By William C. Banks

(MONEY Magazine) – Hunkered down for communion with the tube, you tune in NBC's Miami Vice in time to see stubbly star Don Johnson open fire from the careering car at screen right. The shot barks in your right speaker, the ricochet twangs in the left. Meanwhile, the background throb of the show's trademark synthesizer and guitar music resounds from wall to wall. This is multichannel television sound (MTS) -- TV in full-blown stereo -- and it's playing in a living room near you. Producing sound every bit as full, rich and distinct as that from FM radio stereo or a top-quality audio cassette deck -- and sometimes slightly better -- TV stereo is the biggest improvement in broadcasting since the advent of color viewing in the 1950s. With the signal now standardized nationwide, stereo-casting has been accepted in greater or lesser measure by the networks, though so far only 19 prime-time shows have stereo sound. It cannot make bad programming seem good. But stereo sound -- which you can bring into your home for as little as $120 -- can make pleasurable viewing much more so. Says James Meigs, executive editor of Video Review magazine: ''MTS stereo is a dramatic improvement over conventional TV sound. The sense of spaciousness and ambience is extraordinary, especially when you hear it for the first time.'' Converts abound. This year video dealers expect to sell more than 3 million stereo TVs, up from 1.5 million just a year ago. Roughly 300 TV stations are equipped to broadcast in stereo currently, and 150 more are likely to follow by year-end, bringing nearly three out of four U.S. households within stereo range. NBC already stereocasts 21 shows, including The Tonight Show, The Cosby Show and Miami Vice. PBS carries Live from Lincoln Center, Great Performances and selected plays in dual-channel sound. By contrast, ABC and CBS still reserve stereo for special programs, such as gala sports events. Only a few of the nation's cable-TV systems now carry any programming in stereo, no matter if it's broadcast that way or not, but their numbers are increasing -- good news for MTV fans, who now must rely on FM radio simulcasts. To receive the new dual-channel broadcasts, you must have some form of MTS- receptive circuitry. There are three basic ways to get the new signal: with a stereo TV set ($500 to $3,200), with a high-fidelity stereo VCR ($500 to $1,500) or with a signal decoder ($120 to $350) that attaches to your old TV. Which method you choose will depend less on price than on the audio and video equipment you already own, including whether you have a cable-TV connection. The MTS option is a waste of money if your cable operator never sends the signal. The choice also depends on how much of an audiophile you are -- perceptible sound quality differences do exist -- and on just what you want to watch with both ears. For example, if you plan to rent stereo movies, the most practical alternative is a hi-fi VCR. STEREO TV A new stereo TV makes the most sense if you are ready for a new set anyway and crave the improved picture quality of the latest models. Another reason: simplicity. You just plug in the set, turn it on and drop out of monaural video. Most major TV makers, including JVC, Magnavox, Mitsubishi, RCA, Sony and Zenith, now sell stereo sets; some store brands, such as Sears, Wards and J.C. Penney, also have the new circuitry. In all, there are more than 230 models with screen sizes ranging from 19 inches to 50 inches (measured diagonally). The most popular, 19- and 25-inch sets, sell for between $500 and $1,200. Performance differs somewhat among brands priced below about $650. But above that, sound and picture differences fade, leaving you to choose on the basis of special features or even styling. Still undecided? Consider overall reliability. You can get some guidance from Consumer Reports' latest sampling of TV owners, published in January. Some 50,000 respondents who bought a 25- inch TV between 1980 and 1985 reported that of 11 brands tallied, those needing the fewest repairs were, in order: Sony, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Curtis Mathes and Sears. Reported slightly less reliable were: Quasar, RCA, GE, Magnavox, Zenith and Sylvania. If you want a bigger screen, the price will be commensurately higher. Mitsubishi makes a 37-inch jumbo tube with a $3,200 price tag, and 11 makers, including NEC, Pioneer and RCA, sell stereo projection sets that have 40- to 50-inch screens. Prices: $2,200 to $3,000. In shopping for a stereo TV set, consider the picture first. The improved circuitry now standard in virtually all new stereo TVs should provide a noticeably better image than your old TV. Superior sound should also be evident immediately, but do not expect fifth row, center, at the Philharmonic; a stereo TV's built-in amplifier and speakers are no match for a component audio system. Key reason: speakers attached to a TV are likely to be too close together to provide the best sense of left and right channel separation; optimal effect occurs when the speakers are about four feet apart. Most stereo TVs, however, have plugs called jacks that enable you to play the sound through separate audio speakers or a component audio system. DECODERS If the stereo system and TV you already own are still shipshape, a signal decoder may be all you really need. About the size of a hardback novel, a decoder sits atop or alongside your TV and picks up the MTS signal. The decoder refines the signal and routes it either through your home audio system or directly to separate, external speakers. Several companies, including Proton, RCA and Zenith, sell decoders designed to work only with their own line of TVs. Price: about $150. But some models are difficult to set up. As long as the retail price is competitive and the connection simple, a brand- specific decoder is a solid choice. Universal decoders -- those designed to work on any TV -- sell for $120 to $350. The expensive ones usually have their own amplifier and jacks for a direct link to separate speakers. Models now available include Radio Shack's TV-100 ($140), the Rhoades TE-800 ($300) and the Recoton V-622 ($120). The Recoton is the easiest to install and operate. Instead of wiring it into the set, you attach a kind of stick-on signal sensor to the TV's cabinet. HI-FI VCRS If you prize versatility as well as exquisite performance, your best choice is a hi-fi stereo VCR equipped with an MTS tuner. These machines not only allow you to view and hear shows in stereo as they are broadcast but also let you record the full stereo signal for flawless playback. Moreover, hi-fi VCRs can repeat faithfully the superb stereo soundtracks found on almost all new prerecorded movie tapes. But be sure that the model you buy has all the right letters in its title: MTS and hi-fi. Ordinary Dolby stereo VCRs fall far short of high fidelity, and hi-fi VCRs that lack MTS circuits cannot pull in the broadcast signal. High-performance VCRs are rather expensive: prices at most stores range from $450 to $1,200. And in some cases, the price is a direct reflection on quality. Manufacturers who aim primarily at bargain-basement buyers are apt to undersell the competition by using inferior circuitry. If a price seems too good to be true, bring your own prerecorded movie to the store and play it in the inexpensive VCR; compare the result in comparable models before you buy. That said, don't panic: the overwhelming majority of stereo hi-fi models deliver superlative performance. Most selling for more than $600 can do everything a stereo TV can except provide the picture. Generally, these VCRs come with a remote control that has direct access to all broadcast and most cable channels, plus slow-motion replay and frame-by-frame picture control. Indeed, so multitalented are the souped-up VCRs that they can also function as superb audiotape players. You can copy some three hours' worth of record albums, cassette tapes and even CD disks onto a single video cassette with virtually no loss in fidelity. By now, the decade-old conflict between incompatible VCR formats, Beta and VHS, has devolved into a few relatively straightforward considerations. Now commanding about 90% of the market, VHS is most convenient for finding rental tapes and for exchanging tapes with friends. Stereo sound reproduction is about the same in both formats. But the SuperBeta picture is noticeably, if not dramatically, superior to that produced by VHS models, even those with the latest VHS enhancement -- HQ (for high quality) circuitry. The HQ circuitry purportedly improves color and picture clarity; the difference, however, is likely to reside solely in the eyes of the beholder. If you cannot see it yourself, do not pay extra for the HQ option. VHS hi-fi models with MTS circuits usually cost between $500 and $1,200. SuperBeta VCRs are usually $100 to $300 less. Reason: the units would not move / otherwise. Buyers hesitate because Beta's small market share discourages tape- rental store owners from stocking Beta titles; some stores now rent only VHS- format tapes. Among the leaders in VHS hi-fi stereo VCRs: JVC, Panasonic and Zenith. Among Beta-format producers, the unquestioned leader is Sony, which makes six models priced from $500 to about $1,100. NEC and Sanyo also sell SuperBeta hi-fi models for about $850. Yet a third video cassette format -- 8mm -- was introduced two years ago, largely for use in video camera recorders, known as camcorders. But now Canon, Kodak, Pioneer and Sony sell 8mm hi-fi VCRs with MTS circuitry for $900 to $1,400. Technically as good as Beta and VHS tapes, 8mm cassettes have some advantages: they use metal-coated tape, which can carry more audio and video information, and they are smaller, about the size of a standard audio cassette. Though about one-fourth the size of the competition, 8mm tapes can record up to four hours of video programming, compared with five hours for Beta tapes and eight hours for VHS. But so far, only about 50 prerecorded movies are available in the 8mm format. That could be enough, though, to keep your pet basset hound amused for quite a while.