Since Sony was one of the first manufacturers to equip its recorders with an integrated digital TV tuner it's a surprise that the HX725 is conspicuous by the absence of one. Perhaps the Japanese giants presumed most people already own a set-top box -- but its exclusion causes usability and performance problems.
You can connect a separate set-top box and use the supplied STB controller to improve usability via a linking EPG -- but it involves unnecessary cables and subsequent recordings are not RGB quality.
Nonetheless, the HX725 offers the versatility of disc and hard drive recording, a full range of easy-to-use functions and superior style and build quality. Recordings are also impressively accurate to the original. Without spending much more, however, you can get a recorder like Panasonic's DMR-EX75 that offers better performance and a specification which includes a digital tuner and HDMI connectivity.
Sony has an unerring knack for making even the simplest designs seem more attractive than its competitors. The clean, understated styling is discreetly alluring and surprisingly slim for a hybrid design that houses both disc and hard drive features -- and build quality is exceptional.
A panel at the front flips down to expose several easy-access AV inputs that include a DV (i-Link) input, which allows you to transfer high-quality footage from a digital camcorder. A one-touch dubbing function means you can copy the entire contents of a DV tape without fuss.
The remaining connections are arranged across the rear panel. The standard set up includes a pair of Scart input and output terminals that allow you to both transmit and record signals. This is especially important as, without an integrated digital tuner, you'll probably want to connect a separate set-top receiver. But although both Scarts are supposedly RGB enabled, you can't actually record RGB signals from your set-top box -- leaving external recordings suffering from compromised image quality.
In an attempt to overcome the absence of an integrated digital tuner Sony has supplied a set-top receiver control. This cable links the recorder to your set-top box and allows you to control programme positions for timer recordings and change channels using the recorder's remote. It's an elaborate system that complicates connections and, although it can be useful with cable and satellite receivers, we'd definitely prefer an integrated Freeview tuner.
Alternative connections include the usual low-quality AV inputs but there are also component inputs that support high-quality progressive scan video, especially if you have a flat screen or projector. And the inclusion of a coaxial digital audio output means you can connect to a home cinema receiver for surround sound options.
What is missing though is a digital HDMI output, which means you can't play upscaled high-definition quality video using the latest HD ready displays. Its exclusion may leave you wanting in the near future though, and HDMI hasn't been ignored in some similarly priced models.
Remotes take on more responsibility with recording devices and Sony's is intelligently arranged, easy to use and as stylistically impressive as the device itself.
The RDR-HX725 is a hybrid recorder that offers the versatility of having both a large 160GB hard drive and software disc recording functions. It makes most sense to use the high-capacity hard drive to conveniently store recordings and then copy them onto disc if you want to archive or transport copies.
Typically, there's a range of recording quality modes that sacrifice image quality for increased time length as you move down the hierarchy of modes. In total there are eight modes, considerably more than most recorders offer.
The highest quality mode is Sony's HQ+ -- although it can only be used with hard drive recordings. The HQ+ mode records using a bit rate of 15Mbps, which is 1.5x faster than even the bit rate used by conventional DVDs, and gives you up to 20 hours of exceptional quality recordings. Time length gradually increases using lower quality modes with the standard SP Mode giving you 61 hours, rising to a massive 249 hours using the lowest quality SLP Mode.
Disc recordings can be made using both + and – formats but the slightly more versatile and durable DVD-RAM is ignored. The recorder will also accept the latest dual layer +R discs, which doubles the recording time length. You can playback most formats including audio CDs and encoded discs carrying MP3, JPEG and DiVX files.
Sony recorders are always extraordinarily easy to use and the HX725 is no exception. On-screen menus are well presented and uncomplicated to follow with an introductory Easy Set Up option to help beginners.
The omission of an integrated digital tuner, which often eases recordings using an accompanying EPG, has been marginally addressed using an analogue EPG that can also display digital listings from a set-top box hooked up to the STB controller. This means you can still easily make recordings by simply highlighting programmes from the EPG and there're also VideoPlus+, one-touch and timer record options.
There are a number of useful post-editing functions using the hard drive such as Auto Chaptering, which divides recordings, making it easier to locate sections or skip adverts. The hard drive also allows for time slip functions like chasing playback and pausing live TV. You can use these functions to edit recordings before copying onto disc or vice versa, and a high-speed dubbing feature quickens the process.
There's no doubting the inclusion of an integrated digital tuner is missed, especially as many like-priced recorders are equipped with one. But if you already own an iDTV it's not an issue, and the HX725's range of functions and fuss-free operation makes it easier to accept.
Broadcast signals from the recorder's analogue tuner are tainted by instability, soft definition and muted colours. Connecting a set-top box to the recorder does mean you can watch better quality images but, as mentioned, you can't record RGB signals, so subsequent recordings appear inferior. Although recordings are extremely faithful to the original using higher quality modes they still show the same flaws as the 'template'.
Nonetheless, there's less deterioration between the quality modes than you might expect. The HQ+ mode produces excellent copies and even seems to improve image sharpness in some programmes while it takes a trained eye to spot the decline using the standard SP mode. Unsurprisingly, the difference in image quality using the lowest quality modes is more obvious with widespread noise, spongy detail and staggered movement -- but unless you're away on holiday and need as much space as possible, they're best left ignored.
DVD playback using the component connections is far more impressive with distinct black levels creating tangible detail and contrast while colours are more vibrant and movement smoother.
It's the omission of an integrated digital tuner that influences overall recording performance. With competing models offering an uncompromised specification for around the same price, it's a thorn in Sony's side.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield