Should the name of TCL still be new to you, it’s most definitely time you became acquainted with the brand. It is Chinese, but not to be confused with the no-name or casually-branded TVs that turn up in bargain stores. Indeed TCL has ranked third or fourth in size for TV manufacturers worldwide for a number of years (above the likes of Panasonic), and recently beat out Samsung to become the biggest-selling brand in the US (26% of North American TV units sales against 22% Samsung, according to IHS Markit). It has been around nearly 40 years, operates in more than 80 cities across the world, with 20 manufacturing units and 35 R&D centres through which it is one of China’s biggest patent creators. Among its relevant current TV developments are printed OLED, quantum dot technology and the increasingly interesting Mini LED display technology. As for quality, it has won awards globally, including a 2019 Sound+Image Award.

So, having established the brand’s general credentials, let’s get specific! The shiny new TV under review is the X7, which has an RRP of $2199, the same price as the X4 which last year won that Sound+Image award. But, of course, there have been changes in the TCL 55X7 QLED TV.

EQUIPMENT
The first thing we noticed was the display panel. It is remarkable in that physically one could almost mistake it for an OLED panel. It has a similar pane-of-glass look. Without the stand attached, the TV is 44mm deep, but the top 36cm or so of the 76cm-tall display panel (and speaker section) is only 8.5mm thick, by our measurement. That adds a rich touch of elegance to the design.

As the model number implies, this is a 55-inch TV, and of course it offers Ultra-HD (4K) resolution and HDR picture support (although not Dolby Vision). The TV has 16 zones of local dimming and uses QLED technology. Remember, QLED uses ‘Quantum Dots’ to generate narrower-wavelength bands of light. That reduces overlap between the RGB light components, which improves colour precision. TCL rates the maximum output of the panel at 680 nits and the contrast ratio at 4000:1. That last is a refreshingly honest figure, and clearly refers to the native contrast ratio of the panel. Its effective contrast ratio, given that the brightness of the backlights in different areas is adjusted dynamically according to picture requirements, is a great deal higher.

Incorporated into the bottom of the panel is the sound system. This presents to the front as a neat, full-width cloth-covered bar some 75mm tall. Again, this makes for an elegant appearance. There’s not much information about this other than a power rating: 2 × 4W and 2 × 8W. That suggests that four drivers are hidden in there. A small Onkyo label on this bar shows that TCL is going for quality, working with (or having tuning assisted by) Onkyo, and this is one of the variations evident between models released in Australia and elsewhere. In Europe the soundbars are branded to JBL and Harman, while in the US they don’t seem to have soundbar-equipped models at all.

The stand is a slim but sturdy metal thing which holds the TV close to the desktop. It can be removed, of course, for wall mounting. There are three HDMI inputs — all supporting full-blown UltraHD with HDCP 2.2 — and also composite video and stereo audio. Optical digital audio and 3.5mm analogue audio outs are provided. The TV supports ARC and control over HDMI.

The TCL 55X7 is a smart TV, running Android 8.0 ‘Oreo’. It is fitted with a 1.1GHz, 64-bit quad-core CPU with 2.5GB of processing RAM. The TV reported, when we first set it up, that it has 16GB of ‘Internal shared storage’. Clicking on that showed that 11GB was ‘available’. So it has 16GB in total, with the operating system and whatnot consuming about 5GB of that space.

It is provided with two slim remote controls. One is a standard IR one, while the other is smaller, has fewer keys, but pairs to the TV wirelessly.

PERFORMANCE
You’ll probably want to make a few changes to the default settings of the TV, although the default picture settings were actually pretty impressive.

We did notice that ‘Overscan’ was switched on for a few of the picture modes, so switch that off to achieve proper pixel-to-pixel display. We fiddled a bit with ‘Black Stretch’, but the main effect of that was to slightly crush low blacks down into full black. Sharpness can come down too, but it avoided obvious artefacts.

One other change we’d suggest is in the deeper Android settings. The ‘Settings’ button brings up a list of options, such as picture and sound settings. But pressing the ‘Home’ button, in addition to providing access to the full range of entertainment options, including Netflix and YouTube, also provides access to those system settings. There, under ‘Power’, we’d suggest you switch ‘Instant power on’ to, well, on. No doubt this leaves the TV consuming a little more power during standby, since it keeps stuff stored in storage. But it speeds start-up dramatically, since without this it has to load up Android. We timed it at taking 50 seconds to start up without that engaged, but a mere six or seven seconds with ‘Instant power’.

Forget about the modest 4000:1 contrast ratio. We ran our test patterns in a dark room and were impressed. The nature of edge lighting tends to restrict the effectiveness of local dimming. Nonetheless, we found only a mild amount of breakthrough of the backlight in non-lit areas of the screen in those patterns. But these are designed to show defects. In real viewing of regular programming, dark scenes were powerfully dark.

With an HDR test signal from a Sony Ultra-HD Blu-ray disc, we could distinguish between the 0.005 and 0.010 grey scale bands. The full black-to-white band across the bottom of the screen was an even graduation with no visible steps. At the other end of the scale, again in HDR mode, the TV kept increasing brightness all the way up to the 1700-nits band. But that was on an image showing mostly from 1000 to 2000 nits. On the next image — 2000 to 10,000 nits — the TV again showed graduated brightness between each band up to 7000 nits. The 2000-nits band was darker than the 1700-nits band had been on the other image. So the TV is clearly changing its brightness scaling adaptively, according to the image.

The colours were strong and clean, presumably thanks to the QLED/Quantum Dot light source. Overlaid on the respectable black levels, the picture was very enjoyable, even in a projector-suitable darkened room.

The TV was a little puzzling when it came to motion. By default, the maximum level of motion smoothing was switched on, creating new frames to go between signal frames. Rather than having an on/off option, or a number of named settings, this one was controlled by a simple 0 to 10 adjustment, with 10 as the default. This provided smooth motion, and with a remarkably low level of picture distortion. What was odd was that when we turned this down to zero, there seemed to be picture judder with 1080p/24 Blu-ray movies pretty much throughout, including in those sequences in which we’d never previously noticed it before.

Both 1080i/50 and 576i/50 (from, say, your PVR) ought to be converted to progressive scan, if at all possible, before being fed to this TV. In both cases the TV treated all incoming video as though it were video-sourced (i.e. with each of the two fields of each frame captured at different points in time), apparently with no attempt to determine whether that was the case. That produced frequent visible artefacts.

NETWORKING
This is an Android TV, so it does implement Google Assistant voice control. But it also can use the Amazon Alexa system. Setting this up turned out to be quite a complicated process, involving a change of home country in our Amazon account along with some other complications. In the end, even after following the instructions and the TV informing us it was linked to our Alexa account, and with the ‘TCL Assistant’ ‘Skill’ enabled, none of the suggested commands actually worked. Except for one — we could tell Alexa to turn off the TV.

No matter, we went back to Google Assistant. The smaller remote has a microphone built in and can pair wirelessly with the TV, so it doesn’t need to be pointed. It has dedicated Netflix and Google Assistant buttons. Press the latter, talk into the remote and you can do most things that Google Assistant can do. Ask it the time, get it to do some arithmetic, ask it questions of geography.

But it can also do things relating to the TV. We couldn’t work out how to change channel or input, but it would change volume level for us — or at least it changed the volume when the TV was working alone. When we had our Denon AVR-X3500H AV receiver connected via ARC, so the receiver was producing the sound, its output level remained unchanged, even though the TV was clearly trying to do something (judging by the volume pop-up).

Netflix worked well, except that the audio was locked into stereo, not multichannel output. Other streaming apps like Stan, and all the catch-up services are readily available, thanks to the use of Android.

The TV supports Chromecast and also DLNA. It didn’t appear to support Miracast/WiDi. I thought about installing an app, but the best known Miracast app proved to be incompatible with the TV.

Using DLNA, we could stream UltraHD video from our NAS, and the TV delivered full UltraHD resolution. Rather to our surprise, full UltraHD resolution was also delivered via Chromecast, a first in our experience. In both cases the video was rather choppy, with a lot of stopping and buffering, except for the fairly low bit-rate stuff. It didn’t seem to make a difference whether we used Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Networks vary, of course.

With music, the TV played back most of our content, supporting FLAC files up to 192kHz sampling along with MP3 and AAC. It also played AC3 files, but didn’t play DSD (or course) nor Apple Lossless.

Photos appeared to be bottlenecked down to 1080p when fed either via DLNA and Chromecast. However full resolution was available when the media player was reading them from USB (albeit at 4:2:0 colour resolution).

CONCLUSION
While there were wobbles with Google Assistant/Alexa voice functions, there usually are, and no doubt TCL will be looking into these things over time and issuing firmware updates. The TCL 55X7 is a very good TV for most free-to-air material and video playback, with Android delivering access to a wide range of streaming content, all displayed with a high quality picture at an affordable price. And if 55 inches is a touch small for you, there’s a 65-inch version too, priced at $3299.

TCL 55X7 QLED 4K TV
Price: $2199

+ Very good value for money
+ Classy styling
+ Good picture quality, inc. 4K Chromecast
- Issues with deinterlacing of 576i/50 and 1080i/50

Display technology: LED/LCD QLED panel
Tested with firmware: Android 8.0, Kernel 3.10.79, Build OTT1.180130.001
Screen size: 139cm
Native aspect ratio: 16:9
Native resolution: 3840 x 2160
Brightness: 680 nits
Contrast ratio: 4000:1
Inputs: 3 x HDMI, 1 x composite video, 1 x stereo audio, 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, 1 x Ethernet, Wi-Fi, 1 x aerial
Outputs: 1 x 3.5mm headphone, 1 x optical digital audio
Audio: Onkyo Audio sound system, 2 x 8W + 2 x 4W, forwards facing speakers
Included accessories: Table-top stand, 2 x remote controls, analogue expansion cable
Dimensions (whd): 1231 x 795 x 204mm with stand, 1231 x 758 x 44.1mm without
Weight: 16.5kg with stand, 16.0kg without
Energy Rating label: 5 stars, 334kWh/year

Contact: TCL Electronics Australia
Telephone: 03 8541 4666
Web: www.tclelectronics.com.au