What is a PVM and why do retro gamers want them?

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Best retro-gaming solution
Best retro-gaming solution
Terry Papoulias / Shutterstock.com

CRT (cathode ray tube) displays have several important advantages over modern flat panel displays, making them popular with certain gamers. Within the hallowed halls of CRT fandom, the PVM (Professional Video Monitor) is the holy grail of retro picture quality.

CRTs are still amazing

Without getting into the weeds of technical details, a CRT draws an image on the back of a phosphor-coated screen using a beam of scanning energy. Unlike a flat panel display, CRTs do not have physical pixels. So the concept of “native resolution” does not apply here. There is no need to scale the image, the CRT simply draws a grid of pixels at the correct resolution, limited by how accurately the energy beam can make them.

CRTs offer motion clarity, contrast ratios, response times and refresh rates that conventional flat panels are unable to deliver and that high-end OLED and mini-LED arrays are only now coming close to. That said, CRTs are heavy, consume a lot of power, offer small screen sizes, and don’t support very high resolutions.

In general, modern flat panel displays are a much better option for most users. However, retro gaming fans prefer CRTs both for their inherent picture quality advantages and because their games and consoles were designed for CRT technology. Game developers of those times took into account how CRT technology works and often used it to their advantage. Those CRT-specific effects are either lost on modern flat panel displays or imperfectly emulated with digital “CRT filter” effects. Not to mention that you often need additional equipment to connect to older devices.

PVMs take CRTs to the next level

A CRT TV test card with noise, static, and grain.
Grenada / Shutterstock.com

PVM’s CRTs are displays built for professional use. You’d find them in hospitals, video editing suites, graphic design studios, and other places where image quality is of paramount importance. PVMs generally have a higher resolution screen, with up to 1,000 horizontal lines on higher-end models. You may notice with the naked eye that PVMs have little to no visible scan lines that are typical of consumer CRT technology. PVMs also tend to have better quality phosphors, offering an image with better brightness and color.

Of course, like any product, all PVMs and BVMs (Broadcast Video Monitors) are not created equal. Retro gamers have a number of specific models that are highly appreciated, such as the Sony PVM 20L5.

Those specs are certainly great reasons to own a PVM for retro gaming, but raw image quality isn’t the main reason these displays are so sought after. What’s really important is the range of connectors and signal standards that these monitors can handle. In North America in particular, consumer CRT televisions generally came with composite or S-Video inputs.

These are not the best quality connections to get the most out of a retro console. European gamers had access to SCART connectors that made high-quality RGB (Red/Green/Blue) connections possible even on home televisions. That’s not the case for retro enthusiasts in the US, who have to turn to PVMs to experience the significantly higher picture quality those connections offer.

Lastly, PVMs are designed to withstand the stress of professional use, so a used PVM is likely to have more life than a used consumer CRT. Of course, that will depend on the individual history of each unit.

MVPs have drawbacks

Since PVMs were never intended for home users, they have a number of drawbacks. First of all, they are considerably more expensive than consumer CRTs. Second, they are very functional in design and interface and may require more advanced knowledge to calibrate and operate.

PVMs generally come in smaller sizes than consumer CRTs, so they’re not suitable for couch-based setups, they do better on a desktop. Many PVMs don’t handle audio at all, so you’ll need a separate audio solution if you want to hear anything.

Get ’em while they’re hot

Obviously, PVMs were never as abundant as normal CRTs. Even today, you can easily find a CRT TV for free from people who simply want to get rid of a bulky monstrosity. Even if you can only find a composite or S-Video CRT for free or cheap, it’s still a better way to play pre-HDMI consoles than a flat screen TV.

This makes PVMs naturally scarce, so usage model prices can be quite high. Especially if you buy from someone who knows what they have.

If you’re interested, it’s a good idea to spend time looking at retro video game reviews from the various PVMs floating around on the used market. That way, you’ll know which models are particularly attractive for your budget and needs.

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