Glenn Kenny
February 22, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

Despite its grand link to America’s heads of state, Presidents Day is really a national celebration of the 25-percent-off sale on household items, particularly electronic gizmos. The holiday launches a week of rushing to buy VCRs, TVs, and CD players, but no buy is a bargain if in your frenzy you get the wrong product for your needs. To help you choose wisely, here are some shopping tips:

Electronics salespeople just love to throw numbers around. They’ll pitch you sets with 600, 700, or even 800 lines of ”horizontal resolution,” which is a measurement of picture detail, and the higher, the better. What the salespeople never tell you, however, is that none of those sets will really show more than 400 lines or so, because of limitations in the TV signals (or VCR or videodisc signals) that go into them.

If you like the way a TV picture looks on a sales floor, make sure to ask the salesperson whether the set is showing a conventional TV picture or one from a videodisc player or Super-VHS VCR, both of which produce high-resolution images sharper than those of broadcast or cable TV. The picture can’t look that good in your house unless you have videodiscs or Super-VHS tapes too.

VCR salespeople always seem to play head games, hawking machines with four heads, six heads, even nine heads. Are more heads better? Here’s the deal: A & two-head VCR is your basic deck, with relatively poor quality still-frame and slow-motion images. Two more heads give you clearer pictures in these special playback speeds, but not necessarily in normal speed. With six heads, you’ve got a hi-fi VCR, which offers superior sound capabilities. Any deck which goes beyond that uses those extra heads for very specialized, sometimes esoteric functions.

If you already own a TV with stereo sound (and anyone who bought a 25-inch or larger set during the past five years probably does), do you really need a stereo VCR? As it turns out, you do if you want stereo — once you hook the recorder up, you’ll be tuning into channels via the VCR, not the TV. And for reasons unknown even to experts, stereo circuits in VCRs often perform better than those in TVs.

Don’t be bowled over when salespeople tell you that a camcorder has a ”low light rating.” This refers to the amount of light necessary to produce a discernible picture, not an enjoyable one. Also be aware that those in-store displays in which camcorders are aimed at a clown doll or some colorful scene are generally lit more brightly than many of the things you’ll be shooting.

Resist spurious arguments for or against the two compact camcorder formats, VHS-C and 8 mm. Each has technical points to recommend it, and the contention that an 8 mm is hard to use for playing tapes is nonsense. If your TV equipment is fairly up-to-date, watching tapes via any camcorder is no harder than screwing in a light bulb.

CD Players
The technical jargon of CD equipment seems particularly daunting to most people. Relax: There’s no need to understand any of it. CD technology has matured to the point where all players will reliably provide excellent sound, no matter what the make or model. Unless you make your living listening to CD players, you’ll be hard pressed to hear the difference between a $150 and a $1,500 model.

CD changers, which can hold as many as 12 discs in a single cartridge and play them in any order you program, cost much more than one-disc-at-a-time models. Before you shell out too many extra bucks, however, ask yourself when you’ll have the time to listen to, say, 16 hours of music in one sitting.

Now, go shopping.

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