Why Sony’s Trinitron Tubes Were the Best

If you’re old enough to remember Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) Televisions, you probably remember that Sony sold the top products. Their Trinitron tubes always made the best TVs and Computer Monitors. [Alec Watson] dives into the history of the Sony Trinitron tube.

Sony Color TVs didn’t start with Trinitron — for several years, Sony sold Chromatron tubes. Chromatron tubes used individually charged wires placed just behind the phosphor screen. The tubes worked, but they were expensive and didn’t offer any advantage over common shadow mask tubes. It was clear the company had to innovate, and thanks to some creative engineering, the Trinitron was born.

Closeup of a Trinitron tube shows unbroken vertical stripes which led to a brighter picture.

All color TV’s shoot three electron guns at a phosphor screen. Typical color TVs use a shadow mask — a metal sheet with tiny holes cut out. The holes ensure that the electron guns hit only the red, green and blue dots of phosphor. Trinitrons use vertical bars of single phosphor color and a picket fence like aperture grille. The aperture grill blocks less of the electron beam than a shadow mask, which results in a much brighter image. Trinitrons also use a single electron gun, with three separate cathodes.

[Alec] is doing some amazing work describing early TV systems and retro consumer electronics over on his YouTube channel, Technology Connections. We’ve added him to our Must watch subscription list.

Interested in retro CRTs? Check out Dan’s article on cleaning up the fogged plastic safety screen on the front of many CRTs.

51 thoughts on “Why Sony’s Trinitron Tubes Were the Best

  1. “The (Chromatron) tubes worked, but they were expensive and didn’t offer any advantage over common shadow mask tubes.” Pardon ? He explains in length how it was better and brighter (even brighter than Trinitron) but way too expensive to manufacture.
    Did I miss something ?

    1. I remember being able to obtain a fairly large (and surprisingly heavy) 19”, fully functional trinitron monitor for free because of those, some friends of mine as well, people thought it was a defect :D

      1. I had to lug a 36″ Trinitron TV up two flights of steps to my first apartment. “suprisingly geavy” is an understatement! When it came time to move out, I left, but that behemouth remained…

      1. seriously?
        I used to spend at least 10 ours a day in front of a monitor, the Sony glass was so much better for DTP work, those wires were hardly visible, they did make great rulers though.

  2. It’s unfortunate that they’re no longer being produced, let alone considered to be reinvented; a niche market has recently taken rise (retro gaming & speedrunning) that consider trinitrons and the PVMs the holy grail in CRT TV’s.

    A man can dream, I suppose.

    1. I had that dream. For a long time. But CRT tubes age, and any trinitron on ebay just isn’t worth the risk of ending up with an old, burned out and dim tube. Then my neighbour was tossing out their ‘spare’ computer that they had gotten ages ago and that was sitting in storage ever since, still in its original packaging. Included: One brand new Dell Ultrascan P991 monitor. 19″ Trinitron tube that will even do 1920×1200. Now that little jewel is sitting in MY storage room instead, just as unused, too. Those CRTs are awesome for retrogaming, but soooo darn bulky. No idea how I did put up with that two decades back.

    2. Records have been creeping back into production after many years because there’s demand for a 12-inch grooved disc. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 years there’s new CRT in production.

  3. Before Trinitron, color CRTs used a dot triad shadow mask. The electron guns were arranged in a triangle and fired at matching trios of holes in the mask, lighting up trios of Red, Green, and Blue phosphor dots.

    Then came Trinitron, as explained above. Much brighter than the dot triad type.

    The answer by The Rest of the Industry was the Slot Mask. Whomever first developed it essentially took the Trinitron grille and connected the vertical bars with a staggered array of horizontal bars. The cross connections eliminated the need for the Trinitron stabilizing wire across the middle of the grille. The phosphors were in vertical stripes like the Trinitron but Slot Mask still used three guns, arranged in a horizontal row. The result was a negligibly less bright image than Trinitron but coarser than Dot Triad.

    The patents on Trinitron ran out not long before flatscreens tossed CRT onto the ash heap of history, but a few non-Sony TVs were made with Trinitron clone CRTs.

    1. Sure, the GDM5410 might accept 2048×1576, but what’s the point? The phosphor pitch on that monitor is only the equivalent of 1600×1200 and the recommended resolution is a mere 1280×1024, presumably because you’d get moire artifacts from the interaction between the raster and the apeture grille if you ran at close to the phosphor pitch. It seems to have some kind of moire killer that can blur the picture to reduce this artifacting, but all of this is a far cry from the crisp digital 1920×1080 that you can get from reasonably-priced LCDs these days.

      1. For general use, I always found 1920×1440 to be a tolerable middle ground.. a bit blurry, so not useful for pixel-perfect editing, but good enough for daily use. 2048×1536 wasn’t possible on any of mine at 60+Hz (iirc i could do ~57 hz)

        1. A long time ago, I had a 21″ HP Trinitron which ran at that resolution. I remember watching TV at 1080i (no such thing as an affordable GPU that could deinterlace at that high resolution back then) and how it looked so nice.

          Now for $150, you can get a whole media player that can not only deinterlace 1080i to 1080p but also do fairly well upscaling that to 4K.

      1. While that’s not likely to happen, look into the IBM T220/T221 LCDs from the early 2000s. 3840×2400 at abysmal refresh rates, and requiring multiple digital signals to drive the entire panel. I would also appreciate a modern, high-resolution CRT, but I feel that the likelihood of getting one is basically nil.

      2. A Iiyama Vision Pro Master 514, which is the most powerful currently-existing direct-view CRT (142KHz, 200Hz, 22″, 240µm, 4:3) supports the following resolutions:
        5760x4320i@60Hz
        5120x3840i@70Hz
        4608x3456i@80Hz
        4096x3072i@90Hz
        3840x2880i@96Hz
        3584×2688@100Hz
        3200x2400i@110Hz
        2880x2160i@120Hz
        2560x1920i@140Hz
        2304x1728i@150Hz
        2048x1536i@170Hz
        1920x1440i@180Hz
        1792x1344i@200Hz

        1. That is quite the CRT, but the aperture grille pitch is basically the same as the GDM5410 giving the same effective maximum displayed resolution of about 1600×1200 no matter how high your input resolution is. (Well, I guess technically you could get higher vertical resolutions, but what’s the point really?) It was intended to run at 1600×1200 @ 100Hz non-interlaced according to the manual which seems like a much more practical resolution.

        2. “The monitor is specified for a maximum resolution of 2,048 by 1,556 pixels—equivalent to four times XGA. Unfortunately, its electronics are not up to the task of such high resolutions. In our tests using DisplayMate (www.displaymate.com) at the top resolution, screen geometry was clearly deficient: Circles looked squashed, even at the center of the screen. Screen-regulation tests revealed significant image size changes depending on the screen’s contents, and tests with fine lines showed that the bandwidth was not sufficient for this high resolution.

          At the manufacturer’s recommended resolution of 1,600 by 1,200 pixels, image quality was slightly better, but geometry problems and bandwidth limitations were still apparent.”

          1. The “perfect” resolution for a CRT is about 70% of the resolution defined by the dot pitch. That’s the maximum point determined by the Kell-factor for a typical CRT where moiré and other effects aren’t significantly affecting the picture.

            1600×1200 for such a screen is tolerable, but not ideal. Something like 1280×960 would have minimized the distortion.

  4. I miss my old 24″ trinitron crt, but by the time it died, it had so much burn in from 3d studio max, and maya, that it really wasn’t worth trying to resurrect. I got a good 10 years out of it. Theres something to be said for the professional grade CRT’s of the day. It took a long time for the LCD’s to really catch up to the color quality and performance of those displays.

    1. What I absolutely detest in modern LCD (or more correctly TFT) TVs, is the artificial sharpening and Gamma cranking! This is supposedly to make the TV stand out in the shop and can be mostly, but not completely turned down in the settings. Samsung TVs are the worst in that respect. I can’t remember any longer how current LCD TVs compare to tube TVs, but when they were seen side, LCD TVs had a reduced colour palette, worse colours and noticeable lag compared to Tube TVs, which on the other hand seemed incredible fuzzy compared to LCD.

  5. Other great Trinitron feature – when you screamed abuse at the work station screen the picture was modulated as the wires vibrated.
    Cant do that to LCDs, need to hit them hard and permanently, I miss some things that don’t appear in datasheets..

    1. The increased apparent failure rate of Trinitrons may have been due to people valuing them more and thus being more likely to repair them than they would replace when compared to an alternative tube.

      1. It seemed to me that $ony would use a PNP transistor where most TV mfgrs would use an NPN (and vise-versa).
        That made $ony TVs difficult for non-$ony repairman to work on or find parts.

  6. I played a set at a maker event that incorporated the heavy wire ‘harp’ from a Trinitron tube (taken out of the glass) amplified through a piezo and played with mallets. It sounded doomy!

  7. the one thing no one has mentioned yet…

    some dumb assed, useless fool, deciding your very expensive trinitron monitor needed degaussing!

    it was an Ikagami, 28″ studio monitor, $5k in the late 80’s

    I was so angry, all it needed was the convergence done, there was even a dot/crosshatch generator living right below it!

  8. I’m old enough to remember trinitron and I certainly don’t remember them as the best.

    Trinitron tubes had wires behind the aperture grill presumably to reinforce them, but they left ugly horizontal lines on the picture. As TVs it wasn’t too bad, you got a brighter picture in exchange for lines that were pretty hard to see in normal TV content, but they were very unpopular, at least in my part of the world.

    As a computer monitor the lines were very visible, very ugly, and nobody needed the extra brightness. The best CRTs of the era were the NEC multisyncs and later the Viewsonics. Trinitron was for people who didn’t know and didn’t care what they were buying.

  9. Good video. Thanks.

    I will never knowingly buy a Sony product because of their business practices, and goals of strangulating customers with needlessly proprietary standards.

  10. I remember finding a Sony modular stereo, all propy connectors and a dense dot matrix display with digital tuned shortwave. It crashed and is long gone along with Merlin Network One, Dutch Radio, and other shortwave gems.

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