Look out, VIZIO--a formidable rival has emerged in the category of value-oriented home theater TVs. TCL has been quietly but steadily building a name for itself in the budget TV category over the past couple of years, earning solid praise from the likes of CNET and The Wirecutter for its value-oriented 720p and 1080p offerings--especially its line of Roku TVs. With the new P (Performance) Series of Dolby Vision-enabled Roku UHD TVs, the China-based manufacturer has set its sights on the more discerning video fan.
That's right, Dolby Vision has trickled all the way down to the entry-level market. TCL's P Series includes one main model: the 55-inch 55P607, which carries an MSRP of just $649.99. TCL originally planned to introduce a larger 65-inch screen size around the holiday season, but a company rep told me that TCL has instead opted to focus on delivering its 2018 UHD lineup, which will feature more screen sizes, earlier in the year. [Update, 11/27/17: TCL also offers the 55P605, which is the exact same TV with a more basic Roku remote, for $599.99.]
The 55P607 is an LCD TV with a full-array LED backlighting system that features 72 zones of local dimming. In addition to Dolby Vision, the TV also supports the more widespread HDR10 High Dynamic Range format and the wider DCI-P3 color gamut (using TCL's NBP Photon technology) currently targeted in the Ultra HD Blu-ray format. The TV has a "120Hz Clear Motion Index," which translates into a 60Hz panel that uses backlight scanning to simulate a higher refresh rate.
The 55P607 is built on the Roku TV OS, which means that it contains a full-fledged Roku streaming media player inside--with all the streaming services and features that platform delivers. The Roku TV interface is slightly different from the standalone version to incorporate setup, control, and navigation of the TV and any connected sources. The TCL remote is a Roku remote, complete with voice control, TV mute/volume, and a headphone output for private listening.
Setup and Features
The 55P607 has a straightforward design--there's nothing especially eye-catching about it, but there's nothing wrong with it either. The cabinet is mostly black, except for strips of silver on the left and right edges of the screen frame and the two silver feet (which are spaced 38.6 inches apart--TCL is kind enough to state this on its website, as it will matter to people who plan to set this TV on a TV stand or table). The 55-incher weighs just 32.6 pounds without the feet, and it has a depth of three inches.
The connection panel includes three HDMI 2.0a inputs, all with HDCP 2.2 and one with Audio Return Channel. There's also one composite video input, as well as an RF input to access the TV's internal ATSC/NTSC/Clear-QAM tuners--a feature that's now absent on most of VIZIO's entry-level TVs, by the way. Plus, the Roku OS includes the ability to pause live OTA channels, and the recent Roku OS 8.0 upgrade allows for smarter integration of antenna channels into the interface. An optical digital audio output is also included, as is one USB port for media playback. Ethernet is available for a wired network connection, or you can use 802.11ac Wi-Fi for a wireless one.
I connected an Apple TV (3rd gen) and an Oppo UDP-203 UHD player to the TV's HDMI inputs and powered everything up. Initial setup involves configuring both the TV inputs and the internal Roku services, and it's quick and easy: pair the remote, select your language and country, and set up a wired or wireless Internet connection (I went the wired route). Then you need to link to your Roku account (or set one up) using a mobile device or computer. The nice thing about setting up Roku through a mobile device is that you can sign in to some services, like Amazon Video and VUDU, directly so that you don't have to use the TV's onscreen interface to type in user names and passwords.
The final step is to tell the TV which inputs you're using and name them--you can choose basic names like Blu-ray Player or Streaming Box, or you can customize the name of the source. When setup is complete and the Roku Home menu pops up on the screen, these sources are incorporated into the menu as channels, just like Netflix or Hulu. It's a seamless setup process, but the one drawback of the design is that, every time you power up the TV, you have to select a source to watch from the Home page. It won't, for instance, automatically start playing the cable/satellite source on HDMI 1 the way other TVs do. [Update, 11/27/17: We have learned that you can change the power-up screen in the Settings menu: you can set it to default to a specific input or show the last input used; learn more here.]
The 55P607 uses the Enhanced Roku Remote to control all functions. It uses Wi-Di Direct to communicate with the TV, so it doesn't require line of sight, but the TV also has an IR receiver in case you want to use it with an IR-based remote. The button layout is a model of simplicity, with 18 buttons on the front face, including direct-launch buttons for Netflix, Sling, HBO Now, and Amazon and a button to activate voice search--which accesses Roku's excellent Universal Voice Search. In previous versions of this remote, the OK button was located below the directional arrows, which I didn't find to be very intuitive. Now Roku has moved the OK button to the center of the directional pad where everyone else puts it. Ironically, I've now gotten so used to the old layout that I keep hitting the button where OK used to be (it's now the search button).
TV volume/mute controls are on the side of the remote, beside the headphone jack that allows for private listening of all content through a pair of headphones (not included). As with standalone Roku players, the Roku mobile app for iOS and Android works with Roku TVs--so you can turn your phone or tablet into a controller. Through the app you can adjust TV settings, browse/launch Roku channels, view "What's On" recommendations, and stream personal media content from your mobile device.
The TV's Home page is laid out like the interface on any Roku device, with menu options running down the left side of the screen and square "channel" boxes arranged in the grid to the right. You can easily add, delete, and rearrange the channel boxes as you see fit. "Channels" refers to all of the streaming services that Roku offers ... and it offers pretty much every major (and minor) service you can think of. If you want more details on the Roku interface, remote, and services, you can read my review of the Roku 4 UHD player here.
4K streaming options include Netflix, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, FandangoNOW, and YouTube. Since this TV supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10, you can access HDR content from every provider that offers it. With services like Netflix and Amazon Video that support both formats, they default here to Dolby Vision playback when it is available. I tested out the streaming of Dolby Vision titles through Netflix, Amazon Video, and VUDU, and the TV automatically kicked into HDR mode as it should, with a clear Dolby Vision icon appearing in the top right corner to confirm DV playback.
The one way that the Roku menu differs from that of a standalone player is the addition of TV-specific functions. You can access TV picture and sound adjustments through the main menu, but the easier route for accessing picture controls is to just hit the "*" button while a source is playing. Picture adjustments include the ability to select from multiple picture modes (Movie, Sports, Vivid, Game, and Low Power), as well as five brightness modes (Darker, Dark, Normal, Bright, and Brighter). There's also a 100-step adjustable backlight to further fine-tune the light output, three color-temperature presets (Warm, Normal, Cool), and basic controls like brightness contrast, color, and sharpness. You can adjust the aggressiveness of the local dimming function (Low, Medium, and High), and there are five aspect-ratio options, including a Direct mode with zero overscan.
I initially thought that this TV lacked expert picture controls, to perform any advanced calibration, because I did not find any in the TV's menu system. TCL informed me that the expert settings are actually available only through the Roku mobile app, so I grabbed my iPhone, opened the app, and located the "Expert Picture Settings" under the general Settings menu. Here you can choose from all the different picture modes, select from four gamma presets (1.8, 2.0, 2.2, and 2.4), enable noise reduction (off, low, medium, high), select from three color-temp presets (normal, warm, cool), access an 11-point white balance system, select a color space (native, auto, custom), and use the color management system to adjust all six color points. Basically, it's everything you need to perform a more advanced calibration.
When the 55P607 detects an HDR signal, it automatically kicks into HDR mode; an indicator will pop up in the top right corner that says either HDR or Dolby Vision, depending on which format the source is. The TV has three HDR picture modes: HDR Dark (default), HDR Normal, and HDR Bright. Through the mobile app, you can also choose DV Dark, DV Normal, and DV Light for Dolby Vision content.
On the audio side, the "audio effect" menu lets you chose between in number of sound modes (Normal, Speech, Theater, Big Bass, High Treble, and Music). You don't get some of the advanced options available on higher-end TVs--like lip sync adjustment, EQ, and the ability to send audio over Bluetooth to external speakers.
The single USB port supports media playback: when you insert a USB drive, the TV will ask if you want to launch the Roku Media Player as the default option, which is a cleanly laid-out, easy-to-use app. The Roku Store includes other media apps from which you can choose, and the TV also supports media streaming through services like PLEX.
If you read my TV reviews regularly, you know that I usually begin the Performance section by discussing how accurately a TV measures out of the box and how successful the calibration process can be. I'm going mix things up a bit in this review, though. It's highly unlikely that someone shopping for a $650 TV is going to invest another $300 to $350 to have it professionally calibrated. What's really important here is how the 55P607 performs as is, with perhaps just a few tweaks to the basic picture controls. (Don't worry, my fellow numbers junkies: I still performed an advanced calibration, and those results can be found in the Measurements section on page two).
I began my evaluation by watching HDTV and sports content during the day, served up through PlayStation Vue on the Apple TV. The only two adjustments I made at the start were to switch the 55P507 into its Movie picture mode, which is clearly the most accurate of the options, and to select the "Bright" backlight mode, which I found to be abundantly bright for daytime viewing. When I measured the TV, the Movie mode served up 114 ft-L by default and could go as bright as 202 ft-L if I pushed the backlight to its maximum. (Later, when I switched to dark-room viewing, I had to set the TV to the Darker backlight mode and turn the 100-step backlight all the way to zero to get 41 ftL.) Then I sat down to do some head-to-head comparisons between the TCL and two much more expensive TVs--my reference 2015 LG OLED TV and the Samsung QN65Q8C LED/LCD that I recently reviewed--watching college football and some scenes from Avatar and Up.
To say that I was impressed with the 55P607's performance would be a huge understatement. In many respects, this TV went toe to toe with the OLED. Usually, even with brighter HDTV content, you can see an OLED's black-level advantages over most LCDs, both in darker scenes and in the fade-to-back transitions between shows and commercials. In this case, though, the TCL's black level and overall contrast looked very similar to the LG's, so the resulting HD image was rich and eye-catching. The color temperature and skintones looked pretty neutral--maybe just a little warm (or red) in the Movie mode.
The 55P607's screen is not completely matte, but it is a little more diffuse and less reflective than those of the higher-end displays I had in-house at the time. On the plus side, you won't see clear, precise reflections of objects in the room, but the drawback is that the TCL screen doesn't do as good a job of rejecting ambient light to improve contrast during the day. When I placed the TCL next to a window, the image looked more washed out than it did through the LG and especially the Samsung TV.
At this point, I was chomping at the bit to plug in my favorite DVD and Blu-ray black-level demos to see how the 55P607 would fare. Surely the LG OLED would blow this $650 TV away once I switched into serious movie-watching mode. Well guess what? It didn't. With my favorite black-level scenes from Gravity, Flags of Our Fathers, and The Bourne Supremacy, the TCL's black level looked as dark as the OLED's--both in the black bars of 2.35:1 movies and within the scenes themselves. The OLED did serve up brighter elements--the white stars in the Gravity scene had a bit more pop, but the difference was not huge. The level of contrast that that this TV served up in a dark room with HD film sources was truly impressive. It clearly bested the $3,500 Samsung QN65Q8C in the black-level department.
I did notice, in chapter one of The Bourne Supremacy, that the TCL's local dimming struggled a little bit when set to the High mode. The halo effect was kept to a minimum, but there was just a little shifting of brightness levels as the local dimming tried to follow the action onscreen. When I switched to the Medium local-dimming mode, this shifting went away, while the black level still remained solidly dark. Also in this scene, some of the finest black details in the background were crushed a bit through the TCL, compared with the LG and Samsung TVs.
Next it was time for some UHD/HDR viewing. I primarily used HDR10 content, since the majority of UHD discs I own are in that format--and the other TVs I used for comparison do not support Dolby Vision. I didn't need my colorimeter to tell me that the HDR Dark picture was the most accurate choice in terms of color temperature (although measurements later confirmed this to be true). I auditioned scenes from Sicario, Pacific Rim, The Revenant, and Batman vs. Superman, again comparing the TCL to the LG and Samsung models. In general, the TCL's handling of HDR content was very good. The picture was clean, the color was rich, and the color temp was fairly neutral, albeit just a little bit cooler (or bluer) than the other TVs. Bright elements had nice pop--the TCL's peak brightness (581 nits) was on par with the older OLED (new OLED models are brighter) but roughly half as bright as the Samsung QN65Q8C (1,182 nits) and much less than Sony's flagship Z9D (1,800 nits)--and the Samsung's colors looked a little richer in the brighter scenes. The TCL is capable of producing good detail with UHD sources, but the sense of detail was somewhat hindered by motion-blur issues that weren't a concern for the higher-end TVs (see The Downside for more on this). The last budget UHD TV I reviewed was the LeEco Super4 X65, and I was totally underwhelmed by its UHD performance--you could easily discern the lack of brightness and accuracy. The TCL was a much, much stronger UHD/HDR performer, due to its core strengths in the black level and color accuracy departments.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...