Splurging on a big home theater no longer requires deliberation over whether to dip into the kids' college fund.
The thing is, this TV is from a brand you might not be familiar with: TCL. The Chinese company has quietly become the third-largest TV maker by units in the world (and second-largest in North America) according to IHS Markit by integrating design and manufacturing while outsourcing software to Roku, the streaming box maker.
What’s the catch? That’s what I wondered when the TCL 6-Series started generating buzz in the TV industry. So I brought one into my gadget lab and put it side by side with its closest premium name-brand competitor, the 2018 Samsung Q6, which costs $1,300 for 55 inches.
What did I learn? Yes, TCL is cutting corners. But TV tech has improved so much so quickly, you might not even notice.
Most people say picture quality is the biggest factor in choosing a TV, but it’s hard to tell the difference among all those screens on the walls at Best Buy. Those TVs are set to retina-searing “vivid” modes that make it hard to compare.
The TCL 6-Series and Samsung Q6 both have the picture tech that matters in a premium, future-proof TV. The screens are 4K — quadruple the pixels of an HD set — so you can stream ultra-HD movies that reveal every little detail. And both TVs also support high dynamic range, or HDR, which makes a growing number of specially edited movies and TV shows look more realistic by heightening the brightest and darkest parts. (Samsung supports a variety called HRD10, and TCL supports that and another called Dolby Vision.)
The biggest difference is in how they show colors. The Samsung screen use tiny particles called Quantum Dots that can display more, brighter colors without washing out detail. The TCL uses something called NBP Photons, which cost less and don’t have quite as wide of a palette.
How much does it matter? I wanted a scientific answer, so I called pro TV technician and industry writer Robert Heron, who tests and calibrates home theater setups for a living. He brought his spectrometer — a meter that sits right up against the screen — so we could precisely measure the colors and brightness each produced.
The results were close. Let’s get geeky: Running in HDR mode, Samsung TV could display 96 percent of an industry color standard called DCI-P3, while the TCL showed 93 percent. That small percentage difference translated into richer greens and cyans on the Samsung TV.
There were a few other picture differences: The TCL screen could get very bright when you looked at it head on, but not from an angle. And when it shows fast motion, only the Samsung TV panel runs at 120 hz and has the ability to offer variable frame rates (which serious video gamers might want).
But there were ways the TCL picture was superior. Its images had more contrast, and dark areas — like the letterboxing around a movie — looked black instead of dark gray, because it uses a tech called local dimming.
After knowing the results of Heron’s tests, I could spot green differences in a few scenes from “Planet Earth 2.” But if I didn’t have both TVs side by side, I’d be hard pressed to find anything missing from either.
Beyond the screen
So then what else does an extra $700 buy you?
Samsung’s TV looks more elegant: the TCL 6-Series is a half inch thicker. But most of the time you’re not looking at your TV from the side or back — and we’ve come a long way since TVs with giant backsides.
Neither TV has great built-in speakers. For a better overall home theater, you could take the money you save on the TCL and buy a sound bar like the new voice-controlled Sonos Beam, coming out for $400 in July.
The bigger question you have to ask: Do you want a TV that mostly just plays TV, or one that also tries to be a big-screen computer for your living room?
TCL uses smart TV software and a remote from Roku, best known for its own streaming boxes. Many people love Roku’s interface. I think it’s a little dated (and gives a little too much space to ads for apps and movies), but agree it is fast, easy and gets the job done by letting you click around through Chiclet-shaped app icons. Roku also gives you access to 5,000 streaming apps — including all the most important ones. And your other inputs (like a cable box or Blu-ray player) live alongside your apps. A model that costs a little more comes with a remote equipped with a microphone so you can use your voice to search for movies and TV shows, as well as launch apps.
(Roku says it doesn’t give any user data to TCL, which has been embroiled in controversy for a deal with Facebook that granted it access to user data.)
Samsung’s Q6 TV comes with a lot more smarts. It can sync up with a Samsung phone, run a special ambient mode that tries to blend in with your walls and take a wide array of commands and questions through a microphone on its remote connected to Bixby, Samsung’s talking AI. The Q6 will even run a connected home with a Samsung app called Smart Things. This is a TV that can pop up and say: “Your laundry is done.”
The best part of the Samsung TV is its remote. Slimmed to just 10 buttons and a four-direction clicker, it also serves as a universal remote for almost anything else you plug in — Blu-ray players, Apple TVs and pretty much every cable box in America. This isn’t one of those aftermarket clunker remotes: Samsung is actually using software to automatically detect which device you’re controlling and shift the remote’s programming in the moment. If you’ve got a lot of stuff plugged into your TV, this remote will bring you bliss.
The lesson from our TV smackdown: Now that even the budget brands can produce great 4K and HDR sets, TV price is becoming much more about software and experience.
The TCL 6-series is the best deal on a premium TV I’ve ever seen. Doubling your money will get you a Samsung TV with a marginally better screen — but save you from having to say, “Where’s the remote?!” Either way, you're getting a great-looking home theater.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: