In 2012, I bought a 50-inch Samsung that had a basic charcoal design, full-HD resolution, and no smart features. It cost over $800—on sale! I never would have found a 50-inch TV—which isn't even considered all that big these days—for under $500. If I had found one in 2012, I wouldn't have wanted to subject myself to it.
Nowadays, however, you can get pretty big, pretty feature-heavy TVs for $500 or less. In fact, there's a lot of them! But nailing down the best one for the most people still means testing those relatively affordable displays as thoroughly as we do the ultra-premium ones. Fortunately, we test TVs from $300 to $3,000 all year, and have a lot of recommendations.
If you just want our favorite TV under $500, check out the 2018 55-inch TCL 6 Series (available at Amazon for $529.00). However, there's a handful of solid TVs you can get right now for under $500, so read through to see how everything stacks up. These are the best right now.
Here are the TV rankings as of July 9th, 2019:
55-inch TCL 6 Series (2018)
55-inch TCL 5 Series (2018)
55-inch TCL 4 Series (2019)
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TCL first blew our minds in 2017 with an unexpectedly amazing LED/LCD TV, called (confusingly) the P Series. The 2018 TCL 6 Series was the update to that, and it continued the tradition of offering premium-feeling fixtures like 4K resolution, HDR, a built-in Roku smart platform, and much better picture quality than you'll usually find in this price range.
If you're looking to squeeze as much value as possible from a TV, the TCL 6 Series has yet to be bested in 2019 from a pure value standpoint. While it won't blow your mind with intense brightness and color the way the high-end OLED and QLED TVs might, this TV punches well above its weight class. It's a good choice for movies, video games, channel surfing—almost anything you want to throw at it.
Reviewed has been testing TVs since some of its current employees were in middle school. While many proud TV testers have come and gone through Reviewed's labs, the current Home Theater team consists of Michael Desjardin and Lee Neikirk. Michael is a senior staff writer and a five-year veteran of the Reviewed tech team. A film enthusiast and TV expert, he takes picture quality seriously but also understands that not every TV is a good fit for everyone. As Reviewed's Home Theater Editor, Lee doesn't do as much testing these days. However, he designed the company's current TV testing methodology after receiving calibration certification from the Imaging Science Foundation.
It'd be an understatement to say that we're serious about TV testing. Our lab at Reviewed's Cambridge location is outfitted with much of the same equipment you'd find at a factory that manufactures and calibrates television. On the hardware side, we've got things like a Konica Minolta CS-200 tristimulus color meter, an LS-100 luminance meter, a Leo Bodnar input lag tester, a Quantum Data 780A signal generator, and more Blu-rays than we can keep track of. For software, we use CalMan Ultimate, the industry standard in taking display measurements and calibrating screens to specifications.
Our testing process is equally complicated and has been honed over many years to gather data that is marginal enough to satisfy curious video engineers, but also relevant to the average person's viewing experience. We measure things like peak brightness, black level, hue and saturation for primary and secondary digital colors, the accuracy of the TV's electro-optical transfer function—you get the idea, it's complicated. Weighting for our performance tests is based off of how the human eye prioritizes vision, which means we put "brightness" data (monochromatic eye based on light sensitivity) higher than colorimetry, which is also scaled by the eye's sensitivity, and so on.
Outside of the strictly technical tests, we also spend a lot of time just watching and using each TV, getting a feel for the at-home experience of doing things like dialing up streaming video service, connecting a DVD player and watching movies, using the smart features, and checking out the TV's ports, remote, and on-set buttons—anything and everything that might be relevant.
What Makes A TV Good?
While everyone has different eyes, generally, our vision all functions the same way: we prioritize dynamic information and bright, compelling colors over subtler hues and resolution (sharpness). Generally, a TV can be considered a good TV when we forget that we're watching a TV. We don't see pixels creating mixes of red, green, and blue to simulate colors; we see the real world, lit and colored as it is, in fluid motion.
In simpler terms, this means a TV that can get very bright and dark without obscuring details; produces accurate colors (compared to various color standards designated by the International Telecommunication Union); possesses proper bit-mapping and the right codecs and decoders for video processing; and can properly play the various types of content thrown at it without judder, blurring, and so on.
Note that specs alone (pixel count, measured brightness) aren't automatic indicators of quality, much like intense speed is not automatically an indicator of a good car.
What Terms Do I Need To Know?
When it comes to knowing what you're paying for, almost no category is more rife with subterfuge and tomfoolery than TVs. While knowing the specs of the TV you're shopping for is only half the battle, it's the bigger half. Here are the key bits of jargon you'll want to know while browsing:
LED/LCD: This refers to Light Emitting Diode and Liquid Crystal Display. LEDs are the backlights used in LCD TVs, also sometimes called LED TVs for this reason. The LED backlight shines through a layer of a semi-solid substance called "liquid crystal," so named for its ability to morph in reaction to tiny electrical volts and allow light to pass through.
OLED: This means Organic Light Emitting Diode. This is an altogether different panel technology than LED/LCD, albeit on the surface they work similarly. Rather than an LED backlight element shining through an LCD panel element, OLED TVs essentially combine the backlight and crystal array, using sub-pixel strata that produce light and color individually.
4K/UHD: Usually 4K refers to resolution—specifically, 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. This is the current standard/mainstream resolution for most TVs. UHD means Ultra High Definition, and actually refers to a suite of picture improvements like 4K resolution, Wide Color Gamut, and High Dynamic Range.
High Dynamic Range: Like "UHD," High Dynamic Range (or HDR) refers to both a type of TV and a type of content that expands on the typical range of brightness (luminance) and color that a TV will produce. HDR TVs are newer and usually a bit more expensive, but can have four times the brightness and 30% more color production than non-HDR TVs, at least. Current HDR formats are HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
60 Hz/120 Hz: These numbers refer to what is called a "refresh rate," with Hz (hertz) meaning "times per second." So if a TV's refresh rate is 60 Hz, this means it re-scans and updates for picture information 60 times per second; with 120 Hz, it's 120 times per second. Currently, TVs only come in 60 or 120 Hz. A higher refresh rate is always better, but not always necessary.
Smart TV: The term "smart TV" has evolved a lot over the years, but all it really means is that the TV connects to the internet. Most smart TVs these days are just a way to watch streaming services like Amazon Prime Video on your TV. Some smart TVs have browsers, calendars, or even Roku or Android functions. All smart TVs have ethernet or WiFi built in.
Quantum Dots: Quantum dots are used in LED/LCD TVs only. These are microscopic nano-crystals that produce intensely colored light when struck with light. Quantum dots can be used to vastly improve the red and green saturation of a TV, and are one way that LED/LCD TVs can match the color spectrum of OLED.
Local Dimming: OLED panels look great because each pixel can operate independently. LED/LCD TVs can imitate this functioning via a process called local dimming, where localized clusters of LEDs dim or boost depending on whether the screen needs to be darker or brighter, sometimes vastly improving their performance and worth.
Other TVs Under $500 We Tested
55-inch TCL 5 Series (2018)
Last year's 5 Series was like a step down from the vaunted 6 Series: not as fancy, but still a very solid value. This series includes four very affordable 4K/HDR smart Roku TVs that start around $300, which is a great option.
The TCL 5 Series is a fine TV—one that most people would be pleased with. Its disappointing HDR performance doesn't hold a candle to the performance of better, higher-end TVs, but it's price tag is lower by an order of magnitude, and its cut corners aren't likely to detract from the experience for non-fussy viewers.
Additionally, the 5 Series' Roku integration is an absolute home run for folks who're looking for a simple, easy-to-navigate smart platform. If you're hunting for a TV with built-in smart features that rival some of the best external streaming devices on the market, look no further.
This year's 4 Series is a huge value/budget option. Available in six screen sizes starting at less than $300, you're getting 4K resolution, HDR10 compatibility, the Roku remote, and 60 Hz refresh rates. Not bad specs for those price points.
In fact, the TCL 4 Series is one of the most affordable 4K TVs we've seen to date. Although its performance isn't remarkable, the 4 Series gets the job done for a ridiculously low price tag. Plus, being a Roku TV, you can expect to enjoy a smooth, easy-to-use smart platform.
Michael Desjardin graduated from Emerson College after having studied media production and screenwriting. He specializes in tech for Reviewed, but also loves film criticism, weird ambient music, cooking, and food in general.
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.