. [9]

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 they were on the tape by pressing the FF key (or REW, if in that mode): the transport would switch into the BetaScan mode until the key was released. This feature is discussed in more detail 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.

Sanyo marketed its own Betamax-compatible recorders under the Betacord brand (also casually referred to as "Beta"). In addition to Sony and Sanyo, Beta-format video recorders were manufactured and sold by Toshiba, Pioneer, Murphy, Aiwa, and NEC. Zenith Electronics and WEGA contracted with Sony to produce VCRs for their product lines. The department stores Sears (in the United States and Canada) and Quelle (in Germany) sold Beta-format VCRs under their house brands, as did the RadioShack chain of electronic stores.

Industrial and professional usage

Sony also offered a range of industrial Betamax products, a Beta I-only format for industrial and institutional users. These were aimed at the same market as U-Matic equipment, but were cheaper and smaller. The arrival of Betacam reduced the demand for both industrial Beta and U-Matic equipment. [10]

The early-form Betacam tapes (left) are interchangeable with Betamax (right), though the recordings are not. Betacam betamax tapes.jpg
The early-form Betacam tapes (left) are interchangeable with Betamax (right), though the recordings are not.

For the professional and broadcast video industry, Sony derived Betacam from Betamax. Released in 1982, Betacam became the most widely used videotape format in ENG (electronic news gathering), replacing the .75 in (19 mm) wide U-matic tape format. Betacam and Betamax are similar in some ways- early versions of Betacam used the same video cassette shape, used the same oxide tape formulation with the same coercivity, and recorded linear audio tracks in the same location of the tape. However, in the key area of video recording, Betacam and Betamax use completely different on-tape formats.

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.

Court case

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. Supreme Court determining home videotaping to be legal in the United States, 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"). [11] [12] [13]

Later developments and offshoots

HiFi audio upgrade

In June 1983, Sony 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. [14]

Prior to the introduction of Beta Hi-Fi, Sony shifted the Y carrier up by 400 kHz to make room for the four 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. [15]

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. [16]

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.

SuperBetamax / Hi-Band

In early 1985, Sony would introduce a new feature, Hi-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 MHz or approximately 30 lines resolution, whereas live broadcast chrominance resolution was over 100 lines. The heads were also narrowed to 29  μm 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.) [17] [18]

ED-Beta (Extended Definition Betamax)

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 MHz-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. ED-Beta 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. [19]

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, rivaling 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 ED-Beta 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. ED-Beta machines only recorded in βII and βIII modes, with the ability to play back βI and βIs. [20]

Portable equipment and Betamovie camcorders

A rare Japanese market Betamax portable TV/VCR combo, the Model SL-MV1. Sony SL-MV1 and RMT-117 20051001.jpg
A rare Japanese market Betamax portable TV/VCR combo, the Model SL-MV1.

Two-piece portable video systems rapidly displaced Super 8 mm film as the medium of choice for shooting home movies and amateur films. These included a portable VCR (such as Sony's "BetaPak" [21] ) and a separate camera.

Despite this, there was the need for a less cumbersome all-in-one solution, and Sony's was "Betamovie", the first consumer camcorder. Betamovie used standard-size Betamax cassettes. However, the changes required to miniaturise the mechanism forced the use of non-standard record signal timing. [22] As a result, while the final on-tape recording is- by design- in standard Betamax format and playable on a regular Beta deck, the camcorder itself is record-only, and cannot be used to review or play back footage. [22] (This also effectively restricted Betamovie to those who also owned or had access to the Beta VCRs needed to view recordings). [22]

Sony Betamovie BMC-100P, the first of the Betamovie line and the first consumer-grade camcorder Sony Betamovie BMC-100P 2nd view (retouched filtered).jpg
Sony Betamovie BMC-100P, the first of the Betamovie line and the first consumer-grade camcorder

VHS manufacturers found a different solution to drum miniaturization using standard video signals instead, permitting footage to be reviewed on the camcorder itself, and output to another VCR for editing. This was a huge advantage, as even owners of Beta VCRs could use a VHS camcorder to copy and edit footage to their Beta deck- something not possible with Betamovie.

VHS gained another advantage with VHS-C, which used a miniaturized cassette to make a camcorder smaller and lighter than any Betamovie. Sony could not duplicate the functionality of VHS-C 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. [23]

SuperBeta and industrial Betamovie camcorders would also be sold by Sony.

Discontinuation and legacy

End of production

On November 10, 2015, Sony announced that it would no longer be producing Betamax video cassettes. [5] [4] Production and sales ended March 2016 after almost 41 years of continuous production. Third-party manufacturers continue to make new cassettes. While these cassettes are designed for use with the Betacam format, the cassettes are interchangeable with traditional Betamax systems.

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, Betamax, SuperBetamax and ED-Beta 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. Early format Betacam cassettes—which are physically based on the Betamax cassette—continue to be available for use in the professional media. It is still used by few broadcasters, as it was succeeded by Betacam SP, its digital modifications and more recently by tapeless recording.


Betamax tapes on display at a museum. Betamax cassettes on display.jpg
Betamax tapes on display at a museum.

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 its own technology. JVC felt that accepting Sony's offer would yield results similar to the U-Matic deal, with Sony dominating. [24]

By 1980, JVC's VHS format controlled 60% of the North American market. [25] 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 United Kingdom, Betamax held a 25% market share in 1981, but by 1986, it was down to 7.5% and continued to decline further. By 1984, 40 companies made VHS format equipment in comparison with Beta's 12. Sony finally conceded defeat in 1988 when it, too, began producing VHS recorders (early models were made by Hitachi), though it still continued to produce Betamax recorders until 2002. [3] [26]

In Japan, Betamax had more success and eventually evolved into Extended Definition Betamax, with 500+ lines of resolution.

Technical details

Comparison with other video formats

Size comparison between a Betamax cassette (top) and a VHS cassette (bottom) VHS vs Betamax size.jpg
Size comparison between a Betamax cassette (top) and a VHS cassette (bottom)

The heads on the drum of a Betamax VCR move across the tape at (a writing speed of) 5.832 or 6.9 meters per second [27] with the drum rotating at 1500 rpm. [28] theoretically giving Betamax a higher bandwidth of 3.2 MHz and thus a video quality than VHS. The tape moves at 1.873 cm/s. [29]

Below is a list of modern, digital-style resolutions (and traditional analog "TV lines per picture height" measurements) for various media. The list only includes popular formats. Note that listed resolution applies to luminance only, with chroma resolution usually halved in each dimension for digital formats, and significantly lower for analog formats.

Equivalent pixel resolutions are calculated from analog line resolution numbers:

StandardDigital or
Luminance resolution
(equivalent pixel resolution)
Chroma resolution
(equivalent pixel resolution)
VHS (NTSC)Analog240 lines (320×486)30 lines (40×486)
U-matic, Betamax, VHS HQ, Video8 (NTSC)Analog250 lines (333x486)30 lines (40×486)
SuperBeta (NTSC)Analog290 lines (387×486)30 lines (40×486)
Betacam (NTSC)Analog290 lines (387×486)100 lines (100×486)
Type C (NTSC)Analog300 lines (400×486)120 lines (120×486)
Broadcast (NTSC, PAL-M, and SECAM-M)Analog330 lines (440×486)120 lines (120×486)
Betacam SP (NTSC)Analog340 lines (453×486)100 lines (100×486)
Type A (NTSC)Analog350 lines (467×486)120 lines (120×486)
S-VHS, Hi8 (NTSC)Analog420 lines (560×486)30 lines (40×486)
LaserDisc (NTSC)Analog420 lines (560×486)120 lines (120×486)
ED Beta (NTSC)Analog500 lines (667×486)30 lines (40×486)
Quadruplex (NTSC)Analog512 lines (683×486)120 lines (120×486)
Type B (NTSC)Analog520 lines (693×486)120 lines (120×486)
IVC 9000 (NTSC)Analog570 lines (760×486)120 lines (120×486)
VHS (PAL)Analog240 lines (320×576)30 lines (40×288)
U-matic, Betamax, VHS HQ, Video8 (PAL)Analog250 lines (333x576)30 lines (40×288)
SuperBeta (PAL)Analog290 lines (387×576)30 lines (40×288)
Betacam (PAL)Analog290 lines (387×576)100 lines (100×288)
Type C (PAL)Analog300 lines (400×576)120 lines (120×288)
Broadcast (PAL-N)Analog330 lines (440×576)120 lines (120×288)
Betacam SP (PAL)Analog340 lines (453×576)100 lines (100×288)
Type A (PAL)Analog350 lines (467×576)120 lines (120×288)
Broadcast (PAL-B/G/H and SECAM-B/G)Analog390 lines (520×576)120 lines (120×288)
S-VHS, Hi8 (PAL)Analog420 lines (560×576)30 lines (40×288)
LaserDisc (PAL)Analog420 lines (560×576)120 lines (120×288)
Broadcast (PAL-I)Analog430 lines (573×576)120 lines (120×288)
Broadcast (PAL-D/K and SECAM-D/K/L)Analog470 lines (627×576)120 lines (120×288)
ED Beta (PAL)Analog500 lines (667×576)30 lines (40x288)
Type B (PAL)Analog624 lines (832×576)120 lines (120×288)
Quadruplex (PAL)Analog640 lines (854×576)120 lines (120×288)
IVC 9000 (PAL)Analog684 lines (912×576)120 lines (120×288)
VCDDigital260 lines (352x240)130 lines (176x120)
Digital Betacam (NTSC)Digital540 lines (720×486)270 lines (360×486)
Digital Betacam (PAL)Digital540 lines (720×576)270 lines (360×576)
SVCDDigital360 lines (486×480)180 lines (240×240)
Anamorphic DVD (NTSC)Digital410 lines (720×480)205 lines (360×240)
Letterbox DVD (NTSC, PAL)Digital410 lines (720×360)205 lines (360×180)
Anamorphic DVD (PAL)Digital720×576360×288
4:3 DVD, DV, MiniDV, Digital8 (NTSC)Digital540 lines (720×480)270 lines (360×240)
AVCHD Lite (720p)Digital720 lines (1280×720)360 lines (640×360)
16:9 HDVDigital810 lines (1440×1080)405 lines (720×540)
AVCHD, Blu-ray, HD DVD (1080p/1080i)Digital1080 lines (1920×1080)540 lines (960×540)

The somewhat unintuitive analog resolution loss for 16:9 DVD compared to 4:3 DVD arises from the fact that analog resolution unit is "lines per picture height". When picture height is kept the same, the same 720 pixels are spread to a wider area in 16:9, hence lower horizontal resolution per picture height.

Tape lengths

Both NTSC and PAL/SECAM Betamax cassettes are physically identical (although the signals recorded on the tape are incompatible). However, as tape speeds differ between NTSC and PAL/SECAM, the playing time for any given cassette will vary accordingly between the systems. Other unusual lengths were produced from time to time, such as L-410.

Common tape lengths
Tape labelTape lengthRecording time
L-1251253815 min30 min45 min32 min
L-165166 2/35120 min40 min60 min (1 h)43 min
L-2502507630 min60 min (1 h)90 min (1:30 h)65 min (1:05 h)
L-37037511445 min90 min (1:30 h)135 (2:15 h)96 min (1:36 h)
L-50050015260 min (1 h)120 min (2 h)180 min (3 h)130 min (2:10 h)
L-75075022990 min (1:30 h)180 min (3 h)270 min (4:30 h)195 min (3:15 h)
L-830833 1/3254100 min (1:40 h)200 min (3:20 h)300 min (5 h)216 min (3:36 h)

See also

Related Research Articles

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  22. 1 2 3 Alec Connectify ("Technology Connections") (2018-07-03). "Betamovie: Sony's Terrible (But Ingenious) Camcorder". YouTube. Retrieved 2021-05-16. [04:59]Sony managed to in a kinda-sorta way time-compress the image from the camera so that it was recorded faster than real time.
    [06:27] This is often described as time compression because the camcorder is literally recording at a higher clock speed than a normal VCR--about 18.8 kHz compared to 15.7 KHz.
    [08:42] because the tape-to-head speed is a little bit slower in the VCR, that 18.8 kHz [recorded signal] automatically [becomes a standard] 15.7 kHz signal [on playback]
    [09:08] This video trickery enabled the Betamovie to be remarkably small for its time, while producing recordings that were compatible with your favorite Beta VCR [however it also meant that] Betamovie cannot play back its own recordings
    [15:36] the only people who could use a Betamovie were the same people who already had a Betamax VCR. This camera is of literally no use [otherwise]
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