Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Good Retro Display - 19" Sylvania CRT

The System and its TV (no, there is not an ultra-rare Stadium Events in my NES)
Today, most people see CRTs are little more than space-hogging junk that they have to pay a fee to get taken away.  During a move, I happened to acquire a 19" TV and found it was excellent for classic video game consoles.  In this post I will give my opinion as to why it is so great.

The TV set in question is the Sylvania 19" SRT2119A Color Television.  This TV set is bare-bones and obviously intended for a bedroom, not a living room. The SRT2113A is its otherwise-identical 13" version.  It uses black matte plastic throughout, has six buttons on the front (power, 2x channel and volume, menu), a headphone jack and a mono speaker.  It also has a mono-composite AV input on the front and a coaxial RF screw for an antenna or a cable wire in the back.  The tube is curved but the viewable shape is fairly squarish.  If you look behind the back, you can see a fairly deep conical protrusion out the back that encloses the neck of the picture tube.  

The included remote is very basic, containing only 22 buttons.  One of those buttons is the aptly named TV/GAME button, which switches from the coaxial RF connection (TV) to the composite AV connection (GAME).  This remote is not really replaceable with a generic universal TV remote, I tried using my cable remote for all the Sylvania/Funai codes I could find and it did not work.  Unfortunately, the remote is the only way to operate the TV/GAME input switch.  Replacement remotes are available online, as is the Owner's Manual.  

The menus are easy to navigate.  When menu is pressed, the channel buttons select options and the volume buttons change the option.  The standard picture selection options are available, brightness, tint, contrast and color.  Sharpness is mysteriously absent.  The "GAME MODE" acts to remember a particular set of settings.  Many video games may benefit from boosting the brightness signal whereas TV or Cable programs and DVDs/VCRs may look washed out.  

The TV set also supports Spanish menu choices, V-chip, closed captioning and a sleep timer.  It will shut itself off if it detects no valid video signal (except when set to display the composite AV input) after 15 minutes and will also mute the numbered channels when they are displaying static.  It will tune itself to VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-69.  It is also "cable ready", so it will tune itself to the standard 125 cable channels.  Included in these cable channels is coverage in the frequency spectrum corresponding to Japanese channels 1 & 2, which RF only Japanese consoles use.  An original Famicom will be received on this TV, but you have to add the appropriate channels, 95 and 96 manually.  Channel 96 looks much sharper than 95, probably because of the foreign RF US signals (from the Famicom's perspective). Also, it is best to turn the TV off or the input to GAME when switching RF input channels.  Otherwise you may only see Black and White graphics and hear horrible and loud white noise.  

Opening the tube can be done very easily.  Remove the screws and then the chassis pulls right off.  The circuit board is very streamlined, so streamlined in fact that I could find no potentiometers to adjust.  Nor could I find adjustment potentiometers for the color guns on the tube's neck.  The only adjustments can be made to the flyback transformer, but there is no need to do that typically.  The main PCB can be pulled out from the tube housing for easy servicing. 

The speaker does its job adequately within its limits.  The headphone jack supports mono output only.  There is an audible and annoying buzz when this TV is turned on and nothing is coming from the speaker.  This may be due to the budget nature of this set or an aging filtering capacitor that should be replaced.   

If I may digress for a moment, back in the late 1980s, Nintendo partnered with Sharp to manufacture a TV set with a built-in Famicom and later a built-in NES.  This is the Sharp C1 TV, and it had a 19" viewable screen.  It was highly regarded for its picture quality because it used an internal composite connection.  This was unusual at the time, most NESes were hooked up using the included RF switchbox.  TVs with composite AV inputs were far from ubiquitous in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Screenshots taken for magazines often would point their camera to one of these Sharp screens because of the improved picture quality (Sharp lived up to its name here), especially in Japan where the original standalone Famicom was RF only.  Essentially for the time the Sharp TV was as close to the canonical NES or Famicom display as you could get.  The Sylvania TV can produce a similarly bright and sharp picture though its composite connector. Newer CRT TVs like the Sylvania may be a better and certainly a cheaper option compared to the Sharp because CRTs tend to age poorly.

One of the Sharp's excellent but rarely mentioned qualities was its very squarish picture viewing area.  TVs have gradually evolved from spherical viewing areas to rectangular viewing areas.  The earliest TVs were like looking through a porthole, then a porthole with a straight top and bottom and then gradually sets gave more defined corners, flatter tubes and finally the perfect right angle corners of late model CRTs, computer monitors and LCDs.  Because the corners of the Sharp TV were relatively straight instead of curved as seen on many TV sets, you could see more video material in the corners.  Some games like Castlevania use those corners, which will be totally or partially masked off in TVs with more rounded features.  This Sylvania TV does almost as good a job as the Sharp TV in showing you the full NES image, the corners are just a bit more rounded.

Not all CRTs are best for classic gaming consoles.  I have read that some late CRTs with HD (1080i at best) support convert 240p material into 480i.  These widescreen HD CRTs may not work with light guns.  I have a Toshiba with a flat tube and it has some very odd distortion with classic consoles.  Often on the edges you can see the bleed from the border color, which should not be visible.  Due to the odd geometry (these tubes are not truly flat) the border often can be seen on the bottom portion of the screen, making the screen image look trapezoidal.  Perhaps because of the odd geometry or its 3 line digital comb filter, this Toshiba TV has trouble with games that rely on precise CRT timing.  Micro Machines is an excellent example of this issue, but many other Codemasters/Camerica games can exhibit bendy rasters..  Both in the menus and in game the raster will get bendy at places.  On the Sylvania TV, the raster is perfectly stable.  In addition, the baseball game on the Quatro Sports cart and the Linus Spacehead game on the Quatro Adventure cart show a vertical rolling screen on my Toshiba TV at times but a stable screen on my Sylvania.

The Sylvania display has its limits.  It only supports mono sound, so systems with stereo sound support, which includes all fourth generation and later consoles, will not show their true aural potential.  Consoles that can support more advanced video output modes, such as RGB, S-Video and Component Video, will not look their best.  Finally, 19" is not everyone's idea of an ideal size.  High end CRTs generally came in sizes up to 36" and sometimes even 40".  People with fond memories of large screen classic gaming will need to look for something larger.

In addition to the utter failure of the Zapper or R.O.B. or anything else that relies on the specific optical properties of a CRT screen working with an LCD screen, RF and composite video game signals look terrible on LCD screens.  Even a Framemeister cannot really do much here, the source of the signal is just too compromised.  The NES's signal is especially unsuited to the perfect digital flat-screens of today.  It's video signal is a bit gritty and what should be straight vertical lines come across as rather ragged with a three-line stairstep pattern. The lack of razor-sharp definition in a CRT can hide some of these flaws and turn others into an asset (dithering).

The final good thing about the Sylvania and TVs like it is that the can often be acquired for cheap to nothing.  People are only too happy to give these TVs away.  Thrift stores generally sell them for $5 or less.  You can find them if you are willing to dumpster dive or take TVs left on the side of the street.  I know of no other way you can get great image quality with full compatibility for classic video game systems so cheaply.

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