Getting 4K under $2k
High on pixels, low on price, TCL’s 55-incher makes 4K resolution more affordable than ever while still delivering the goods.
 
altTCL U55E5691FDS
 
Price: $1599
 
Well under $2000 (it was $1999 when we reviewed it, and we've updated this price twice since, now to $1599), and you get 55 inches (nearly 140cm) of Ultra High Definition goodness. We kept forgetting this, only to be reminded anew how ridiculous is the price of the TCL U55E5691FDS TV. Ridiculously low, that is.
 
But is UHD worth even a modest premium? This TV is another data point in my increasingly strong view that UHD has real-world benefits, even in the 55-inch TV size, and even in a world where there’s almost no UHD content.
 
EQUIPMENT
Ultra High Definition is, of course, a resolution of 3840 pixels across by 2160 high. Some say (and I myself have been guilty of this in the past) that it’s really only for large displays, like front projectors and those 84/85 inch TVs that were the first generation of 4K. But after living with this TV for a few weeks, we’re here to say that there are definite benefits with a 55 incher.
 
The TV is quite stylish. The (precisely) 138.7cm display is surrounded by a lovely thin bezel, just 13mm wide (measured from the very edge of the picture) at the top and sides and 17mm at the bottom. The desktop stand is a skeletal metal design with a grey finish and good solid fittings to the rear. Not counting the stand, the body of the TV is 57mm deep, 23mm at the edges. The connections are on the left-hand side.
 
The panel uses LCD technology with dynamic LED backlighting.
 
There are three HDMI inputs, all supporting signals up to 2160p30, but not the HDMI 2.0 standards of 2160p50/60. The lack of HDMI 2.0 means that the TV won't support the new version of the content protection system: HDCP 2.2. Those restrictions may limit compatibility with future 4K sources, if such even actually appear.
 
Legacy support for analogue video and audio is provided by some shared sockets for which composite and component video adaptor cables are provided. There’s also a D-SUB15 computer style input. 
 
In addition to the Ethernet connection for the TV’s smart features, this TV is equipped with built-in Wi-Fi, with support for the 2.4GHz band, but not 5GHz. There are analogue and optical digital audio outputs.
 
The TV was slated to receive a firmware upgrade subsequent to our review period so that it can support the forthcoming FreeviewPlus EPG. This is based on the Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV (HbbTV) standard, where the EPG covers both future and past programs. You can select previous programs for viewing from the EPG and these are streamed from the various catch-up services.
 
In addition to the IR remote, you get supplied with two pairs of active 3D glasses, each powered by a single CR2025 button cell and extremely light in weight at just 24 grams per pair, including the battery. 
 
This TV comes with a confidence-building three-year warranty.
 
altPERFORMANCE
Do be aware that the out-of-the-box TV settings have ‘Overscan’ switched on, even for full-HD material, although thankfully not for UHD content delivered over HDMI. This pushes nearly 2.5% at each edge of the picture off the screen. With a bit of persistence it’s easy enough to switch it off (it’s on the second page of the ‘Advanced settings’, under the Picture menu). If you choose the picture preset of ‘Movie’, that also switches it off (and Sharpness too), but sets the colour temperature to ‘Warm’. ‘Movie’ might in fact be the best starting point for adjustment (you can switch ‘Warm’ to ‘Normal’ easily enough) because unlike ‘Standard’ it has a control for the backlight level.
The Sharpness control is set to the halfway mark on most picture settings. This introduces a touch of edge distortion, but isn’t too aggressive, barely noticeable in regular watching. Nonetheless, turning it down to zero improved picture smoothness.
 
On the subject of sharpness, TCL has missed an opportunity to show off. Its menus look as though they were generated by a 1080p engine at best, or possibly even 720p. They are clean and clear, but a touch soft. The menu lettering and graphics on a UHD TV should be astonishingly sharp. Perhaps in that forthcoming firmware upgrade.
Using a grey-scale test pattern, it was good to see that video black could be matched with blacker-than-black, and indeed is by default. Likewise for video white and whiter-than-white. That guarantees that you’re getting the full contrast range that the panel is capable of delivering. The grey-level scaling could do with a bit of tweaking, however. At 5% white (i.e. almost black) the bar was satisfyingly dark, but there seemed to be a marked step up in brightness to what should have been 10% white. I was unable to eliminate this with the Gamma adjustment. There is a ‘Black Stretch’ setting which tended to give better overall subjective results, but it achieves this by crushing the 5% white down into the 0%, locking them together, thereby making 10% white quite a bit darker. A more even graduation of brightness levels at the bottom end would deliver better results.
This explained something I’d noticed during viewing: lots of detail in dark scenes — too much, in fact. In some free-to-air TV material, fade-to-black between scenes would pass through a moment of dark MPEG2 blockiness at the bottom end of the brightness scale, as though the screen was briefly showing a collection of very dark Rothko paintings.
The colours were generally accurate and reasonably rich, somewhat more rich when ‘Black Stretch’ was employed, providing them with a more solid dark underpinning. While the TV was capable of good levels of black, the full black screen was a trifle mottled when viewed in a dark room, thanks to different amounts of backlight breakthrough in different parts of the screen.
 
The TV employs 200Hz processing, which seems to be principally for the ‘Motion enhance’ function. This is a standard frame interpolation system. The only options are on or off.
The motion processing of the panel was somewhat surprising: when fed 24Hz content with ‘Motion enhance’ off, it seemed to naively convert this to 60 frames (with a 2:3:2 cadence) leading to visible judder on what would normally be smooth pans. Switching ‘Motion enhance’ on eliminated both this and the 24Hz judder on poorly shot pans, increasing visible detail on moving objects. The processing didn’t give the picture an artificial sheen, but there was a touch of heat -aze distortion visible from time to time on susceptible scenes.
 
With 50Hz content — so some Australian Blu-ray discs, most Australian DVDs and, of course, free-to-air TV — there was no 50 to 60Hz conversion, and so it looked fine. Furthermore, with interlaced 50 hertz content the auto deinterlacing did a respectable job, determining fairly reliably whether the content was of film or video origin, and weaving or applying motion-adaptive bobbing as appropriate. Only some of the more extremely ambiguous material, in both 1080i/50 and 576i/50, tripped up the system.
When I set the Blu-ray player to 2160p/24 output with 1080p/24 discs, the motion enhancement processing continued to produce smooth motion, but generated a great deal more visible distortion. As usual, it’s best to deliver a 1080p signal to the TV and let it handle the upscaling, since the rescaling engine does a sensitive job of upconverting lower resolution material to the UHD panel. Blu-ray particularly benefited, with a nice touch of enhanced sharpness along with smoother hard edges on diagonals and curves, without drawing attention to itself as an enhancement. SDTV content didn’t suffer, looking about as good as it can. 
 
But it’s the Blu-ray content that sold me. Even at a range of three metres, the UHD scaling seemed to eliminate geometrical jaggies that usually hover around the edge of subliminality with a 55-inch TV. With this one they were gone, and the result was a more relaxing, involving picture.
 
TCL supplied a box to supply a few minutes of UHD material via HDMI. I have some other content I was able to use with the box as well. The results were, as usual with UHD, astonishingly sharp and detailed. I felt as though I could happily sit just a metre from the screen with this stuff. I also constructed a couple of test stills, and using the box was able to show that the TV happily translated 3840 by 2160 stills to its screen with pixel-level perfection when fed via HDMI.
 
While the USB inputs support a wide range of content, they didn’t support TCL’s own UHD video. My UHD test images were clearly scaled back to 1080p before being upscaled back to UHD. So if you want to a UHD TV to display your high resolution photography via its USB input, better look elsewhere.
 
The active 3D system permitted a fair amount of crosstalk, both with light foreground images on dark backgrounds and the other way around. However this didn’t seem to detract from the 3D effect — especially when sitting within two metres of the set. It produced extremely deep 3D with suitable material, but it was ultimately a bit tiring because of the too regular appearance of ghosting around objects.
 
The TV offers a convenient picture-and-picture function, where you have broadcast TV occupy the left or right side of the screen and one of the external inputs use the other. You can switch focus between them and change inputs or stations. You can also plug a hard disk into one of the USB sockets for recording and time-shifting TV.
By modern TV standards, the sound from the built-in loudspeakers was sufficiently serviceable for watching the broadcast news and such. For audio of a suitable scale to match the picture, though, you really need an external sound system.
 
The TV doesn’t provide the data over HDMI to support automatic lip sync adjustment. And as is common with UHD TVs, it imposed quite a bit of delay on the picture, and in a slightly unusual way: the delay was less at the top of the screen than the bottom. Out of the box in the Standard picture mode, the delay was 164ms at the top, 172ms in the middle and 180ms at the bottom, suggesting the screen is written sequentially rather than displayed in a flash. In the Advanced picture menu there’s a ‘Game mode’ option, which normally reduces delays but here the delay remained pretty constant with this switched on. Indeed, there was no difference when I switched off all the picture processing I could find. A lip sync delay of around 170ms is very visible, even to me (and I’m relatively insensitive to lip sync issues compared with, say, our Editor). It’s easy enough to adjust with a reasonably modern home theatre system, but I suspect gamers would find this TV a bit too sluggish for reflex-type games. In the set-up menus is an ability to set the delay for output via the S/PDIF audio output, with the default at 140ms.
 
SMARTS & APPS
The Smart TV section is laid out in roughly similar manner to that used in the leading brands, with the TV picture top left, a menu underneath, and various apps to the right. The main apps shown are SBS On Demand, SMH.TV, YouTube, Skype (you’ll need a camera), Opera browser, AccuWeather, Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo.
 
An intriguing one is called ‘nScreen’, and this turns out to be the instructions and pairing mechanism for the TCL nScreen app for Android and iOS. Don’t choose the ‘Pro’ version unless you can read Chinese. This turned out to be both a DLNA-compatible controller and a remote control for the TV. In the latter function it operated smoothly, essentially replicating the functions of the large IR remote. With the former, the twist it offered was that you can drag and drop videos, music or photos to the TV icon. The content transferred quickly and reliably. 
 
But you don’t need to use it if you’re an Android person, as the TV supports regular DLNA anyway. The video players on our Samsung Tab 3 and the LG phone each readily shared their content with the TV. The only weak part of performance was that the TV scaled this streaming video to fill its screen, not necessarily preserving the aspect ratio.
In the app store there are 36 items, some of which are already on the front page. A number of these are games.
 
The good thing about these additional functions was not just that they were available, but that the whole system worked solidly and without undue lag, making it a pleasure to use.
 
CONCLUSION
Perhaps our comments are a bit picky with regard to the grey-scale calibration of this TV, but it does mean you have to choose between a more satisfyingly deep picture and the presence of dark detail. Were this to be improved then there would be little reason, on picture quality grounds, to pay 50% more for a model from one of the better known brands. The TCL U55E5691FDS demonstrates clearly that UHD, even in the absence of UHD source content, provides real improvements in picture quality. 
 
TCL U55E5691FDS 4K TV
Price: $1599
PLUS Genuinely smoother picture due to UHD, Good, usable smart features, Excellent value for money
MINUS Requires improved calibration at the dark end of the grey scale, Some mottling on full black screen
 
Tested with firmware: V8-MT51F02-LF1V039
Display technology: 4K Edge lit LED-LCD panel
Screen size: 138.7cm
5 Stars, 340kWh per year
 
Native aspect ratio: 16:9
Native resolution: 3840 x 2160
Brightness: Not stated
Contrast ratio: Not stated
Inputs: 3 x HDMI 1.4, 1 x component video (doubles as 1 x composite video + stereo audio), 1 x stereo audio, 1 x D-SUB15 computer video, 3 x USB 2.0, 1 x Ethernet, WiFi, 1 x aerial
Outputs: 1 x 3.5mm headphone, 1 x optical digital audio
Audio: 2 x 8W
Included accessories: Table-top stand, IR remote control, analogue expansion cables, 2 x 3D eyewear
Dimensions without/with stand (whd): 1236 x 711 x 57/1236 x 755 x 260mm
Weight without/with stand: 24/29kg
Warranty: Three years (one year on remote)