TCL S Series TV Review
If you aren't picky, these 4K TVs may just be 2017's best bargain buy
The TCL S Series (available at Amazon for $399.99) gives consumers a robust combination of fancier TV tech and affordable prices. Available in four screen sizes starting around $350, the S Series is very affordable, and each size still delivers next-gen goodies like 4K resolution and the Roku smart platform.
While these are generally fine TVs for most viewers, there are some little drawbacks that pickier viewers may be bothered by, and the HDR performance here is downright disappointing. While these TVs are fine if you want to spend as little as possible, they're not the best long-term investment.
You could spend a little more and get better picture quality and a more enjoyable HDR experience. You can get the 55-inch Vizio E Series for about $100 more, or the 55-inch TCL P Series for around $200 more, both of which boast better performance. But if you're not picky, the S Series is great value bet.
About the TCL S Series
The TCL S Series is available in four screen sizes:
• 43-inch (TCL 43S405), $369.99 (~$349 online)
• 49-inch (TCL 49S405), $419.99 (~$360 online)
• 55-inch (TCL 55S405), $499.99 (~$450 online)
• 65-inch (TCL 65S405), $799.99 (~$900 online)
Note that TCL's S Series is also available in some smaller sizes, but because these aren't 4K/HDR compatible, they aren't being considered part of this review. The 43, 49, 55, and 65 inch S Series TVs all deliver 4K resolution, HDR compatibility, and a built-in version of the standalone Roku streaming platform.
We received our 55-inch TCL S Series on loan from TCL, and gave it roughly 24 hours of break-in/warm up time prior to review and evaluation.
What We Like
Not a jaw-dropper, but easy enough on the eyes
For the price, we weren't expecting much by way of design from the TCL S Series TVs. Usually in this price range, you get the standard black plastic/charcoal look, with cheap-feeling materials and generally uninspired aesthetics. Fortunately, that isn't the case here.
The S Series is still comprised of some pretty cheap materials (mostly plastic), but even if they don't feel terribly sturdy/high-quality to the touch, they at least look nice from a distance. Shiny bezels and silver-topped, wide-set feet aren't exactly new, but they're still a welcome change from the standard black plastic look.
Because it's an edge-lit TV, the S Series is also quite thin from the side. You'll find all the AV ports on the back of the TV: three HDCP 2.2-compliant HDMI ports, a USB input, a cable (coaxial) input, and outputs for optical audio and headphones. There's also a small cutout further to the rear of the TV for a standard composite (AV) input. It's a decent selection of ports for what you're paying.
The whole shebang perches on some pretty wide-set feet, so you'll want to make sure your TV stand is wide enough for one of the S Series TVs. You can also wall-mount the TV with a standard 400x400 VESA wall mount, though we don't really recommend that because these TVs don't boast the best viewing angles (more on that below).
Because this is a Roku TV, you'll also find included the small, familiar Roku remote that comes with most Roku TVs and Roku products. It's a small, easy-to-use little clicker with side-mounted volume controls and dedicated shortcut buttons for Netflix, Amazon, HBO Now, and Sling TV.
The included Roku platform is one of our favorites
It's pretty hard to buy a new TV and not get smart features with it—built in apps, web browsers, and so on. One reason we love when companies bundle in the Roku platform is because you're basically getting a standalone Roku streaming box included with your TV.
We really like the Roku platform for its simple, easy-to-navigate UI and robust selection of apps, which Roku calls "channels."
While most smart TV platforms and streaming boxes give you access to the basic apps like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now, and so on, the Roku platform still generally boasts the most robust selection of app options for the most users. It also tends to get the latest versions of apps much sooner than standalone TV platforms.
Solid picture quality for general viewing
The TCL S Series has a few picture quality drawbacks that we'll cover in the next section, but generally it's not a bad looking TV for what you're paying. My coworker Michael measured black levels around 0.035 nits in the S Series' standard "Brighter" picture setting, coupled with a reference brightness of 242.60 nits, giving the S Series a contrast ratio a little under 7,000:1.
This is a great result, especially for a TV in this price range. The S Series also delivers mostly accurate color presentation, though it's not without some hiccups. There's a "cool" look—whites and grayscale elements tinged with blue coloration—to content most of the time, though it's not nearly as noticeable as it sounds.
Overall, however, standard (non-HDR) content looks really good. The TV's good contrast and accurate color, not to mention the 4K/UHD resolution, means broadcast cable, Netflix, or whatever you're checking out is going to look just fine. The picture quality isn't going to blow anyone away, but it'll be a nice upgrade if you're replacing an older TV.
What We Don't Like
HDR compatible—but don't get your hopes up
HDR (High Dynamic Range) has more or less become a mainstream TV feature in 2017, but "compatibility" doesn't always mean you're getting an impressive HDR experience, and that's the case with the TCL S Series.
The TV is clearly geared for HDR playback out of the box: its reference brightness even in non-HDR modes is about the same as in HDR modes, and—nerd alert—the "blue push" present in the picture quality during SDR playback is a vestige of the TV being calibrated for higher brightness and the HDR electro-optical transfer function... adjusts glasses
Long story short, the S Series doesn't really look all that different when it's playing HDR content versus when it isn't. It's nearly as bright either way. While 250 nits is plenty of brightness for standard dynamic range, it's pretty paltry by current HDR standards. For HDR, we like to see 400 nits at a minimum, and ideally 600-800 nits. Some TVs even hit the four-digit range, though they're waaaaay more expensive.
Beyond brightness, HDR TVs are also tasked with producing more color—but this takes a lot of light output. You can think of it as a bigger box of crayons than non-HDR TVs, with both more shades of color and more radically saturated colors called for. While the S Series can play content in the larger "DCI-P3" color space, it doesn't do a great job hitting the required saturation points because it isn't bright enough.
TL;DR: The S Series will play HDR content, but it's definitely not a selling point.
Narrow viewing angles strike again
I wasn't expecting great horizontal viewing angles from this TV, what with it being an edge-lit LED model with a VA LCD panel. Michael measured a total viewing angle of about 30°, or ±15° from the center to either side of the screen.
While this is actually better than average for edge-lit LED TVs, it's still not a great situation if you're angling to wall-mount this TV. Viewers on a loveseat or couch will be fine, but watching from more than 2-3 feet to the side (from about 10 feet away) is going to result in perceptible picture degradation.
Not a great choice for film buffs
Last but not least, while it isn't necessarily a drawback, viewers should be aware that the TCL S Series TVs are capped at 60 Hz refresh rates. This makes them a markedly worse choice for playing 24fps content—which is going to be most Blu-rays, HDR or otherwise—compared to a TV with a 120 Hz refresh rate. Because 24 doesn't divide evenly into 60, these TVs will produce a slight "judder" effect when playing Blu-rays.
If you're not very picky, you can still enjoy film frame rates on a 60 Hz TV like this, but seeing as film lovers tend to be cinephiles, and cinephiles tend to be picky about picture quality, it's worth keeping in mind.
If you're saving money on this TV, maybe grab a soundbar too
While most TVs have pretty poor audio quality these days (hence the prevalence of affordable soundbars), the S Series sounds even worse than normal.
While general content is okay, it can be particularly tricky to pick out dialogue during movies with a musical score competing for aural space, and gamers may find certain aspects (like enemy footfalls, distant explosions, or heavily accented dwarves) a little hard to make out at times.
The solution? You're not paying much at all for these TVs. Maybe grab something like this Vizio soundbar to pair with it.
Should You Buy It?
Maybe—if you're really looking to save money
I have to make a big caveat here—the complaints leveled at the S Series TVs are coming from the point of view of people who are gaga over TV picture quality, who have studied it for years and make a big fuss over tiny issues. Unless you're finally upgrading from your boxy tube TV, the S Series isn't going to "wow" you, even with its 4K/HDR in tow, but most viewers will be perfectly pleased by what they get here. Of course, if you're even a little hesitant, you can spend a little more and get notably better picture quality.
As of this review you're paying about $450 for the 55-inch TCL S Series, which admittedly is a rad price. But you could get the 55-inch Vizio E Series for about $100 more, or TCL's mega-awesome 55-inch P Series for about $200 more. While that might be hard to swallow, keep in mind this is a 5-7 year investment at the very least, and you probably want something that can grow alongside the HDR content ecosystem.
However, if this is your price range and you won't budge, this is one of the best choices in this range, and it'll certainly outperform almost all of its competition.
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