CRTs, PVMs, RGB SCART adapters and more – How to get the best picture from your retro games (part II)
Last time we began our journey towards the ultimate retro game picture, and this meant talking about cables. If you’ve landed here wondering how to make your old consoles look great then I’d recommend checking this article out first, as today I’ll be building on everything previously covered. That means I’ll be talking PVMs, CRTs, RGB SCART adapters and more.
Which TV – old or new
Whilst there’s no definitive right answer as to which type of TV you should use for your retro games, there are some important considerations you’ll want to bear in mind. Connecting everything to your modern HDTV may appear to be the most convenient option at first, but there are some big advantages if you instead decide to hook your consoles up to an old CRT instead.
Of course you’ll need the extra space and if you’ve not already got one you’ll need to buy a new (old) TV. There’s also a chance that you’re looking for a cheap and easy alternative to buying all this kit, some ideas are discussed further down. Meanwhile I’m going to assume you love retro games and are willing to do what it takes to make them look as good as they possibly can.
CRTs and PVMs
Okay, you want the old TV. It’s square and cool looking, and more importantly it’s what old videogames were designed to be used with. If you want to buy something decent such as a Sony PVM (Professional Video Monitor) then you can buy everything you need for around £240, breaking down like this; PVM – £120, Speakers – £60, cables and adapters – £60 (this may be a bit more if you have lots of consoles and want RGB SCART cables for them all).
The big question – what even is a PVM?
The Sony PVM range was a series of high end television that were designed for professional use, such as in broadcasting or connected to hospital equipment. They originally cost thousands of pounds, but fifteen years later and they can be purchased for a lot less. Although originally too expensive to be a practical choice for videogames, they are now an excellent option.
The benefits over a standard CRT are as follows:
–PVMs are high quality displays that produce an excellent crisp image.
–They accept RGB input. this is more of a big deal if you’re in the USA where SCART isn’t standard. You’ll probably need a RGB SCART to BNC converter (covered below) but with the right cables you have the ability to output your consoles at the best possible quality.
–No archaic interface for switching between inputs. All configuration options are physical buttons and dials on the front of the monitor, which are easy to use, offer advanced display options, and allow you to retain/modify settings when the machine is off.
The model I myself own is the SONY PVM-14M4E 14″ HR. At only 14 inches this isn’t a large TV, but it’s a great size for playing old games on. Plus, with a resolution of 800 lines it’s capable of displaying a super sharp image. As it’s only fairly recently that the PVM has become a viable purchase option, and almost all variants are fairly hard to find, minimum comparison has been made between the models – in particular with a focus on retro gaming. There’s also the more advanced BVM range which are rarer and more expensive.
There’s no definitive model for me to recommend, so instead I’d advise having a look on eBay (here) and seeing what’s for sale and for what price. Options are often limited due to the obscurity of the item, as well as the difficulty in shipping such a heavy object. But with enough searching there’s usually some good buys to be found.
The other option is a standard consumer CRT. You’ll probably want to look for something that can accept an RGB signal, which will be much easier if you live in Europe where SCART was standard. If you live in America you may want to look into purchasing either a PVM or some form of RGB monitor. Otherwise you’ll probably have to settle for S-Video quality graphics on your CRT.
If you love old videogames then it’s probably not just the great picture you’ll want to enjoy them to the maximum. For an overall experience of quality you’ll need some good sound too. Many PVMs have only a single mono speaker, so you’ll probably need a set of external speakers.
I’d recommend the BOSE Companion II speakers. They’re designed for computers but work great with retro games, and have a high sound quality without any unnecessary features that old games wouldn’t take advantage of. They’re also reasonably priced; if you don’t mind a second hand set they can be purchase for around £60 (eBay).
Even if your TV has multiple SCART sockets usually only one carries RGB, meaning without an adapter you can only connect a single console at a time. Repeatedly swapping SCARTS is a massive inconvenience, so you’ll need an RGB SCART adapter, although getting a decent one isn’t as easy as it should be.
The first rule is to stay well away from the unbranded or ‘Lindy’ marked products sold on eBay. These are exceptionally poorly made, and produce a picture quality so bad that they are essentially unusable. Considering the entire point of all these RGB cables is to get the best picture quality possible, there’s no circumstances under which I could recommend these items.
What you want is the Madcatz RGB SCART adapter. This item was specifically designed for connecting multiple games consoles via RGB at once, and Madcatz masterfully crafted this accessory that does its intended job flawlessly. There’s a bit of a catch though, they can be quite hard to come by.
Last year I bough two, both on eBay and over a period of around six months where I was looking for them at regular intervals. Although rare I got them for under £10 each, but if you’re only option is to spend more they are well worth the investment. You can have a look for one on eBay hereEdit.
The adapter can connect four consoles, and you can chain a second unit to use a total of seven (I have done this without noticing any drop in quality on the second adapter). Of course having the cables connected through an adapter will always result in minor signal interference, but the Madcatz adapter is so well made that I have been unable to notice any difference in quality when using the item.
The back of the PVM does not have standard inputs. It uses BNC connectors which are typically found on CCTV equipment, and will require an adapter to work with standard cables. Specifically you will need a BNC to RGB SCART adapter (available on eBay hereEdit). These take the signals carried on the individual pins of the RGB SCART and split them onto their own wire that ends in a BNC connector that hooks up to the back of the PVM. The R, G, B and Sync cables all connect to their respective slots, and the L and R audio can go straight into the back of your speakers (this may require an extension cable as the wires on the adapter are quite short). Then on the other end you can connect the (male) RGB SCART adapter to the (female) RGB SCART to BNC adapter.
Now you can connect all your consoles to the adapter – for this you must be using RGB SCART cables. This isn’t really an option for every single system, so it’s worth also getting the adapters to connect consoles via composite output (this is what I use for my (European) Nintendo 64, NES and Panasonic Q and these don’t have the modifications to support RGB). All you need is a BNC male to RCA adapter (cheap) and you can hook up the yellow video cable to the composite input. Meanwhile the red and white audio cables can go into the back of the speakers (the BOSE ones have two inputs, if yours don’t you may need an adapter).
For whatever reason high end broadcasting equipment may not be the option for you. Too big, too expensive? There might be a suitable alternative. Here’s a few ideas:
Any old CRT – If you were alive in the 1990s you probably had one of these. If you’ve still got it somewhere then this could be a quick and easy solution. If you live in Europe there’s a good chance that the AV1 SCART socket carries RGB, which is more good news. However, even if it doesn’t a standard CRT may still be a perfectly satisfactory solution. After all, RGB isn’t the only reason why an old TV is better for retro games. Other advantages include the ability to output at the correct resolution, the monitor being the correct aspect ratio, and (of course) scanlines.
Buying an upscaler – When you connect an old console to a HDTV the image is uspscaled by the TV itself. This is because HDTVs displays at a fixed resolution, where as a CRT does not. Purchasing an external scaler can correctly optimise the signal from your games console and produce a crisp image on a modern TV. The most well regarded device is the XRGB-mini Framemeister, although these are rare and expensive. Unless you can find a good deal it’s likely that a PVM would be cheaper.
Emulation – Emulating old games will never be as good as the real thing, but it’s a pretty alright compromise. The Virtual Console on the Wii and Wii U is particularly good for its wide selection of titles which are upscaled and (when possible) output at 480p. The PAL Wii can output in RGB, meaning it’s also a good option for use with a CRT or PVM, and emulation can be used in conjunction with your old TV, not just as an alternative.
The computer is the other great option for emulation. OpenEmu for the Mac is a particularly awesome piece of software that not only has the ability to emulate almost all retro consoles, but combines this with a smart interface. There’s a few legal issues regarding the acquisition of roms and such which I won’t be detailing here. Probably best to look this stuff up and try not to break all the laws.
My other big recommendation would be to get a retro controller to use with emulated games. For the Wii you can get an authentic SNES controller that plugs into the Wiimote (a Club Nintendo exclusive you’re now best to look for on eBay). For the computer, adapters exists to connect almost any retro controller via USB.