We have more screens in our lives than ever before, from the smartphone in our pocket to the laptop for work. And yet, a TV that provides a communal, cinematic viewing experience is still an important part of the home for most people. What’s exciting is that 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 a while. 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 model (either 2019 or 2020) of a range of TVs, from 43 to 75 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:
A quick look at the winners
With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.
For those willing and able to spend top dollar, the Sony A8H, a 2020 OLED TV, delivers a vibrant and strong picture with deep blacks and a sleek build. Though it starts at $1,898 for a 55-inch model (the 65-inch is $2,798), you’re getting an OLED, which means the panel is made up of pixels that individually emit a color to create a sharper image. The Sony A8H boasts a broad range of colors, from glowing brights to subtle pastels, and pitch-dark blacks. It supports an array of picture standards that automatically upscale and improve the quality of content, and the result is an exceptionally vibrant and detailed picture.
With so many sub-$500 options, the budget category was crammed with competition. Ultimately, the $379.99 (on sale for $339.99) Vizio V-Series 55-inch TV performed best in our testing. The device is 4K HDR-capable and supports easy ways to send content from your phone to the big screen (Google Cast and AirPlay 2). It’s also equipped with Dolby Vision, which will automatically increase the colors and contrast of eligible content. It beats out all lower-end TCL models and Fire TV Editions and delivers a very solid image at this price point.
Best overall TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; amazon.com)
One of the best things about the TCL 6-Series is that it’s a Roku TV, so you get access to thousands of streaming services out of the box. You don’t need a treasure map to find the content, either. The main interface is a simple three-box-wide grid and a list on the side that acts as a quick settings menu. Your inputs (like HDMIs and antennas) appear as boxes on the grid, beside the boxes for the streaming services and apps you choose to add, allowing for quick switching. The interface can get clunky as your list of services and apps grows, but you can organize and arrange them — as a grid or list — however you like, to make it easier to find what you’re looking for.
The TCL 6-Series’ Roku interface enables both browsing and searching for services from the left nav. Netflix, Disney+, YouTube, Hulu, Apple TV+, Sling, AT&T TV, YouTube TV, Philo, Google Play, ESPN and most other streaming services are available. You’ll need an account for full access to them, but once you’re set up, you just log in once from the TV (authenticate using a computer or phone, if asked) and you’re in. As more channels and services are released for Roku, your TV will be automatically updated.
Casting content to the 6-Series from your phone is also simple, and you can do so with several services, including Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. As long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network, the 6-Series will automatically show up within the cast menu for the app.
And you don’t have to worry about all that content going to waste on a subpar screen. The TCL 6-Series’$2 4K UHD panel handles color reproduction quite well. During “Avengers: Endgame,” we were impressed with the vibrant and accurate colors of Captain America’s red, white and blue shield — not to mention that rugged green we know and love from The Hulk. Nothing was washed out or appeared dingy or oversaturated to a cartoonish degree.
The TV also supports Dolby Vision HDR, HDR 10, CCZ Technology and a wide color gamut. This means that the TV can read embedded metadata to calibrate the picture in real-time so it appears closer to the creator’s intentions. Overall, it delivers accuracy in color reproduction and contrast, and displays a mastery of both brights and darks.
When we watched “Springsteen on Broadway” streamed over Netflix in Dolby Vision, the detail presented — from the pores on Bruce’s face to the wood texture on his guitar — was second to none. Even dimly lit props in the background were easy to distinguish. The lighting during “The Rising,” which depicts Springsteen in a bold silhouette, was a real test of how this LED panel handles deep blacks next to a brighter pop of light. When Springsteen was dimly lit from behind against a black background, the TCL was able to contrast the darker areas with crisp highlights, all without any details getting washed out.
Audio quality on the 6-Series is a little underwhelming; we found it too easy, for instance, for the mix to get muddied, with vocals meshing together alongside background ambiance. We definitely recommend pairing the 6-Series with a soundbar or home theater system. That said, it’s true across the board that as TVs have slimmed down, so has the built-in sound quality, and we’d recommend adding external speakers to any of the TVs on this list.
For the price, the TCL 6-Series is a highly capable 4K UHD TV that has the chops to deliver meaningful HDR content improvements — including increased brightness and additional emphasis on colors. It’s a massive 65-inch panel big enough to fill most spaces for well under $800. Plus, we can’t praise the Roku TV platform enough. We’re confident recommending the TCL 6-Series as a tremendous value and the best option for most people.
The luxury pick: Sony A8H ($1,898; amazon.com)
Buying an OLED means you’re paying for a premium picture quality that delivers breathtaking vibrant colors and deep blacks, and that’s certainly what you get with the Sony A8H, which narrowly out-performed LG’s CX 55 and provides more value than Samsung’s 8K QLED Q800T.
This panel produces hyper-accurate colors in immense detail, in part thanks to Sony’s flagship X1 Ultimate processor. This technology optimizes whatever you’re watching in real-time, upscales content to 4K ultra high-definition, and allows you to take advantage of standards like HDR or Dolby Vision. It’s the same basic metadata reproduction that TCL features on the 6-Series, but Sony has a leg up since many of the cameras and displays on TV and film sets are made by them. Thanks to this, they have a large backlog of content that they’ve run AI through to determine the best way to calibrate a TV for a dog, or a fiery explosion or even a cityscape. The A8H taps into this knowledge and uses the processor to calibrate the panel and optimize the image. All that to say: Sony is really superior when it comes to producing the best image on a TV.
This shone through during our testing. With an episode from the first season of “The Simpsons,” compared to some of the other TVs we tested, there was noticeably less fuzziness around the characters, and the picture maintained a realistic balance in vibrance and color.
With both animation and live action, the A8H optimizes in real-time for a highly accurate experience. Take “Captain Marvel,” when (spoiler alert) she ends up defeating the villain by breaking free with a burst of solar energy. The A8H didn’t produce added noise to the graphics — the solar burst didn’t look unnatural and ultimately fit in with the universe around it. Yes, the animation came with high vibrancy, but not so much that it washed out the rest of the frame. This is a trait of the OLED panel, which can make minute changes on a pixel-by-pixel basis, and Sony’s technology optimizes it well on the A8H.
Working on top of this is Dolby Vision, for content that supports it. Essentially, instructions are embedded in the visuals for the best way the A8H can present the content. Similarly to HDR, Dolby Vision will highlight colors and deliver stronger contrast. With content that doesn’t support Dolby Vision, we found ourselves using the Vivid picture mode, which provides the highest amount of brightness. Most importantly, it doesn’t reduce sharpness or add graininess. That’s a big positive.
Sony opted for a custom version of Android TV for the A8H interface. This offers access to a ton of streaming services, including Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and YouTube, although Android TV is more limited than Roku’s platform. Of course you can always expand that library by adding a streaming box, like a Roku Ultra or Apple TV 4K.
The Android TV platform also means you can control the A8H with Google Assistant and ask for content or adjust a setting with voice commands. Simply hold the button on the remote and tell it to open Netflix, or get more specific and request your favorite YouTube channel.
For those in the Apple ecosystem, the A8H supports AirPlay 2 for casting content from your iOS, iPadOS, macOS or watchOS device. It also works with Amazon Alexa, but the controls are limited to basic commands like turning the TV on and off and controlling playback. It’s nice to have, but since this is Android TV, the deepest integration by far is with Google Assistant.
On the sound front, there isn’t space for the usual speakers at the bottom of the TV —- facing forward or downward —- like on LED or QLED TVs. On the A8H, the sound comes from the screen, through two actuators that vibrate to create it. It’s rather impressive and delivers an immersive experience, though we still recommend a soundbar or home theater setup.
The A8H packs all that tech into a really slim package — almost to a jaw-dropping degree, especially if you’ve never seen an OLED TV. At its thinnest point the A8H is just a quarter of an inch thick, while most TVs span at least two inches thick.
All in all, an OLED delivers what might just be the best picture on the market. You get incredibly deep blacks (if you’re looking at the depths of the ocean, you feel as if you might get sucked in) and vibrant colors that will have you tasting rainbows. Sony’s A8H achieves all of this and pairs it with cinematic colors and blacks. You’re paying nearly $2,000 (or $3,000, depending on the size), but you’re getting a first-rate TV that you won’t have to think about upgrading for many years to come.
Best budget buy: Vizio V-Series (starting at $339.99; target.com)
While opting to pay less for a TV always comes with compromises (namely in picture quality compared with our other top picks), the 55-inch Vizio V-Series leaves relatively little to be desired at this price point. It doesn’t have the best HDR in the business, nor does it deliver the highest level of detail. But considering it starts at just $379.99 (on sale for $339.99), it’s a solid TV with an adequate interface that’s enjoyable to watch.
The V-Series manages to produce a reasonably good display. Take that climactic scene from “Captain Marvel” we discussed above: The contrast between the brilliant solar burst and the darker background is quite nice on the V-Series, though the burst itself isn’t as vibrant when compared with the TCL 6-Series, or as detailed as on the A8H. Similarly, in “Avengers: Endgame,” when Thanos stands alone against the darkness of space, his outfit and skin are presented with considerable vibrancy on the V-Series, but the contrast, color and highlights on his shining armor aren’t depicted quite as accurately as they are on the higher-end models.
With shows delivered at 720p or 1080p HD quality, like “Below Deck Mediterranean” and “90 Day Fiance,” the V-Series panel didn’t introduce extra noise or fuzziness when scaling up the content to higher quality.
Overall, it’s a nice picture, but it just doesn’t create the same immersive experience as the higher-end TVs do.
Vizio’s SmartCast platform is neither our most loved nor our most hated interface. It features access to a ton of services and it plays nice with Alexa, Google and even Apple, similar to Sony’s A8H. It can be slow during the initial setup and during navigation, but it gets the job done when you need to open Netflix or Hulu and start a stream.
The Vizio V-Series delivers acceptable quality, with surprisingly deep blacks and vibrant colors, and gives you access to an otherwise premium ecosystem at a remarkable value for a sub-$400 55-inch 4K TV.
How we tested
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.
Design and appeal
- 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.)
Ports and connectivity
- 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 2020 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, such as crackling or buzzing, that can accompany such sounds.
- Mid: We listened for the clarity of sounds on the medium range, such as vocals, mid-range guitar and environmental noise.
- High: We listened for the clarity and pitch of sounds on the higher range, such as high-pitched guitar, vocals and stringed instruments. We noted any common artifacts such as poor volume balancing or screeching when notes get too high.
- Ease of use: We checked out how easy it was to navigate to menus. Examples include how many actions it took to get from A to B, how visually available important menus were, how easily we could type in text, and how quickly we could return to a home menu.
- Services available: We compared how many services, from streaming services like Disney+ and Netflix to music players like Spotify and Pandora, were available on each TV.
- Casting support: We determined whether casting, or mirroring activity from a mobile device or mobile app onto the TV screen, was available.
- Ergonomics: We felt how easily the TV’s remote fit in our hand, and whether it easily slipped out. Remotes generally easier to hold performed better.
- Design: We took a look at the topographical organization of buttons and shortcuts (e.g., a button that specifically opens Hulu). We preferred remotes that were organized and didn’t stuff too many nonessential functions into a small space.
- Warranty: We researched the duration of coverage of the TV’s warranty/warranties.
How we rated
We gave every TV a score in each subcategory described above and combined them to get a score for the category. We weighed picture quality most heavily, with the smart interface and design factors at the second and third levels of importance.
Below is our exact point composition.
- Picture quality had a maximum of 50 points: overall (10 points), brightness (10 points), contrast (10 points), vibrancy (10 points) and standards support (10 points).
- Smart interface had a maximum of 30 points: ease of use (10 points), available services (10 points) and casting support (10 points).
- Design and appeal had a maximum of 25 points: material design (10 points), bezels (10 points) and access to ports and buttons (5 points).
- Sound quality had a maximum of 20 points: soundstage (5 points), low (5 points), mid (5 points) and high (5 points).
- Setup had a maximum of 15 points: setup and instructions (10 points) and packaging (5 points).
- Ports and connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: overall (10 points).
- Remote had a maximum of 15 points: design (10 points) and ergonomics (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 10 points: warranty (10 points).
Others we tested
43-inch Toshiba Fire TV Edition ($209.99, originally $279.99; bestbuy.com)
At $279.99, the 43-inch Toshiba Fire TV Edition is super affordable. But the picture on its 1080p HD panel left us wanting a bit more. It couldn’t achieve the same clarity or vibrancy as the V-Series or TCL 6-Series. The Fire TV ecosystem gives you access to a ton of services and Alexa control is super easy, but as budget TVs go, the V-Series from Vizio is the better choice.
65-inch Vizio-M Series Quantum ($649.99, originally $749.99; bestbuy.com)
At a similar price point to the TCL 6-Series, Vizio’s M-Series fell in the middle of the pack for our testing. It offered vibrant and engaging colors, delivered deep blacks, and handled content optimization smoothly in real time. But its HDR performance underwhelmed, falling short of the 6-Series. That said, if you can find this panel on sale now that the new 2021 M-Series is rolling out, it’s worth considering.
75-inch Vizio P-Series Quantum X ($1,649.99, originally $1,899.99; bhphotovideo.com)
As we said in our full review, Vizio’s P-Series really impressed us. For $1,899.99, you’re getting a larger screen size over an OLED, but it’s also a different tech for the panel and this is a 2019 model. It still achieved deep contrast levels with high color accuracy and vibrancy, but the Sony A8H, the LG CX and even the Samsung Q800T managed to beat out the P-Series for the best overall and luxury pick slots in our testing.
65-inch Samsung Q800T ($3,199.99, originally $3,499.99; samsung.com)
At $3,499 (frequently on sale for $3,199), Samsung’s Q800T is a spectacular TV. You get an immense amount of detail and sharpness: Blacks are deep, colors are vibrant and accurate, and it can upscale content to 8K. Samsung’s processor works in real time to make content shine. The issue? There’s not (yet) enough 8K content available to justify the cost.
65-inch Sony X950H ($1,698; amazon.com)
We were impressed by Sony’s 65-inch version of the X950H. At its core, it’s a 4K LED TV with support for many standards, including HDR, and powered by the same X1 Ultimate Processor as the A8H. This means it can handle real-time optimization and upscale like a champ. The X950H is a great panel with vibrant images that don’t stray far from reality, producing surprisingly deep blacks for an LED screen. Simply put, however, considering its $1,698 price tag, you get more value from the $499 TCL 6-Series with just a small sacrifice in image quality.
LG CX 55 ($1,696.99; amazon.com)
In our race for best luxury pick, this OLED from LG was neck and neck with the Sony A8H. In the end, the Sony’s overall experience and visual reproduction gave it the edge. The CX 55 is a great OLED and more affordable if you want the smaller size. It delivers deep blacks and vibrant content, but we found the A8H gave us a more realistic view.
65-inch TCL 8-Series ($1,499, originally $1,999; bestbuy.com)
At close to $2,000, we expected a lot from the TCL 8-Series. It provides an enjoyable viewing experience and meets a lot of specs: QLED, mini-LED, Dolby Vision and HDR. But at this price point, it was lacking a wow factor and couldn’t compete with the OLED models. For a quarter of the price, the 6-Series is a better choice.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: