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The Best Ways to Watch VHS Tapes on Your HD or 4K TV

A picture of an HD TV playing a The Big Lebowski VHS tape.

People assume a VCR won’t work with HD and 4K TVs, but that’s not the case. If you want to watch those old VHS tapes and home movies, all you need is a VCR and some cables.

Well, it’s not that simple. VHS is a long-dead format, so many people might not even have one. Also, newer TVs lack the cable inputs that work with a VCR, and tapes can look like crap on a big screen.

That’s why we’re going to cover each of your cable options, along with some tips on how you can improve VHS quality or buy a new VCR.

A quick warning: VCRs are ancient, fragile machines. Don’t expect high-quality video from a VHS tape, and always test your VCR with a tape you don’t care about before risking your most precious films (even if it’s been tested by someone else).

A Quick List of Your Cable Options

If you’re already an expert on video cables, there’s no reason to drag things out. Here’s a quick list of your options (from best to worst picture quality) before we get into the nitty-gritty:

  • HDMI Converter Box: The easiest (and most expensive) way to play VHS tapes on a big screen. These boxes work with RCA and S-Video cables, so you don’t have to worry about compatibility issues or quality loss.
  • S-Video: If your TV and VCR have S-Video ports (your TV probably doesn’t), use S-Video. It produces a better image than RCA or coaxial.
  • RCA: Even some new TVs have an RCA port, and you probably have a few RCA cables lying around. They aren’t as good as S-Video cables, but they’re still an easy option.
  • Coaxial: In a worst-case scenario, you can use coaxial cables. There will be a decent loss in quality, though, which can make the shoddy picture from a VCR even worse.

If you’re ready for some more in-depth cable info, tips on how to improve tape quality, and info about where to buy a VCR, read on.

Use a Converter Box for HDMI Input

The Tensun HDMI converter box.

Your TV might not have S-Video, RCA, or coaxial ports. This can be a problem, as VCRs don’t have HDMI ports unless you’re using a DVD/VCR combo.

In this situation, you have no choice but to use a converter box. These boxes simply take the signal from a set of RCA or S-Video cables and shoot them to your TV through an HDMI cable (without any quality loss). We suggest using an S-Video cable with a converter box, as S-Video produces a cleaner signal than RCA. This is your best-case scenario when it comes to picture quality, especially if your TV doesn’t have an S-Video port, but your VCR does.

Use S-Video Cables for a Sharp Picture

Cmple s-video cables.

If your TV and VCR both have S-Video ports, going straight to an S-Video cable is the best choice. These cables produce a much sharper image than RCA cables, which is much appreciated in the world of VHS. They’re also easier to manage than RCA cables and are pretty dang cheap.

The thing is, most new TVs don’t have S-Video inputs, so—unless you’re lucky—you’re probably going to be stuck using RCA cables, coaxial cables, or an HDMI converter box.

Use RCA Cables

The UGREEN RCA cables.

RCA cables are the old, colored cables everyone hates. They output three channels of video and audio, they’re super-cheap, and you probably have a bunch lying around your home.

You can use any set of RCA cables to transmit video. Some people prefer newer component RCA cables, which transmit HD video, but older composite RCA cables work just fine (after all, VHS tapes are not in HD).

Your VCR almost certainly has RCA ports, but there’s a chance your TV doesn’t. Don’t worry, though—you can still use an HDMI converter box or coaxial cable.

Use a Coaxial Cable

The AmazonBasics coaxial cables.

It’s no surprise that new TVs lack legacy video ports, but even the newest (well, most of them) have a coaxial port for digital antennas. You can use this port to connect your VCR to your TV via coaxial cable.

Just know that coaxial cables put out an encoded video signal. Your TV has to decode this signal, which leads to a loss in video quality. You’ll also have to set your TV to channel 3 (or whatever channel is set on your VCR), which is a pain in the neck. For these reasons, coaxial should be a last resort.

How to Make Your Tapes Look Tolerable

Once you get your VCR running, you might notice that VHS quality looks a lot worse than you remember. Most VHS tapes are at least 20 years old. They didn’t look great when they were manufactured, and they don’t look any better after enduring two decades of humidity, dust, and the grubby fingers of children.

Tapes have a varying (but low) resolution, and upscaling that tiny resolution to HD or 4K leads to some quality loss. There are a few ways you can try to improve this, but don’t expect any miracles:

  • Replace Old Cables: Cheap or damaged cables can ruin picture quality. Consider replacing your coaxial, RCA, or S-Video cables if the picture quality sucks. Also, avoid coaxial cables if possible, as they can lower the video quality.
  • Adjust the Tracking: On a VCR, “tracking” refers to the angle between a VHS tape’s control track and a VCR’s tape head. If that angle is askew, the picture can stutter or scroll across the screen. Most VCRs have automatic tracking, but others have manual dials or buttons. Don’t be afraid to adjust it until the picture looks good—you won’t hurt anything.
  • Clean the Tape Heads: Dust and dirt can ruin picture quality and degrade your tapes. Most VCRs are two or three decades old, so yours probably needs to be cleaned. Simply pop a tape head cleaner into the VCR to clear dust from the tape heads. If you’re adventurous, open the VCR and clean it with compressed air, alcohol, and strips of loose-leaf paper (don’t use cotton swabs—they leave fibers behind).
  • Calibrate Your TV’s Picture: All TVs need to be calibrated. If you have a poor picture quality, adjust the picture settings, and disable unnecessary features, like motion smoothing.
  • Watch in 4:3: VHS tapes aren’t made for widescreen TVs. If the picture from your VCR is filling up the whole TV screen, then go into your TV’s “Picture” or “Video” settings and set the picture mode to “Standard.” If this doesn’t work, manually adjust the picture size to 4:3 from the “Picture” or “Video” menu.

If none of these options work, you can have your VCR fixed, or save yourself a ton of money and replace it.

Where to Buy a VCR

A photo of a tape inside of a VCR

VCRs are old, cheap, abundant, and usually broken. If you don’t already own a working VCR, then it’s time to start shopping. Just keep in mind: even if a VCR is marked as “working,” it could be broken. Always test a VCR with a tape you don’t care about in case it gets eaten.

Here are some places that sell VCRs:

  • Thrift Stores (Cheap): Thrift stores regularly carry VCRs for under $15. These will, of course, need to be cleaned, and they might not work, even if they’re marked as tested. For this reason, we suggest you only buy VCRs from thrift stores that have a one-day return policy, like Goodwill.
  • eBay (Not Cheap): If you’re willing to spend between $30 and $50, you can try eBay. We suggest looking for a clean VCR that’s been tested. Bonus points for one that’s been professionally cleaned.
  • Amazon (Expensive): If you’re willing to spend about $500 on a brand-new VCR, head over to Amazon.

Choose whichever route you desire but prepare for the worst. Be sure to check a store or website’s return policy before you buy a VCR, in case it’s dead on arrival.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »