If you’re a gamer of a certain age, chances are you have fond memories of playing your favorite retro console in front of a boxy TV. However, while many gamers have kept their old consoles — or bought them back from flea markets and eBay auctions — CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions are largely an abandoned relic of the past. You can probably find dozens of examples gathering dust at your local thrift store, at the landfill, or maybe even at your grandmother’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-old 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 stunned by the results. His beloved N64 games looked horrible on his LCD TV, with washed out colors, a flickering picture and a huge input lag. He sought advice on the internet, where he found out one of the worst-kept secrets in retro gaming – that essentially any original console setup requires an old TV.
Luckily, Nutter had an old Toshiba lying around that he was able to revive for his nostalgic purposes. As an engineer by training, he was drawn to the intricate machinery of these displays. He watched YouTube videos made by hackers and phone “phreakers” who enjoyed messing around with the machines and slowly amassed his knowledge base. Over time, Nutter’s interest in CRTs grew so much that he began searching Craigslist and bidding on eBay auctions looking for the really desirable CRT displays like Sony PVM and BVMs. And one day his luck changed: just a short drive away, a high-end PVM was for sale at a reasonable price. What he found changed his life almost overnight.
“I found a local vendor who was a CRT recycler,” explains Nutter. “When I went to pick it up, I saw that they had 25 PVMs just lying around in a warehouse. That was in 2015 when they were being recycled by hospitals and medical clinics. The owner explained to me that they had trouble finding enough space to store them. When I told him I wanted to buy them all, I did him a huge favor as far as he was concerned.”
When Nutter brought the dozens of boxes back to his garage, he quickly found that most of them had significant problems. Some wouldn’t even turn on. That’s when he decided to learn how to fix them as best he could, if only to recoup some money for his impromptu investment.
“When I started, I was sitting in a room surrounded by PVMs and I was like, ‘Who wants to buy all this?’ I thought I made a big mistake. But once I started working on it, suddenly everyone wanted it.”
What makes a high-end CRT like a PVM or Trinitron better than your childhood Zenith? As Nutter puts it, it’s all about the use case. PVMs and BVMs are professional monitors intended for broadcast use in a workplace environment such as a hospital or television studio. These boxes are designed to do things that consumer TVs just can’t do, particularly in terms of color matching and scanline adjustment. Over the years, knowledgeable sources like Digital Foundry have shown that top-of-the-line CRTs are amazing for modern gaming, although there are certain downsides. However, Nutter acknowledges that some PVM sellers can take advantage of less knowledgeable customers by overcharging worn-out kits.
“There’s definitely a certain hype about it,” says Nutter. “But a properly tuned PVM is the culmination of 100 years of common analog video technology. It’s sharper, it just looks better. The problem is that many PVMs aren’t in the best condition, which means they’re not worth anything. People pay for them… People come to me with damaged PVMs that they’ve spent hundreds of dollars shipping across the country transport.”
Today, Nutter is a full-time CRT repairman specializing in high-end or exotic boxes, from PVMs to forgotten models from Asia. However, he also spends time tinkering with more everyday consumer models, often just for fun. His customers ship, drive, and personally deliver their CRTs to his Virginia garage, where he repairs an average of one television set per weekday. (His current backlog extends well into 2023.)
He documents the repair process with photos so the customer knows exactly what he did. Nutter explains that over the years he’s worked on too many expensive CRT sets that show signs of substandard or incomplete workmanship to not write down everything he does and exactly why he’s doing it. Of course, he also posts the resulting documentation on his Patreon, where he hopes his subscribers 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 the CRT Database, a free web resource aimed at gathering as much information as possible about these boxes. The site contains instructions for modifying many of the more well-known CRT brands out there, from Sanyo to Toshiba. It also includes a guide on how to customize each CRT’s color settings, 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 as kids,” says King. “We used used bedroom TVs… If you are looking for an exact 1:1 nostalgic replica of your childhood, a PVM is not a worthy investment. However, some of us want to build on that nostalgic experience by finding the best technology that could play those games.”
Both Nutter and King describe themselves as completely self-taught; After all, there is no course that can teach you to comprehensively repair these old machines. Nutter says he started his journey with a scanned copy of an old PVM manual that contains dozens of pages of troubleshooting advice. From there he was able to learn the basics of CRT repair from old books and old personal websites. Nutter explains that most of his job consists of completely disassembling each box, pulling out all the circuit boards, and replacing blown capacitors on each board.
“The average CRT someone brings me needs a few new capacitors and maybe a thorough cleaning,” explains Nutter. “There’s also the whole customization page where I balance the colors and deflection of how the geometry looks on screen. The average job consists of working through all these steps and photographing the results. That’s basically all.”
King explains that CRTs that won’t turn on are often the most difficult to troubleshoot. While he can sometimes fix them in an hour or less, a particularly nasty problem can take months to resolve, especially when there’s not much documentation.
Although Nutter’s main focus is on retro games, the benefit of his expertise goes beyond that area. For example, there are many 20th-century video art installations designed to be displayed on CRTs—sometimes a whole wall of clunky televisions, as in Nam June Paik’s works. That means museums will have to hire craftsmen like Nutter and King to maintain their displays for years to come. Nutter even gave a seminar on the subject at Houston’s Museum of Fine Art. He also has clients who supply CRTs as part of the sets of historical dramas like Stranger Things or even music videos.
Nutter says there are several craftsmen who specialize in repairing these art displays, but most are retired. That doesn’t stop Nutter from asking one of them, a former Sony technician in the ’90s, for help with particularly tough problems. “I can sit there for a week trying to solve a problem, or I can call him and he tells me what to do in 10 minutes,” Nutter says, laughing. “They have not shared this information with anyone about the high-end machines. It’s amazing what he knows.”
While Nutter and King acknowledge the hype and FOMO that surrounds high-end CRTs like PVMs and BVMs, they both agree on one thing: If you want to play some retro games, you don’t need to overspend on a desirable model . -at least not immediately.
“You can get the best features of a CRT from a unit you can find off the road,” says Nutter. “With the right console and cables, it can look great. No latency, bright picture, games play on the hardware they were designed for. That’s really all that matters. If you want a PVM, that’s great knowing what you’re getting into.”
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