Thu. Nov 24th, 2022

If you’re a gamer of a certain age, you probably have fond memories of playing your favorite retro console in front of a square TV. However, while many gamers have kept their old consoles or repurchased them at garage sales and eBay auctions, CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs are largely a neglected relic of the past. Chances are you’ll find dozens of examples gathering dust at your local thrift store, junkyard, or maybe even your grandma’s house. But are they really worse than your cheap LED replacement, or do they deserve a second chance at life? More than just a relic, it’s the best way to play classic games from decades, according to the enthusiasts who work tirelessly to refurbish them.

When CRT enthusiast Steve Nutter plugged in his old consoles to show his young son the games he grew up with, he was extremely dismayed by the results. His favorite N64 games looked terrible on his LCD TV, with washed out colors, flickering images, and huge input lag. He turned to the Internet for advice, where he learned one of retro gaming’s best-kept secrets – that an old TV is essential for any original console setup.

Luckily, Nutter had an old Toshiba lying around, which he was able to resurrect for his own nostalgic purposes. As a trained engineer, he found that the intricate mechanism of these displays drew his attention. He watched YouTube videos made by hackers and phone phreakers who enjoyed playing with the machines, slowly building up their knowledge base. Over time, Nutter’s interest in CRTs grew to the point where he began browsing Craigslist and bidding on eBay for really desirable CRT displays such as the Sony PVM and BVM. And one day he was lucky: just a few minutes away from him, a high-quality PVM was being sold at a reasonable price. What he discovered changed his life almost overnight.

“I found a local CRT recycling vendor,” Nutter explains. “When I went to pick it up, I saw that they just had 25 PVMs in stock. It was in 2015 when they were disposed of from hospitals and medical clinics. The owner explained to me that they were having trouble finding enough space to store them. When I told him I wanted to buy them all, from his point of view, I did him a big favor.”

Sony Trinitrons are among the most desirable consumer grade CRTs.
Sony Trinitrons are among the most desirable consumer grade CRTs.

When Nutter brought dozens of boxes back to his garage, he quickly realized that most of them were in serious trouble. Some didn’t even turn on. It was then that he decided to learn how to fix them the best he could, if only to recoup some money from his momentary investment.

“When I started, I sat in a room surrounded by PVM and thought: “Who wants to buy all this?” I thought I made a big mistake. But as soon as I started working on them, they suddenly wanted everyone.

What makes a high quality CRT like PVM or Trinitron better than your kid’s Zenith? As Nutter says, it’s all about the use case. PVM and BVM are professional grade monitors designed for use in a broadcast environment such as a hospital or TV studio. These boxes are designed to do things that consumer TVs just can’t, especially in terms of color tuning and scanline tuning. Over the years, insiders like Digital Foundry have shown that top-of-the-line CRTs are great for today’s games, although they do have some drawbacks. However, Nutter acknowledges that some PVM sellers may be taking advantage of less knowledgeable customers by charging inflated prices for worn sets.

“There’s definitely an element of hype to it,” Nutter says. “But a properly tuned PVM is the culmination of 100 years of analog video technology working together. It’s sharper, it just looks better. The problem is that many PVMs are not in the best condition, which means they are worthless. people pay for them…People come to me with damaged PVMs that they spent hundreds of dollars shipping around the country.”

Today, Nutter is a full-time CRT repairman specializing in expensive or exotic boxes, from PWM to forgotten models from Asia. However, he also spends his time fiddling with more mundane consumer models, often just for fun. His clients mail, pick up, and deliver their CRTs to his garage in Virginia, where he repairs an average of one television per weekday. (Its current backlog extends to 2023.)

He documents the repair process with photographs so that the client knows exactly what he did. Nutter explains that he has worked on too many expensive CRT kits, which have shown signs of poor or incomplete workmanship over the years, not to record everything he does and why exactly he does it. Of course, he also posts the resulting documentation on his Patreon, where he hopes subscribers can learn from his mistakes — perhaps even enough to fix their own CRTs without his help.

Nutter isn’t the only CRT expert trying to help others master the dark art of lamp repair. Andy King is the owner of the CRT Database, a free web resource dedicated to collecting as much information as possible about these boxes. The site has guides on how to modify many of the more popular CRT brands, from Sanyo to Toshiba. It also has a guide to adjusting any CRT color settings which is useful for any retro gamer. King compares the experience of buying a PVM to getting the keys to the Ferrari you dreamed of driving as a child.

“None of us used broadcast monitors for gaming when we were kids,” says King. “We used used TVs for the bedroom… If you are looking for a 1:1 nostalgic replica of your childhood, PVM is not worth the investment. However, some of us want to develop this nostalgic experience. by finding the best technology that was able to play those games.”

Desirable CRTs are often the centerpiece of retro networks, but they're great for modern gaming as well.  However, they may require modification to work.
Desirable CRTs are often the centerpiece of retro networks, but they’re great for modern gaming as well. However, they may require modification to work.

Both Nutter and King describe themselves as completely self-taught; after all, there is no course that teaches you how to repair these old machines comprehensively. Nutter says he started his journey with a scanned copy of an old PVM manual that has dozens of pages of troubleshooting tips. From there, he was able to learn the basics of CRT repair from old books and old personal web pages. Nutter explains that most of his work comes down to completely disassembling each box, removing all circuit boards, and replacing burned-out capacitors on each board.

“A regular CRT that someone brings to me needs a few new capacitors and maybe a good cleaning,” Nutter explains. “There’s also a whole side of tuning where I balance colors and variance, how the geometry looks on the screen. The usual work is to follow all these steps and photograph the results. That, in general, is all.”

King explains that CRTs that refuse to turn on are often the hardest to fix. While he can sometimes resolve them in an hour or less, a particularly vexing problem can take months to resolve, especially if there isn’t much documentation.

While Nutter’s main focus is on retro games, the usefulness of his experience goes beyond that area. For example, there are many installations of 20th century video art that were designed to be displayed on CRTs—sometimes an entire wall of square TVs, as in Nam June Paik’s work. This means that museums have to hire repairmen like Nutter and King to maintain the exhibits for years to come. Nutter even gave a seminar on the subject at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He also has clients who provide CRTs as part of the sets for period dramas such as Stranger Things or even music videos.

Nutter says there are a few repairmen who specialize in fixing these art pieces, but most of them are retired. However, that doesn’t stop Nutter from calling one of them, a 90-year-old former Sony technician, for help with a particularly tough problem. “I can sit and try to solve the problem for a whole week, or I can call him and he will tell me what to do in ten minutes,” Nutter says with a laugh. “They did not share this information about the most powerful machines with anyone. It’s amazing that he knows.”

Overall, while Nutter and King acknowledge the hype and FOMO that surround high-end CRTs like PVMs and BVMs, they both agree on one thing: if you want to play retro games, you don’t need to splurge on the model you want. At least not right away.

“You can get the best CRT capabilities from a kit you find on the side of the road,” Nutter says. “With the right console and the right cables, it can look great. Zero latency, vivid images, playing games on the hardware they were designed for. That’s really all that should matter. If you need PVM, that’s great. you know what you’re getting into.”

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