TCL threw the kitchen sink at the 8-Series: Mini-LED, QLED, 4K and HDR, with a price tag to match. So how does it compare to the best sets on the market?
If you've been researching TVs lately, "expensive" probably isn't the first thing you've read about TCL, a China-based manufacturer known for Roku TVs that happen to be spectacular values. But here we are. As I write this review, the 8-Series, which comprises the 65-inch 65Q825 and the 75-inch 75Q825, is among the more costly televisions on the market, at $1,600 and $2,600 respectively. The smaller version is a few hundred more than LG's B9 OLED, my favorite high-end TV of the year, while the larger version is a grand more than the Vizio P-Series Quantum X, my favorite cheaper-than-OLED alternative.
The price is at least partially justified, however, because the 8-Series is a beast. Inky-deep black levels and brilliant highlights, created by TCL's industry-first Mini LED technology, deliver the kind of contrast that makes every image pop, especially HDR. In my side-by-side comparisons it came closer to the standards set by that OLED TV than any other I've tested this year. Despite some hiccups with local dimming, it's a tick better overall than that Vizio PX and Samsung's Q80R but the three are all close -- and, as usual, a significant step behind OLEDs.
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So yeah, the 8-Series is one of the best TVs you can buy, money-no-object, but the Vizio PX is still a better value and the LG B9 a better high-end choice overall.
Update, Dec. 20, 6:43 a.m. PT: When this review first published earlier this morning, the TCL 8-Series was priced $400 higher, but since then it has dropped to the prices mentioned above. The headline and intro -- where I asked specifically for a price drop -- have been modified accordingly, as has the rating (I bumped Value up to 7 and the overall rating to 8.0). I've asked TCL to specify whether the current price is permanent or otherwise (it dropped briefly before as well, then even further after a certain Twitter exchange) and will report back here when I know more. Our original review continues below.
When TCL introduced the 8-Series it aimed squarely for the higher end of the market. And, as you'd expect, that means it gets better styling: Nice, grayish textured metal along the bottom of the TV instead of plastic. A metal frame on the sides. Glass that reaches all the way to the edge. A glossy black backside.
The best part is the daring stand. It's a wide central bar in metallic gray again, thrust far out beyond the screen and attached to a single, angled leg that supports the panel in space, creating the illusion of flotation. That's a damn sight better than the two little splay-legs found on most of its peers.
The 8-Series has Roku TV and, for reasons I've documented extensively in previous reviews, I'm a fan. Here's the short list of reasons to love it:
My review sample was running the latest version, 9.2.2, which adds a few other nifty features, including a voice-activated sleep timer and curated content "zones." Check out my writeup of Roku's 2019 players and my review of my favorite 4K Roku device, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, for more details.
One thing currently missing from the Roku platform in general and this TCL TV in particular -- and available on competing smart TVs from Vizio, Samsung and LG -- is support for Apple's AirPlay system. Roku does have the Apple TV app, but on the 8-Series it doesn't support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Only Apple TV devices get those formats.
The 8-Series includes the simple Roku remote with built-in voice control. Roku's voice function isn't nearly as robust as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, found on LG and Sony TVs, for example, but it worked fine for searches, app launching, switching inputs and tuning to an antenna channel. If the TV is off, using a voice command like "Launch Netflix" will turn it on and launch the app.
|Display technology||LED LCD|
|LED backlight||Full array with local dimming (Mini-LED)|
|HDR compatible||HDR10 and Dolby Vision|
|Smart TV||Roku TV|
So about those Mini-LEDs. TCL is the first TV maker to use them and from what I've seen of the 8-Series, they do lead to better picture quality. The main reason seems to be because the smaller LEDs are able to be grouped into more local dimming zones. Here's a crash course.
Full-array local dimming is the best way to improve picture quality on LCD TVs. It allows the backlight -- the part behind the LCD screen that provides illumination -- to dim and illuminate different areas simultaneously. Smaller areas, or dimming zones, mean more precise illumination, and TCL says that the 8-Series has 1,000 zones -- about twice as many as the Vizio P-Series Quantum X for example (Samsung and Sony don't publish their dimming zone numbers).
Read more: How ini-LED could lead to big picture quality improvements
Beyond Mini-LED, the 8-Series has quantum dots (also used on the 6-Series). TCL's adoption of "QLED" proves Samsung doesn't have a monopoly on that futuristic-sounding acronym -- TCL even uses the same font as Samsung. It stands for "quantum dot LED TV," and those dots are microscopic molecules that, when hit by light, emit their own, differently colored light. Quantum dots do improve HDR color and also appear in Vizio's new 2019 TVs.
Of course the 8-Series supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10 high dynamic range formats. These days basically the only manufacturer that doesn't is Samsung.
The TV also touts a spec called "Natural Motion 480," but as usual, that's a made-up number. The 8-Series does have a 120Hz native panel, like the Vizio P-Series Quantum, the Samsung Q80 and Sony X950G. See below for details. Spoiler alert: The soap opera effect is enabled by default in Movie mode. Boo!
One unique extra: TCL has an app, separate from the standard Roku app, called "iPQ Calibration." It's designed to let users adjust color and other image quality aspects -- in other words, calibrate the TV -- without the need for any specialized equipment. I didn't get the chance to test for this review and the iOS version isn't available (only Android so far) but I look forward to taking it for a spin.
Around back you'll find a healthy set of jacks.
The 8-Series lacks some of the HDMI 2.1 extras found on some competitors like Samsung and LG, such as variable refresh rate, but it does feature auto game mode, designed to automatically engage the low input lag setting when connected to a compatible gaming device. The headphone jack is a nice touch, and unlike cheaper Roku sets, this one has Ethernet, too.
The TCL 8-Series has the best picture quality of any non-OLED TV I've tested this year, beating the Vizio PX and Samsung Q80R, the two next-best, by a nose. It delivered the best contrast and brightest HDR highlights, as well as solid video processing, accurate color and all of the other boxes a good TV needs to check. I encountered some weird artifacts related to its local dimming, it's not as good as the Samsung in bright rooms or from off-angle and as usual LG's B9 OLED outperformed it in many aspects, but as a proving ground for Mini-LED and four-digit zone counts, it's a flying success.
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.
Dim lighting: For this comparison I used the infamously dark Game of Thrones episode, The Long Night aka The Battle of Winterfell (the third episode of season eight) -- but instead the overly compressed HBO Now stream, I slipped in the new Blu-ray disc, which looks about a thousand times better. In this torture test, the TCL looked the best among the LCDs, thanks to its combination of deeper black levels than the Vizio and the 6-Series and better shadow detail than the Samsung. As usual the B9 OLED looked best with its perfect blacks, which also made shadows more realistic.
With this SDR title the LCDs didn't show the same level of differences I saw with HDR (see below), however. And all of the screens, even the 6-Series, looked similar, and very good. As Sansa gazes over the ramparts for example (at timestamp 4:08) the fur of her coat was obscured on the Samsung. It was brighter (and less realistic) on the 6-Series and especially the Vizio, while the 8-Series rendered it best (aside from the OLED. One of the darkest shots of the troops and Gendry (at 5:26) exaggerated those differences as well, and again the 8-Series managed them best, while in brighter mixed scenes, like the faces of reflected in the torchlight of Melisandre (at 8:59), the TVs looked more similar.
I also couldn't help but check out an old favorite dark scene, the venerable Voldemort muster prior to invading Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Chapter 12). Here the TCL was a solid second to the LG, beating the black levels of its cheaper cousin and especially the Vizio PX, while exposing more shadow detail than the too-dim Samsung.
Bright lighting: The TCL 8-Series is one of the brightest TVs I've ever measured and excellent in well-lit rooms, albeit not quite as bright as the Vizio PX nor as good at dealing with ambient light as the Samsung Q80R. Here's how the numbers compare.
|TV||Brightest (SDR)||Accurate color (SDR)||Brightest (HDR)||Accurate color (HDR)|
As usual, the brightest setting is horribly inaccurate. On the TCL it's "TV Brightness: brighter" and "Picture mode: Vivid," (or "Bright HDR" for HDR content). An accurate bright-room picture is laudably easy to achieve, however. Just switch the mode to "Movie" or "Dark HDR" mode, which reduces light output but delivers a much better image.
It's worth mentioning again that these measurements of standardized test patterns don't tell the whole story. With real HDR material (see below), the 8-Series and Samsung both looked and measured brighter than the Vizio PX.
Under bright lighting in broad daylight the TCL's screen was the worst in my comparison at mitigating reflections and better than only the Vizio at preserving black levels and contrast. None of the other TVs in my lineup could hold a candle to the superb Samsung, which has the most effective antireflective screen I've ever seen and was the best bright-room TV in my lineup.
Color accuracy: The TCL's color measured quite well although compared to the other review samples I received, it was somewhat plus-red before calibration. After calibration it was nearly perfect, as were the others. When I watched Game of Thrones, the differences were negligible.
Video processing: The 8-Series is a 120Hz native TV with plenty of options for handling motion but didn't perform as well in this category as the other TVs. As I lamented above however, and unlike the cheaper 6-Series, the default settings for Movie mode introduce unwelcome smoothing, also known as the soap opera effect, and something video purists like me (and Tom Cruise) loathe. To turn it off on the 8-Series, you'll need to go into the Picture Settings menu and switch "Action Smoothing" from Low (the default) to Off.
In Off the TV delivers correct 1080p/24 film cadence but in the other settings, Low and higher, it causes the TV to have that buttery smoothness that makes film look like, well, a soap opera. None of the other TVs I've tested this year, high-end or otherwise, turn SOE on by default in Movie mode.
Those other settings, "Action Clarity" and "LED Motion Clarity," affect motion resolution and interact with one another. The good news is that achieving maximum motion resolution doesn't require SOE. When I toggled LED Motion Clarity on, engaging black frame insertion, and cranked Action Clarity to High, I measured a healthy 1,080 lines of resolution -- very good, albeit not as good as the Samsung or Vizio. A lower AC setting, and turning LED Motion Clarity off, has the same effect. I preferred to leave AC on High and turn LED Motion Clarity off because the latter dims the image slightly and introduced some flicker. Viewers very averse to blur might want to leave it on, however.
The TCL's gaming input lag was good at around 18ms for both 1080p and 4K HDR in game mode but fell a few milliseconds short of the best TVs, including the 6-Series. Twitch gamers might notice but nobody else will. That said, the chances of noticing lag go way up for anybody who doesn't use game mode in 4K HDR: I measured 134ms (!) in 4K with game mode turned off.
Uniformity: With test patterns the TCL 8-Series was solid without too much brightness variation across the screen, better than the Vizio PX but worse than Samsung, the 6-Series and the LG OLED. From off-angle it preserved black levels and fidelity better than the Vizio but worse than the Samsung, while as usual the OLED was basically perfect from off-angle.
HDR and 4K video: The main reason to buy a high-end TV is to luxuriate in its high-dynamic range performance, and while the TCL fell short of the LG OLED overall -- despite the TCL's marked brightness advantage -- I liked it better than the Vizio and Samsung. The 8-Series displayed rather unrefined local dimming, however, leading to some strange artifacts.
If the Blu-ray of Game of Thrones Season 8 looks a thousand times better than the HBO stream, the 4K Blu-ray with HDR looks roughly a million times better (if you're keeping score at home note that I used the HDR10 version not Dolby Vision, because I didn't want to leave Samsung out). During The Long Night the 8-Series' deep black levels beat the Vizio and 6-Series, as before, and the Samsung, while deeper, fell short on shadow detail again.
But with HDR the TCL also added brilliant highlights to its advantages. As Melisandre ignites the torches, for example (at 9:23), the TCL looked and measured the brightest in my lineup, nearly matching the overall punch and impact -- in other words, the contrast -- of the LG OLED. The more a scene mixed bright areas and dark, the more the TCL's many dimming zones helped. When I did notice blooming and stray illumination, for example the "Cease fire!" subtitle at 12:40, the 8-Series showed less than the Vizio and Samsung.
One disadvantage, however: The TCL's local dimming didn't behave as well as the others, leading to some weird artifacts. In one 13-second sequence, when Sandor steps through the line of battle (at 5:22) through Sam's exchange with Dolorous Edd (5:35), a block of the image along the bottom of the screen become really dark (the same artifact occurred multiple times later as well). At 6:55, a horse emerges from the gloom and parts of the image abruptly shift in brightness. Maybe TCL will refine its local dimming with a software update (it has issued at least one that addresses image quality already), but Vizio and Samsung's dimming is currently more consistent.
Moving on from Game of Thrones, I also checked out the excellent video montage from the Spears and Munsil 4K HDR benchmark disc. As I mentioned in my Vizio PX review the TCL came in second place among the four higher-end sets, falling short of the LG and outclassing the Vizio and Samsung overall.
In the most difficult bright-on-dark scenes, for example the honey dripper against the black background (at 2:47) and the Ferris wheel at night (4:50), the LG B9's perfect blacks and complete lack of blooming won the day but the TCL's lighter black and limited blooming, combined with its brilliant highlights, was almost as good.
In brighter scenes the light output advantage of the LCDs over the OLED became more noticeable. When I watched some grazing horses in a snowfield at 0:37, the TCL looked the best, with superb detail and definition and superior brightness. The Vizio and B9 also looked well-detailed but dimmer, while the Samsung was quite bright but obscured details the most. I won't rehash all the gory details here, but I will include the table of measurements I took from selected highlights. (Note that content mastered in 1,000 nits is most common, while 4,000-nit content takes fuller advantage of the light output of LCD sets.)
|Spears & Munsil scene element (timestamp)||Sequence (nits)||LG B9||Samsung Q80R||TCL 8-Series||Vizio PX|
|Sky above peaks (0:10)||1,000||200||370||345||208|
|Sky above peaks (0:10)||4,000||260||453||636||388|
|Between horse's neck, forelock (0:37)||1,000||203||512||464||226|
|Between horse's neck, forelock (0:37)||4,000||191||487||555||440|
|Reflection in honey dripper (2:47)||1000||384||506||438||360|
|Reflection in honey dripper (2:47)||4,000||386||604||735||704|
|Middle of Ferris wheel (4:50)||1,000||150||234||208||167|
|Middle of Ferris wheel (4:50)||4,000||233||207||190||232|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.004||Good|
|Peak white luminance (SDR)||1653||Good|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.18||Good|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||0.32||Good|
|Dark gray error (30%)||0.21||Good|
|Bright gray error (80%)||0.27||Good|
|Avg. color checker error||0.50||Good|
|Avg. saturation sweeps error||0.52||Good|
|Avg. color error||1.14||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1000||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||1000||Good|
|Input lag (Game mode)||18.57||Good|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.006||Good|
|Peak white luminance (10% win)||1818||Good|
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)||96.00||Good|
|ColorMatch HDR error||2.64||Good|
|Avg. color checker error||3.93||Average|
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||18.17||Good|
TCL 65Q825 CNET calibration results by David Katzmaier on Scribd