We Spent Months Testing TVs: These Three Won Us Over

We Spent Months Testing TVs: These Three Won Us Over

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CNN —  

TV technology has evolved rapidly in recent years — and the size, tech and quality that was once financially out of reach for many of us is now available for just a few hundred dollars.

If you choose wisely, that investment should last you awhile. You don’t need to replace a TV that’s just a couple of years old, as breakthroughs happen a lot more slowly for televisions than they do for other tech, like smart speakers, earbuds or mobile phones.

To help steer you to the best choices, we spent the past few months testing the latest available models of a range of TVs, from 43 to 85 inches. After many hours bingeing our favorite shows and movies in the name of research, comparing aspect ratios and display quality, and testing the smarts of each model, we found that these three TVs rose to the top.

Best overall TV

For just shy of $1,000, the TCL 6-Series gives you great picture quality and an immersive viewing experience with QLED and Mini LED backlighting. The built in Roku interface is easy to use and instant access to thousands of streaming services.

Best budget TV

Starting at $229.99, Vizio’s budget V-Series is a well-rounded TV with solid if not spectacular picture quality, quick processing and access to plenty of streaming content and easy integration with your mobile and smart devices.

The luxury pick

For nearly $3,000, the Sony A90J has the best picture quality we’ve ever tested, with superb detail and hyperaccurate colors. It’s one of the brightest OLED TVs we’ve seen, supports all the standards videophiles demand and lets you access everything easily with the Google TV interface.

Jacob Krol/CNN

TCL’s 6-Series has gone up in price since we last looked at it (prices start at $899.99 for a 55-inch TV), but with a great user interface and an immersive picture powered by QLED and Mini LED technology, it remains our overall recommendation even for a bit more money.

It all starts with a killer smart interface, courtesy of TCL baking the brains of a Roku streaming box into the 6-Series. It’s the same three-box-wide grid with a list on the side that acts as your entry point into streaming. You get instant access to thousands of streaming services, including HBO Max, Peacock, Netflix, Disney+, YouTube, Hulu and Apple TV+.

Since Roku OS is the interface for the TV itself, you’ll find inputs as the first few boxes in the grid. This allows for quick switching between onboard streaming content and external sources; think an Apple TV 4K and a PlayStation 5 (if you have one). The included remote control features a simple D-pad of arrows, which makes navigation pretty seamless. However, as you add services and install more apps, the interface can get rather cluttered. You’ll need to organize or arrange them to your liking; this way, it is easy to find content. We will note that we’ve seen the 6-Series drop off of our Wi-Fi more often than other TVs, especially after long periods of rest.

No matter what content you’re watching, the TCL 6-Series makes it look good. It zooms past the 5-Series with better color accuracy and holds up better at various viewing angles. The 6-Series, like Samsung’s Neo QLED and the 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pro, features Mini LEDs, meaning it packs more LEDs behind the panel to allow the TV to illuminate more specific details when creating an image. The result is a strong image with vibrant colors and strong contrast points.

In one of the later episodes of “WandaVision,” we were able to see the different shades of red and purple on Vision’s face. Other TVs we tested in this price range were not able to show this level of detail through HDR — and, most importantly, TCL didn’t skew the color levels here. We didn’t see colors leak out into other areas of the scene, whether in the background, foreground or moving characters and objects. We attribute this to the Mini LED technology that allows the 6-Series to precisely create individual sections of the image. We also didn’t encounter much light leakage, even in darker scenes that showcase bright pops. There’s some white perceptible around the edges of the display, but we would expect that to some extent from anything other than an OLED panel.

The real trick of any 4K TV is upscaling the content you watch on an everyday basis, since most of that will not be 4K to begin with. In our testing, using the 6-Series’ AI to upscale content simply made it look better, sharpening subjects, improving clarity and adding vibrancy, among other key changes. Whether it was streaming content from Netflix or watching 720p YouTube videos, the 6-Series handled the task aptly.

Streaming content from mobile devices was a cinch, as it supports a wide array of ecosystems. Google Cast lets you easily send content from YouTube or any Android device. For those in the Apple ecosystem, AirPlay 2 support allows you to cast from any Apple device. And the 6-Series is super easy to add to the Home app on your iOS or macOS device, as it supports HomeKit (Apple’s smart home ecosystem).

We only have two qualms with the 6-Series: sound and price. The 6-Series is by no means the thinnest or lightest TV, but TCL didn’t use much of that space for sound. We noticed some tinny moments in the mix and found it lacked clarity at higher volume. Dense cinematic soundtracks were frequently muddied and even simpler backing tracks to TV shows didn’t have much depth or separation. You’ll want to pair the 6-Series with a soundbar for the best experience.

The 6-Series does provide a much better image over the 5-Series and fixes the narrow viewing angle dilemma that was the major downside of that model. And even at the new, higher MSRP of $949.99, the 6-Series is still cheaper than similar offerings from Sony and Samsung. We’d also note that the 6-Series was originally priced at $749.99, and on most major sale holidays, the 6-Series does fall back closer to that price point.

The TCL 6-Series gets a lot right for its price and, most importantly, doesn’t sacrifice the viewing experience. QLED and Mini LED deliver some immersive moments and don’t overexaggerate the content, and the TV features pretty thin bezels all around. Plus, the built-in Roku interface gives you straightforward access to all the content you could want right out of the box.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Compromise is generally the name of the game when it comes to budget TVs. But with Vizio’s 2021 V-Series, those compromises are small. It offers a solid picture with better-than-expected upscaling, but not the best HDR in the world — a trade-off we can live with at its starting price of $229.99.

If you aren’t nitpicking or coming from a performance-grade panel, you might have trouble spotting any issues. As it stands, Vizio’s V-Series delivers a nice picture; it just won’t pull you in like an OLED. We could make out some detail, colors looked correct and there was a decent amount of contrast. Backlighting is much more detailed over the previous year’s model and results in less light leakage. You won’t see a subtle glow on the black areas closest to the burst of energy; instead, it produces a more profound contrast point.

The difference in detail between the V-Series and our top picks is most noticeable when the base content resolution is lower — think older episodes of “The Simpsons.” In those cases, the V-Series processor has a hard time and skews the colors as a result (by comparison, the Sony A90J’s extra processing power made these images look much sharper). We noticed that yellow was a bit too vibrant, and saw some additional grain that wasn’t present in the original content. But these upscaling issues were minimal, and more up-to-date content like “The Mandalorian,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “90 Day Fiancé” and “Below Deck” all performed at good quality.

Overall, picture quality isn’t quite on par with our more expensive picks. It looks less precise, and for a climactic scene in a big movie, we noticed that it felt less immersive. For example, when Captain Marvel has a burst of energy glowing around her, the image isn’t as bright or as vibrant as the A90J or even the 6-Series TCL.

Truth be told, we found Vizio’s SmartCast interface average. It’s organized in a grid system with several rows and lots of feature slideshows. A bit of a surprise was the processor inside the 2021 V-Series offering a noticeably faster and zippier user experience than the 2020 model. We found it much quicker to get to the content we want to watch, whether it’s reruns of “The Office” on Peacock, the new season of “Selena and Chef” on HBO Max or “WandaVision” on Disney+. SmartCast’s speed is on par with Android TV now, but it’s still slightly behind the Roku smart interface.

Vizio has taken the Switzerland approach to integrating the TV into smart ecosystems. Like Sony’s A90J with Google TV, it works with all major platforms, including Apple’s AirPlay 2 and HomeKit, and Google Cast, and can integrate with Amazon’s Alexa. That means you get the party trick of turning your TV on or off with your voice, can manage it in the respective smart home apps and cast content to your TV with ease.

Year over year, though, Vizio has implemented some impressive gains. If you’re not looking for the best of the best when it comes to panel or performance, the V-Series stands tall as a great option, with quick processing and solid if not spectacular image quality. You’re getting access to all the key smart players and an interface that packs support for many services. It’s a well-rounded budget choice among the many budget TVs to pick from.

Jacob Krol/CNN

At nearly $3,000, it’s safe to say that the Sony A90J has a luxury price tag. But for the money, you’re getting an OLED with the best picture quality we’ve ever tested. Not only does the A90J surpass our previous luxury pick, the A8H, but it beats out every other TV on this list.

While OLED typically provides superior performance over LED or QLED, the Sony A90J is the brightest OLED we’ve ever tested. It delivers a superb amount of detail and hyperaccurate colors.

The improved OLED panel, which comes in 55-inch, 65-inch and a huge 75-inch variant, is brighter than ever before, and a new heat sink lets the panel get hotter and, according to Sony, delivers sharper images while still keeping the panel safe. The result is a more immersive viewing experience. This also lets the A90J perform well even in a space that’s less than optimal for viewing. We watched during the day, in a bright room with sunlight flowing in from the left, and could still make out images on the TV clearly and with good color accuracy.

Aside from the panel, the A90J’s performance depends on Sony’s Cognitive Processor XR, which, the company claims, aims to analyze content in the same way a human eye does.

In the climactic final battle of “Avengers: Endgame,” in particular the shot where we see Captain America grab Mjolnir, we saw more details and a truer pop of colors in that space on the A90J than we did on the A8H. Overall, the A90J’s colors were simply more accurate than those produced by other sets we’ve tested.

The A90J supports a full range of standards, including HDR, HDR+ and Dolby Vision, and the TV can detect these automatically. A Dolby Vision or HDR mode will be triggered on supported content — and if you want colors to pop with standard content, we’d look to Vivid or Director mode.

The screen stretches to the edges of the unit, with minimal bezels. You get two height options with the included stand — you can set the bottom edge flush with a tabletop or raised to leave room for a soundbar, which we recommend with any contemporary TV. While the A90J is impressively thin, it doesn’t leave much space in the cabinet for sound. Sony’s solution is to use the screen itself as part of the audio system, as we have seen in the A8H and the LG CX — a set of actuators vibrates the entire display, using the full surface as a speaker. It’s a well-balanced mix with better clarity than we experienced from the TCL 6-Series, which has traditional speakers. But even while the A90J is an improvement over other TVs, it isn’t room-filling on its own, and we would still recommend pairing it with a soundbar or surround system.

The smart interface is Google TV, which we’ve previously enjoyed using on the Chromecast. It’s not as distinctly user-friendly as Roku (still our favorite built-in option), but it does let you control most of the experience with your voice and offers plenty of choices for finding content. All of the major players in streaming are here — Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+, Peacock and HBO Max, among many others. And if you use YouTube TV, you’ll be right at home. Like previous Sony TVs, the A90J also supports HomeKit, AirPlay and Amazon Alexa.

The A90J is all about picture quality, and if you’re willing to spend $2,798 for a 55-inch or more for a larger screen, it’s safe to say you won’t be disappointed. The A90J delivers the best picture we’ve ever tested and is sure to make your movie nights 5 stars.

After combing through reviews, shopping around and tapping into our own expertise, we tested 10 TVs. And though they vary in size and capabilities, we endeavored to create testing categories that would make for a fair comparison.

We were careful to call out the core technology in the TVs we tested and to note how (or whether) it seemed to impact the viewing experience. Our testing pool consisted of a mix of OLEDs, QLEDs and LED panels. QLEDs and LED panels are similar in that they both use a backlit panel that transmits light through filters containing pixels to create an image. An OLED is entirely different as it emits the image through individual pixels.

We scored each TV on picture and sound quality, with a major emphasis on the former. We also scored them on the smart interface, setup process, design, connectivity, remote and warranty.

We ran the TVs through the setup process and tested all the features and options, such as picture modes, availability of specific services (like casting support) and how easy it was to navigate the interface.

When it comes to TVs, the differences in sound and picture can be subtle. Our extensive testing included watching the same programs across the devices to create an apples-to-apples comparison for noting those small differences.

We looked at the nuances of each remote, feeling for ergonomics and rating the design; a cluttered, clunky remote didn’t do as well as a thin, organized one.

Read on for our testing categories.

Packaging: We unboxed the TV, fully removing it and its components from any packaging. We took note of how easily and quickly we could strip away styrofoam, cardboard and plastic. Most importantly, we looked at how easy it was to get the TV out of the box. Setup and instructions: As we set up the TV, we jotted down any grievances we had with the process. This included assembling any hardware, like the TV stand, to setting up software, such as Samsung Tizen or Roku TV. Instructions that required fewer steps, or were easy to visually interpret, scored better. Material design: We researched and inspected the materials from which the TV was constructed. We preferred a balance between lighter materials, which made setup easier, and quality plastics and metals. Bezels: We measured the ratio between bezels, or the frame around the display, and the display itself. A display that occupies a greater portion of the front of the TV was naturally preferred. Access to ports and buttons: We checked out how easy it was to plug in cables and access ports once the TV was set up. We also noted where buttons were located and how easily we could access them. (Buttons requiring yoga poses to reach them were scored poorly.) Overall: We tested every port, wireless function and remote connection for functionality and latency. We also noted if HDMI ports were ARC, eARC or 2.1 enabled. Brightness: We compared the visual brightness each TV could achieve. During programs like “Springsteen on Broadway,” we paid close attention to bright highlights and glossy objects, like the sheen on Springsteen’s guitar. Contrast: We observed the edges between various objects and people during programs on each TV and looked at these edges in both dark and bright lighting conditions. Edges that were crisp and visually distinct were preferred. Vibrancy: We compared the color intensity of each TV. During various programs, we noted colorful lights and surfaces in order to contrast these hues between the TVs. Standards Support (Dolby Vision/HDR/CG): We noted whether each of these standards was available on each TV, and compared the quality of each mode between TVs. Overall: For the overall picture quality, we put each TV through an abundance of content, including “Hamilton,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” “Frozen II,” “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Space Force,” “The Bold Type,” “Below Deck,” “90 Day Fiance,” CNN, CNN International, “The Love Guru,” Austin Powers, James Bond and Iron Man movies, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Western Stars,” “Springsteen on Broadway” and countless others. Note: The built-in speakers on most TVs in 2021 are generally lackluster. If high-quality audio is important to you, given the many relatively affordable options now available, we recommend adding an external sound bar or home theater setup to any of the TVs we tested.

Soundstage: We noted the extent to which each TV could produce a sense of 3D sound. For example, if an instrument is on the far edge of a stage during a performance, a TV with good soundstage will authentically reproduce the position of the sound. Low: We listened for the clarity and depth of sounds on the lower range, such as bass, drums, deeper instrumentals and vocals. We took note of any artifacts, su

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