iStock
(CNN) —  

TV technology has evolved rapidly in recent years — and the size, tech and quality that was once financially out of reach for many of us is now available for just a few hundred dollars.

If you choose wisely, that investment should last you a while. You don’t need to replace a TV that’s just a couple of years old, as breakthroughs happen a lot more slowly for televisions than they do for other tech, like smart speakers, earbuds or mobile phones.

To help steer you to the best choices, we spent the past few months testing the latest available models of a range of TVs, from 43 to 85 inches. After many hours bingeing our favorite shows and movies in the name of research, comparing aspect ratios and display quality, and testing the smarts of each model, we found that these two TVs rose to the top:

A quick look at the winners

The TCL 5-Series won us over for its combination of uncompromising picture quality and built-in smarts (including Roku baked in) at an all-too-attractive price point. The reverse sticker shock — just $399 for a 50-inch TV — belies what this TV is capable of. It delivers a full 4K experience on a screen unfettered by distractingly thick bezels, a problem we found with many sub $1,000 models. Content looks vibrant without veering into cartoonish-level saturation. There’s also thousands of streaming services at your fingertips thanks to Roku, support for various content standards, and smart home integration.

For those willing and able to spend top dollar, the Sony A8H, a 2020 OLED TV, delivers unrivaled picture quality. Though it starts at $1,898 for a 55-inch model (the 65-inch is $2,798), you’re getting an OLED, which means the panel is made up of pixels that individually emit a color to create a sharper image. The Sony A8H boasts a broad range of colors, from glowing brights to subtle pastels, and pitch-dark blacks. It supports an array of picture standards that automatically upscale and improve the quality of content, and the result is an exceptionally vibrant and detailed picture.

Best overall TV: TCL 5-Series (Starting at $399.99; amazon.com or bestbuy.com)

Jacob Krol/CNN

With the 5-Series, TCL again punches above its weight, packaging necessary smarts and near-premium picture quality at an affordable price point. Despite its low starting price, the TV’s performance was in-line with higher-end TVs from Samsung, Sony and Vizio.

TCL baked the brains of a Roku streaming device into the 5-Series. With that, you get access to thousands of streaming services, including HBO Max, Peacock, Netflix, Disney+, YouTube, Hulu, Apple TV+ and more. You’ll need a Roku account (which is free to make), but once you’re signed in, accessing content is a cinch.

The interface is a simple three-box-wide grid and a list on the side that acts as a quick settings menu. Your inputs (like HDMIs and antennas) appear as boxes on the grid, beside the options for the streaming services and apps you choose to add, allowing for quick switching. The interface can get clunky as your list of services and apps grows, but you can organize and arrange them — as a grid or list — however you like to make it easier to find what you’re looking for.

No matter the content you choose to watch — be it sports or an action flick — you won’t be disappointed. The 5-Series reproduces color better than most other TVs we tested, save for those closer to the $900-plus price mark. What it does best, though, is reproduce colors in a realistic way; colors pop for sure, but not in a pop-art top of way and never cross the line into oversaturation. For instance, take WandaVision with Vision. On a Samsung QLED, the red leaps from the screen in a way that’s almost too distracting. TCL’s 5-Series, on the other hand, produces that same red in a more lifelike manner, popping while still blending naturally into the scene.

Light leakage — a result of the physical backlights of the TV fuzzing the background of the picture — was never an issue on the 5-Series. In content with darker scenes, we didn’t experience the better-lit scenes causing waves of light or an unnatural effect on the rest of the panel. And that’s good a thing, as it can ruin the immersion of the picture. All aspects of the picture, be it characters in the foreground or objects in the background, had a crispness to it.

The real trick of any 4K TV is upscaling the content you watch on an everyday basis. Standard cable does deliver content at 4K, but chances are a lot of your services are sending compressed files to your TV. This upscaling trick uses AI and other processes to make that content look better — sharpening subjects, improving clarity and adding in vibrancy among other key changes. Whether it was streaming content from Netflix or watching 720p YouTube videos, the 5-Series handled the task aptly, delivering it all in the clearest way possible.

Streaming content from your devices — be it your phone or tablet — is a cinch with the 5-Series, as it supports a wide array of ecosystems. Google Cast lets you easily send content from YouTube or any Android device. For those in the Apple ecosystem, AirPlay 2 support allows you to cast from any Apple device. And the 5-Series is super easy to add to the Home app on your iOS or macOS device as it supports HomeKit (Apple’s smart home ecosystem).

Our two main qualms with the TCL 5-Series: viewing angles and sound quality. Viewing from an off-angle can result in the image looking seriously darker on the sides. We believe it has to do with full-array LED backlighting, but it does dampen the image and reduce the level of quality. It’s pretty narrow, and you by no means have to remain directly in front of the TV, but sitting off to the side will hamper the viewing clarity. It’s not as bad as some viewing angles on other TVs we’ve tested, but Samsung’s QLEDs and Sony’s LEDs have a wider field of view.

And while it’s common with newer TVs, the 5-Series was lacking in the audio department. The TV speakers often muddied up the mix, making dialogue hard to distinguish at times and bass was pretty much nonexistent. We’d highly recommend pairing the 5-Series with a soundbar.

The 5-Series has minimal bezels (the edges that surround the screen), which gives the appearance that the screen goes right to the edge. It’s not as convincing as the Sony A8H, Vizio OLED or Samsung’s Q80T, though. In terms of ports, there’s a standard power plug and four HDMI inputs, one of which is eARC.

With a starting price of $399 for a modest-sized 50-inch or $629.99 for a sizable 65-inch, the 5-Series offers a versatile panel that impresses in all aspects. Picture quality gets pretty close to higher-priced TVs, the built-in Roku interface ensures you’ll never be limited on the content you can watch and it has all the smart features you could ask for.

The luxury pick: Sony A8H ($1,898; amazon.com)

Jacob Krol/CNN

Buying an OLED means you’re paying for a premium picture quality that delivers breathtaking vibrant colors and deep blacks, and that’s certainly what you get with the Sony A8H, which narrowly out-performed LG’s CX 55 and provides more value than Samsung’s 8K QLED Q800T.

This panel produces hyper-accurate colors in immense detail, in part thanks to Sony’s flagship X1 Ultimate processor. This technology optimizes whatever you’re watching in real-time, upscales content to 4K ultra high-definition, and allows you to take advantage of standards like HDR or Dolby Vision. It’s the same basic metadata reproduction that TCL features on the 5-Series, but Sony has a leg up since many of the cameras and displays on TV and film sets are made by them. Thanks to this, they have a large backlog of content that they’ve run AI through to determine the best way to calibrate a TV for a dog, or a fiery explosion or even a cityscape. The A8H taps into this knowledge and uses the processor to calibrate the panel and optimize the image. All that to say: Sony is really superior when it comes to producing the best image on a TV.

This shone through during our testing. With an episode from the first season of “The Simpsons,” compared to some of the other TVs we tested, there was noticeably less fuzziness around the characters, and the picture maintained a realistic balance in vibrance and color.

With both animation and live action, the A8H optimizes in real-time for a highly accurate experience. Take “Captain Marvel,” when (spoiler alert) she ends up defeating the villain by breaking free with a burst of solar energy. The A8H didn’t produce added noise to the graphics — the solar burst didn’t look unnatural and ultimately fit in with the universe around it. Yes, the animation came with high vibrancy, but not so much that it washed out the rest of the frame. This is a trait of the OLED panel, which can make minute changes on a pixel-by-pixel basis, and Sony’s technology optimizes it well on the A8H.

Working on top of this is Dolby Vision, for content that supports it. Essentially, instructions are embedded in the visuals for the best way the A8H can present the content. Similarly to HDR, Dolby Vision will highlight colors and deliver stronger contrast. With content that doesn’t support Dolby Vision, we found ourselves using the Vivid picture mode, which provides the highest amount of brightness. Most importantly, it doesn’t reduce sharpness or add graininess. That’s a big positive.

Sony opted for a custom version of Android TV for the A8H interface. This offers access to a ton of streaming services, including Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and YouTube, although Android TV is more limited than Roku’s platform. Of course you can always expand that library by adding a streaming box, like a Roku Ultra or Apple TV 4K.

The Android TV platform also means you can control the A8H with Google Assistant and ask for content or adjust a setting with voice commands. Simply hold the button on the remote and tell it to open Netflix, or get more specific and request your favorite YouTube channel.

For those in the Apple ecosystem, the A8H supports AirPlay 2 for casting content from your iOS, iPadOS, macOS or watchOS device. It also works with Amazon Alexa, but the controls are limited to basic commands like turning the TV on and off and controlling playback. It’s nice to have, but since this is Android TV, the deepest integration by far is with Google Assistant.

On the sound front, there isn’t space for the usual speakers at the bottom of the TV — facing forward or downward — like on LED or QLED TVs. On the A8H, the sound comes from the screen, through two actuators that vibrate to create it. It’s rather impressive and delivers an immersive experience, though we still recommend a soundbar or home theater setup.

The A8H packs all that tech into a really slim package — almost to a jaw-dropping degree, especially if you’ve never seen an OLED TV. At its thinnest point the A8H is just a quarter of an inch thick, while most TVs span at least two inches thick.

All in all, an OLED delivers what might just be the best picture on the market. You get incredibly deep blacks (if you’re looking at the depths of the ocean, you feel as if you might get sucked in) and vibrant colors that will have you tasting rainbows. Sony’s A8H achieves all of this and pairs it with cinematic colors and blacks. You’re paying nearly $2,000 (or $3,000, depending on the size), but you’re getting a first-rate TV that you won’t have to think about upgrading for many years to come.

How we tested

After combing through reviews, shopping around and tapping into our own expertise, we tested 10 TVs. And though they vary in size and capabilities, we endeavored to create testing categories that would make for a fair comparison.

We were careful to call out the core technology in the TVs we tested and to note how (or whether) it seemed to impact the viewing experience. Our testing pool consisted of a mix of OLEDs, QLEDs and LED panels. QLEDs and LED panels are similar in that they both use a backlit panel that transmits light through filters containing pixels to create an image. An OLED is entirely different as it emits the image through individual pixels.

We scored each TV on picture and sound quality, with a major emphasis on the former. We also scored them on the smart interface, setup process, design, connectivity, remote and warranty.

We ran the TVs through the setup process and tested all the features and options, such as picture modes, availability of specific services (like casting support) and how easy it was to navigate the interface.

When it comes to TVs, the differences in sound and picture can be subtle. Our extensive testing included watching the same programs across the devices to create an apples-to-apples comparison for noting those small differences.

We looked at the nuances of each remote, feeling for ergonomics and rating the design; a cluttered, clunky remote didn’t do as well as a thin, organized one.

Read on for our testing categories.

Setup

  • Packaging: We unboxed the TV, fully removing it and its components from any packaging. We took note of how easily and quickly we could strip away styrofoam, cardboard and plastic. Most importantly, we looked at how easy it was to get the TV out of the box.
  • Setup and instructions: As we set up the TV, we jotted down any grievances we had with the process. This included assembling any hardware, like the TV stand, to setting up software, such as Samsung Tizen or Roku TV. Instructions that required fewer steps, or were easy to visually interpret, scored better.

Design and appeal

  • Material design: We researched and inspected the materials from which the TV was constructed. We preferred a balance between lighter materials, which made setup easier, and quality plastics and metals.
  • Bezels: We measured the ratio between bezels, or the frame around the display, and the display itself. A display that occupies a greater portion of the front of the TV was naturally preferred.
  • Access to ports and buttons: We checked out how easy it was to plug in cables and access ports once the TV was set up. We also noted where buttons were located and how easily we could access them. (Buttons requiring yoga poses to reach them were scored poorly.)

Ports and connectivity

  • Overall: We tested every port, wireless function and remote connection for functionality and latency. We also noted if HDMI ports were ARC, eARC or 2.1 enabled.

Picture quality

  • Brightness: We compared the visual brightness each TV could achieve. During programs like “Springsteen on Broadway,” we paid close attention to bright highlights and glossy objects, like the sheen on Springsteen’s guitar.
  • Contrast: We observed the edges between various objects and people during programs on each TV and looked at these edges in both dark and bright lighting conditions. Edges that were crisp and visually distinct were preferred.
  • Vibrancy: We compared the color intensity of each TV. During various programs, we noted colorful lights and surfaces in order to contrast these hues between the TVs.
  • Standards Support (Dolby Vision/HDR/CG): We noted whether each of these standards was available on each TV, and compared the quality of each mode between TVs.
  • Overall: For the overall picture quality, we put each TV through an abundance of content, including “Hamilton,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” “Frozen II,” “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Space Force,” “The Bold Type,” “Below Deck,” “90 Day Fiance,” CNN, CNN International, “The Love Guru,” Austin Powers, James Bond and Iron Man movies, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Western Stars,” “Springsteen on Broadway” and countless others.

Sound quality

Note: The built-in speakers on most TVs in 2020 are generally lackluster. If high-quality audio is important to you, given the many relatively affordable options now available, we recommend adding an external sound bar or home theater setup to any of the TVs we tested.

  • Soundstage: We noted the extent to which each TV could produce a sense of 3D sound. For example, if an instrument is on the far edge of a stage during a performance, a TV with good soundstage will authentically reproduce the position of the sound.
  • Low: We listened for the clarity and depth of sounds on the lower range, such as bass, drums, deeper instrumentals and vocals. We took note of any artifacts, such as crackling or buzzing, that can accompany such sounds.
  • Mid: We listened for the clarity of sounds on the medium range, such as vocals, mid-range guitar and environmental noise.
  • High: We listened for the clarity and pitch of sounds on the higher range, such as high-pitched guitar, vocals and stringed instruments. We noted any common artifacts such as poor volume balancing or screeching when notes get too high.

Smart interface

  • Ease of use: We checked out how easy it was to navigate to menus. Examples include how many actions it took to get from A to B, how visually available important menus were, how easily we could type in text, and how quickly we could return to a home menu.
  • Services available: We compared how many services, from streaming services like Disney+ and Netflix to music players like Spotify and Pandora, were available on each TV.
  • Casting support: We determined whether casting, or mirroring activity from a mobile device or mobile app onto the TV screen, was available.

Remote

  • Ergonomics: We felt how easily the TV’s remote fit in our hand, and whether it easily slipped out. Remotes generally easier to hold performed better.
  • Design: We took a look at the topographical organization of buttons and shortcuts (e.g., a button that specifically opens Hulu). We preferred remotes that were organized and didn’t stuff too many nonessential functions into a small space.

Warranty

  • Warranty: We researched the duration of coverage of the TV’s warranty/warranties.

How we rated

We gave every TV a score in each subcategory described above and combined them to get a score for the category. We weighed picture quality most heavily, with the smart interface and design factors at the second and third levels of importance.

Below is our exact point composition.

  • Picture quality had a maximum of 50 points: overall (10 points), brightness (10 points), contrast (10 points), vibrancy (10 points) and standards support (10 points).
  • Smart interface had a maximum of 30 points: ease of use (10 points), available services (10 points) and casting support (10 points).
  • Design and appeal had a maximum of 25 points: material design (10 points), bezels (10 points) and access to ports and buttons (5 points).
  • Sound quality had a maximum of 20 points: soundstage (5 points), low (5 points), mid (5 points) and high (5 points).
  • Setup had a maximum of 15 points: setup and instructions (10 points) and packaging (5 points).
  • Ports and connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: overall (10 points).
  • Remote had a maximum of 15 points: design (10 points) and ergonomics (5 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 10 points: warranty (10 points).

Others we tested

LG CX 55 ($1,696.99; amazon.com)

In our race for best luxury pick, this OLED from LG was neck and neck with the Sony A8H. In the end, the Sony’s overall experience and visual reproduction gave it the edge. The CX 55 is a great OLED and more affordable if you want the smaller size. It delivers deep blacks and vibrant content, but we found the A8H gave us a more realistic view.

55-inch Samsung Q80T (Starting at $899.99, originally $1,099.99; samsung.com)

Samsung

Unlike the 8K Samsung Q800T, featured below, Samsung’s Q80T falls in the upper region of the brand’s 4K QLED family. We were impressed with the picture quality, thanks to the ample backlighting and the quantum processor. Sound quality was surprisingly great as well.

It does fall in the upper echelon of picture quality by offering more details than the TCL 5-Series, though at a price that stings a bit more.The Q80T also supports fewer services. Those looking for a luxury panel will still find the Sony A8H a better pick and those looking for a more affordable TV will be happy with the TCL 5-Series.

65-inch Samsung Q800T ($3,199.99, originally $3,499.99; samsung.com)

Samsung's 8K QLED Q800T
Samsung
Samsung's 8K QLED Q800T

At $3,499 (frequently on sale for $3,199), Samsung’s Q800T is a spectacular TV. You get an immense amount of detail and sharpness: Blacks are deep, colors are vibrant and accurate, and it can upscale content to 8K. Samsung’s processor works in real time to make content shine. The issue? There’s not (yet) enough 8K content available to justify the cost.

Samsung Sero ($1,499, originally $1,999; samsung.com)

SAMSUNG

If we had a unique design pick, the Samsung Sero would have taken the cake. We first saw this motorized TV — and previewed it — at CES 2020. It stands as the most unique TV we’ve ever tested. With a press of a button, the TV screen flips from a vertical view to a horizontal one. That TV panel is a 43-inch QLED, which doesn’t shine like our luxury pick but.

So why the flipping design? Well, it integrates with your phone and is targeted at millennials. You can screencast your Android phone and basically have it mirrored on the Sero. When you flip your phone, the TV screen flips. Truth be told, it’s pretty cool in person. It’s great for viewing TikToks and really sits as a talking point wherever it is set up.

We’re still waiting on the promised iOS support, but the Samsung Sero stands as a lifestyle piece or a conversation starter, more than a TV for everyone.

65-inch Sony X950H ($1,698; amazon.com)

SONY

We were impressed by Sony’s 65-inch version of the X950H. At its core, it’s a 4K LED TV with support for many standards, including HDR, and powered by the same X1 Ultimate Processor as the A8H. This means it can handle real-time optimization and upscale like a champ. The X950H is a great panel with vibrant images that don’t stray far from reality, producing surprisingly deep blacks for an LED screen. Simply put, however, considering its $1,698 price tag, you get more value from the $499 TCL 6-Series with just a small sacrifice in image quality.

65-inch TCL 8-Series ($1,499, originally $1,999; bestbuy.com)

At close to $2,000, we expected a lot from the TCL 8-Series. It provides an enjoyable viewing experience and meets a lot of specs: QLED, mini-LED, Dolby Vision and HDR. But at this price point, it was lacking a wow factor and couldn’t compete with the OLED models. For a quarter of the price, the 6-Series is a better choice.

43-inch Toshiba Fire TV Edition ($209.99, originally $279.99; bestbuy.com)

AMAZON

At $279.99, the 43-inch Toshiba Fire TV Edition is super affordable. But the picture on its 1080p HD panel left us wanting a bit more. It couldn’t achieve the same clarity or vibrancy as the V-Series or TCL 6-Series. The Fire TV ecosystem gives you access to a ton of services and Alexa control is super easy, but as budget TVs go, the V-Series from Vizio is the better choice.

65-inch Vizio-M Series Quantum ($649.99, originally $749.99; bestbuy.com)

At a similar price point to the TCL 6-Series, Vizio’s M-Series fell in the middle of the pack for our testing. It offered vibrant and engaging colors, delivered deep blacks, and handled content optimization smoothly in real time. But its HDR performance underwhelmed, falling short of the 6-Series. That said, if you can find this panel on sale now that the new 2021 M-Series is rolling out, it’s worth considering.

Vizio OLED (Starting at $1,299.99; bestbuy.com)

We had very high hopes for Vizio’s first OLED TV — mainly for the promise of affordability. And they managed to deliver the core principles of OLED here: deep blacks and vibrant color. The panel delivers deep blacks, vibrant colors and a solid amount of brightness. Our main qualm was the brightness of the panel, as it falls behind the Sony A8H. It just doesn’t get as bright as more expensive OLEDs and doesn’t upscale content as well. Even so, it’s an immersive viewing experience thanks to a minimalist build that doesn’t distract. Sound quality is decent, but you’ll want to pair it with a soundbar.

75-inch Vizio P-Series Quantum X ($1,649.99, originally $1,899.99; bhphotovideo.com)

As we said in our full review, Vizio’s P-Series really impressed us. For $1,899.99, you’re getting a larger screen size over an OLED, but it’s also a different tech for the panel and this is a 2019 model. It still achieved deep contrast levels with high color accuracy and vibrancy, but the Sony A8H, the LG CX and even the Samsung Q800T managed to beat out the P-Series for the best overall and luxury pick slots in our testing.

50-inch Vizio V-Series 2021 (Starting at $229.99; bestbuy.com)

Vizio

The successor to our previous budget pick, the 2021 Vizio V-Series ultimately couldn’t match up against our overall pick — especially in terms of picture quality. The V-Series delivers a respectfully fine image, but it couldn’t get vibrant enough to compete against most other TVs we tested. Specifically with upscaling, we encountered some grain issues with older content and an overall lack of details.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: