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VCRs are one of the most popular Christmas gifts. If you're going out shopping for a machine in the VHS format, here are some guidelines.

There are two basic types of record/-playback machines - one with two heads and mono sound and one with four heads and stereo sound. The price separation is based partly on this distinction.Prices have dropped again this year. Finding a basic two-headed VCR for $150-$175 isn't unusual anymore. You can also find stereo VCRs discounted as low as $250, though most are in the $300-$400 range.

The No. 1 thing to remember when you're VCR shopping is that spending more money doesn't mean getting a better picture. The difference between a $200 VCR and a $350 VCR isn't the quality of the picture but the quality of the sound - mono vs. stereo.

The extra heads on the four-headed machine mean crisper special effects, like freeze-frame and fast-forward. Those extra heads will cost about $50. You can find four-headed mono machines, but most four-headed VCRs are also stereo units.

The more money you pay the more features you get - like more extensive programming capabilities. But if you're buying a stereo VCR, remember that features on the $400-$500 machine are extraneous for most people but handy for those who do a lot of editing.

The low-end VCRs are better than they were a few years ago because features that were once limited to high-end machines have become fairly standard, like on-screen programming and digital tracking (automatic adjustments for visual noise and off-center pictures). Many inexpensive VCRs also have self-cleaning heads, a handy feature for those who rent a lot of tapes.

If you want the best, there's the S-VHS format. Most of these machines are in the $550 to $1,000 range and can go as high as $2,000. But you need a high-resolution TV and a high-resolution source, like an expensive camcorder, to make it worthwhile. Don't buy one of these machines thinking that it will make the basic VHS tape look better, because it won't.

If the VCR is a surprise gift, make sure you find out something about the audio system of the recipient. For those who just need a new VCR, it's wise to wait until the post-Christmas sales, the best time to buy a VCR. At last year's sales, prudent shoppers could find VCRs for as low as $130.

Which brand to buy?

After consulting with salesmen and repairmen, most said that in stereo models, Mitsubishi and Sony were the best. In the two-headed VCR market, RCA, Panasonic and GE were most often recommended. Best buys: in stereo, GE's VG4210 ($300) and in mono, GE's VG4029 ($250).

- LAST APRIL, THE POPE hosted a concert at the Vatican that was both a Holocaust memorial and a salute to the state of Israel. A 90-minute video, "The Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust," features the show - Gilbert Levine conducting the London Philharmonic - as well as footage of the preparation. A stirring, moving video, from Rhino, at $20.

Babies do get a kick out of looking at other babies, which is the premise of the video "Babymugs," a 25-minute compilation of footage of smiling babies. You're supposed to watch it with your baby - and then watch your baby smile at those babies. It's sort of a video toy for tots ranging from 3 months to about 2 years old. From Three Friends Productions, $15; (800) 772-MUGS.

"Lucky Vanous: The Ultimate Fat-Burning Workout" promises to be a hot fitness tape when it comes out Dec. 21 at $15. Vanous is the bare-chested construction worker who's ogled by several women in those Diet Coke ads. CBS is betting women will want to see more of Vanous, who's become something of a celebrity.


FOREVER AMBER - If character motivation isn't high on your list then this stunning period piece definitely warrants a look. Set in the 17th century, the film traces the story of the ambitious Amber (Linda Darnell), who resents her Puritan upbringing and sets out to make her way in London. Although she's in love with Sir Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde), Amber soon discovers that her affection is unrequited. Determined to rise above the man who spurned her, Amber overcomes a stay in Newgate prison and finally attracts the attention of the king. Worth mentioning is the late Jessica Tandy's supporting role as Amber's maid. This is the latest release in FoxVideo's "Studio Classics" collection. FoxVideo, 132 minutes, not rated.

- Richard T. Ryan

(Newhouse News Service)

THE MOON IS BLUE - Today this comedy would have a PG rating, but in 1953 its use of words like "pregnant" and "virgin" made the Hollywood censors withhold their seal of approval. Otto Preminger released it anyway, and emerged with a box-office hit. For all its historical importance, the movie doesn't stand the test of time very well, quickly running out of steam with its conspicuously snappy dialogue and paper-thin plot about the whirlwind romance of a sophisticated architect and a would-be actress. William Holden and David Niven bring their usual class to the proceedings, but Maggie McNamara is more irksome than ingratiating as the relentlessly perky love interest. This cassette includes the original coming-attractions trailer, which is weirder and more interesting than anything in the picture itself. Warner Home Video.

David Sterritt

(Christian Science Monitor)

BIRDS II: LAND'S END - Nothing flighty about these birds. While no Hitchcockian effort as was the original, this sequel has its moments and a couple of good, full-fledged bird attacks. Scene is an island off the Eastern U.S. where teachers Brad Johnson and Chelsea Field and their two daughters are spending the summer while he writes his thesis. But, he's getting constantly interrupted, often by strangely-acting birds one-on-one pecking at the populace. No one will heed his warning that the feathered varmints are flocking for an all-out assault. 1994. 87 minutes. MCA/Universal Home Video. Rated R.

- Jack E. Wilkinson

(United Press International)

DREAM LOVER - Having just gone through a less-than-amicable divorce, architect Ray Reardon (James Spader) is seeking the perfect woman to fill the void in his life. At the opening of an art gallery, he bumps into Lena (Madchen Amick) who seems to embody everything that he's been searching for in a woman. Unfortunately, after marrying her, Ray discovers that his bride is concealing a dark secret. Although the film covers some familiar ground, the stunning conclusion makes the wait worthwhile. PolyGram Video, 103 minutes, rated R.

- Richard T. Ryan

(Newhouse News Service)

HIGH LONESOME: THE STORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC - The bluegrass legend Bill Monroe is the focus of Rachel Liebling's documentary, but the tale goes far beyond the music. Interspersed with the haunting and rousing musical excerpts are archival images of a culture and a folk tradition that, together with Mr. Monroe's recollections of his country roots, recall an Appalachia of Walker Evans and James Agee. You need not have the slightest interest in bluegrass music to find this film a fascinating piece of Americana. Shanachie (1-800-497-1043), $19.95, 95 minutes, no rating.

- Janet Maslin

(New York Times)