Meet the experts bringing your old CRT TVs back to life
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 bought them back at garage sales and eBay auctions — CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions are largely a discarded relic of the past. You can probably find dozens of examples gathering dust at your local thrift store, junkyard, or maybe even your grandma’s house. But are they actually worse than your cheap LED replacement, or do they deserve a second chance at life? According to the enthusiasts who work tirelessly to fix them, they’re more than just a relic, they’re the best way to play decades of classic games.
When CRT enthusiast Steve Nutter plugged in his old consoles to show his young son the games he grew up playing, he was utterly appalled at the results. His beloved N64 games looked horrible on his LCD TV, with washed out colors, flickering picture and huge input lag. He turned to the internet for advice, where he discovered one of retro gaming’s worst-kept secrets – that an old TV is basically necessary for any stock console setup.
Fortunately, Nutter had an old Toshiba lying around, which he was able to resurrect for his nostalgic purposes. As an engineer by training, he found himself constrained by the complex machinery of these screens. He watched YouTube videos made by hackers and phone “phreakers” who liked to play with machines, slowly gathering his knowledge base. Over time, Nutter’s interest in CRTs grew so much that he started scouring Craigslist and bidding on eBay auctions, looking for the really desirable CRTs like Sony’s PVMs and BVMs. And one day his luck changed: a high-end PVM was on sale at a reasonable price just a short drive away. What he found changed his life almost overnight.
“I found a local vendor who was a CRT recycler,” says Nutter. “When I went to pick it up I saw they had 25 PVMs just sitting in a warehouse. That was in 2015 when they were being recycled in hospitals and medical clinics. The owner told me explained that they were struggling to find enough space to put them in. When I told him I wanted to buy them all, as far as he was concerned, I was doing him a big favor.
When Nutter brought the dozens of boxes back to his garage, he soon realized that most of them had significant issues. Some wouldn’t even turn on. It was then that he decided to learn how to repair them as best he could, if only to recoup some money for his one-time investment.
“When I started, I was sitting in a room surrounded by PVMs, and I was like, ‘Who’s going to want to buy all this?’ I thought I had made a big mistake, but once I started working on them, suddenly everyone wanted them.
What makes a high-end CRT like a PVM or Trinitron better than your childhood Zenith? As Nutter says, it all depends on the use case. PVMs and BVMs are professional-grade monitors intended for broadcast use in a work environment, such as a hospital or TV studio. These boxes are designed to do things that consumer TVs simply can’t, including color adjustment and scanline customization. Over the years, knowledgeable sources like Digital Foundry have shown that high-end CRTs are amazing for modern gaming, although there are some downsides. However, Nutter acknowledges that some PVM sellers may take advantage of less discerning customers by charging inflated prices for well-worn sets.
“There’s definitely an element of hype,” says Nutter. “But a properly fitted PVM is the culmination of 100 years of analog video technology working together. It’s sharper, it looks better. The problem is that many PVMs aren’t in the best condition, which means they are not worth what people are paying for them… People come to me with damaged PVMs that they have spent hundreds of dollars shipping across the country.
Today, Nutter is a full-time CRT repairer who specializes in high-end or exotic cases, from PVMs to forgotten models from Asia. However, he also spends time tinkering with more mundane consumer models, often just for fun. His customers mail, drive, and hand-deliver their CRTs to his garage in Virginia, where he fixes an average of one TV a weekday. (Its current backlog extends through 2023.)
He documents the repair process with photos, so the customer knows exactly what he did. Nutter explains that he’s worked on too many expensive CRT sets that show signs of shoddy or incomplete workmanship over the years not to write down everything he does, and why exactly he does it. Of course, he also posts the resulting documentation on his Patreon, where he hopes his followers can learn from his mistakes — maybe even enough to fix their own CRTs without his help.
Nutter isn’t the only CRT expert trying to help others learn the dark art of tube repair. Andy King is the owner of CRT Database, a free web resource dedicated to collecting as much information as possible about these enclosures. The site offers guides on how to modify many of the most popular CRT brands, from Sanyo to Toshiba. It also features a guide to adjusting the color settings of any CRT, which is useful for any retro gamer. King likens the experience of buying a PVM to getting the keys to the Ferrari you dreamed of driving as a kid.
“None of us used broadcast monitors to play our games when we were kids,” King says. “We were using second-hand bedroom TVs…If you’re looking for an exact 1:1 nostalgic recreation of your childhood, a PVM isn’t a worthwhile investment. However, some of us are looking to capitalize on that nostalgic experience finding the best technology that can play these games.”
Both Nutter and King describe themselves as entirely self-taught; after all, no course can teach you how to completely repair those old machines. Nutter says he started his journey with a scanned copy of an old PVM manual, which contains 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 case, removing all printed circuit boards, and replacing blown capacitors on each board.
“The average CRT someone brings me needs a few new capacitors, and maybe a good cleaning,” says Nutter. “There’s also the whole adjustment side, where I balance the colors and the deviation, which is how the geometry looks on screen. The average job is to go through all those steps and shoot the results. That’s basically it.”
King explains that CRTs that won’t turn on are often the hardest to fix. While it can sometimes fix them in an hour or less, a particularly nasty problem can take months to fix, especially if there isn’t much documentation.
Although Nutter’s primary focus is retro gaming, the usefulness of his expertise extends beyond that. For example, many 20th century video art installations were designed to be shown on CRT screens, sometimes an entire wall of square televisions, as in the works of Nam June Paik. That means museums have to hire repairmen like Nutter and King to maintain their exhibits for years to come. Nutter even gave a seminar on the subject at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston. He also has clients who provide CRTs as part of the set design for period dramas, such as Stranger Things, or even music videos.
Nutter says there are several repairmen who specialize in repairing these art exhibits, but most are retired. However, that doesn’t stop Nutter from calling one of them, a former Sony tech in the ’90s, for help with some particularly tough issues. “I can sit there and try to solve a problem for a whole week, or I can call him, and he’ll tell me what to do in ten minutes,” Nutter laughs. “They weren’t sharing this information about the high-end machines with anyone. It’s amazing what he knows.”
Overall, while Nutter and King acknowledge the hype and FOMO surrounding high-end CRTs like PVMs and BVMs, they both agree on one thing: if you want to play games retro, you don’t need to splurge on a desirable model. – At least not right away.
“You can get the best features of a CRT from a set you find on the side of the road,” says Nutter. “With the right console and the right cables, it can look great. No latency, a bright picture, playing the games on the hardware they were designed for. That’s really all that matters. If you want a PVM , that’s great. Just know what you’re getting into.”
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