Any adult alive today has experience with a CRT television, they simply might not know what to call it. Colloquially body-shamed as a "fat TV" an "old TV" or an "SDTV," cathode ray tube technology (CRT) was the primary technology behind television for decades. In many key ways, like input lag, it's still the best method for producing an image.
But shortly after the turn of the millennium, flat panel televisions became all the rage due to their convenience, price, and space saving abilities. When they eventually came to tout 720p and 1080p images (oh, were we ever so young?), the writing was on the wall for CRTs. TV people wanted to watch Trading Spaces in HD, film snobs wanted to see Shrek: The Third in crystal clarity, and gamers craved the possibilities opened up by seeing hot anime characters in high resolution.
The reason this was a huge mistake, at least for retro gamers, is that thousands of games were designed with CRTs in mind. Some games, like the original Mega Man series, are almost unplayable without the twitchy, instant control native to the CRT experience. Emulators can compensate for this in various complex ways that just aren’t worthwhile for most people.
CRT TVs have a specific look that is hard to put into words if you haven’t seen one lately — one that remains unachievable via OLED or LCD. Sure, you can turn on your modern TV's "game mode" and play Super Mario World using emulators that add false curves to your screen or fake scanline filters. But that will forever be a pale imitation (pun) of the CRT’s glow.
They’re also the only place left to experience games that were designed to use active shutter 3D glasses or light guns. These technologies depend on the specific way CRTs display an image, meaning games or accessories need to be completely reworked around whatever display technology is currently en vogue.
So you want a CRT but where is one to buy such a thing? Best Buy does not stock ancient artifacts such as these. Hell, many companies couldn't produce such a product at any kind of affordable price without doing so at the scale they once were.
Thankfully, the technology's ubiquity up until the mid-00s means CRTs continue to be available to the niche community who wants them. It's just going to take a bit of legwork on your part.
Be prepared to troll online stores like Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, LetGo, eBay, Craigslist, or paw your way through second hand shops like Goodwill (though never give The Salvation Army your money if you can avoid it). Oftentimes these units can look dusty or faded thanks to their years displaying Sister, Sister and Sabrina the Teenage Witch in the bedrooms of our youth. Don't let their aging facades deceive you: As long as the screen (and the tube) is good, you're good to go.
Some models you might want to keep an eye out for include: Sony FV310, Sony KV-XXFV310, Sony KV-XXFV26, Sony KD-XXFS130, and professional-grade PVMs or BVMs like the Sony PVM 20L2MD.
Always test a used TV before you purchase it, lest you discover it's defective and need to learn the intricacies of recycling such a heavy, anachronistic object. To that end, it can be useful to bring some form of media with matching inputs when evaluating a set.
CRTs display in multiple formats but you will primarily see units that use the NTSC (640 × 480 at 29.97fps in America, Japan) or PAL (768 × 576 at 25fps in Europe, Oceania) standard. Though similar, PAL enables higher resolution images at the cost of a lower refresh rate. Likely you'll want to go with whatever matches what you plan to display; in the US, all gaming hardware before the introduction of HDMI used NTSC.
Now for all the little wires in the back: What you plan to display can be pumped into a given TV in a variety of ways. Here's some info on the major cable types:
Analog TV inputs can be overwhelming. There's a lot we didn't cover (if you have time, fall down the rabbit hole of sync, Ohm, and Hz) but, in the States at least, you'll likely only encounter RCA, component, or composite. On very rare occasions you may see SCART or RF but, should that arise, there are alternative solutions you can use to convert their signals into something your TV can connect to. If you should opt for a PVM or BVM, which is a professional level CRT with absolutely jaw-dropping accuracy and color, be prepared to spend handsomely and learn your way around BNC breakout cables.
Primarily, though, you'll want to get your hands on a Sony unit if at all possible. Sony's TVs are legendary (particularly their Trinitron line) and can only count Panasonic and Hitachi among their equals. Thankfully, the brand was quite popular and many sets are still floating around waiting to find a loving home once again.
If you plan on primarily using your CRT for retro gaming, avoid purchasing an "EDTV" model, or any other unit that features digital processing of an image. Digital processing can add quite a bit of lag, which would make owning a CRT at all kind of moot.
Before you pour through Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, a word of caution: CRT TVs are objects from another era, when our homes and cultures were quite different. Any television of such size (and weight!) will need a dedicated place in your home, away from anywhere children could accidentally knock a unit over. As a child, I accidentally was crushed by a CRT TV (hmm, my choice of career suddenly makes a lot of sense?) that had been sitting on our living room cabinet simply from accidentally pulling too hard on the cabinet's handles. Needless to say, I don't recommend the experience.
CRTs also generate quite a bit of static electricity and heat, so be sure and warn anyone who may want to mess with the unit during operation.
Once you own one, these older TVs have a way of worming into your heart. Truly, there is nothing like playing N64 on a CRT — it simply doesn't look the same on any other display — or watching a DVD set of Friends without all the anachronistic HD remastering you'll find on streaming services. I'm not sure watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on an old, fat TV is for everyone, but the people who appreciate the difference are my people. If you’re already nerding out on the topic, I can’t recommend YouTube channels like My Life in Gaming and Technology Connections more.
CRT TVs are a must-have for any serious retro gamer (and quite an upgrade for casuals), that will only get harder to find or repair as time goes on. If you'd like to preserve your access to the technology's incredible colors, wide viewing angles, and instant response time, picking up and maintaining a CRT is more than worth the trouble.