Requirements: a bright, detailed image with lots of color

Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

After spending more than 100 hours testing LED TVs, including new 2018 models, we think the TCL 6-Series—available in both a 55-inch and 65-inch size—is the best value we have ever seen in a TV series. It produces images with noticeably more detail, brightness, and color than most TVs that cost hundreds more—in fact, even when viewed side-by-side with TVs that cost twice as much, we still prefer the TCL.

Our pick: TCL 55R617

TCL 55R617
Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

After the success of the 2017 version, we had high hopes for the 2018 TCL 6-Series TVs, and overall they have delivered. They offer superb performance for their price, including high dynamic range support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats that looks incredible in use. They also include our favorite built-in streaming media interface from Roku, so you don’t need a separate device. With excellent performance and no serious flaws, the TCL 6-Series is an easy recommendation.

BUY: TCL 55R617
$650, Amazon

BUY: TCL 65R617
$1000, Amazon

Upgrade pick: Sony X900F

Sony X900F
Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

If you want a more accurate image with better motion clarity and you’re willing to spend more than twice as much as the TCL for it, you should consider the Sony X900F. The Sony also comes in 49-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 75-inch, and 85-inch versions for those looking for a bigger screen than you can get from TCL. With HDR content, its highlights are even brighter and more saturated than TCL’s. The price increase is steeper than the image quality increase, though. The TCL is easier to set up, however, and the Sony’s Android TV interface, though it offers useful voice search, is harder to use than TCL’s Roku interface.

BUY: Sony X900F
$1800, Amazon

Why you should trust me

I’ve been reviewing TVs and home theater equipment since 2008. I am an ISF Level II Certified Calibrator, so I am aware of what makes for a good TV image and how to get those things out of a TV. I have all the necessary test equipment and software to provide objective measurements to back up my subjective opinions. Additionally, I enlisted my non-videophile neighbors to take a look at our finalists to make sure our priorities were in line with what normal people look for in a TV.

Who should get this

If your TV works and you’re happy with it, you can stick with what you have. Right now the TV industry is promoting three new features that didn’t exist a few years ago: Ultra HD resolution (also referred to as 4K), high dynamic range video, and wider color gamuts. These features create noticeable picture improvements, but those improvements may not justify replacing a working TV.

Ultra HD resolution, the most straightforward of these new features, offers four times the pixels of 1080p HDTVs. HDR allows your TV to produce brighter, more lifelike highlights and won’t hurt shadow details. Wide color gamuts let you see shades of colors that exist in real life but that earlier TVs couldn’t display.

TV performance goes through periodic improvements every few years, thanks to new technologies. Currently the most important advances (such as 4K, local dimming, HDR) have trickled down to lower-priced models, so now is a good time to get a more affordable display rather than splurging on a top-of-the-line LCD TV that offers only small improvements.

TV companies are making large strides every year compared with where the industry was a few years ago. If you hold out, you’ll likely see a TV next year for around the same price but with higher peak brightness, better color-volume measurements, and perhaps improved contrast ratios. It isn’t a bad time to buy, with models like TCL’s offering performance for a price that wasn’t possible before, but perhaps now is not the time to invest in a high-end LCD over a more affordable LCD or an OLED.

How we picked

We focused on the popular 55-inch size (though our recommendations are available in other sizes) because it can fit into most living rooms and offers a large, cinematic experience without overwhelming the room. We looked for TVs bright enough to watch in a room with the lights on, and that support the most current formats found in broadcast, cable, streaming and disc-based content. We also looked at the number and version of HDMI inputs so you get the most flexibility when hooking up source components. Although we weren’t focusing on a specific price range, we also kept an eye toward picture quality versus value, because sometimes barely perceptible picture improvements can cost significant amounts of money.

Because people expect a TV to last several years (data indicates that people hold on to them for close to seven years), it was essential for our TV choices to support HDR and WCG so that they stand a better chance of displaying all the latest content formats for the life of the set. But not all TVs that list HDR as a feature can actually display HDR content. Many lower-end TVs can read the HDR flags on the content and understand them but lack the display technology necessary to show HDR on-screen—much like an amateur violinist reading a complicated piece of sheet music. We wanted our TV to be able to actually show the benefits of HDR and WCG, not just list it on the spec sheet.

Previously we recommended a 120 Hz refresh rate in our best TV, but we didn’t make it a requirement this time because in side-by-side tests no one in our panel could see the difference. The 120 Hz refresh rate allows films, which run at 24 Hz, to display on a TV, which usually runs at 60 Hz, without judder. It works by displaying each frame the same number of times, regardless of the source’s frame rate, to avoid jerky motion and produce a better image no matter what you’re watching. (It doesn’t create extra frames, as in the soap opera effect.) Some TVs with 60 Hz panels also have the ability to show this 24 Hz content at 48 Hz. This avoids the issues with judder, but some people might see some flicker that they wouldn’t see at 120 Hz.

Many people want a “dumb” TV that forgoes smart-TV features, because they plan to use a media streamer of their choice. Unfortunately, at this point almost any TV available without those features is lacking in other important features. If you don’t want to use a set’s smart-TV features, you don’t have to, but actively trying to avoid a smart TV will give you a dumb TV with poor image quality. Also, because we were looking for the best TV, apps do matter, because few streaming devices support Ultra HD or WCG—integrated apps are often the only way to watch such content, especially if you’re streaming in Dolby Vision.

We didn’t consider 3D compatibility because TV manufacturers have also abandoned the format. If you like 3D, you need to find an older set. And we aren’t too concerned about sound quality, because people concerned with audio can easily update it with a soundbar or other equipment.

Once we removed models that didn’t fit those criteria, we relied on reviews for those that remained to further whittle the list. Rtings.com does a very good job of providing a large number of objective measurements for TVs and direct comparisons between models across all price ranges. Reviewed.com has lots of reviews, as well, but not the same depth of objective measurements that Rtings.com provides. David Katzmaier at CNET has one of the best test labs in the industry and can do side-by-side comparisons of multiple TVs. Although he hadn’t tested all of our picks at the time we asked about the topic, he had tested a few, and we talked to him about those and his overall TV picks this year.

As we have done each year, we brought in the most promising models and tested them individually, in addition to comparing their picture quality side-by-side.

How we tested

Silhouette of a person using a Murideo Six-G Analyzer.
Evaluating TVs using a Murideo Six-G Analyzer.
Photo: Ashley Courter

We wanted to ensure our pick had great image quality. But image quality isn’t a simple measurable trait; it consists of many different components. A set with darker blacks produces better contrast ratios, which helps to create an image that seems to offer more pop than on other displays. Accurate colors that look natural are preferable to oversaturated colors that don’t look realistic at all. Wider viewing angles make it easier for groups of people to watch a TV while still enjoying a good picture. Motion clarity makes fast action look clearer, but we want to avoid motion interpolation, which creates extra frames and causes an effect that many people don’t like.

We brought in all of our picks to measure with test equipment and do side-by-side comparisons. We also calibrated each TV using SpectraCal’s CalMan software and the Murideo Six-G pattern generator, along with the X-Rite i1Pro2 and SpectraCal C6 meters. This let us acquire before- and after-calibration measurements to see how accurate each was out of the box and how close we could bring them in line with Rec 709 (HDTV) and HDR standards.

We did almost all of our comparisons with the settings reset to factory defaults because very few people spend the $300 or more to get a TV professionally calibrated. The only adjustments we made to the TVs were in the basic user-menu picture settings, using test patterns from the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark 2nd Edition Blu-ray disc. This basic setup is what we hope most of our readers will apply on their TVs, as well.

During comparison viewing, we used the C6 to get the overall brightness of the TVs to the same level so that no TV was brighter than the others (crucial for direct comparison). With HDR, we used the maximum light output of the TV in HDR mode, because higher peak output is a feature you want here.

We placed three TVs next to one another on tables or stands of the same height. We made sure each TV was at an angle such that we were able to look at each one dead on. This arrangement prevented the image on the side TVs from looking washed out due to viewing angle (giving an unfair advantage to the center TV). An HDMI-distribution amp sent the same signal from an Ultra HD Blu-ray player or Shield TV to each display.

Additionally, we evaluated the TVs with the room’s lights on and off, and we looked at them all straight on and at angles (to see how well they worked for larger seating arrangements). We also rotated their order from left to right so that we could view each one next to different competitors, to determine how that affected our preferences.

All the displays were tested against my personal reference TV, the 65-inch Sony A1E OLED, to see how they hold up against a TV that is as good as any you can buy today.

We used a wide variety of content, including TV, movies, and test patterns, to compare the displays and test their abilities. Finally we brought in a panel of regular people—my neighbors—and we bribed them with food and drinks to get them to spend time looking at all the displays and give us their honest feedback.

Our pick: TCL 55R617 and 65R617

Evaluating a TCL TV for banding and other video irregularities.
Photo: Ashley Courter

The TCL 65R617 (and the smaller 55R617) ticks off almost all the required boxes for a high-end TV today. Its image quality matches that of much more expensive TVs, and it offers better media-streaming services and some extra features that costlier TVs don’t have. The TCL’s 120 zones of full-array local dimming provide deep blacks without washing out shadows and also produce bright highlights. The set’s HDR support covers both HDR10 and Dolby Vision protocols. Streaming apps come in the form of a built-in Roku, which has the widest selection of apps and an easy-to-use interface. The Wi-Fi remote even offers a built-in headphone jack for listening without disturbing others. The TV’s preset movie modes make it simple to get good picture quality without much fuss, and the iOS and Android apps offer people who have the necessary tools the ability to do more advanced image calibration. And unlike the 2017 TCL lineup, these TVs are available in Canada as well as in the US.

If you don’t want the 65R617’s fancy Wi-Fi remote with voice search—or you need an IR remote to control a non-HDMI soundbar like the Sonos Playbar—or if the 65R617 is unavailable, the Best Buy-exclusive TCL 65R615 is the same TV, with a plain infrared remote that requires line-of-sight to work. The prices are currently the same, but you might have an easier time finding one in stock over the other.

The TCL 65R617 is loaded with features that belie its low price. It has the requisite Ultra HD resolution, although in most cases we don’t think you’ll see a difference in detail compared with a 1080p-resolution TV. More important, it has support for HDR and WCG, which offer benefits you can see. The TCL supports the two competing HDR standards right now: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. (Having watched the same content in both standards on the TCL, we think that Dolby Vision looks better, and it is gaining in popularity with content producers, but it isn’t a gigantic difference.)

Regardless of the standard, the TCL offers exceptional HDR performance for its price. It can produce HDR highlights that approach 800 nits, a nearly 33 percent increase over the 607 model from TCL’s 2017 line. (While larger TVs typically produce brighter HDR highlights, reviewers we trust have found that the 55-inch TCL 55R617 has even brighter HDR highlights, measuring over 1000 nits.) This increase in brightness doesn’t mean that the TCL is harder to watch because it is so bright overall; instead, it means that small areas of the screen get bright enough to make a scene look more lifelike. A sunrise or sunset, a flashlight in the dark, or a photon torpedo will all appear brighter than you’ve seen before and provide far more visual impact. The more nits a TV produces, the more real-life the image looks. Improved brightness also leads to improved color capabilities. Using Dolby’s measurement system, which determines how many millions of colors a TV can reproduce, the 2018 TCL can show 345 million distinct colors (MDC), while the 2017 version showed only 267 MDC.

The more local dimming zones a TV has, the better the contrast ratio—which is a measurement of a TV’s ability to make certain areas of the picture bright while maintaining shadow details in darker areas. With local dimming engaged, the TCL produces an average contrast ratio of 6,300:1 on an ANSI test pattern—well above anything else tested at this price. In the past, TVs in this price range offered local dimming with only 10 or 12 zones compared with the TCL 65R617’s 120 zones. However, the TCL can get a bit aggressive at times on the highest setting. For example, when watching the scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 where Voldemort gathers his forces at the top of the hill prior to the final face-off at Hogwarts, the backlight adjusts too fast, causing some faint background flickering as the camera pans. This issue was not as visible on the medium setting, and the objective ANSI contrast measurements were the same on either setting, so we would recommend sticking to medium.

Wide color gamut lets you see colors on the screen that TVs hadn’t been able to produce before. Oceans will be bluer and grasses greener. Combined with HDR, WCG helps objects like neon lights or sunsets look rich, bold, and bright. You will need content that supports HDR and WCG to take advantage of this, but Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu stream it, and Ultra HD Blu-ray offers it on discs. Video game consoles from Sony and Microsoft also support it. Cable and broadcast TV do not support HDR or WCG today, and the soonest you might see limited support is 2020.

Because most people will not pay to have a TV professionally calibrated, it is important that the TV be reasonably accurate with just the controls you can access out of the box. The TCL 65R617 has a movie mode that is accurate enough. You can improve it using software and hardware costing thousands of dollars, but most people will not see a difference. This model has three modes for HDR images: Dark, Normal, and Bright. Despite the name, Dark offers the best HDR, as the setting has the most accurate colors; Normal and Bright add a blue tint to increase brightness at the expense of accuracy. For people with the know-how and equipment to adjust the gamma, white balance, and color, those controls are available in the Roku iOS and Android apps.

By using Roku as its TV platform, TCL integrated our favorite media-streamer box into your TV. The interface is simple, easy to use, and much more responsive than other systems like Android TV. It has the widest selection of streaming content available, along with effective voice and text search. Unlike Apple’s tvOS, Amazon’s Fire TV, or other platforms made by companies with services of their own, Roku doesn’t prioritize one service over another and instead shows search results based on the apps you have installed and the lowest price, exactly what most people are looking for.

The TCL 65R617 uses the classic Roku remote control, except with a volume control added to the side. The remote is very simple and easy to use, and the Wi-Fi version includes a microphone for using voice search. For the security-conscious, the microphone works only when you press and hold a button on the remote. The remote isn’t backlit, so using it at night in a dark room can take some practice until you learn the button layout. It also lacks numbers for direct channel access, but you can set up favorite channels and quickly see an on-screen list of only favorites or all channels, and navigate them with the up/down rocker button. If you have a Sonos Playbar or another soundbar that uses IR controls instead of HDMI CEC you’ll want to choose the IR version of the remote, as the Wi-Fi version with voice search cannot control the Playbar volume.

The Roku has a built-in TV tuner for watching your local channels. This doesn’t matter if you have cable/satellite or use only streaming, but it’s necessary if you want to use an HD antenna to get local channels. TCL even lets you pause live TV if you insert a 16 GB or larger flash drive into the USB port. It can’t work as a DVR, but it’s perfect for pausing the show you’re watching to use the bathroom or get a drink.

For gamers, the 65R617 model’s game mode lowers the input lag with 1080p signals to 19.1 ms. This is slightly more than on the 2017 models, but it is still good performance. With 4K HDR signals, input lag is still quite low at 21.5 ms, making this one of the better TVs available.

Compared with the 2017 model, TCL has improved the build quality on the 6-Series a great deal. The bezel is now metal, with a much sturdier feel than last year’s plastic frame. Small details, like covers for the bottom to hide where the feet mount if you are wall-mounting the TV, make it a much nicer-looking TV for your living room than we’ve seen from TCL in the past. The VESA mounting holes are lower on the rear panel, like you see on LG OLED displays, so you may need to adjust your existing mounting bracket for it to sit at the same location as a current TV.

Overall, the TCL offers almost all the performance you’d expect from TVs that cost two to three times as much. You’re unlikely to ever notice a difference unless you’re comparing them side-by-side with specific content, as we did. Although some members of our viewing panel did prefer aspects of other TVs, those models cost at least twice as much as the TCL for the same size screen, and no one felt that paying so much more was worth it. Right now, TVs are in a state of rapid advancement, and paying a large premium for a set today doesn’t make much sense given that new models are certain to eclipse it in under a year.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The TCL is slightly too dark in the darkest shadows, leading to a very small bit of crushed detail. With the Ultra HD Blu-ray version of Black Panther, some TVs showed more details in the dark scenes than the TCL when viewed side-by-side. This can be partially corrected with the TCL’s advanced calibration controls, but only using the appropriate hardware and software. In most cases, unless you’re viewing the TVs side-by-side, you likely won’t notice the difference.

Some of the more expensive TVs looked slightly better when displaying HDR content. The Sony X900F can get brighter, approaching 1,000 nits (TCL tops out at 790), and displays even more colors than the TCL. Even under ideal circumstances, though, the differences become apparent only when you compare them side-by-side and the content includes highlights above 800 nits. Though some scenes in HDR content will look better on other displays, most content will look almost identical on the TCL.

The panel inside the 65R617 has only a 60 Hz refresh rate, so motion isn’t as fluid as it can be on a 120 Hz panel. Even if you don’t like motion interpolation (also known as the soap opera effect), 120 Hz panels look better due to faster pixel refresh and less motion blur. The TCL panel does run at 48 Hz with 24 Hz film content, so it does not suffer from judder, which is a large improvement over previous 60 Hz panels. With some panning shots, the TCL’s lower refresh rate is easy to see; the 120 Hz displays offered a much clearer image, but none of them were free of motion artifacts. You can use motion smoothing to reduce this, but that introduces other artifacts and makes films look like TV. The root of this problem is the low refresh rate of film content, so it can’t be completely fixed. TCL did add black frame insertion to the 6-Series this year, but it reduces the overall brightness of the image to improve the motion, and most people will likely leave it off.

TCL has chosen to go with the clawfoot stand design in which the two feet are spaced far apart, so the 65R617 needs a table or stand that is as wide as it is. It has VESA mounting on the rear for a wall mount or a secondary stand, but we certainly prefer a TV with a center stand.

I’d also like to see more than three HDMI inputs; however, the integrated Roku should save you from needing an external streaming box, so having only three HDMI inputs should be enough for most people.

Who else likes it

Other reviewers are as impressed with the TCL 6-Series as we are. At CNET, David Katzmaier calls the TCL “the best TV value we’ve ever reviewed” with “excellent overall image quality” and agrees that the integrated Roku is “the best available, with a simple interface and extensive streaming app support.”

Rtings.com calls the 6-Series a “very good 4k TV for a wide range of usages” with “very good picture quality,” adding: “Post calibration, the TV is one of the most accurate TVs on the market.”

Lee Neikirk of Reviewed.com also says the 6-Series is “a top-notch performer with great HDR specs.” He calls the HDR performance “amazing for these price points,” and though he has small nits to pick with the motion handling, overall he says that “everyone but the pickiest viewers is going to absolutely love it.”

Who is TCL and why should you trust them?

Although not yet well-known in the USA, TCL is the third-largest maker of TVs in the world (behind only Samsung and LG). TCL previously made LCD panels for Samsung, so the company isn’t new to TVs. Keep in mind that now-familiar names such as Samsung and Vizio were also upstarts not much more than a decade ago. We are confident in the quality and track record of TCL’s TVs. Consumer Reports gives the company a reliability score that’s effectively the same as that of other major brands, and TCL has responded well to people who have had displays damaged by shipping, so we don’t think you should worry about purchasing one of the company’s sets.

BUY: TCL 55R617
$650, Amazon

BUY: TCL 65R617
$1000, Amazon

Upgrade pick: Sony X900F

Based solely on image quality, the Sony X900F is the best-looking display tested here; however, the TCL looks almost as good, is easier to use, and costs hundreds less, making it an overall better choice. If you want a TV in a 49-inch, 75-inch, or even 85-inch size; if you watch HDR content almost exclusively; or if you need a 120 Hz panel because you’re sensitive to motion blur, the Sony X900F is a great buy. It uses a full-array local dimming backlight and offers HDR and WCG support that can produce highlights that are brighter than those of any other TV we have tested. Its 120 Hz refresh rate displays motion well with movies, TV, and sports, and Android TV provides a full array of streaming apps, along with voice search. The TV is attractively designed with a thin bezel and metal finish, plus a channel for the easy routing and hiding of cables.

The Sony does a good job dimming the darker areas of the picture and letterbox bars on movies; but, because it has fewer local dimming zones than the TCL, the dark areas are not as dark. The full-array local dimming backlight looks to have different numbers of zones based on screen size, but Sony won’t release the actual number. FlatPanelsHD estimated 60 zones for the 65-inch model, and Rtings.com counted 40 on the 55-inch model.

The X900F measures over 1,000 nits of brightness on the 55-inch model we tested (which is excellent for this screen size), and generally we’ve found that larger screens get even brighter than smaller ones. Combined with WCG support, the Sony X900F measured 375 MDC, which is more than other TVs we’ve measured ourselves. With HDR this means that bright highlights are better resolved, with more visible details and richer, more saturated bright colors. It also tracks the HDR picture standards almost perfectly, making for a superb HDR experience.

The image quality of the X900F was superior to that of the other TVs we tested. Colors are more accurate out of the box, and everything looks more natural than on the competing TVs. In Black Panther, skin tones look more accurate, yet the TV still provides superb shadow details and rich landscapes. The Sony’s motion quality on pans is superior to the TCL’s, with less flickering and fewer artifacts.

Android TV is not our favorite streaming interface, but it has all the major streaming services and lets you use voice search to find your content. This is actually one main area that makes the Sony a runner-up to the TCL, as the user experience for Android is far behind that of Roku. On the X900F, Android TV is slower to respond than we wish it was, so we’d still rather use a Roku for media streaming. Android TV supports casting content from supported apps if you’d rather browse Netflix on your phone than on the TV. Although Android TV works here, the slow response time will likely leave you wanting a separate media-streaming box. If you do opt for a separate streaming box and disconnect the Sony from the Internet, the interface is more responsive.

The remote is, unfortunately, not backlit, and I often hit the wrong buttons in the dark. My personal TV is also a Sony; so, even with lots of experience with the remote, this is still a problem. I’d suggest a universal remote to go with it.

TV features, defined

Following are some of the most common features we talk about, and why they’re important to look for on a TV.

HDMI 2.0a: The most recent version of the HDMI standard, HDMI 2.0a, uses the same connector and cables as previous versions but can support higher-resolution images at faster frame rates, with more colors and greater dynamic range. Most TVs don’t support all of these features, but HDMI 2.0 is necessary for Ultra HD Blu-ray and other Ultra HD content going forward, and 2.0a is required for certain HDR content. All of our picks support HDMI 2.0a. HDMI 2.1 is coming in late 2018 or early 2019, but some features there (like automatic low-latency mode) can be added into HDMI 2.0.

HDCP 2.2: This is the most recent version of the copy-protection standard used over HDMI. Without HDCP 2.2 support, a TV or other HDMI device (soundbar, receiver) cannot transmit or display Ultra HD images. All of our picks support HDCP 2.2.

24p: With few exceptions, movies in the theater display at 24 frames per second, abbreviated as 24p, which gives movies that “cinematic” look. All TVs now support 24p content, but some TVs maintain that look better than others.

Judder: This term refers to a slightly jerky motion that can occur when 24p film content appears on a TV with a 60 Hz refresh rate. To make 24 frames match up to the 60 Hz display, half of the frames appear two times and the other half appear three times. This display technique causes judder, which is most noticeable on panning shots. Some 120 Hz displays avoid this effect by repeating each film frame five times, while some 60 Hz panels run at 48 Hz to show each frame twice.

Nits: Also called candela per square metre (cd/m2), this unit of luminance is used to measure how much light a TV can produce. Previously TVs could output 200 to 300 nits, and SDR content was graded and mastered with 100 nits as the standard. With HDR, content is mastered with 1,000, 4,000, or 10,000 nits as the standard; so, the more nits an HDR TV can display, the more accurately it can display the highlights in HDR material without having to reduce the brightness of the highlights or clip them.

Full-array local dimming (FALD): This term refers to a TV in which the backlight is behind the LCD panel and has individual zones that can turn on and off depending on the content. These TVs are usually larger and more expensive to build and design, and more zones cost more. However, they typically provide the best LCD picture quality by improving contrast ratios and shadow detail.

HDR: High dynamic range lets a TV display much brighter highlights while retaining deep blacks, although only with special HDR content. In the past, content had a peak brightness around 100 cd/m², but high-end HDR sets can have highlights that exceed 1,500 cd/m². This feature drastically improves contrast ratios and provides a more dynamic image where bright objects (the sun, fire, a photon torpedo) really jump off the screen.

WCG: Wide color gamut allows a TV to display more colors than most current TVs can. With Ultra HD Blu-ray and streaming content, WCG TVs can display colors that the human eye can see that hadn’t been possible on TV. The technology leads to a more realistic image that more closely matches what’s possible in many current movie theaters.

Color volume: Color volume is a new measurement that captures how many colors at different brightness levels a TV can show. There are two ways to measure this now. Dolby uses a measurement called Millions of Distinguishable Colors, which captures how many different colors a TV can show that human vision can distinguish. The other method captures how much of a specific HDR mastering setup (for example, DCI/P3 color gamut, 1,000 nits peak brightness) a TV can cover from 0 to 100 percent. We’re testing these to see how well they relate to what we see on screen and how large of a difference you need to have for it to be visible.

OLED: Almost every TV available these days is LCD (liquid crystal display). An organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, creates light inside each individual pixel without using a backlight and is able to dim each pixel individually all the way down to black (which LCDs can’t do). This tech gives an OLED TV an infinite contrast ratio and other benefits to help create an overall better-looking image, although at considerable additional cost.

Privacy concerns

In 2015 ProPublica reported on how Vizio TVs tracked what their owners were watching and reported that data to Vizio. The company then sold that data, along with owners’ IP addresses (but not their names or physical addresses), to third parties such as advertising partners.

We don’t like this practice any more than you do, but it isn’t limited to Vizio—all TV manufacturers do the same. If you have a TV connected to the Internet, it’s almost certainly tracking some aspect of what you’re viewing. Further, if you use any streaming-media services, such as Netflix, they’re also tracking what you watch.

A recent Vizio firmware update now produces a screen telling you about data the company can collect. What Vizio collects hasn’t changed; the company has just become much more transparent and direct about it, and also making it clear how you can opt out of this tracking. This makes the Vizio sets the best of all the TVs we’ve looked at recently in this regard, as virtually all TV makers collect this data but none are as up-front as Vizio and none make opting out as easy.

The most obvious way around this problem is to leave the TV unconnected and use a streaming-media player like a Roku device. Except their makers do it too.

So the only option is to leave all your devices off the Internet and watch only Blu-ray movies (that you paid for outright, in cash). Except doing so would make firmware and software updates for your devices more difficult because you would have to download each update to a thumb drive and install it manually. Oh, and the Web browser you use to do that is probably allowing pretty much every website to track you, as well.

Sadly, in the real world there is no way around such things. Check out our post on privacy policies for more disheartening privacy info.

Soundbar support

Thin TVs usually have poor sound because the limited depth of the case leaves no room for decent speakers. Adding a soundbar is an easy way to improve the audio. Most people run all their sources (media streamer, cable box, and the like) to their TV and use the TV for input switching (using the TV’s remote). From the TV, it is then easy to run a single optical cable to the soundbar.

When fed a 5.1-channel DTS or Dolby Digital soundtrack (the maximum that an optical output can handle), all of these TVs output a 5.1-channel signal. If you’re using a Blu-ray player as a source, you might want to change the settings there to output the Dolby Digital or DTS signals—not the lossless TrueHD or DTS-HD MA signals—to the TV. Because those signals can’t go over an optical output, you won’t lose any sound quality, and they might not output as 5.1 channels correctly.

If you want to take advantage of the lossless audio soundtracks on Blu-ray, you’ll need to connect your player directly to a receiver or soundbar before passing the video signal on to the TV. HDMI 2.1 will change this, but products that fully support HDMI 2.1 are not available yet.

Recommended settings

To get the best performance out of our picks, we’ve added some of the optimal image settings here for you. These settings will produce as accurate an image as possible without a calibration or test-pattern disc. We don’t specify values for controls like brightness, contrast, and others because those values can vary on a set-to-set basis, even on models that are identical and manufactured at the same time. To set those you’ll need a disc of test patterns. You might also want a slightly different look, even if less accurate, but these settings provide a good starting point.

TCL 65R617: Picture Mode: Movie; Picture Size: Direct; Sharpness: 0; Local Contrast: Medium; Color Temperature: Warm; Action Smoothing: Off; Natural Cinema: Off; LED Motion Clarity: Off; TV Brightness: adjust to match your room.

TCL 65R617 HDR: Picture Mode: Dark; Color Temperature: Warm; Picture Size: Direct; Backlight: 100; Sharpness: 0; Action Smoothing: Off; Natural Cinema: Off; LED Motion Clarity: Off; Local Contrast: High.

Sony X900F: Picture Mode: Cinema Home; Light Sensor: Off; Auto Picture Mode: Off; Black Adjust: Off; Adv. Contrast Enhancer: Off; Auto Local Dimming: High; X-tended Dynamic Range: On; Color Temperature: Expert 1; Live Color: Off; Random Noise Reduction: Off; Digital Noise Reduction: Off; Smooth Gradation: Low; Smoothness: 1; Clearness: 1; CineMotion: Low

Sony X900F HDR: Same settings as X900F above

If you want to do better than that, you’ll need to use a test pattern. The two key things you need are a Blu-ray player (or a video game system that plays Blu-ray discs) and a setup Blu-ray. Commercial versions from Disney and Spears & Munsil are good, but AVS Forum also offers a free download that you can burn and use. If you’ve never adjusted the picture settings of a TV before, the Disney disc is the best place to start.

Following the instructions on such discs will get you the darkest blacks possible without making details in the shadows disappear. It’ll also let you adjust the color and tint to achieve images that are bright and vivid without making white people look sunburned. Of course, if you decide you prefer an image that is overly colorful (and less realistic), it’s your TV, and you’re welcome to it.

HDR calibration is something very new and completely different than how you previously set up a TV. Without special equipment, there is very little you can do to set up a TV to display HDR correctly. A review might mention which mode offers the best HDR performance, but adjusting the controls inside of that mode can cause the HDR tone mapping to change and performance to degrade. In most cases you are best to set HDR to the most accurate mode (if the review mentions which mode to use) and then leave the controls alone.

Another important thing to consider if you’re not wall-mounting the TV and you have kids is to anchor the TV. Doing so will minimize the chances of the set falling over if yanked on (or of it getting knocked over in an earthquake, if you’re in an area so prone). An anchor system is cheap (usually around $20 or so) and easy to install. This item may seem frivolous, but no matter how stable the stand on a new TV can be, the TV can still topple easily if a child pulls on it.

What to look forward to

LG’s 2018 OLED lineup, announced at the CES trade show in January, includes the B8PUAW8PUAE8PUA, and C8PUA. The latter model, which we are in the process of testing, is available in 55-inch, 65-inch, and 77-inch versions for about $2,500, $3,500, and $9,000, respectively—undercutting the cost of LG’s 2017 lineup significantly. The updates compared with the 2017 models are fairly minor, such as the inclusion of a new color-management system that will help a lot if you pay to have the TV calibrated, and the addition of black frame insertion, which trades better motion for a dimmer peak brightness. The TVs have built-in ThinQ and Google Assistant capabilities and are compatible with Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices. If you can still get a 2017 model for significant savings over the 2018 models, we’d recommend going that route today, but we’ll test the 2018 lineup as soon as possible to update our guides.

In March, Samsung launched its 2018 lineup. Samsung’s higher-end models look to improve upon its 2017 models with the addition of full-array backlights, which the TCLs use. We tested the Samsung NU8000, and it fell short of the TCL and Sony models—we discuss it more in the Competition section. We are also interested in Samsung’s new range of QLED TVs, including the Q9F (which comes in 65-inch, 75-inch, and 88-inch versions), the Q8F (55-inch, 65-inch, and 75-inch), the Q7C (55-inch and 65-inch), the Q7F (55-inch, 65-inch, and 75-inch), and the Q6F (49-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 75-inch, and 82-inch). The Q9F and Q8F both use full-array local dimming, which most of our TV picks tend to use because of its superior contrast ratios. All of the QLED TVs have WCG support and local dimming, HDR10+ compatibility, Ambient Mode, Bixby Voice, One Remote Control, and the One Invisible Connection. They also use the SmartThings app, which is designed to make setting up and logging into the TV easier, and an updated universal guide.

The Sony Z9D comes in 65-, 75-, and 100-inch sizes and can output around 1,700 nits with HDR content. It has around 650 local dimming zones and has support for Dolby Vision and HDR10. It also tracks the HDR10 reference standard more closely than the Samsung Q9F model, so we will be testing it as an upgrade pick. An unannounced Z9F model leaked in May 2018, but no release date or price has been announced, so we don’t know when that might replace the Z9D.

In April 2018, Vizio announced its refreshed lineup. All of its new TVs have built-in SmartCast OS and Google Chromecast, and they are compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. They also have built-in tuners—a backtrack from the trend over the past few years to omit tuners in Vizio displays—which allow you, with the purchase of an antenna, to access free television stations without a cable or satellite TV subscription, making these TVs a more attractive option for cord-cutters.

Vizio’s flagship P-Series Quantum is supposed to have up to 2,000 nits of maximum brightness, which would make it the company’s brightest TV ever. Designed to compete with LG’s OLED and Samsung’s QLED TVs, the P-Series Quantum is built with Quantum Dot color technology, Dolby Vision HDR, Active Full Array Max backlighting, and 192 local dimming zones. This display, which is designed without a bezel, is available in only a 65-inch size for about $2,100.

The Vizio P-Series TVs—available in 55-65-, and 75-inch iterations for about $800, $1,200, and $2,500, respectively—are touted as having 4K HDR, Ultra Color Spectrum, Active Full Array Pro, UltraBright 1000, and a bezel-less design. Vizio updated only the P-Series firmware in 2017, so we’re excited to try a new model in this line. The P-Series is available now.

We’ll test the 2018 Vizio M-Series and E-Series TVs for our guide to the best 4K TV on a budget.

HDMI 2.1 was announced at CES 2017, with a few new features. The two key additions that most people should be interested in are dynamic metadata and variable refresh rate support. Dynamic metadata will allow Ultra HD discs to send metadata that changes on a scene-by-scene basis instead of static metadata, which is what HDR10 currently does. Dolby Vision can already support this function, but the new feature should make it easier for other HDR standards—of which there are many—to do the same.

Variable refresh rate, which PC gamers might recognize as FreeSync or G-Sync, allows the display to run at the same refresh rate as the incoming video signal instead of being locked at 60 Hz or 120 Hz. In practice this feature provides smoother motion even when refresh rates cannot hit 60 Hz. Microsoft has promised support for this function on its forthcoming Project Scorpio console, which should allow games rendered in true 4K to play better even if they can’t hit the full 60 Hz speed.

HDMI 2.1 brings other improvements, as well, but many of those are designed to futureproof the standard for 8K and 10K signals, which aren’t in the pipeline today.

What we don’t know is when hardware will support any of these HDMI 2.1 features, and if older HDMI 2.0 chipsets can be updated. None of the displays announced at CES 2018 have HDMI 2.1 support, but there is a chance that current devices can be updated. Some early HDMI 2.0 devices were actually HDMI 1.4 chipsets that were updated to support certain features of HDMI 2.0, so it is possible that HDMI 2.0 chipsets could get software updates to support dynamic metadata and variable refresh rate. It’s also possible that support for those two features will not be required; for another example, Ethernet over HDMI is in the spec but not required, so not all HDMI 2.1 devices will support it. As soon as we can clarify this point, we will update this guide.

The competition

•The Samsung NU8000 is an edge-lit model and does not use full-array local dimming like our picks. Where it excels is for gaming, with support for automatic low-latency mode on recent consoles, so you don’t need to manually switch between Game Mode and other picture modes. If you do lots of gaming and also watch movies or other content through your console, this will give you better image quality and low input lag without needing to manually do anything. However, compared with the other TVs, the overall image quality isn’t as good, with dimmer HDR and lower contrast ratios. The Tizen OS does the best job of integrating with external devices, seamlessly adding and controlling the Roku and Xbox One X in our test system, but the integrated apps like Hulu would sometimes have stuttering in them.

LG LCD models use IPS panels and have worse contrast ratios than our picks. If you watch only at wide angles, you might appreciate the IPS panel, but most people won’t appreciate the washed-out blacks.

•The Sony A1E OLED offers a unique look and a new speaker system that uses the panel for sound, but it uses the same OLED panel as other OLEDs. The Sony has better video processing that you might notice in certain situations, but even professional reviewers often can’t see a difference between it and more affordable OLED models when viewed side-by-side.

•We cut the Sony XBR X940E from consideration because it costs too much and comes in only a 75-inch size, which is too large for most people.


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2. TV Reviews, CNET

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6. Review Types Archives: Flat Panel Displays, Reference Home Theater

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